Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tir-X, Green Zone & 10p Tax Rate

I am generally down. Down and out in London, though I am not even half as bad as Orwell was. I was telling my sister that I felt like Gregor Samsa when I got up this morning.

No kidding! I think the world is going to dogs.

I meet two kinds of people who do not believe it. One, who do not care. They want it to go to dogs. They have nothing to care about anyway. They have this belief that the crisis will sort things out actually. Possibly true, though one may not last the crisis personally.

The other kind is too dumb to understand. It's the city kind. You know those - don't you - those alpha males and alpha females, those who feel that their good grades in school has given them the divine rights to run the world's affairs. No doubt they have done well so far. Earned money, fame, drove 4x4s and even ran for President, became President. All they care for is next 15 minutes [assuming they lasted 15 minutes, either in bed or in business]. Anything taking longer than the next 15 minutes is unimportant, unnecessary and therefore incomprehensible to them.

The most interesting news I noticed today is that the Chickens may have descended from Tir-X! While I may believe in evolution, it is tempting to read God's humour in this. Imagine having a Chicken berbecue as Jurrassic Park in reverse! This is the bit that the 15-minute kinds surely miss - though the laws of evolution is playing out too fast for them now.

There was another news about Green Zone in Baghdad being shelled and four American soldiers dying. Green Zone was supposed to be the safe heaven, but apparently no longer. If the Green Zone is no longer secure for the photo shoots of Presidential candidates and afternoon siestas for Generals, it is best for Americans to cut and run now. Machiavelli was right - didn't he suggest that being in a fortress is the worst way of defending oneself because you can't see what the enemy is upto! Americans live in a fotress not just in Baghdad, but in America too - cuddled in the comfort of enormous moral superiority of the 15-minute mindset! I mean the elite though, the working men everywhere are too busy for such comfort anyway! But the Green Zone shelling is as significant as Chickens as Tir-X!

Then there is Gordon Brown. He is a different type. He is going ahead with the 10pc tax rate abolition, because HE said so. Even if the realities have changed. Even if this is going to hit the poorer people hardest, at a time when food and fuel prices are skyrocketing. At a time when he is advising Bank of England to keep interest rates low to give the homeowners a breather! He is the worst 15-minuter of all, and he clearly knows that he may not last beyond 1st May [when Labour Party goes to a Local Election under his leadership].

But anyway, what about me? I am going through an interesting period in my life. I have everything that I wanted, and I want nothing of it. I am not a 15-minuter, I am not brilliant, but I have always been conditioned to want things worthy of 15-minuters. When I get it, I know it has no value and I feel like a pretender. But all my life I have not learnt an alternative - did not know what else I may possibly want. I do think that is the key to the world's problem - all of us are living in fotresses that we have been told to live in. And, the solution - the sobering thought that Chickens descended from Tir-X after all.

E : A Novel

I read this 300 page novel in a single day, which is remarkable and I must note this on my blog. Agreed, I took two EasyJet flights and spent an hour each way in the airports, but I was also exceedingly tired and fairly down and out on my way back home [will explain later].

This is a novel about the London office of a global advertising agency, Millar Shanks. It is hilarious, and written entirely in the sequence of office emails. The agency is pitching for the Coca Cola account and trying to put everything behind it. It is full of real-life executive characters, a CEO from Josef Stalin School of Management and whose place was rightfully in Romania, a creative director who is only creative in excuses, a self-important and pitiful Head of Client Services, a concentious Copywriter - very real and very funny. I am so impressed that I am planning to read other books by Matt Beaumont, and also looked him up on the web. I am even impressed by his little website http://www.letstalkaboutme.com.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Five Flaws in a General - and in a leader

Some received wisdom from Sun Tzu - as translated/ presented by Donald G. Krause, in his excellent 'The Art of War for Executives':

"There are five character flaws which are dangerous for a General:

If he is reckless, his men can be killed;

If he is cowardly, his army can be captured;

If he is short-tempered, he will react in anger;

If he is self-important, he can be deceived;

If he is attached to his men, he will hestitate at a critical moment.

These five flaws are unfortunate for the General, but they cause great destruction in war. These five flaws cause generals to fail and armies to die. Consider them well."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Contrasts in Leadership - Blair & Brown - and a template for the United States

Gordon Brown may prove to be the most disappointing Prime Minister of Britain, ever. He came with great promise, remember. It was almost a year ago - only a year! He was the great relief from the tired, discredited leadership of Tony Blair. He was a 'conviction' politician. He represented a new new labour, one free of factionalism, yet committed to take the public service reform forward and build a new Britain. His government was to be based on realism, a less subservient approach to the irrational President of the United States. He was trusted for his competence in handling Britain's economic future - after all, he took credit, himself, for creating 'the longest continuous period of economic prosperity since the Industrial Revolution' as the Chancellor. He was almost the Hugh Grant in Love, Actually!, a highly lovable, if slightly messy Prime Minister [though married].

Alas, it never works like a movie, and how it all unfolded in a few months. First, he fudged at the suggestion of an early General Election to claim his mandate. He erred on the side of caution - remaining an appointed, rather than elected, Prime Minister.

Then, he fidgeted when a series of scandals came about. He backed inefficient and unimaginative colleagues. In times of crisis, he remained silent - behaving more like a monarch [possibly forgetting Britain already has its share of royalty] than an accountable public servant.

Then, he did not know what to do when a bank collapsed. It was almost as if he decided that remaining silent is the best way to make people believe that he knows the answer. The then Lib-Dem leader, Vince Cable, was right on the money when he said that Gordon Brown managed to transform himself 'from Stalin to Mr. Bean' in a few short weeks!

Finally, he was caught dumb and deaf when the much-vaunted 'the longest period of prosperity since industrial revolution' melted out. He said 'it is a priority' but did not present a plan. He pushed forward with his proposed abolition of lowest tax rate, significantly disadvantegous for people in low-paid work or part-time employment, at a time when food and fuel prices were rising fast. The only thing he did is to request the Bank of England to cut the base interest rate!

Gordon Brown, these days, is a dead man walking. Visibly thinned and greyed, he is fighting for his political survival, with newspapers rife with gossip about differences in the cabinet and a possible race to succeed him soon. He is in office for less than a year, and he is already looking worse than John Major in the dying days of his premiership. He isn't being replaced because labour MPs are unsure whether to replace a leader this soon. However, the public sentiments are fairly clear - they want out, even if at the cost of handing power over to a smooth and conviction-less David Cameron - and if things don't change miraculously in next two months, Gordon Brown will have a tough time surviving the labour annual conference this year.

This is key problem with Gordon Brown - under him, miracles don't happen. Remember, Tony Blair, who could turn a highly unfavourable audience with a single speech, or a TV interview. Who could stand firm on conviction even in the face of fiercest criticism. Ministers were sacked for incompetence or impropriety under Blair - even the most powerful of Ministers! Blair sounded and acted a conviction politician, even if those convictions were not widely shared. He came forward in times of crisis - he was visible and accountable - a leader.

Mr. Brown, for much of his part, look and sound too much of a convenience politician. He tries to say the right things, and half the times does not say anything as he does not know what is right. He puts faith on colleagues who are incompetent and insincere. He looks shaken and lost, and as I mentioned, recently requested Bank of England to drop interest rates, after granting them independence on interest rates [his most lauded achievement as Chancellor], in the face of spiralling inflation. Clearly, he acts more like Britain's Real Estate agent than a Prime Minister.

And, he presents a template for leadership for the Presidential hopefuls across the pond. Yes, indeed, I am talking about Mrs. Clinton, who claims experience and competence, has no new ideas and comes with as much baggage as Gordon Brown has. The term - Conviction Politician - is possibly a Gordon Brown invention, but Mrs. Clinton will soon claim that title too. If she manages to succeed the charmless and idealess George Bush, it will be left to a Hillary-Gordon combination to steer the world out of its most potent economic disaster in the coming months. Hopefully, the common sense of Democratic and Labour delegates will intervene sooner, and all of us will survive the crisis. Shall we say - May God help us all!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why Hillary Clinton can't give up?

Surely this campaign is one of bitterest fights in recent electoral history. But since last week, bitter is no longer a politically correct term. Barak Obama said it, and Hillary Clinton made an issue of it. It is clear that she isn't giving up - she will make it as bitter as she can.

The problem is that she need not have seen this as a zero sum game. There is a difference between fighting for the nomination, fighting for the presidency and fighting the 'wars'. Hillary Clinton does not seem to know the difference. This does not necessarily prove her toughness; it only proves that she does not know how to give up.

Barak Obama said something right, wrongly. Mrs. Clinton is doing something wrong, while pretending that she is doing the right thing. She is almost playing as the B-team for John McCain - hoping that by 2012, McCain will be too old and she will run again. But she is also proving herself to be divisive and inflexible, and the last thing that America needs now is another divisive, hard-headed president.

Barak Obama remains the hope for America - may be politically incorrect, but right on the money. Mrs. Clinton's 'elitist' label says it all - he has not learnt the art of political pretension and this should be the single-most important reason why people should vote for him. Mrs. Clinton actually represents everything of the past which got America here, divisiveness, smooth talk and a sort of political cunning which is without perspective or principle. It is hard to see her husband's charm or intelligence in her - all one sees is her correctness and doggedness. Did Americans not elect a president for those qualities in 2000? Mrs. Clinton actually resembles Mr. Bush most among all hopefuls.

So, that's where we stand - a few days away from some decisive fights, which will not just shape America, but the world. Hillary Clinton can do everyone a favour by giving up.

Monday, April 14, 2008

My education in Kuwait

I had a particularly enriching discussion about life in Kuwait this morning. Time is short, so I shall get down to details straight:
1. The government does not tax Kuwaitis or any resident for that matter.
2. However, Kuwaitis get several advantages - free healthcare and schooling among them.
3. They also receive a KD 70,000 grant from the government when they want to build a house.
4. They get special marriage gifts from the government and also gets child allowance, KD 100 per month per child.
5. The government guarantees a Public sector job for every Kuwaiti.

[To add a sense of perspective, 1 Kuwaiti Dinar is approximately £2 or $4]

The list went on and on. Pretty amazing - more welfare state than Soviet Union ever was, I bet! In fact, the government made an windfall this year from surging oil prices, so made a grant of KD 200 for all Kuwaitis and waived all their Electricity and Gas bills. For everyone!!

Not unlike the other gulf states, this is truly citizenship heaven. Though others dont have similar rights. The domestic helps are regularly raped and beaten. In fact, I was told that the government would now discourage getting domestic help from Africa - which they started promoting when Indian and filipino governments became increasingly concerned about the plights of their citizens - as Africans are proving too strong and hurting their employers when they try to rape them!! The menial workers, mostly expats, continue to live in abject poverty, much like Dubai, and the situation is getting worse with runaway inflation.

I will have to go now, but I guess I invite every apologist of capitalism to visit countries like Kuwait. All the talk of abundant opportunities and democratic choices, dignity of work etc can sound very hollow when one sees this Capitalism in action! It is indeed a showcase - Bentleys and Aston Martins all over the road - of Capitalism's achievements and Capitalism's limits.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kuwait

As I said, I am in Kuwait on a trade mission. This is my second trade mission, and I am kind of getting familiar with the trade mission life. I mean, the briefing, the networking, the exploration, the local agents who invariably crowd the receptions, the quiet solemnness with which diplomats and trade officers conduct themselves - all of that. I remember even seeing a novel called The Trade Mission, though this was an adventure/ mystry novel by Andrew Pyper on a boat trip down the Amazon, far from realities of the very discreet, very bland trade missions that I am seeing.

Kuwait is an interesting place. I am reminded, over few meetings that I had since yesterday, that this was the original Middle East boomtown. Much before Dubai, that is. However, that all vanished when Saddam walked in. For that, Kuwaitis in fact blame some of their gulf neighbours. They almost say that this has been a conspiracy, and regrets that the occupation and the war shifted the financial centre base to Dubai. I am not sure whether this is true, but this looks like a neat conspiracy theory that my Asian mind is naturally accustomed to - Gulf Neighbours encouraged Saddam to walk in, and then abandoned him for the Americans! Which Gulf neighbours, then? Could it be Saudis? Was Kuwait getting too cosy with Iran, then? Don't know.

But it is a welcome change that you get to meet local people here. That does not happen too often in Dubai. Dubai almost seems an extension of India to me, because I get to meet all Indians. No, I am possibly wrong, because I get to see lot of Britons too, and lots of shops selling international wares. A bit like Oxford Street really. But Kuwait is certainly different - slow, with great towers trying to be high and people showing off their money everywhere, with a beautiful sea shore and temparate climate [I am told that the weather is so pleasant because of the storm on Friday].

The key difference, of course, is that Kuwait is trying to be democratic, they have an umma and elections are right around the corner. There is a lot of power struggle going on, lot of changes. People I spoke to did not like democracy that much, they thought it is coming in the way of progress. I am told that Sheikh Mohammad, the ruler of Dubai, dismisses anyone who advise him to go a bit slow saying 'you are not progressive enough'. In Kuwait, the Umma found their new powers quite absorbing, and they have made it a habit to grill ministers on petty issues, leading to quite a few ministerial resignations. Now that the Ministers are not elected, and they are usually appointed by the Prime Minister, and usually related to the ruling family, this is sure a cause of tension. And tension there is.

I also learned that the legal institution in Kuwait is quite evolved, and in fact has quite a bit of exposure to Western Legal systems and procedure. Though that is an encouraging factor, doing business in Kuwait needs a sponsor/local partner, which means that foreign companies have to pay a local partner, who may not do anything, to be there. I have seen that in Dubai too, and this is usually a great hinderance for a SME to enter this market.

The rest are usual. No nightclubs, no alcohol. I tried to get to a porn site and I was presented a form, which said the site is banned and if I think this is wrongly banned, I can fill up a form and give my contact details and appeal for a review! Not in my right senses, you bet!

So, that's Kuwait for me - a big brother watching and giving a creepy feeling. It is all about knowing someone. Capitalism in action - not the entrepreneurial side of it, which is usually glamourized, but the more real, more common, crony capitalism that one sees everywhere in the world, just a bit more nakedly.

Corruption Perception Index



I could not help posting this brilliant map of CPI - or Corruption Perception Index - based on the studies done by Transparency International. I lifted it from Wikipedia, I must admit. The accompanying article on Wikipedia is highly recommended reading too.


Here it is a transparency scale - so, a country scoring 9 out of 10 is transparent, and the one getting 1 out of 10 is corrupt. The colour codes reflect the same - dark green marks world's most transparent countries and the dark red, the most corrupt.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

If it aint broken, you can't fix it

At this time, on 12th April 2008, I am sitting in a Sheraton property in Kuwait City. On the 14th floor overlooking the sea, I can see the dust and blazing sun, and decided to shift my meeting to evening, when, I know, the weather will be more pleasant. Being a Saturday, it almost worked out to be a lazy afternoon, with all my contacts deciding to come tomorrow. So, funnily, I get my first true weekend in a month, having nothing to do except writing this blog.

Of late, I noticed that I have become philosophical, at least when I write the blog. This is possibly because I am having a mid-life crisis of sorts, wondering what I am doing in the first place. Oh yes, I am terribly busy, hardly having time to sort out work and life [I did not have opportunity to change the ceiling bulbs in my study and working with table lamps for last one month, whenever I was home] - but this also meant I almost disconnected myself from the world around me.

So, this afternoon, is a special chance. Yesterday evening was special too, when our flight to Kuwait had go into a thunderstorm, and could not land after successive attempts. This is possibly routine, but these days, when you can see the runway on the front camera, and can feel the plane approaching the runway and then lifting off, it is a scary experience. Nothing happened, I must add - we went to Dammam, and then returned - 4 hours behind schedule. But, on top of bleary eye, such experiences also add a bit of perspective to life, of its shortness/longness etc, and also its meaning, perhaps.

But, today, I shall resist being philosophical and rather stay on ground. It is not just the first idle afternoon in a while, but also a chance to watch BBC and read things on the Net, and a bit of space to think. And, as I see right now, few things happened in the world in the last few months, which needs to be watched seriously.

First, the money market system is broken and the Central Banks don't even know the answer. The recession is here, but unlike in the past, the Governments are no longer in charge and they won't admit anything is wrong. Central banks only know one method - cutting the interest rates to make money cheaper - and it isn't working anymore. This is because the real rate of interest is already negative, or close to negative, and they can't go any further. The funny situation is that it is very cheap to borrow money today, just that there is no one who is willing to lend money. So, yes, exactly - interest, the price of borrowing money which should be fixed by supply and demand, is fixed by a variety of structural factor, and the supply and demand model of modern capitalism isn't working.

There is another place where this mechanism is not working too, for a different reason. I was watching BBC, where FAO, an UN body, was warning against the growing food prices and food scarcity across the world. There were scores of food riots in various countries over last few months and the food prices are continuing to go up despite Governments trying their best to control it. We are suddenly hearing a politically incorrect, almost Malthusian, language - world demand is outstripping supply. So, this is one area where the economic rule is working, but just that it does not appear acceptable that a vast majority of people will not be able to feed themselves soon. Of course, one will add the dimension that while half of world's population will not have enough to eat, a certain percentage of people in rich countries will become obese [Disclaimer: including myself]. This is a trend which, if not reversed soon, will challenge the moral superiority of capitalist economics and hurt its claim of being 'the final solution'.

One parting thought: The world view according to demand-supply is going through a series of difficulties. It may come good, yet again. But every crisis like this is always worse than the previous one, and points to basic instability of such a model. Add on top the fact we are wrecking the environment and buring out our energy resources following the demand/supply economics, one would run out of the moral smugness that came in fashion since Reagan. Time to look seriously into an alternative model: Every person according to ability, every person according to need? May be. More on this thought later.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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