Sunday, August 16, 2015

The killing of Cecil the Lion



When I was a young man, many years ago, a few of us pretend-intellectuals used to kick around this ethical conundrum. “Suppose that by hitting a button, some random Chinaman would die and you would receive a million pounds. Would you do it?"

Probably, one of us would quote the story attributed to George Bernard Shaw, in which he asks a society lady at the dinner table if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds. After some hesitation she says, Yes she would. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a million pounds,” he says; “Would you do it for ten shillings?” Certainly not! What do you think I am? “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now, we’re just haggling over the price.”

In recent times, science has brought the conundrum of the random Chinaman into the realm of the practical. Now, it’s available to all – or all who volunteer to be a drone-pilot in the NATO army, at least. A few weeks training is all that’s required to zap an anonymous family in a faraway village. Not a random family, no, but close enough. Some anonymous military bureaucrat chooses the family on the authority of some anonymous political commissar whose future pension depends on the perpetual war that emanates from the killing of anonymous foreign villagers.

Anonymity is the general theme, in the West’s slaughter of foreign civilians. The button-jockeys and their superiors are never publicly named. Their identities are as hidden as those of ISIS soldiers’ in their hoods, and for much the same reason: their deeds are too shameful to bear exposure. Nobody ever brags about being a drone-pilot – any more than they do about being a torturer in some CIA prison-camp.

Like a notional killer of the random Chinaman, each armchair pilot receives his promised reward. Salary, performance bonuses, medical cover, guaranteed pension – those add up to a million pounds, over a lifetime. What a deal! Many of them seem to enjoy a high level of job satisfaction.

Not all of them, though. There is a downside to the job, for sensitive souls. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is more common than it is among, say, infantry soldiers. Maybe it’s just not enough of a challenge. Nobody is shooting back. After all, a villager in Afghanistan is in no position to defend himself. He’s a sitting duck. Press the button, and it’s game over. Villager and family die in a cloud of dust, as do their nearest neighbours.

What in the trade are called “double-tap” engagements, are more fun, but no more demanding. Those require the button to be pressed a second time, after an interval just long enough to permit other villagers to assemble and begin rescue efforts. Wham! Bam! And thank you, ma’am! With any luck another dozen families can be killed or mutilated, all in complete anonymity. (I don’t think the pilots’ bounty or bonuses increase according to the number of dead or mutilated; it’s not piece-work, to that extent.)

Job satisfaction or not, it’s hard to imagine the work as being socially acceptable: hence all the anonymity, of course. Morally corrupt though it be, by most people’s standards, it is actually more socially acceptable than hunting wild animals. Remember the recent hoo-hah when some fellow shot a wild lion in Africa?

Animal-hunters tend not to be anonymous. Indeed, they post photos of themselves and their victims on Facebook – and, sometimes, newspapers publish the names of the victims. That almost never happens in the case of drone-killings. The name of the dead lion was Eric. No, it was Cecil, of all innocuous names. Eric was the name of his brother. It’s hard to keep up with the names of wild lions. Cecil, King of the Jungle, anyway.

It seems bizarre – and rather unfair – for one wild lion to become famous for being shot, when Afghan and Syrian and Iraqi villagers remain anonymous. I think the difference in treatment must be because lions are fine-looking creatures, whereas villagers in the Middle East are not, in general. Our Western leaders dismiss the villagers as a humanoid sub-species – like monkeys, but not as cute.

Until they are given Western names like Cecil or Eric, they will remain where they are now – with no claim to sympathy, or even dignity. I mean – Abdul, Fatima… What kind of names are those? Huh. Not cute, that’s for sure!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Rum and Coca Cola (Bahamas)


The first thing Linda and I had to do after our travels was replenish our bank accounts. We'd travelled very much on the cheap through the Middle East and Eastern Europe, but the money had to run out eventually. Linda’s sister lived in Canada, so it made sense for her to go over there.

So she did that, and became the chef of a hospital in Barrie. My old employers in London arranged a transfer to their Toronto office as an auditor. First, I drove my Mum around England and Scotland, at her expense, then hit her for the airfare across to the new job.

Canada wasn’t my first choice, actually, but its immigration line was shorter than the US’s - a story told in The Turning Point in January 2014. Linda and I were on our (separate) ways home to Australia; Canada was just a place to save money so as not to go back broke. Linda met me off the plane, which was nice…

That was in 1965. Eventually, she lost patience with my reluctance to commit, and headed back to Melbourne to make a new life for herself. By the time I finally did commit, by phone, and in writing (as demanded...!), our logistics were all skewiff, and I was out of town when she arrived.

Touche’s office down in the Bahamas had asked Toronto to lend them three or four young and single audit clerks for a few weeks in December. Rum and Coca Cola on a tropical beach instead of hot coffee in a cold motel room in Windsor, Ontario, seemed like a good deal, and I jumped at the chance.

Linda reckons she landed with only $30 on her, which in all the confusion she left behind in a phone booth at the airport. Poor Linda! Poor Jon, my flatmate, who had to stake her to the airfare down to Nassau – plus $30 pocket-money, I guess. The details are fuzzy, after all these years.

So we got an early honeymoon in the old Royal Victoria Hotel, and wondered if we might come back to live in Nassau one day. But Touche didn’t want me, except for the few weeks; and the trust company I’d been auditing chose somebody else for the job they had advertised. Bummer.

Sigh. As a second-best, I persuaded Touche Toronto to recommend me to its office in Kingston, Jamaica. A few months after our wedding, we signed up with an agency that delivered snowbirds’ cars to them in Florida. A leisurely drive down to Orlando took five days, staying at motels along the way.

Jamaica ahoy! But - never say die, eh? Our personal schedule left us two weeks to knock on doors in Nassau, and we landed jobs halfway through the second week. Linda began teaching at a government school, me at the trust company I'd audited before. The chap who had beaten me for the job had failed to turn up. 

A warehouse in Miami had let us park our belongings with them until we sent for them – to Nassau if we got lucky, or to Kingston if we didn’t. We phoned and sent a cheque, and all our suitcases and boxes came on the next boat. No problem. Imagine making an arrangement like that these days! Our gear would be blown up by Big Brother the first day. Simpler times, back then.

Our first house and car in Nassau were provided by Tim, who also worked for the trust company. He was off the Island with his family on “long leave”, and didn’t find out about the deal until he got back. That was par for the course, apparently. 

“Long leave” was a carry-over from the Good Old Days when the sun never set on the British Empire, in which anywhere in the tropics was a “hardship post”. Two weeks in the hill stations of India or Kenya or anywhere else were a refreshing break from the stinking heat of the population centres, but it needed three months in Blighty every two years to prevent the chaps from “going native”. Mad dogs and Englishmen, and all that.

By the time Tim and Mrs Tim and the little Tims came back, we had our own accommodation and car. We blew all our savings on the car  - as reported in  Me and Miss Ohio, in April 2013. 

We finally made it to Jamaica for the Easter of ’68 – a second honeymoon, or a third, or a fourth. We loved it, and did all the usual tourist things – Dunn River Falls, rafting on the Rio Grande, the hot spa at Milk River, rum and Coca Cola on the beaches… Those were good years for expats in Jamaica as well as Nassau.

But the latter was a tax-haven, and by gosh didn't we flourish in the absence of Income Tax! When the time came to move on, we looked for another tax-haven.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Empires on the go



When I was a boy in Australia, all our world maps showed the British Empire in red. It covered the world, pretty much; the sun never set on it. We felt lucky to be a part of it, and we pitied those nations that weren’t. It’s a measure of how narrow our world-view was, that we had no notion that the American Empire was on the way up, and the British on the way down.

A few years ago a well-travelled American friend of mine protested indignantly, “We don’t do empires”. He’s changed his mind, since. He could hardly not do. Today, the new Empire announces its presence with all the fanfare and arrogance of every past empire – the Roman, the Persian, the Mongol, the Turkish, the Spanish, the British, and so on. To outsiders, though,too many American citizens seem to be unaware of the historical context of their empire. 

From the time of the earliest foreign settlements in North America, the British and (later) Americans expanded their realms inexorably – sometimes in small increments, sometimes in large. The “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803 of nearly a million square miles was a false bill of goods, since the vendor didn’t own the territory and the buyer knew it. What was bought and sold was the exclusive right to steal it from the people in possession. Well, that’s how empires expand; they don’t ask permission from the conquered.

The forced transfer of half of Mexico in 1848 – also nearly a million square miles – was the same kind of acquisition. So was the purchase of Russian America in 1867 – only half a million square miles, this time. Several of Spain’s overseas possessions were added to the empire by force of arms in 1898: Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico...

Since then, America’s expansion has followed the broad method of the European trading nations between the 16th and 20th Centuries, with businessmen and troops moving more or less in lock-step. The military occupation of the Middle East was predictable. It’s what the British did in India. Local satraps can’t be relied on to provide the raw materials necessary for the prosperity of the imperial homeland – not without the presence of imperial troops to remind them of their duties.

Brutality is a natural part of the reminding-process, and psychopaths are hired to do the reminding. Human-rights have no part to play in the administration of empires, and are pretty much a dead letter in any imperial context. 

Non-Americans have no excuse for not recognising this truth. Europe remembers the excesses of Germany and Russia. Asia remembers China’s “Great Leap Forward”, Japan’s invasions, and the more recent holocausts in Cambodia and Vietnam. Latin America remembers its genocides of aboriginal peoples. Africa’s history is cluttered with similar savagery. 

Non-Americans in general are inclined to sympathize more with local resistance movements that pit themselves against foreign occupiers. We are more aware of history. The French civilians who resisted the German occupation were called terrorists. The local heroes who made the American Revolution were called terrorists by the British. Non-American politicians tend to condone their US colleagues’ use of terror-tactics to counter the resistance of the conquered – but not their constituents, in general.  

The bogey-man of worldwide Islamic terrorism is a conspiracy theory too far for most of us. We know that the entire Islamic community isn’t savage. Religious crusades are frowned on by most educated observers, today.

Nevertheless, we don’t doubt that the Oceania envisioned by George Orwell in “1984”, of America (and Israel, its Airstrip One), will endure for the foreseeable future – or at least as long as its currency can bear the expense. Empires’ lives are measured in centuries. There is nothing new under the sun.

This essay was originally posted a couple of years ago. Somehow, it has appeared again now, with the date 29 July 2015. I've no idea how this happened, and the Blogger website can't explain it. So... The content is still valid, but I do apologise for anybody irritated by the apparent double-post!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Norwegian Wood


Ross gave me a glowing report on the property he was intending to buy – and eventually did buy with the help of his Norwegian bank. “And – listen to this, Dad – there’s a river runs through it!” Wow. I’ve never actually read the book of that title, or seen the movie, and I’m not sure he has. But I recognized the romance in the reference, and gave it the nod.

Actually, the “river” was – is – a downhill trickle from a natural mountain spring, but it made a satisfactory river-ish noise all the way down. It rained most of the time we visited (earlier this month), and the wet grass and undergrowth put us off exploring for the source further up the mountain in the forest. Next time…

So. The Barlow Family’s property empire now includes sixty acres of harvestable Norwegian trees in that nation’s wild, wild, west, to augment the forest cabin’s half-acre in the east. It hardly seems worth while listing our two little suburban blocks in the Caribbean. Yee-hah, though, eh?

The idea (not a plan, as such…) is to convert some of the rickety shacks into basic accommodation for the hostel trade. There’s a lot of conversion to do, and very little capital to do it with. Dreams and romance don’t transform easily into practicality, do they? We parents will give what encouragement we can – short of committing our retirement fund to the project. That would need a serious plan.

He bought it for the view, which is magnificent: two or three thousand feet above a valley with a real river and a very cute town. Snow-capped mountains in the far distance, even in the summer. In the winter it’s ski-territory, and by gosh it must be cold then. Linda and I huddled in Ross’s coats and woolly hats, on top of our own – while the young Norskie grandchildren cavorted (yes they did – they cavorted, shamelessly) in short-shorts and T-shirts, and bare feet. Madness.

The place came on the basis of “as is, where is”. Electricity, but no hot-water tank or pipes; a little stove and fridge (!), lights and a heater, but no sink or shower or washing machine, or TV. Oh, and the toilet facilities were – uh, as simple as you can get, pretty much. I hadn’t used one of those places since 1955 when we left Hannaford; I’m not sure Linda had ever used one, at least in a Western country. The only good thing about it is that the seat was warm. I’m guessing it will need to be upgraded before the local authorities grant any licences.

Or maybe not. Norway is a surprisingly relaxed place: cheerful and friendly to a fault. Ross once ran across the Prime Minister of the day while waiting for a ferry. “Are you good for a selfie, squire?” “Well, why not?” Something like that. It’s a nice photo for his Facebook page – Ross’s, at least: maybe not the PM’s.

That PM has come down in the world since then, regrettably. Today he’s Secretary-General of NATO – doing the US’s bidding, and complicit in that organisation’s war crimes. Sigh. Oh well. He has publicly scoffed at the idea that Russia poses an imminent threat to Europe, so we must hope he can keep his idiotic generals from starting World War III. (One of them is actually called General Strangelove, for goodness sake. Well, Breedlove, which is even sillier.)

I’m always disgusted by double standards, and my heart breaks to note that Norway’s are as disgusting as anybody’s. In the exact same week in 2011 that Anders Breivik slaughtered 69 members of a youth camp on the island of Utoya, Norway’s air force was slaughtering an unrecorded number of civilians in Libya as part of NATO’s unprovoked attack on that nation. Nobody seems to have noticed the irony. (This was before Stoltenberg took over, by the way; some Danish politician was in charge.)

The hypocrisy of mourning the one event while celebrating the other is too much for me to stomach. Norwegians were themselves victims of an aggressive-war machine in the 1940s. Is there a qualitative difference? I can’t see it. Aren’t Libyans humans, too? If we bomb their legs off, do they not bleed? 

Running with the NATO dogs of war invites comparison with that old German aggression, and the comparison demeans Norway’s gentle image in the civilized world. Norway’s people are gentle, and well-mannered, and humane. They deserve a more moral leadership and representation. 

Sadly, all the peaceful forest in the world can’t cancel out the wickedness of crimes against humanity.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

FIFA – Where were the auditors?



In the murky world of international commerce, the directors and auditors of companies are responsible for guarding against operational carelessness and naughtiness of all kinds. Watching them from above are state supervisory authorities; and down in the boiler-rooms are the salaried managers and minions. I’ve been all those things, in my time, except a state supervisor, so very little happens in the world of international commerce that is new to me.

Directors are paid handsomely to direct the strategy of their companies. With the cooperation of outside auditors the directors are obliged to ensure that the Profit & Loss Accounts are a “true and fair” statement of the operations and that the Balance Sheets give a “true and fair” statement of the assets and liabilities. 

There’s nothing particularly onerous in this second, shared, duty. It might require a long time, and cost a lot of money – and they might never uncover any errors. And, there may be no errors to discover. BUT if there are some errors to discover, and they aren’t detected, then the directors and auditors deserve to be held accountable.

Regrettably, good directors and auditors are not as easy to find as they used to be. As long as directors observe the formal regulations set out in their companies’ charters, and as long as auditors pay lip-service to the relevant GAAP rules (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), then the regulatory authorities tend to give the published Financial Statements a pass.

The blame for every corporate fraud in history rests with the directors and auditors of the enterprise. For some reason, auditors never get as much flak as directors. Speaking as a former auditor, that’s not the way it should be. After all, a company’s auditors only have the one job. They are independent. They have the run of the entire premises of the company, with carte blanche to inspect what they want. Nobody can deny them access to any records – or any physical equipment, come to that.

They can write their own audit programs. As a young man I once got the thrill of my life when one manager rather reluctantly gave way to my request to see some record or other. “I don’t know what use that will be to you”, he said. “Nobody’s ever asked for it before.” The record was indeed of no value to me, in the event – but it was a useful reminder to him that I set the limits to my investigations, not him.

At least, not if he wanted a “clean” audit report. Such a thing was held in higher regard then than it is today. After all, incredibly few companies in history have ever gone bankrupt without a clean audit report. What does that say about changing auditing standards? 

Cayman’s own financial scandals have all arisen because of inadequate auditing. BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International), Parmalat, Enron – and now FIFA. Not a dollar should have gotten past the auditors of any of them, never mind millions. What’s gone wrong, in recent decades?

Every one of those companies’ auditors had an excuse, and I know what it is. The “audit budget” was too tight. Overall budgets (so many hours at so much an hour) are agreed each year between one of a company’s directors and one of its audit firm’s partners, often during a round of golf. The audit partner divides the dollar total by his preferred hourly rates, and the minions are ordered to do their work within the calculated number of hours. (As a mid-level minion, years ago in Canada, I was seriously threatened with firing when I insisted on extra time, beyond the budget. My fellow minions all took the easier path. Ah well, that’s a story for another time.)

The term Enron accounting has entered the dictionaries, but it ought to be called Enron auditing. The current FIFA furore should be bringing down the auditors as much as the directors and officers. The BCCI investigation in the 1980s did result in the demise of one of the world’s biggest audit firms, but all their hotshots quickly found employment with the others. There is little downside in being an audit partner. (I’ve got a personal story about the principles that prevailed in that audit, too, for another day…)