Global Thoughts — 15 August 2021

Miami skyline from Brickell Key

I’ve had the daily challenge of writing hilarious letters to my kids at camp and I’ve done my best to come up with some real doozies. For instance, have you heard about the invasion of zombie-led Mexicans putting Trump back into office so that they can turn him into a zombie and dominate the USA and the world. You should go to summer camp and get my letters to read what you’ve been missing while you’ve been living under a rock in this supposed real world.

Here are some interesting statistics from the Economist about the stupidity of current travel restrictions. Quarantining at home cuts of 75% of contact with the outside world; hotel quarantines raise that to 90%. Is that extra 15% really worth it? In Canada, despite spending millions of dollars on temperature scanners, not a single case of SARS was found using them, which makes you wonder why the world is doing the exact same thing now – and I’ve never heard of a case where these temperature scanners found a single case of covid either. A rapid antigen test on the day of a flight reduces by 76% the number of infected people crossing a border; a PCR test taken 72 hours before reduces the figure by 66%. So why make people go through all the hassle and expense of taking PCR tests? The problem with the PCR tests is that people still have 2 full days to get infected before being tested. Although 6% of American jobs are tied to the travel industry, those accounted for 33% of the losses. The loss of travel cut its share of global GDP in half, amounting to 4.5 trillion dollars of losses. People from Thailand and Colombia can enter the US even without vaccines, but Germans and British with vaccines cannot. Britain has vaccinated people with Astra Zeneca made in India but won’t allow people from India with the same vaccine to enter the UK. Thailand recorded 21,000 cases on August 10, only 19 of them imported despite travel bans and a 2 week quarantine. None of this makes sense, and what you should get out of this is that travel bans and restrictions are mostly theater that don’t stop anything and that are screwing everybody up around the world much  more than they need to be.

I’ve been getting rather upset at the CDC for scaring the country on the basis of flimsy science. I recently read that the big headline story about the Delta variant being as contagious as chicken pox was based on a graphic that appeared in the NY Times that the CDC saw and relied upon. The graphic was wrong. This is according to a leaked document commented on by a federal official to National Public Radio, not exactly Fox News. You really have to wonder what is the basis of CDC regulations. The US is still banning fully vaccinated Europeans and Canadians from coming into the country even though there is nothing at this point to keep out and it is holding up business and families. Newspapers report that the White House says they are relying on “medical experts and the CDC” and meanwhile nobody tells you exactly what these experts and the CDC are basing their opinions on. I think that at this point nobody wants to take responsibility by climbing down from a tree and admitting they were wrong.  So far this Democratic version of the CDC hasn’t been much better than the CDC we had last year and I’m glad Republican governors are ignoring them. There is no reason for people to be running around like idiots due to bullcrap science.

I don’t want to prolong the agony of Covid in this country by coddling a bunch of unvaccinated people and forcing the rest of us to take a bunch of restrictions upon ourselves.  I’ll bet others feel similarly. Mask mandates are not happening or, if they are, will be and already are being widely ignored, especially since the latest CDC scare was induced by flimsy conclusions based on a music festival in Massachusetts involving sex, love and rock and roll, which in no way compares to the bulk of social interactions that do not result in the wide spread of infection. And now the CDC won’t backtrack and admit it unnecessarily scared the country because it would look even dumber, so we all have to live with more mask mandates even though it is not needed. And school kids are going to have another year of masks even though there is not a single study anywhere that shows that these masks help kids avoid infection but rather torture all these kids for no ascertainable gain. It’s just awful how stupid public health policy is and how fed up I am with the Nanny State. You can be sure I’ll be voting for any Republican that looks like less of an idiot than Trump. Just let people live their lives and treat adults like adults. And if you want to get rid of air rage, 75% of which is due to masks on board, stop turning flight attendants into hall monitors treating passengers like idiots.

If a couple hundred thousand Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers and White Supremacists want to commit suicide, why should I mask up to stop them? If Fox News thinks it’s good business to tell these people to kill themselves, why should I have to put on a mask in the gym to keep Tucker Carlson on the air? This whole thing has become really stupid. My kids in camp who are in fully vaccinated bunks have to sleep criss-cross in their bunks for absolutely no good reason other than that they might somehow breathe wrong. My sense is that the reason they are sleeping in Z formation is to send a secret message to prevent the CDC Quarantine Zombies from attacking them during the coming Apocalypse.

In Australia, my wife reports that helicopters buzz over parks and if pilots see two people sitting on a park bench, the police swoop in and hand out $1,000 fines. People in Australia seem to love ratting on each other and getting people into trouble. What lovely people they have there. East Germany should have extended themselves to make a federation with the Ozzies before losing their paradise to the rest of Germany.

You heard all this propaganda out of Israel how great they were at vaccinating people but then you see that everything is going to pot with this Delta. Turns out they didn’t inoculate nearly as many people as they said they did; one-third of all the Arabs in Israel didn’t get the shot, for instance. So where did they come out to report vaccination rates of something approaching 90%? I saw those numbers in the Economist even again as of this writing; where did they come from? All these statistics are crap.

This week in synagogue the rabbi’s sermon dealt with the issue of infrastructure as discussed in Deuteronomy Chapter 21 unexpectedly arising in the discussion of unsolved murders. Interestingly, the issue as to whether infrastructure was strictly stuff like roads and bridges or included what you might call social infrastructure such as social workers goes back over a thousand years and medieval scholars debated this very issue. I did not expect to hear that this issue was alive and well that long ago. The elders of the cities had to inspect the infrastructure outside the borders of the cities and had to declare that they had done all they could to have prevented the murder – the argument being whether the upkeep of the road was to blame or whether having had proper counseling in place would have prevented the murder.

Let me tell you about middle age at the age of 55. This means that 20 years ago I would say Friday night Kiddush at the dinner table all by myself not knowing if I would have a family. Now that my kids are in summer camp and Karen has been away for the month in Australia visiting her mum, I say the Kiddush all by myself but I know that soon everyone will be back at their place around the table. In another 20-30 years, I might be back at the table all by myself but if that happens it will be because everyone else has either died or left home for good. You can feel a lot of context about your life standing around the Friday night table saying the Kiddush prayer for the sabbath.

Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

Another thing about middle age is that 20 years ago hotels wanted to impress people like me because their present clientele were elderly and dying. Now I go to a hotel and I feel old when I see everything so trendy and young around me. Young people have more discretionary income than people did 20 years ago; maybe it’s because they are not having as many kids. Hotels have been faster to cater to this crowd. I did a Staycation at the Equinox hotel in New York City and the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport. The Equinox is filled with young trendy bulked-up people standing in the pool holding their drinks and on the weekend it’s a zoo. The hotel advertises a great night’s sleep but I had nightmares because of the thick duvets they put on the bed (and no sheets). The TWA Hotel is a real hoot and lots of fun. They have a rooftop pool, exhibits on life in the 1960’s and the whole terminal building looks like you’ve stepped into a Time Machine with old pay phones, cars, departure boards and even the luggage belts behind the check-in desks. They have a plane from the 1950’s that they use as a cocktail bar on the weekends. You can walk from JetBlue’s Terminal 5 right into this hotel. The last time I was in this building was over 40 years ago as a passenger on TWA. I was in a choir in Miami doing a concert in New York; we took a night flight on a 747 and it was virtually just the 20 of us taking up a whole plane and running around for 3 hours all over the plane! I still remember that terminal; it was a beautiful space and it still is! When I woke up and looked out the window onto the runway, I was amazed to see an Eastern Airlines jet on the tarmac. That airline came back into existence after a 30-year hiatus and now flies to Ecuador.

Has anyone noticed that nobody puts clocks in hotel rooms nowadays? Is it to avoid waking people up at 3am when the hotel maid forgets to rest the alarm clock that nobody else can figure out how to work?

This past weekend I went through my Hall of Treasures, which are my papers and souvenirs from the last 50 years of my life which I know someday will wind up in a Smithsonian Museum dedicated to the posterity of my life. Last time I looked at this I was in a bad mood and couldn’t bear to look at what I had previously written. This time I looked at it again a bit more carefully and actually a lot of what I wrote then was pretty good. Yes, some of it was arrogant and foolish and I wouldn’t write it today. I’m amazed that I got into college and graduate schools with my application essays; they were so awful that at least the universities must have figured that I actually wrote them myself (which probably never happens anymore). I confirmed that high school achievement tests today are much harder than they were when I took them. I would definitely say that in my high school years I took myself much too seriously. But there were some thoughts that remain true today – I didn’t feel that unilateral moves by Israel would bring peace, Arab states wanted to know if the US would be there for them if they all opposed Iran, I felt that more investment was needed in East European and Russian-region economies to ensure that they would survive the transition from communism, and I was trying to figure out how to compile news of the day into a customized abridged version that people could digest to cut through all the clutter, even before people were using the internet and social media.

People asked why I didn’t write about all these voter suppression laws in the US in my last posting. Yes, I’m concerned about them, but if you read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times you get such vastly different descriptions of these laws that, assuming both sides are intelligent, makes me completely confused as to whether or not these laws really would disenfranchise people or if the two political parties are just trying to craft laws to gain advantage for themselves on both sides. I’m pretty cynical about this. I don’t know if the Supreme Court is in lockstep with the Republicans, and I don’t know if the Democrats are just trying to rig things for themselves. I do feel safe though saying that state efforts to put control of elections into the hands of political hacks and legislators instead of independent actors is something that will come back to haunt them later. Today it could be a GOP majority that will certify the election and tomorrow it could be the Democrats. Having non-partisan election officials in place to referee elections is a good thing for all sides to have. The NYC Board of Elections is completely staffed by political party appointees and nobody trusts it. Why go this route in Texas, Arizona and beyond?

Scenes from camp in New Hampshire

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on climate change had some compelling arguments. It said that although climate change has resulted in death and destruction, it as well as technological and scientific progress has also reduced other types of death and destruction. For instance, while 120,000 people a year will die of heat-related causes, 300,000 people who would have died from the cold will survive. Rivers that used to flood every 50 years in the 1970’s now flood every 150 years. The amount of forests burned by fire is 11% of the area that burned 100 years ago. Climate-related weather disasters kill 90% fewer people than 100 years ago even though the world’s population is up by 400%. You see the same thing with Covid; people have become so used to perfection that when people look at a vaccine with 95% efficacy, they want to know why 5% still get sick. We have become used to being risk averse and expect perfection like tiger moms who want to know why their kid only got 100 on the test and missed the extra credit question.

A good article by Michael Knights, a military analyst who spent 2 decades working with Iraqi militias, opines that Biden’s counter-terrorist strategy in Iraq is failing. He’s hitting back 1x for every 11 strikes against us and trying to be so pin-pricky about what he does that he’s not hitting back at anything that matters. And the US makes a big noise about it. The effect is that the Iranians are laughing at us and continuing to take potshots at us because they know that they can. A better strategy would be to act more unpredictably, hit harder and not admit publicly what we did so that nobody has to publicly oppose it. The Israelis, he says, plays this game much better.

Someone at a dinner party made an interesting point: Have you noticed that liberals are making the arguments that the death penalty should be abolished because they are having such a hard time finding drugs that kill people without causing too much pain. Except that these same people over the past 10 years went and banned all the drugs that killed people without causing too much pain. So now they want to cite a problem as the excuse but it’s the problem they helped create. This person noted that when you go for surgery, you get a shot of anesthesia and you totally black out. If someone wanted to then kill you, you’d never notice. So how hard can it really be to find a drug that they could use for an execution?

The Israelis had been in advanced stages of various kinds of infrastructure projects for Gaza until the rocket attacks by Hamas started in May. Now all those plans are out the window. Egypt is primarily supplying Gaza’s needs, but only ¼ the amount of stuff is coming in from Egypt as previously came in from Israel. Very little of the promised aid from Egypt has actually started to arrive. The Israelis are fine with this even if there will be no negotiations over Israelis held in Gaza. Let Egypt try to run Gaza. The Israelis have almost finished hermetically sealing the Gaza border from the tunnels; they should be finished by next year. The Israelis are pretty much ready to lock the door and throw away the keys, says Alex Fishman, a well known military correspondent for Israeli’s biggest daily newspaper Yediot.

To see China sabotage a Chinese company called Didi which had a big IPO in the US markets and then to have it tank, this was no surprise. But if China is hoping that foreign investment will be there for Chinese companies, it better consider that when you burn the market like this, people remember it and vote nay with their investment dollars as punishment. Basically, China ambiguously warned the company that it had issues but waited until the day after the IPO to suspend their operations. The stock went down 20% the next day and fell below the IPO price. This is the kind of reason that China will not be #1 in the world; unless you think you can do it all on your own, just keep pissing off the rest of the business world and see how far it takes you. No bank or fund is going to want to get burned again in China after this one. The Chinese will say that they are still learning the game as to regulation and public markets, but I think it is somewhat hollow; Mr. Xi has created a cult that puts his persona above all else including business and that’s not good for business.

Boarding “Connie” at the TWA Airport Hotel at JFK in NY

I met with a Chinese friend who now lives in the US and who at one point was being groomed for future leadership in China. We had a lengthy discussion on the state of affairs. At certain points, it is difficult when two people of very different mindsets are trying to understand this situation, but it precisely because you have two peoples with very different mindsets that the situation is so difficult to diffuse. China sees everything through the lens of 2,000 years of history and is stuck on the needle about the idea that everything the US does is meant to keep China down. Trump’s presidency was great for China because it proved the point. It is the equivalent of the US seeing a communist behind every tree but here Mr. Xi who leads China could point to Trump and the bipartisan support he received regarding China as proving that the US is hellbent on China’s containment. So far Biden hasn’t really changed much when it comes to China, showing that the US national interest is inimical to China’s.

My biggest takeaway is this: All told, China’s Xi will be judged by his deliverables.  (So too will Saudi’s MBS.) Mr. Xi is a tough cookie who grew up under miserable conditions and went through the meat-grinder of its leadership program to get where he is. If he doesn’t deliver the goods, he’ll be out. His mandate is to strengthen China and also to retake Taiwan. That means that you can bet the farm that within another 5 years or so, or as soon as China thinks it can get away with it, they are going to try to occupy Taiwan. They don’t care that Taiwan is not interested in a takeover; they spent decades negotiating with Taiwan until recent governments were more hostile toward mainland China, Taiwanese people want to work in China, and they are banking on the fact that they will get away with it and that the US will be all talk and no walk when it comes to a military confrontation over a matter that is in China’s backyard and upon which its national honor has been placed.

Keep burning people who invest in Chinese companies in the stock market by issuing government fiats out of nowhere that aim to put them out of business, and I can’t see foreign investment continuing into China very long. Even Stalin needed capitalist money to keep his party going. I just don’t see how Xi will get his deliverables this way by ruining Hong Kong and trashing Chinese public companies that make profits. And anyone who would be smart enough to build such a company would want to go outside of China to do it. Decoupling is going to happen faster if China drives investment and technology development to be in line with XI’s philosophy and communist principles (even if you want to believe that the government is not really all that communist).

China has a well-developed system for grooming leadership and it is very tough sledding. You are constantly rotated among various governance jobs, audited and evaluated, and the bottom 10% get thrown out of the program.  America has no such program and it is not surprising that Chinese leaders look with contempt at American leaders like Obama and Biden who never ran anything, Trump who had no government experience and was more of a failure in business than a success, and wonder that if this is the best the nation of America can come up with, then why are we letting them run the world? America is filled with squabbling factions that look for foreign scapegoats and reflect what the Chinese see as a lack of confidence in their own destiny. Its chief of infrastructure for Shanghai visited New York City accompanied by my friend and was astounded at how poor the local infrastructure was.

In Hong Kong, the Chinese believe and claim they have strong evidence that the US was helping to orchestrate protests. As to the Ughur Moslems, the Chinese have been cracking down on these “Gypsies of China” for over 20 years and whatever they are doing to them now is much less harsh than what they used to do, which was to kill them outright. So why is the world getting so excited about this just now? The Chinese don’t want them having lots of kids and being out on the streets peddling and stealing.

From their point of view, China’s economy is already #1 if you factor in various elements that are not usually accounted for when making these determinations, but the Chinese are being cleverly discreet in not flaunting it. China has good shipbuilding capability and can do the work at a much lower cost and faster; Europe will be out of the shipbuilding business if China decides to get into it. Right now they are building aircraft carriers; granted, they are increasingly viewed as sitting ducks, but they are useful toward intimidating second-tier powers in Asia and so China wants them even if not to actually use in warfare.  China hopes it can take Taiwan through intimidation without having to fire a shot, so this strategy has its place.

Finally, an important point that we should all take note of. Mr. Xi and people around him look at what the US did after the USSR crumbled. The US snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by becoming stingy when it was time to invest in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. They left the region to deteriorate and spiral into chaos. Iraq and Libya are other examples of western powers removing the powers that be only to have the area descend into chaos. Mr. Xi does not want to be the guy who made a deal with the West only to find China on the short end of the stick when the West does not live up to its promises and then to see China plunged into chaos. Earlier this year, I reviewed the biography of James Baker whose biggest regret was that the amount needed to invest in post-cold war Europe and Russia was miniscule but the West wouldn’t spend it. Not only did the West squander the dividends it had won with the end of the Cold War, but even today more than 30 years later, it has affected the calculus of leaders around the world such as Putin and Xi in China (and probably Kim in North Korea) who all feel that the US and its partners cannot be trusted and are just as guilty of creating chaos in the world as anything those countries might do. Although China is glad to see the US hightail it out of Afghanistan, they are not thrilled having them leave chaos behind which will complicate Chinese investment in such nearby places as Pakistan. Biden’s team seems surprised by what happened in Afghanistan, and it’s a problem that these veterans of the foreign policy establishment were surprised.

The US and the West today are not in a position to pick up the mantle of world leadership and the US Senate hasn’t ratified a single treaty that its president has made in over a generation. Of course, that doesn’t supply any incentive for any nation to negotiate a treaty with the USA. So China has its own good reasons to both fear and look down on the US and the West and to feel that instead of the US purporting to create a rules-based world order (by which it makes the rules), China has plenty of room to strut its stuff and to try to make its own rules.

My response to my colleague was pretty simple: Assuming arguendo that all of his points were true, the proof that the US will always be #1 is in the pudding: he is here and not there. If China’s elites believe that their lives are better lived in the West and that it is better to build a business in the West without government interference than in China where to get ahead you have to toe the communist party’s line (which I agree isn’t really all that communist) and agree with whatever Xi says, then the momentum will always be here because it is the 1% of the population with 90% of the wealth that determines the future. He didn’t argue me on this check-mate point although he argued every other subject we discussed.

Aboard “Connie”, a 1950’s jetliner

I heard an interesting talk about Saudi Arabia these days and there were some disturbing notes. Young people are doing more drugs and their parents are worried about it. There are a lot of young people caught up in MBS’s reforms and they are working very hard to mimic what they see as a hard-working prince; since they are working at superhuman speed, they need drugs to keep up the pace. If MBS’s work comes to naught, they will be very disillusioned. Also, I’m told that all over the Gulf people dread getting a phone call telling them they’ve been appointed as an ambassador or as a high government official; it means they will be working 18 hour days and have no life. They can’t refuse the offers and they are often not told why they are getting the job; they don’t know if they are being honored, tested or punished. So to avoid this kind of draft, people say little at meetings and try not to be noticed. I’ve always felt Saudi Arabia was a cursed country where it was best not to give a shit; 10 years ago it was because of the oil. Now it’s because you have a ruler who is so feared and capricious that nobody knows what the rules are and nobody wants to get caught up in the game. Interestingly, Chinese executives reaching the pinnacle of their careers have incentive to shut up and not go for the gold because upon retirement they get audited and often found to be faulty if they took risks that didn’t pan out. So instead of going for the gold, they tend to lay low and hope their careers end without incident. It is a waste of good talent and seniority and the Chinese know it but they have fostered a culture of Cover Your Ass and that’s what you get as the result.

My doctor says that telemedicine is a real fraud. He says that doctors were making diagnosis and prescribing medications based on phone calls with people who never took off their clothes to be examined. He says you can’t play doctor without examining patients.

My partners and I are evaluating how things are in the office after the first month of being back. We feel that when people said that productivity working from home was almost as good as being in the office, that some of this was falling victim to lowered expectations of what people thought was good productivity. There is no comparison to being in the office, particularly when it comes to collaboration and people being around people that they like to be with, which is the #1 item that influences people’s willingness to stay in their present job.

Marks and Spencer makes really comfy socks and underwear. Did you know that you can buy it on the internet and have it shipped to the US for a very low cost? You can buy the stuff on a US site, but you can also buy on the UK site and, although shipping is more expensive, the stuff shows up in a few days through DHL and you can get things such as pajamas which are made of super comfy material that they are not allowed to sell in the US (less fire resistant). My kids love the PJ’s from M&S. Also, if you buy from them, you can return stuff to the US via postage paid mail (they pay) and get a refund.

How things change for travel: I used to care about having a shortwave radio and then being able to watch BBC World on television in a hotel. Now that we have our phones, just think of how the packing list has changed: Most of us don’t travel with cameras, we watch internet and get email, texts and phone calls. We care less about a hotel concierge because we can just look things up and follow a map tied to GPS. We get our news from the phone, and we don’t need to send post cards because we can just text photos and comments or post them online to social media. You don’t need a hotel phone to work because you can call and receive calls for free or at low cost on your own phone.

I was watching this infomercial about a collection of Love Songs of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s from Time Life. I was interested until I saw that the price of the collection was something like $150. Also, by the time I’d watched 15 minutes of this program, I’d heard enough songs to last me a year and figured that I’d never actually wind up listening to these songs. So I guess the infomercial was too long for its own good.

It’s too bad New York’s soon-to-be-ex Governor Cuomo couldn’t control himself with women, was terribly arrogant, and had no friends when scandal finally brought him down. There are those who want to rewrite history and say he didn’t do anything as governor. The new airports, train station and subway in New York City that had not been built for 50 years until he got the job done is testament that he was one of the best governors New York has had. It takes an asshole to be a governor in this state and you can’t take that away from him.

I’m ready to judge Biden’s presidency at the 6-month mark where his momentum has stalled, and I’d say that he busted a good opportunity to run up the middle road and get 60 senators to agree to important decisions that would have propelled the US into the next century, something the US hasn’t succeeded in doing since the Reagan-Bush years. Instead, he bought into his progressive wing’s dream of Going Big and is winding up accomplishing next to nothing. Here’s all you need to know – he still has a ton of executive appointments to major offices (such as undersecretaries to the secretary of the treasury) and it’s not the Senate holding them up. The problem is they are so stuck on finding the right token person to fill the roles (ie: we need a black, Hispanic, gay person, female, Native American) that they either can’t agree on the person, find the right person or find a person who accepts the role. It was like early spring when the vaccines became available and Democratic state and national government officials were so consumed deciding who should get the vaccine that few people were actually getting it. Things didn’t pick up until they simplified who should get it and now the problem is convincing people to get it, which was always going to be the problem. So meanwhile, people aren’t getting appointed to senior level positions, the agenda isn’t being pushed forward and time is a-wasting.

The Republicans are going to stick it to the Democrats in 2022 because the majority of Americans voted for Biden to replace Trump, but not to pursue a progressive agenda with critical race theories in schools, higher taxes and social re-engineering. I voted for Biden to get rid of Trump, restore the state and local tax deduction and to seek consensus down a middle road, none of which he is actually doing. Biden is trying to please an activist wing but it’s not what got him into office; it was White suburban often conservative voters, as well as conservative Blacks and Hispanics. Too bad he didn’t figure it out. He is sucking up to teachers unions who don’t want to vaccinate teachers or open schools and pissing off parents of kids who are missing out on school, which puzzles me since there are so many poor kids in public schools who can’t just do what many people with money are doing which is to switch to private schools. I can certainly tell you that the Chinese think of him as a bit of an aged idiot who has spent his life being a senator (and senators don’t do anything except talk), and I’d bet that Putin is not very respectful of him either. Didn’t take 2 weeks after having a summit for Putin to give the green light to a big cyberattack on America. So far Biden is running a more professional show but the amount of initiative being taken is low. Although I’m a hawk on China, I believe that Biden’s strategy is not working even though it is presently frustrating China’s leaders. Biden is doing what I would like to see China not be doing, which is to be simply opposing them for the sake of opposing them everywhere. We need to work with them and find ways to cooperate and I think that Biden and his Team are not sure where they really want to go and are stuck in a loop. The Chinese were hoping for better than Trump but although the tone is a bit different and the US cares more about its allies, substantively it’s still pretty much the same policy out of the US. Same goes with immigration on the border; they haven’t done anything there either. So far it’s been all talk and no walk on the Biden foreign agenda; I mentioned earlier that as far as Iran and Iraq goes, they are treading water and not getting anywhere. Six rounds of talks with Iran has yielded neither an agreement nor a policy. And beyond the large headline companies, many more Chinese  companies under the radar are doing lots of business in the West and doing the same stuff the larger companies are doing. I’ve said for years that the whole concept of trying to contain Iran so that it cannot become a nuclear power is faulty; at this point Team Biden seems to be on the verge of conceding the point and looking for other ways to engage Iran. If George Bush wasn’t going to bomb Iran a decade ago, why would you expect anyone to do it now? Iran is only going to respond to force; not to any type of negotiation especially when the proposed agreements offer them nothing they need that they can’t get anyway.

I said in January that Biden should be doing whatever will get 60 senators to agree. That would work better at getting attention abroad because so far the talking shops in Vienna for Iran are moving toward policies that will not get bipartisan support and it is for this reason that the Iranians are not taking it seriously. Also, Biden would be smart to do something reckless involving US armed forces. Nobody is deterred by these pin-prick moves designed to be so risk averse as to be counterproductive. Trump was viewed as a moron who, if provoked, would do something unpredictable and that at least provided him with a modicum of deterrence. Biden doesn’t even have that.

I think we learned some good lessons this year; government handouts cause labor and supply shortages because people stop working, then inflation which creeps into everything such as taxis, hotels, automobiles, and groceries. State rule is ultimately good because the feds can’t be trusted to make public health policy that works for everyone and some of their policy is just plain stupid. And homelessness causes all sorts of order in the streets to break down, so it must be kept under control. New York City will take a long time to recover from the shit De Blasio put out on the streets.

I’ve also developed a greater appreciation for this filibuster. Progressive Democrats want to spend 3.5 trillion dollars and I don’t agree with it, especially if they try to ram it through the senate with 51 votes. Having Congress seesaw every 2 years when there is an election with barebones majority control is no way to run a country. You need bipartisan support for major spending and policy changes so that they are not constantly reversed every time control of the Congress changes. The supermajority, which the filibuster essentially requires, ensures that Congress will pass laws that have broad support and that will withstand the test of time. It is bad for ideological firebrands but it is good for the country. The infrastructure bill passed and will be enacted because it had broad support, which is as it should be.

When I argued that Team Biden had lots of experienced people especially for foreign policy, people said but they were all with Obama and they suck. I figured that they now had more experience and could learn from earlier mistakes. But criticism is mounting from experienced old-timers that these people are just sitting there and not doing anything, while other countries look at the US and shrug. Under Trump it was a shit show, here it’s just nothing being done and risk aversion run amok. Either way, the rest of the world is not taking the US too seriously. I guess the critics were right – a lot of these veterans from Obama’s administration are still pretty lousy. Trump’s people stood for something; you might not have liked it but you at least knew what guys like Pompeo wanted. With these guys, the rest of the world is still trying to figure out what the US policy is.  I expected better.

A year ago I said that Kamala Harris was a poor vice presidential choice. I still think so. Giving her the Mexico portfolio has helped cement her reputation as a nobody especially since nobody seems to be able to figure out how to solve the problems at the border.

Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, likes the new mayor of New York. He says he is non-ideological, pragmatic and destined for higher office. That’s good news if it turns out that way. I’m concerned about corruption; I spoke to someone in the police department who wonders why the new mayor retired just a year or so short of his full retirement from the police force. Any idiot knows to just lay low and take the pension. He was reportedly on the take to such a degree that it was worth more to him to take the money than to wait for the pension.

I’ve had a hard time finding a hotel I liked in Miami since JW Marriott turned Turnberry into a zoo. The Four Seasons in Brickell is certainly not bad, especially being connected to a huge Equinox health club, but I was very impressed at the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key, which is a small island just off the Brickell/Downtown area. You get great skyline views, the food is good, and it’s more chill being on a little island. I used to work on that island 30 years ago in my first law job; the guy I worked for died and it turns out the firm disbanded soon after I left. I guess it wasn’t going to be a good career move for me to stay there, as it turns out. Don’t use the metrorail from the airport to get here; the connection from the airport to another train is terrible and, even if you come at rush hour, the traffic still will beat the metrorail.

Scenes from Camp

I also visited Fisher Island, where I haven’t been for over a decade. This is a small exclusive island reached only by ferry just a few minutes from South Beach. As long as you don’t want to go anywhere off the island, it’s a great place to veg out with its own beach, spa and eateries, and everything you want is within a 5 minute ride (and you get a golf cart). The hotel consists of 15 cottages built around a Vanderbilt mansion, which really does feel like a Vanderbilt mansion. It’s a great place to enjoy a quiet weekend and in the summer it’s not too pricey. To live on the island, you have to pay an initiation fee of about $350,000 plus an annual fee of about $50,000. But if you make $2 million a year in New York, you’d pay that much in income taxes on the state and local level. So it makes sense to trade that a year of that tax money in for a great lifestyle on an exclusive island with great facilities with another 700 or so families. Even better is just to stay in the hotel 10 days a year and get all this with your room rate. During the summer, many of the residents are up in the Hamptons of New York so you get the island almost to yourself.

An interesting report from the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts that global supply chains will not move to the North America and will remain in Asia; if not China, then elsewhere such as Vietnam. Because Mexico, the US and Canada are protectionist against each other, Asia still offers the most cost-efficient means of producing and delivering goods to North America. During the pandemic, even though Asia did not vaccinate well, their economies returned to normal faster than those in North America.

When I was in Boston for Memorial Day Weekend, I saw this lady on an elevator holding this huge intimidating book called Stalin’s War by Sean McMeekin. She told me it looked tougher than it was and that it was a good read. Yes, it was. At the end of every chapter, I wanted to continue. The book is on the Best Seller’s List now and it’s worthwhile reading because most books about World War II focus on Hitler and his designs. This book says that Hitler was less important than it seems who could have lost the war early on and would have capitulated, and that Stalin really ran the war and played everyone else in this game. He pushed the US and Japan into war and delayed its end, for example. It’s disturbing to see how naïve Churchill and Roosevelt were, how many Russian spies and sympathizers had infiltrated the most senior levels of the US Government and managed to sideline anyone who didn’t agree with them, and that history could have been so different the past 70 years had someone else been running these countries who might have stood up to Stalin earlier when the West had overwhelming leverage to do so. Stalin knew what he wanted and had a very weak hand; Russia was on the verge of total destruction at one point and the US completely rescued it from the dead with a completely one-sided lend-lease deal that gave him everything he wanted for years, even after the war ended, with nothing in return. Stalin made some wise moves and some awful ones but never had to face the consequence of his failures. The fact that China, North Korea, Japanese islands, Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, the Baltics, Berlin, and Hungary all fell to the Communists did not have to happen. In fact, from the author’s point of view, the whole World War II was a complete failure that should have been settled at the negotiating table, but Stalin manipulated the other countries into fighting this war, weakening themselves and strengthening him to become the biggest winner of that world war. It’s a disturbing book to read but very necessary toward understanding just how broken Europe and Asia were at the time, with countries going in and out of existence almost annually. You wouldn’t want the world to be this way again. The end result was that millions of people died who probably didn’t have to and tons of money was wasted on war material that could have been spent to much better uses. You get the feeling these days that people are not learning from history and that the US could make the same mistakes all over again.

Look at then and now. Back then, the rest of the world really couldn’t care less as long as their own access to commodities was not hindered, such as the British wanting access to oil in Baku. Countries were just being invaded and plundered at will and you didn’t know from month to month who was going to do what. I don’t think we want to go back to that kind of world. Whether China going into Taiwan would just be the first lick of many or the settling of what they see as their destiny is an open question to me. Whether Russia would build on its annexation of Crimea (something I don’t really understand why it was so compelling for them to do) or stop there is also an open question, but so far Putin hasn’t tried for more. I just don’t think the world today can stand a bunch of invasions and countries going in and out of existence.

Another book I’ve read is Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone, who looks at the last decade of growth at Amazon and tells us about Jeff Bezos. I was curious to read the book because I know so little about this guy who might be the richest person in the world. I remember when I used to joke on these pages that Amazon was giving away dollar bills for 78 cents and making it up in volume. But almost every day I buy stuff on that site and I know that I’m not always paying the lowest price. The book is a good read and it will tell you a good insider’s account as to what goes on at Amazon. I thought the author was balanced and fair, showing the good bad and ugly. My takeaway is that Jeff is not just a lucky guy who made it to the top but a very smart cookie who at key points came up with important breakthrough ideas and who challenged his executives to rethink their methods and which all served to make the company great. He doesn’t sound like a nice guy but more of a human computer; I’d think that he and Putin would get along quite well.

One place you can go and pretend you are in Quebec or Switzerland without leaving the USA is Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, about 2 hours scenic drive from Portland and slightly longer from Boston (although much farther away it is all highway driving). Portland is a small airport that is useful as long as nothing goes wrong; bring food for an evening flight because by 6pm all the food outlets were closed. The Mount Washington Resort is not the most fascinating place on earth but it is a solid resort with all the facilities you want and some new presidential-wing suites that are quite sweet. Pescatarians will get bored of eating salmon and fried cod after 2 days. They have a zip line tour but you got to book it at least a month in advance. It’s a good place to cool off and catch up on a good book and there is a nice spa too.

Soon we are leaving on a Visit USA summer vacation in this second summer of covid. See you in September!

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