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Global Thoughts — 7 April 2017

Overnight on the Auto Train

Overnight on the Auto Train

I would like to start this posting talking about things that make me happy. I don’t know of anything more refreshing than eating pieces of a chilled pink grapefruit.  What about you – what is the most refreshing thing you enjoy?

For seven years I’ve been living in my apartment and every time I go to my clothes closet it is dark and I can’t see what color my pants are. I finally got an electrician to install a light when something else was being done in the apartment, and for all of an extra $200 there is now this extra light in my life. People in rental apartments hate spending money on improvements and it is a trap because many things you can do don’t cost all that much and can make your living experience a whole lot more pleasurable. It’s probably the best $200 I spent all year; now I am so happy every time I open that door to look inside.

Nobody should say that I am not open-minded. This year I have learned to eat avocadoes and now I am working on eating eggs and pomegranate seeds. If I can just perfect a handstand and cascading 3 juggling balls, I think my work will be done on this planet.

IMG_4118My son is fascinated by cooking shows and wants to take a cooking class being offered to tweens this summer. He has figured out how to get up early and make French toast in the kitchen, an exercise that makes the rest of us quite nervous. He just received a robot building set and is getting ready for Karen and I to do his annual science fair project. My daughter informed me that she was voted MVP of her girl’s hockey team at school and that hockey is now her favorite sport. She is preparing herself to move to Canada. So far this past year very few people have actually tried even though you keep hearing people threaten to move there. Actually the Canadians don’t make it easy for Americans to move north. In the first month after the election 28 people applied to move to Canada.

When your kid asks for another piece of chicken and then leaves it on the plate, we all know that they don’t care that there are starving people in China because even a kid realizes that him eating his chicken is not going to prevent anyone in China from starving. So I try to explain that in Cuba, a government food ration according to the Economist is one piece of bread per day, and then for the whole month you get 5 eggs, 2 pounds of sugar, 7 pounds of rice and one piece of chicken, and I showed them how much food each of that would be. Meaning that if you left a piece of chicken leftover in Cuba, you might have thousands of people killing each other to get it.

I also tried to explain to our kids who feel cramped in a NY City apartment that the previous president of South Korea now sits in a 70 square foot jail cell all alone with just a mattress and eats really awful food every day at a cost of whatever $1.30 per meal buys in South Korea. Except for an exercise period each day, she sits locked in a cell about twice as large as a section rug in our living room. Which is where presidents of South Korea seem to end up.

Our kids are really enjoying episodes of “Liberty’s Kids,” an animated educational series about the American Revolution. It has been shown on television networks and now is available for watching on the internet. I am happy to see that someone has produced this for children’s TV. They are learning a lot about American history with this program.

IMG_5678One thing a head of family should do is take his family on the Auto Train, a train that goes from Washington DC to Orlando, Florida and takes your auto on board. It’s a piece of Americana up there with Howard Johnson’s.  I remember going on it with my parents and I wanted to do the same with my kids. A train leaves either end at 4pm and arrives at the other end at 9am. It’s a big production featuring hundreds of passengers and a well-oiled machine of friendly crew members doing their parts daily on a run that sometimes arrives on time, and sometimes arrives hours late. The kids will be bored enough that they will have to talk to you, especially if you deny them access to iPads and DVD’s. They stopped showing movies aboard the train to save $50,000 a year in licensing fees (which we calculated at about $70 per train trip). Dinner and breakfast in the dining cars is an experience and the scenery in Virginia and Northern Florida is pretty. One thing to know: dinner is first come first served when you check-in, so late check-in means a late dinner or get on the waiting list for an earlier seating. Because we don’t own a car, I had to rent one in DC and return it in Florida (they will not let you board this train without a car), but I did that through Avis for $40. I wouldn’t be surprised if I am one in a million passengers who actually rented a car in order to take the Auto Train. My son loved it (especially the sleeper car with bunk beds), my daughter sorta liked it and my wife hated it. Now the auto train has become our benchmark for how boring something is; at my wife’s behest we went to a Friday evening service at a local synagogue featuring the tunes of the late Shlomo Carlebach and the kids declared that to be worse than the auto train stating that they thought it was my wife’s revenge for agreeing to go on the auto train. In any event, we had some nice memorable cuddles with the kids in the sleeping berths and my son has been wishing for years to board an overnight train. Since we got home, he’s spent hours re-creating the train with Legos.

IMG_5997During a recent visit to the Caymans I checked out the newly opened Kimpton Hotel which is the new kid on the block meant to give the Ritz Carlton a run for its money. And it does if you are an adult couple and want new and shishi. But if you are a family on holiday, the Ritz is still by far the best with the right kids program, food, facilities and location. The Ritz is a large hotel and spread out, but it manages to spread people out and make people feel good. A few years down the road the Four Seasons is supposed to be built and then we’ll see what that means to the area. In Washington DC, we found good weekend rates at the Willard Intercontinental which has a great location near the White House and Metro station, and good food service and facilities.

Here’s a funny story of unintended consequences: You’d think that with cars having all these new safety features, insurance premiums would go down. In fact, they’re going way up. These safety features cost a lot to repair and are often found in the parts of a car that takes the brunt of a crash.

There were all these bomb threats to Jewish community centers over the past few months. Our local JCC didn’t seem to be involved. Perhaps that is because when you call our JCC, you get put on hold for 20 minutes. If all JCC’s did this, any potential callers would be frustrated and not bother.

Here’s a curious item buried in the New York Times: Ivanka Trump was until this past December a trustee of a $300 million trust left to 2 of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters. The Murdochs control Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the NY Post, all of which have been more favorable to Donald Trump than other news media outlets. That may be one reason why.  I wonder why nobody knew until now.

Upside down at the Washington Monument in a topsy turvy DC

Upside down at the Washington Monument in a topsy turvy DC

It’s really true that Jared Kushner, Steven Bannon, Jason Greenblatt and a few others in the White House are running the country as best they can. Here’s who was at lunch at the White House with the visiting deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who for all intents and purposes is running his country: The president, vice president, Steve Bannon, the national security advisor, the white house chief of staff, and Jared Kushner.  Nobody from either the Defense or State department was invited.  Trump has not appointed hardly anyone to fill the many senior positions in government and it is chaos out there. You have to find out what’s going on in our government from sources in foreign governments who are trying to keep up with nobody home on the US side. Good personnel are avoiding jobs with this administration; it is not good for their careers. Trump is months behind and is not likely to make many of the appointments he needs to make. Time to get an agenda passed by Congress is not infinite; after this summer it will already be an election year for the House of Representatives and the Democrats will be the party of No that worked so well for the Republicans last year. If the Democrats do well in the mid-term election, it will put a stop to the Republicans who are anyway too busy feuding with each other to pass much of consequence. It is a real waste of an opportunity for a political party to get something done when they control most of Washington. Too bad they couldn’t really decide what they wanted to do. That is the result you expect when they got into power simply by saying No to the other side and talking policy in platitudes. You can see that people are nervous – so far Trump is mostly backing off his campaign promises on everything from NAFTA to health care reform. The money for the tax cut was supposed to come from health care reform which is not happening.  Immigration reform is so far all talk and no walk. From China to Syria and Iran, the US has backed off whatever Trump earlier said he would do. Enemies of the US are going to see Trump as ineffective and weak and they will start doing things to test him and push the envelope when they see they can get away with it. A crisis will come and everyone is nervous that it will be amateur hour at the White House with dangerous consequences. Whether the recent cruise missile attack in Syria changes that calculus will become known over the next few weeks when we see what happens afterward. All he did was send over some missiles to what was probably an empty military base in rural Syria and you can bet the Russians and Syrians were warned it was coming. Probably 100 million dollars worth of crap we threw at this in 3-4 minutes though. Is it a flash in the pan and then no followup? Does Donald carry himself like a gorilla now that he launched a few missiles? What does he say to the Chinese who are in town and negotiating with him over a lot of flash points including North Korea? Too soon to tell.

Happy Birthday Papa

Happy Birthday Papa

I sold 60% of my stock portfolio at the end of March. If you read the Economist, you see that around the world the economy is recovering but they feel that equities are overvalued. The Wall Street Journal had a front page article saying that a market correction was to be expected.  I do know that I walk down the street and see restaurants closing and pruning their menus. Clothing stores close and do not reopen. Retail stores on Fifth Avenue are closing and not being replaced. Staff in the stores and restaurants tell me that people are cutting spending. It can’t be good for working class morale to talk about throwing 25 million people off health insurance and wonder if you will be one of them.  The press has been sitting on this story because bad karma will hurt advertising revenues and newspapers are hurting from the lack of them. But sooner or later the statistics will be out there and the BS will have to stop – Trump’s infrastructure bill is still in his head even though the markets have priced it into share values. The market priced in a tax cut that may very well not happen; hardly anyone has been appointed and approved to work in the Treasury Department to help write the legislation so practically speaking there is virtually no chance anything will happen this year and by next year it will be an election year in Congress and it will be hard to get anything done as I indicated earlier. There is no question that Trump’s anti-immigration intentions are affecting the market even though he hasn’t actually changed anything; revenues are down 30% this year in one of my companies that deals with H1B immigration of highly skilled technical talent. Those jobs are being moved offshore because the aggravation of bringing people in and the uncertainty around it all has made it economically unfeasible to employ them in the US. I think his policy is self-destructive and the tech lobby seems to be unable to get Washington to listen. Despite lower commodity prices and a Chinese recession, Australia managed to pull itself out of recession this year by bringing in a bunch of smart immigrants – those that America is turning away. One country’s trash is another country’s treasure. The American companies do not need to employ people in the US – they are functioning on a global scale and can just ramp up operations in other countries to make up for red tape, taxes and hostility to their employees produced in America.

BWW_1039All of a sudden we seem to care what happens in the upcoming Dutch and French elections. The Russians are involved, putting money behind political parties that they like. For some strange reason, France’s Le Pen wants to put all sorts of restrictions on foreigners but Russians are exempt from the list. I assume that at some point the Russian connection to Trump will become clearer but it has a real stench of money about it when you look at the list of people around him who have been paid off right down to his campaign chairman being paid tens of millions of dollars by Russian oligarchs to support Putin, and Donald Trump’s son making a speech in France last year for more than his usual fee at an organization which lobbies for support of Russia (which in Europe usually means it is funded by the Russians); the CIA is at war with Trump and they will eventually win and the FBI might be sluggish when they investigate but they try to make sure they have all their ducks in a row before they come out with whatever they’ve got. The Russians don’t use government money to pay people, which is why there is ambiguity; they use business people, but remember that the Russian government and its businesses are one and the same. I suppose lots of foreign governments have dirt on Trump and everyone wants to keep it a secret because that’s how you maintain leverage in this business. Meanwhile, the vice president sits and waits for his boss to fail knowing that not before long he might actually be president. Everything in this paragraph is reported in the major newspapers; there is no inside scoop here, which is amazing. It’s all out there for you to find; it just hasn’t hit the fan yet, but sooner or later it will. Here for instance is a reason why – the New York Times has a story on page 20 this week about the former national security advisory Flynn not fully disclosing all sorts of payments he got from Russians on a previous version of his financial disclosure forms, including a speaking fee of $45,000 from Russia’s RT network (which is widely viewed as a propaganda arm backed by the Kremlin) and his appearance at a party thrown by the TV network where he sat right next to Mr Putin. Elsewhere in the article it mentioned that his speaker fees for the rest of the year ranged from $10,000 to $22,000 an appearance. The article mentions that his entire assets are listed at between $400,000 and $800,000, mostly retirement funds. When you put two and two together, the disparity of this particular speaking fee stands out like a sore thumb that clearly meant a lot to Mr Flynn’s income (and clearly something he couldn’t easily forget to disclose) but the author doesn’t tell you that – you have to read between the lines and make connections within the whole news article to realize it.

IMG_0005Here is the most disturbing thing: Over the past several months, I talk to people who normally would appear to be very intelligent responsible people. You ask them how they can support Trump. They all say that the guy is mentally unstable and corrupt but anything is better than Hillary Clinton. Even today when it is obvious that the people who voted for Trump (ie: white middle age America) are being utterly shafted by this man’s policies that would hurt these people and they can see it now, only 3% of those that voted for Trump said in a recent survey that they would vote differently if the election were held today. I am tempted to be much less judgmental about how Germans voted in Hitler in 1932 when you see what is happening in the U.S. today in the face of what appears to be obvious insanity. The Republicans who couldn’t stop creating hysteria out of Clinton’s emails and a phony Libya scandal are whitewashing this guy and the cronies in his administration. This guy has people appointed to high offices in government departments who are 2 years beyond high school education whose only qualifications are that they worked on his campaign and are considered loyal to him. When I read the editorials in the Wall Street Journal defending what appears to be indefensible, it makes no sense until you remember what I told you at the beginning of this posting – Trump’s daughter is a trustee for millions of dollars belonging to the family that owns the Wall Street Journal. Somehow the Republicans are reconciled to selling their souls to a Russian-connected family business clique and this is justified as being better than the corruption they would have otherwise had under the Clintons who also had their share of ties to shady deals involving such stuff as Russians and nuclear components. It’s a sorry state for the country. I cannot remember anything this low this high, and I am sure that at some point people will wind up in jail for this and the Republican Party will be severely punished by voters for tolerating this hypocrisy, corruption and erosion of any values the party once stood for.

I am not making this up: According to the New York Times during the past month, the Syrian Government announced that it has shot down an Israeli fighter jet.  Its evidence was a picture of a paper airplane with its “wings” cut and a crude drawing of a Star of David on it.

IMG_0110This is unusual but I have no real travel plans for the next half year; I’ve had a lot of interruptions from all the travel over the past year, and a bit of time at home and work to build some momentum would be good. I suppose that in another 5 years or so my kids won’t want to be seen in public with their parents so I’ve felt that we’d better do all these cool trips now while we can still decide where to take them and anyway I feel they learn so much from these experiences, so we will have some cool trips later in the year. I used to pick out their clothes and they would wear what I brought home but not anymore, so why should holidays be any different at some point?  Just as our packing list for kids changes every few years as the kids grow, my list of Top Hideaways in the World changes as I check out more places. I’ve reviewed close to 300 properties for TripAdvisor and I’ve updated my 2015 posting on this site as to my top 27 hideaways with the top 40 hideaways. One hotel was dropped from the list (the Eden Roc in Miami Beach) but several others were added. This is a good handy list of Beach resorts, Family All-Around resorts, adult hideaways, city hotels and few outlier hotels that make the list for one reason or another, such as my kids’ heaven on earth hideaway that many others would cringe at. I’ve tried to make sure I covered key cities where one would hope to find a quick recommendation, which is why the list has grown a bit. Except for some of the adult hideaways, I’ve been to all these properties in the last few years so I can vouch for them. Some cities such as Hong Kong I haven’t been to recently so I left them off the list. Here is the link to that article.

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