Global Thoughts — 23 March 2022

Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountains. Good to be back on the road again!

Earlier this month, I dusted off my passport after more than 2 years and went to Dubai to the Expo and stopped off in London. It was nice to get out again. Travel notes follow at the end of this posting.

Big weekend coming up — my eldest niece is getting married, the first child of either one of my brothers. I remember being at the hospital on the day she was born. Life moves on pretty fast.

We went with the kids to Stowe Vermont for a few days of skiing. My daughter was so excited when she saw the mountain – she’d only skied on a big hill so this was a level above. Cost of the trip was double what it would cost to go to Tremblant in Canada, especially the cost of the ski lessons. But I paid and swallowed because of the risk of someone testing positive and being stuck in Canada with the kids. Fortunately, the kids said the instructors were a class above any other instructors they have had, so I felt that we got good value for money. (Instructors to remember are Steve for snowboarding and Rosemarie for skiing.) Jeremy called Steve a “genius” every day – he never says that about his school teachers. The Lodge at Spruce Peak is a good 5-star property and the Penthouse section of the hotel is a boutique hotel within a hotel. I’d been told to expect a zoo there but we had no service issues since it was past peak season; going in mid-March is a good move. Stowe is almost an hour’s drive from Burlington airport and the towns of Stowe and Waterford offer good shopping and the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour (which is still closed for covid).

I’ve got a better idea how to handle the one-third of the USA that doesn’t want to get their shots. The Democratic-led government should declare that it is ILLEGAL and IMMORAL to get vaccinated. Next thing you’d know the Republicans would be urging everyone to exercise their freedoms to get vaccinated and to own the libs with their shots in arms.

Jeremy got his bar mitzvah gifts and opened a bank account. We were talking about the impact of inflation on bank accounts and Jeremy quickly realized that money in the bank is a losing proposition. So he decided to open a brokerage account and convert his cash into Berkshire Hathaway stock. It was a good call on my part – over the past 2 months, that’s the only stock that’s gone up in value. Elizabeth joined her school’s hockey team and she loves the sport. They learned the rules of the game the day before their first league game. Her season will be all of 5 games. Not too serious about this at a Jewish high school. But hey, it’s fun!

Here’s a generational thing: If you are 25-45 years old, you probably loved the most recent Super Bowl halftime show, with all its hip hop and rappers. If you are under 25, you never heard of these people and thought the show was awful. If you are over 45, you also probably didn’t like the show and also don’t know who these people are. Think about Barry Manilow and Burt Reynolds – my kids have no idea who they are.

Funny thing someone said to me: “You know, to us Asians, you Westerners look all alike.”

Last month I wrote about tariffs; the Economist has a thought about it: While tariffs are clearly costing both the US and China, with the US suffering more than China due to low bargaining power amid chain disruptions, they can see a method to the madness, which is probably why Biden has continued the tariffs that Trump started. The tariffs are even greater than the Smoot-Hawley ones of the 1930’s that deepened the Great Depression. The world is not the same today in many ways so these are more tolerable; Vietnam and Mexico are getting more traction as suppliers to the US and this is leading to diversification of the supply chain. It’s inefficient in the short run but may be beneficial down the road. Some of these tariffs are stupid – the price of sneakers has gone up because of them but there are no real American-made sneakers to protect.

Microsoft started this Viva service that uses AI to scan your outgoing emails and remind you of unanswered correspondence so that you can remember what balls you have thrown up in the air that need followup. It’s a little creepy but remember it’s just a computer. You can ignore it or say that it invades your privacy, but it just goes to show that everything you do is being tracked by someone if they really want to know, and unsubscribing isn’t going to change that.

Once in a while I read articles by people claiming to know what God wants out of people. I’m very reticent about trying to divine what God thinks. Unless these people have talked to God, they should be more humble about their preaching. For all I know, God is bored with everyone’s prayers and requests. In a way, it’s like those who say to Follow the Science. Science is defined as a body of knowledge and rules based on observation and experiment. Science is supposed to be a sure thing but two years of covid has made people much more skeptical of science and the people who claim to speak for it. We really are not as sure of what science says as we like to think; how much less so can we be so sure of God’s opinions?

Looking up in the new One Vanderbilt Observatory in NYC, a really cool attraction

Let me pause and tell you how Global Thoughts is written – I write stuff when I get a thought in my head and sit on it before publishing to see if over a month or two the material remains relevant. Then when I’m ready to publish, I look through all of what I journaled to make it coherent and relevant. I think it’s better than putting out a constant stream of consciousness like you see on social media. That said, this posting is very interesting because of how much things changed between the time I wrote things during January, February and early March, and when I published in late March.

For instance, see this paragraph written in February:

China, Hong Kong and some of these other Asian countries are going to have a cow when the next variant comes if it is really bad: the rate of vaccination in these countries is so low that most people are not immune to covid. All their zero-covid policies are just kicking the can down the road since they didn’t use the past 2 years to vaccinate people, especially since the Chinese vaccines don’t really work. Well, now it’s happened that the death rate in Hong Kong is approaching America’s, especially due to the fact that they never vaccinated most of their elderly population.

It’s not usual that I can tell way in advance that the results of the coming US midterm elections are going to be so bad for one side or the other. I think the Democrats in November are going to be shmeared like soft cream cheese on a toasted bagel. I’m hearing it from Hispanics, Asians and even Blacks: They don’t like the covid restrictions that are hurting small businesses, affirmative action programs that are throwing Asians under the bus at schools, and a progressive crime agenda that lets people shoplift without being charged and opens up kiosks offering free needles for druggies to shoot up in public. They all feel that they play by the rules and that people who don’t should get punished instead of preferential treatment. They want people back at work, fewer emergency regulations all the time, and they feel their tax dollars are being wasted on things like covid payments that gave people some money but drove up inflation that made up much more than the difference. Let unvaccinated people get lower priority in hospitals but let vaccinated people start living their lives again. Boy, am I hearing it. I can’t believe the Governor of New York is not hearing it too. She’s going to be toast in November if the Republicans can run a legitimate candidate. So far, I don’t see any evidence that police officers have been given new orders in NYC to crack down on the homeless and I’m still literally constantly stepping over people sprawled out on stairways at the entrances to major subway stations even during the middle of the day. New York City is still acting as if the pandemic is in full force; it seems likes lots of people want the pandemic to go on forever. Why go back to work and isn’t it fun to virtue signal all day long by wearing a mask?

The Democrats ought to think about rebranding themselves; the progressive agenda is going to be repudiated so badly that the Democratic party is going to be out of the running in this country for the next decade. Blacks and Hispanics don’t like being told that they are inferior because of their skin color and that goods need to be transferred from one person to another based on skin color. The progressives think they are being equitable but it’s just another type of racism in the form of lowered expectations. They are not against distribution of goods to poor people, but they want it done without the matter of race. White liberals don’t get it and they don’t understand why they are losing these votes when they think they are buying their votes with giveaways. Much of the country is sick and tired of endless rules and nanny statism. People want to get on with their lives but they can’t with government constantly declaring emergencies and restricting behavior aggravating people who have already been vaccinated.  People want less regulation and all they see is government making rules and never letting up – it is 20 years past 9/11 and TSA officers are still throwing away water bottles at airports, even if they are half empty with only clear water in them. For what? You think a terrorist needs to walk a half empty water bottle past a TSA checkpoint to blow up a plane? Someone asked me if I could think of a single instance when government imposed a restriction on people at a certain time for a certain reason and ever got rid of the restriction. I couldn’t think of one and I wonder if you can.

Blue states run by Democrats have higher unemployment and lower levels of business activity than red states that have by and large resumed normal life. New York is still 50% below prepandemic levels and Florida has returned to normal. The mask mandates at schools and in public places needs to stop and the US needs to stop citizens to test upon re-entry. Why should US citizens be stuck abroad now that 99.9% of all covid cases are omicron that are basically a head cold if you’ve had your 3 shots? It really is 99.9% — on January 29, only 400 Delta cases of covid were found in the entire US. That’s about one-tenth of one percent of all cases.  A ski trip in Vermont costs 3x the price of going to Canada – but you’ll pay it to avoid being stuck in Canada if you test positive. Resorts in Puerto Rico now charge $3,000 a night for a room that two years ago cost half the amount. This is taking advantage of Americans who are basically being told not to take the risk of going abroad, and they deserve better.

At a NY Rangers Hockey game at Madison Square Garden. They love the cheering when the team gets a goal!

Two months ago I predicted that Omicron would overwhelm the Delta variant and that eventually this would end because the new variant was not a big deal as long as you’d had your shots. So far I’m proving to be correct, at least until the next variant comes around if it turns out to be resistant to vaccines. I think that most of the country will not want to go immediately back into panic mode until they know that the new variant actually constitutes a threat. With Omicron, people panicked before they knew it was awful but then they couldn’t go back on it. At this point, we’ve had worse threats and all this scaredy-squirrel stuff about covid is excessive to the actual threat. We should move on.

I feel that people are overreacting to this Omicron variant and that, assuming you had your 3 shots by now, people wouldn’t be going nuts like this if Omicron didn’t have the word Covid appearing alongside it. The main justification for all this public health precaution is that hospitals will overflow with patients, but 90% of them are unvaccinated and more than half of them are there for reasons other than covid. If you haven’t gotten your 3 shots, like 2/3 of the US which is something I still cannot understand or could never have predicted, you shouldn’t be given priority if you show up to a hospital. If someone commits suicide at a tourist attraction, I don’t think they should shut down the attraction for fear of copycats.

We are planning trips to Iceland for June and Europe for July and August; we decided to postpone our visit to Australia and Singapore till 2023 in case another variant pops up because those countries are most likely to go overboard and shut down before others do. Later in this posting you’ll read an absolute horror story of how Australia is acting toward its own people; I don’t know why they are spending $200 million to advertise to bring back foreign tourists if they can’t treat their own tourists decently.

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the debate as to the American system of federalism — meaning state power versus federal government power. Do we really need to have Washington’s CDC tell every city that anyone going on public transport has to wear a mask? This is a huge country and not one size fits all. Let every state and city decide. Why does TSA have to tell every airline for every flight that everyone has to wear a mask? Not all cities are the same. Airlines can decide to offer passengers a choice of seating areas like they used to do with smoking sections. They are responsive to the market — if too many people are scaredy squirrels to fly, they will react to it.  I don’t think that government does a good job of deciding things on a grand scale and free public education is usually worth what you pay for it. I want to see a country with less federal government power to regulate everyone’s behavior and that is the #1 reason I think the Democrats are toast in upcoming elections.

Sea World, Orlando

Now we’re going to talk about the Ukraine stuff. First, read these paragraphs that I wrote over a month ago. Some of it is wrong, but it’s worthwhile reading to see what was wrong, but it’s also eerie how much of it was right.

It is ironic that Biden talked about promoting democracy and freedom in the world, but because his foreign policy is so risk averse, he is tempting autocrats around the world to do whatever they want because they know there will be no consequences from the US. After Trump, he trumpeted “the US is back” but his actions have shown otherwise. While Trump didn’t bother to staff a state department, Biden’s diplomats are still being confirmed and his officials didn’t really caucus with allies over major decisions such as withdrawing from Afghanistan and have left them surprised and embarrassed. Beyond the obvious players such as Russia, Iran, China and North Korea, this means that Arab countries are taking Syria back into the fold, Egypt is cracking down on its people, Saudi Arabia is developing nuclear arms via China to counter Iran, countries such as Australia and Japan are pulling together worrying that the US won’t be there if Asia becomes a flashpoint, just as Sweden, Finland and the Baltics are worrying about where they will wind up. The world is becoming a more dangerous place and the US is increasingly not being taken seriously. To quote NY Times columnist Brett Stephens, Biden’s policy toward protecting Ukraine against Russian advances is like peeing on a forest fire. It’s not clear which was worse – Trump saying he didn’t care or Biden caring but making the mess even worse with complete incompetence and a staff that thought they knew everything and didn’t have to consult with anyone else. And Biden at the top thinking he is the smartest man on earth who doesn’t need to consult with anyone. Remember that Obama said a few years ago that you shouldn’t underestimate Biden’s ability to fuck things up. Biden might screw up the Ukraine thing so badly that he might eventually wind up in a war. Which of course is exactly what he and Team Biden tried to avoid. It’s like pac-man; you can keep running away from the bad dot-eaters but they come and find you and eat you up if you don’t eat them first.

Team Biden was supposed to have learned from the years of experience on Team Obama, which is where many of them came from. At least that was what I hoped when they took office. But they haven’t learned. In 2016, Obama was afraid of calling the Russians over their election interference because they were afraid that the Russians would escalate things even further. Turned out it would have been better to engage them then and there because the Russians took it as weakness and kept pushing the envelope even further. Same thing is going on now. The Iranians, Chinese and Russians are all pushing further since they see that they can. It will eventually blow up to a point that the Americans are forced to act, but when they do, it will be costlier and deadlier than had they acted earlier. All you hear from Biden is a litany of what they will not do. They don’t say what they will do. Imagine standing on the playground with the school bully towering over you and threatening him with all the things you won’t do. Do you expect him to stand down? There is a reason why Biden looks weak and why autocrats are taking advantage.

Overall, I think that American foreign policy is reactionary and fighting the fights of 30 years ago. It is not dynamic, and it could use a real overhaul. The US State Department is on par with the IRS to be a national embarrassment (only 4% of calls to the IRS go through and the IRS is years behind on its taxes; the IRS penalizing taxpayers for being late is like the pot calling the kettle black). The US overuses sanctions and tariffs, doesn’t have ambassadors in place in other countries, everything is just stuck in bureaucracy (just look at how long it is taking to process Afghanistan refugees that we promised to take out of harm’s way;  (this clause added in March: my business partner who went to Hungary to help with humanitarian aid to Ukraine says the US government aid efforts spearheaded by State are a mess), military assets are heavy and not geared toward rogue adversaries that will embarrass its sitting duck battleships and lack of cyber preparedness in the homeland, and its policies are boring and tired. If we are going to engage with China and Russia, we need a better toolkit and the approach has to be more bipartisan and consistent for the long-haul because nobody respects a country that continuously flip flops between two parties.

Just to be fair, I was listening to Ehud Yaari, a top Israeli intelligence analyst, give a briefing and he said that the US deserves more credit than it is getting for its quiet diplomacy in Libya, Sudan and in engineering a deal to pipe gas from Israel through Syria into Lebanon to help get Lebanon out of its mess where people have electricity for an hour a day. Yes, you read all of that right.  Meanwhile in Syria and Lebanon, the Russians and Syrians have less use for the Iranians which is one reason why the Iranians are stepping it up in Yemen, making trouble for the UAE and Saudi Arabia by sending armed drones overhead, and at some point, Israel. The Iranians are doing a great job of getting everyone in the region to align against it. Is it worth it for Iran to have pushed Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia into getting together to arm themselves against Iran?

Let me say something about Putin of Russia. Look at 20 years of his history and you’ll see that he’s really a big pussy. He is a playground bully who talks big but doesn’t want to lose a fight. If he thinks he’ll lose, he withdraws rather than risk being beaten. He just takes victories in places such as Syria because he doesn’t have to do very much to step into a void that the US has left. If the US would actually put force up against Ukraine, he’d back down.

That said, the US should call Putin’s bluff and let him invade Ukraine because it will be the overreach for him that knocks him out of the box as the people around him will not like the consequences that were entirely avoidable. It will take him less than a week to conquer it but then he’ll be bogged down for years with a Vietnam-like insurgency and it will be a constant reminder to Eastern Europe and the other former Soviet Republics why they hate Russia. So far Putin is just driving everyone into the embrace of the West. Same for whatever China is doing.  I think that’s why Putin pulled troops out of Kazakhstan quickly after they put down the revolt; it was only 2,500 troops and everyone expected them to stay permanently. It’s pretty obvious that Russia is hated and that it would be a losing proposition to stay there. It’s also clear that even in Ukrainian cities that ought to be friendly to Russia, the people are hostile to Russian invasion and will fight it. They don’t have to win to make it miserable for Russia. Putin does best when he threatens the use of force, but actually using it is not so productive unless he can leverage a little force into a lot of influence, such as in Syria. I think that Iran and China are in the same situation; threatening force is better for them than actually using it. For these reasons, although Team Biden is showing itself to be incompetent, they are not likely to see the geopolitical map change very much. Besides, anybody running these countries knows that in another 3 years they are likely to have a Republican president once again in the US. And this is why the Iranians don’t want to make a deal with Biden; they know it will be broken again as soon as a Republican takes over so why should they give up what they got the last time a US president broke the deal? Nobody is going to take us seriously until they know that a deal made with a Democrat will be kept by a Republican.

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Aquarium in the Dubai Mall. Everything here’s gotta be bigger and better in the UAE!

Ok, so Putin invaded Ukraine. It’s amazing how everyone I run into now says they knew all along that he would do it. I didn’t think he would actually do that because, as I wrote in the last paragraph a month ago, I think it was a stupid move that will backfire and people making predictions don’t usually expect that world leaders will make really stupid moves. But yeah, Putin managed to show the world that the Russian army sucks, that its tactics, motivation and hardware were poor, and that his intelligence service lied to him. He’s lost more troops in a few weeks in Ukraine than the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan in a 10-year war that they ultimately lost. But look at the video the week before the war where he was berating his defense and intelligence chiefs (“stop stuttering; speak clearly”) to make them look like idiots because he despised them – now he’s the one who looks like an idiot. This is an important lesson in why bad things happen when one person becomes too powerful and nobody wants to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. From what I read, Putin is a germaphobe who forces anyone who wants to meet with him to quarantine for a full week. Very few people can do that, so his advisors are those who are crazy enough to want to do this.  One Svengali-type person with a very paranoid world view is his trusted advisor. The two of them adhere to the philosophy of Aleksandr Dugin, who is profiled in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. Haaretz has led the pack with great reporting and analysis by Yossi Melman, Anshel Pfeffer, and Amos Harel.

It’s a cautionary story for the likes of Trump and Xi – nobody wants to tell Xi what he doesn’t want to hear and the guy lives in an alternate reality, just like Trump and Putin. But everyone else now has to live with the consequences. Chances are that Putin won’t ever pay for the crimes he has committed and it will be interesting to see how far he goes before someone stops him. It looks like a small cabal of people are running Russia and they all seem to be just as paranoid and delusional as he is. Military failures brought down previous Soviet leaders and I suspect the shit will hit the fan in Russia when people realize that over 10% of the soldiers sent to Ukraine have been killed and that they’ve been lied to about what he did in Ukraine — fighting a war with drafted Russian soldiers (that according to Russian law he had no legal right to use outside Russia) that he started for no good reason. Russians are likely to decide that they don’t want to have a dictator control all the information inside their country like it was under the Soviets. This show has a long way to play itself out and the ramifications cannot be estimated at this time. To me a big question is whether there are people around Putin capable of removing him from power. He has ruined the Russian brand and set his country back 30 years. He is too toxic to stay in power and be received anywhere other than in a few countries that would either not count for much or who have too much to lose by sticking with him.

Can you believe? Live sports on TV at the Emirates Bar on an airplane just about anywhere.

Here are some important points that go beyond the present and provide important context in which to view this situation:

  1. In 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a written promise by Russia to respect its territorial integrity. Now that Russia broke its word twice (in 2014 and 2022), nobody is ever going to give up their nukes in exchange for such promises. Iran, North Korea and anyone else who wants to hold leverage will now do everything they can to gain and maintain these arsenals, especially when Putin keeps threatening to use them to get what he wants. The world will be a more dangerous place for this. Had Ukraine held onto its nukes, do you think the Russians would be invading twice this past decade?
  2. In 1917, Germany was forced to accept the Treaty of Versailles which it saw as humiliating. 30 years later it went to war to regain its honor. Russia is basically doing the same thing after 30 years of feeling that it has been jerked around by NATO and the West after the Soviet Union broke up. The West did things with Georgia and the Ukraine that Russia has seen as hostile to its interests and is fighting back after modernizing its army. If you cram shit down a big bear when it is weak, you should expect that bear to come back at you when it regains its strength.
  3. In World War II, the Soviet Union gained a lot of territory but remember that the money to pay for its war effort was essentially underwritten by a lend-lease program of the United States under FDR. America fronted the money and arms and were never paid back. Nowadays, no such pipeline exists for Russia and it doesn’t have that much money to pay for all this war. Russia thought that by putting 25% of its reserves into gold it would escape sanctions but it overlooked that gold has to be sold in order to be worth anything, and the West has basically blocked Russia from selling its gold into any kind of foreign currency worth having. Russia is screwed economically and is going to come out of this war essentially bankrupt. China is not going to want to sell stuff to Russia, let alone give them stuff, because the Russians have only rubles to pay and they are worthless to Chinese companies. Chinese companies still need to deal with the West and have to consider the consequences of sanctions.
  4. Biden and the rest of the world has its eye on China and Taiwan. They want to make sure that China doesn’t get any reason out of this war to think that taking over Taiwan is a good idea. The stakes are higher there; Taiwan makes semi-conductor chips and Ukraine grows wheat. China thinks that the sanctions will boomerang but interestingly European defense companies stocks are rising a lot since the war started and Germany has rededicated itself to a strong defense. China and Russia did not expect NATO to find its soul after 50 years and it would not surprise me if Sweden and Finland join up as well. Nobody is going to want to be exposed to Putin’s bullying. Putin has done what Trump, Biden and Obama could not do – scared the shit out of everyone and make them realize that alliances count for something and that allowing Europe to be highly dependent on Russian energy is penny-wise and dollar-foolish over the long haul. All the populists that adored Putin don’t sound too good right now. America also needs to reconsider its own energy policy under Biden and go back to making sure it is an independent producer.
  5. The USA has lost leverage with the Arabs due to its unreliability. Biden is learning that it is not a good idea not to keep phone lines open and return phone calls. Egypt’s Sisi turned out to be indispensable for dealing with the last Gaza flareup. Now the UAE and Saudis don’t return his phone calls when he wants the price of oil to go down. It’s a good lesson – always return calls and keep talking. You never know when you might need to phone a friend.
  6. The Ukraine might have been helped more earlier on if it had not been running such a shit show of a country. I don’t have this soft and fuzzy feeling for Ukraine with its checkered history toward Jews. But I can’t help but feel sorry for whoever these people are being attacked so disgustingly for no good reason. Had Russia won quickly, it would be all over, but the fact that the Ukrainians are fighting valiantly is reminiscent of Israel fighting off 18 Arab armies in 1948 and you gotta respect that.
  7. Interesting how quickly Europe changed its energy policy; it was blind to its dependence on Russia and now it realizes it was pennywise and dollar foolish. The sanctions so far seem more fluff than real, but it’s hurting Russia because companies are going beyond what the governments require. The inability of the Russians to pay in hard currency makes it hard for China to sell them stuff. The fact that Boeing and Airbus won’t sell them spare parts for airplanes means in a month their commercial fleet will be grounded. The Economist is saying that the world doesn’t fully realize how difficult things will be in commodity markets; it will take 3-4 weeks for the reality to settle in.
  8. What I find worrying about Putin is that, unlike previous Cold War Soviet leaders, he doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of nuclear war (or at least he wants you to think so). They didn’t want to push the envelope that far and did not go around making threats to use those weapons. I think back to Dennis Ross who said 6 months ago that Biden ought to do something stupid but at least do something bold to keep people like Putin honest. Instead, his excessive aversion to risk is increasing the risk by allowing people like Putin and Xi to think they can keep pushing the envelope without any pushback. I’ll give Biden a point for trying to be very predictable and not doing anything to drive Putin to doing something stupid simply because you have crazy people on both sides of the conflict. The problem with Biden’s strategy is that by being so predictable, you have a situation where Putin can threaten the use of nuclear weapons without opposition and where he knows he can push the envelope to its limits because the other side has said it won’t do anything to oppose actions right up to the edge of the envelope. Keeping him guessing where the edge of the envelope is might limit his options more than is being done. But I can see this one both ways and I can only say that I’m really glad we don’t have Trump managing this crisis, a guy who only a week before Putin invaded was calling him a genius and defending his right to put down Ukraine.
  9. When this is over, game theorists will have to recalculate the cost-benefit to having someone block conventional war with the threat of use of nuclear weapons. You cannot have Russia, Iran and China invading countries and threatening the use of nuclear weapons if anyone opposes them. The point of nuclear weapons was to allow conventional warfare to happen but to keep it at a certain level.  If this is where it’s at, everyone will want to have nuclear weapons and threaten everyone else with them.
  10. This conflict has hastened the world toward self-sufficiency and away from globalization. The ramifications will be costly — inflation, tariffs and inefficiencies. Do we really want to go there or could we all be more sensible about this? There has to be a line between dependency on Russia and China and a world of autarkies — self-sufficient countries.
Harry Potter Land at Universal in Orlando

Someone from Belarus who was recently in that country told me that Putin is not popular in Russia. A recent poll in the Wall Street Journal reported that 48% of people age 18-24 in Russia want to permanently emigrate; one third of people age 25-35 feel similarly.

People don’t like invasions of countries for no good reason. Even Switzerland broke neutrality for the first time since Finland was attacked by Russia in the 1940’s. The most interesting thing I saw came out of this came from Afghanistan where people respect Ukraine’s Zelensky for not running away from the invading Russians like their leader did. You have to be inspired when the leader of a country responds to an offer of American evacuation by saying “I need ammunition, not a ride.” A Jewish Maccabee for our times.

So what do I think is going to happen as of this writing on 23 March: The Russians have lost over 10% of their troops and are about 10 days from running out of ammunition and manpower to keep the war effort going and generals at the front are being killed which already affects combat capability. Putin cannot get reinforcements from the east or Syria fast enough. Wagner mercenaries won’t make the difference for him here. Beylarus is being urged to enter the war with its 15,000 troops, but although the country’s leader is “in,” defense officials are against it and fear their losses will be greater than the Russians. 97% of public opinion is against it. Russian troop morale is abysmal with abandoned positions, mass graves and frostbite, several generals and intelligence offiials have been killed or are under house arrest back in Russia. Zelensky, for all his bluster, has to consider that if he gives in too much to Russia, he will be killed by his own nationalists. So I would predict that Russia will try its best over the next 10 days to declare victory somehow and Ukraine will do its best to keep it to a stalemate and then in 10 days both sides will hammer out a deal based on where things are on the battlefield. I don’t think Putin will use nuclear arms — he doesn’t have sole control over those arms and using them might lead to his overthrow in a coup. He doesn’t really have the military with him on this one — and sooner or later they will turn on him. The West would like this to stop, but they don’t want Putin walking around declaring any type of victory. So that leaves the West to run the clock out on the Russian military.

Here’s a final thought on the subject: 25 years ago I was in Moscow and rode on the metro. Station clocks showed you how long it was since the last train left, while you’d expect to see a clock telling you when the next train would arrive. The idea was that if you knew when the last train left, you could deduce when the next train would come, since trains come and go like clockwork. Except when they don’t. I’m told that 25 years later, they now have new technology and have switched to count-down clocks, but still — it’s enough to give you an anecdotal sense that the mentality in Russia is different.

The Republican governor of Iowa made a great response to Biden’s yawn of a state of the union speech. These Democrats can’t stop standing up there for an hour reciting a laundry list of programs that they can’t pass through Congress. One of their points is that had Trump been president, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine. The head of a European-based private intelligence agency I spoke to agrees. She says that people around the world feared Trump and they don’t fear Biden.

Interestingly, she told me that in Switzerland you can’t buy certain pharmaceuticals because the government is stocking up on it in case of nuclear war. Similar preparations are going on in certain European countries as well. People are obviously concerned about what might happen because Putin keeps threatening the use of his weapons.

By the way, those talks with Iran are still going on and it seems that Team Biden has managed to get the leaders of Israel, the UAE and Egypt to have a summit and to invite Syria’s Assad to the UAE in order to send a message to Biden that a sucky deal with Iran is not in anyone’s interest, at least among the important countries in the region. I don’t see the point — Iran will get a green light for 3 years to do what it wants until a Republican president comes in and shoots it down.  I can see that the US and Saudi Arabia need to patch up their differences in the interest of realpolitik and backing good autocracies against bad dictatorships — MBS has to promise not to behave like a brash young prince anymore, killing people inside embassies and kidnapping foreign leaders, and learn to play within his box, which means he can do whatever he wants inside Saudi Arabia and may God be merciful upon him for the next 40 years of his reign.

Here’s a statistic: Over the past 18 years, the number of American households that give to charity dropped from 68% to just under 50%.  There is a parallel to the dropping rate of church attendance but that doesn’t entirely explain it.

A friend of mine in Israel who usually knows what he’s talking about thinks that if Netanyahu goes for a plea deal that does not allow him to return to politics, his Likud party will splinter and some of them will go with Gideon Saar’s party and some will go with prime minster Bennett’s Yamina party. Bennett will not make a deal with the Likud because doing so will give up his prime ministership and his party doesn’t know if it will do as well in another round of elections if it brings down the government.

The Palestinian Authority seems to have lost all of its credibility among its people and, according to a senior Palestinian government official talking privately, after its present leader Abbas’s funeral, his chosen successors will find that their drivers who are to take them home will have all disappeared. Meanwhile, nobody is doing anything to prepare for what happens next.

Inside Deep Dive Dubai, a great new attraction.

In late January I went on a weekend visit to LA. Here’s a tip: When you arrive at LAX airport, only Uber Black cars can pick up at curbside. But a short walk from terminals 4-7 (7-10 minutes depending on which one) gets you to the LAXIT-lot where you can get taxis or other ride shares such as Uber. But beware – during the 10 minute walk, the cost of my ride went up from $25 to $55. I screamed bloody murder though and got half the increase returned to me by Uber. The Beverly Hills Hotel remains a favorite of mine, but be sure to get a room with good light. Rooms on the ground floor or facing the wrong way tend to be dark. The pool was rather cold for a heated pool. They required masks in the lobby but in the coffee shop, people sat around the counter all up close to each other without masks and nobody checks for vaccine cards and this all reflects LA – there are rules but they are not really followed.

As I go around the USA, I see streets, buildings and parks named for Martin Luther King just about everywhere. The guy is treated more as a saint than virtually anyone else in America’s history. Frankly, he doesn’t deserve all this. He was no saint and if he were White, he would’ve been cancelled out by now just like everyone else has been, virtually none of whom were ever perfect human beings. I’d like to see more diversity in whom we choose to honor by naming things after them and I hope to see less of MLK stuff everywhere in the coming decade when Republicans take over much of the country.

Despite whatever I’ve said about China, if I were president, I would have attended the Olympics in Beijing. It’s not fair to the athletes, their families and the people of China to insult the whole project just because we have issues with their government.  Politics and sports should be kept separate. People didn’t like seeing NFL and NBA players go public with political commentary and their ratings suffered from it. The Olympics is a party for the country of China. Let it be. If you don’t like China, don’t award them the games, but if they are the host, be a good guest. We also stage Olympics and if everyone is always going to be in moral outrage, it makes a mockery of having these games. Actually, I think the Olympics should be gotten rid of and instead of having the international Olympic committee run them, the West should put together a world championship competition and hold the games in a western country instead of these ridiculous situations in places like China, Russia and Japan where the games are politicized and the administration is so toxic and restrictive that athletes can hardly compete. NBC Television paid billions for the right to televise these games that totally suck; they couldn’t even send their announcers into China and the games were so toxic that advertisers and sponsors had to stay away except for kowtowing to Chinese audiences on TV. That’s a real rip-off.

Inside the big dome at the Dubai Expo, the centerpiece of its architecture

Here is my review of the book Red Roulette by Desmond Shum, a guy who rose from humble beginnings to become a billionaire in China and to head up some prestigious real estate projects in the country. The story is sad because it shows how you get ahead in China. It’s all about sucking up to corrupt officials and being on the right side of whoever is in power or attaching yourself to the right up and coming people. And being brought down if you are unlucky to be on the wrong side of the power struggles within that country. It’s filled with a lot of obnoxious stories about Crazy Rich Asians who happen to be in the Chinese political elite dropping a million bucks at the tip of a hat just to show off or to keep in someone’s good books. There is too much detail about too many people in the Chinese elite for me to have a lot of doubts about what’s in the book. The book was recommended as one of the year’s best by the Economist. The guy’s wife disappears at the end, having been arrested by Chinese officials. She might have been shot or maimed, he has no idea. Not that you feel too sorry for her; she was a shark’s shark always scheming and sucking up, spending tons of money and treating her husband like trash.

All I can say is that it’s a good read and that I’d never want to have to do business in that country. It makes the Chinese look real gluttonous and amoral. I’m sure he had an axe to grind, but still…. America has its own “who you know” and its own corruption, but nothing like that. His political message is that China permitted entrepreneurs to get rich for a decade to help modernize the country, but once it felt comfortable, went out and destroyed these people because they felt that they might someday become a threat to the communist party. Current Chinese leader Xi is viewed as the leading culprit of spear-heading this crackdown, meaning you shouldn’t expect anything to get any better in that country and that capitalists and anyone favoring a civil society should best avoid the country where might makes right and having the right connections can get you out of a jam no matter what you actually do. Any war against corruption in that country is a code word for taking down your enemies who may or may not have actually done anything wrong.

Interestingly, there is a bit of a replay going on right now in China. Xi is looking to be coronated as emperor for life at a meeting of the communist party later this year. But everything is going wrong for him. He backed the wrong guy with Putin (his “friend without limits”) who is destroying a country that is an important customer for China and has pissed off the rest of the world leaving his diplomats to defend China’s impotence as a supposedly responsible major world power in a conflict that could set off a world war.  He can’t say anything now because he put all his prestige on the line with Putin and he considers himself infallible like the Pope. Covid is getting the better of China despite draconian restrictions on its citizens and manufacturers which promise low economic growth as a consequence. And after wiping $2 trillion of market value off Chinese companies because of paranoia against the supremacy of the communist party in China, he has chased away anyone from seeing a future in China which can’t be good for him going into this party congress. The damage is so severe that he and his party minions cannot ignore it any longer and they’ve had to backtrack on their attacks on Chinese companies and reassure investors who are still going to be reticent to reinvest after what happened the past year or so. The world thought that a China integrated into the world economy would play ball better but it hasn’t been the case. This last episode with the Ukraine has caused the world to see Russia as an enemy that should no longer be depended on in terms of the global supply chain – China is very close to being put into that box as well and it has to consider what it means because China only got where it was the past 30 years by integrating itself with the rest of the world. Xi’s vision of the world is very dark and this might be the pivot that causes companies to decide that China is too risky. It will be interesting to see if China’s military turns out to be as poor in its execution as Russia’s. I have a strong feeling that will be the case. These old school communist entities who run things top-down and are afraid to bring bad news to their superiors is a failing military model that would have looked more fierce had Putin not forced them to show their nakedness in the Ukraine. Just as Ukraine has held off Russia, I think Taiwan would give China a run for its money if it tried to invade.  Consider this: Divorce is way up in China and the marriage rate is its lowest in 36 years, and people don’t want to have kids to a disturbingly high degree, despite government incentives to get married and to have children. People there don’t see a future for themselves and that’s the biggest condemnation of Xi’s country you can come up with. Both Russia and China are countries in which people want to leave. They want to go to the West — so much for Xi’s thoughts about the decline and rise of nations.

Jeremy at Stowe, Vermont

We enjoyed renting our house at Encore Resort in Orlando so much over Christmas week that we did it again during February break. It greatly reduced anxiety to rent the exact same house and to know what we would be walking into. Also, I rented directly from Jeeves Management instead of going through Marriott and that reduced the price by a lot. We paid one-third of what we paid for the week in December because it was not Christmas week and because we rented directly from the management company. We also learned the traffic shortcuts in the area and where to go for what, such as a gym in the shopping center. A few hints: It’s a good idea to extend the rental till the next morning rather than to gamble that you can get a late checkout (and the fee for that is half the day rental anyway). Our flight was an evening flight that was delayed 4 hours and it was much better to know we had the house all day and even that night if our flight was cancelled rather than to be thrown out at 10am and have nowhere to go. It’s no contest — you get a week of a 6 bedroom house with swimming pool, jacuzzi, resort amenities, bicycles and a BBQ for the same price as one night with two connecting normal hotel rooms at the Four Seasons. The hotel industry is milking its clients charging twice the normal cost, especially in Puerto Rico, while people have to get covid tests to re-enter the country. The minute they stop this testing, prices will come back to earth.

Notice that you can hardly get a newspaper at an airport or a hotel these days? Newspapers have covid?

If you go to the two main Universal theme parks, it will cost you an extra few hundred dollars per person, but the VIP Experience is smart money. In less than 6 hours you will go on virtually every ride in both parks, get valet parking and a dedicated cafeteria for breakfast and lunch. You can stay afterward or go earlier and use your express pass to get on more rides but we had enough after our 13 rides. Otherwise, you need two or three days to do their parks and hotels and per diems cost money. Disney does not compete; you call their VIP line and are put on hold for an hour and a half and they charge you $5,000 (plus park admission) to put you at the head of the line for 7 hours for rides. I call their VIP line the Executive Assistant line.  Ravello’s Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons resort is a good dinner out and a great way to get off to a good start the first night. We saw two dinner shows: Sleuth’s Murder Mystery Theater which some of us liked better than others. We sat with some yokels from Alabama and Wisconsin; I haven’t eaten canned vegetables from Del Monte in years but our tablemates were packing up the leftovers in takeout boxes to enjoy at home. We went to Medieval Times to see another dinner show with crappy food, lots of horses, riders and a symphonic soundtrack that got really annoying. The jousting for the last half hour is good but it is really painful to sit through the first 90 minutes till they get to the good parts. And then when they get to the jousting you have nonstop waiters walking in front of you cleaning up the dinner.  Another good attraction in Orlando is Sea World; they added lots of rides so the day is about much more than the dolphin and whale shows. But get the express passes for the rides, so that you wait 5 minutes instead of 90. It’s really useful especially if someone in your party is not going on rides; they don’t have to stand around for an hour every time the rest of you go on a ride.

I visited Dubai in early March to see the Dubai Expo which was postponed from 2020 and ran for 6 months this year and which concludes at the end of this month. Dubai eliminated its covid testing requirement and you can just enter with your proof of vaccine. They want masks in the shopping mall and airport but if you don’t wear one nobody really says anything. I’m always impressed how everything is new and grand here, everything works and everybody knows what they are doing. They run a great show. It’s like Las Vegas with more class but no shows or gambling (they do have alcohol). When your taxi leaves the airport and you start driving around, it’s impressive. Tons of beautiful roadways and everything looks slick and neat. I don’t like what the crown price did about that nice little princess but he runs a great country.

Saudi Pavillion at the Dubai Expo

Emirates has a great first class service to Dubai from New York. It’s a long flight on a big A380 airbus. Problem is first class is rather pricey at about $10,000 to $20,000 each way, depending on how long in advance you buy the ticket. But there are ways to do this much cheaper. You can buy a business class ticket for about $6,000 round trip and upgrade with American Express points. Problem with that is that there are only 14 first class seats on the flight that in total seats around 500 people, and they don’t tell you till the last minute if you get the upgrade. Flights are running full. Another choice is to purchase a promotional fare upgrade at the airport at check-in for almost $3,000 each way, and if there are seats available, they will sell it to you before they upgrade other people. They don’t advertise this, but if you ask for it, it’s out there. In first class, you don’t get more room than in business class but you have a sealed suite that is more private and it’s a lot more chill with the masking. First and business class share the same lounge at JFK (in Dubai there are separate lounges and the first lounge fills up half the upstairs floor above the departure level, which was insane for roughly a dozen people who were in the lounge for all their flights at that time). The lounge offers a spa and a ten page a la carte menu if you don’t want the buffet.  You can also board directly from the lounges at JFK and in Dubai instead of going to the gate. These days it’s pretty cool that on a decent number of airlines you can watch live sports and news on TV from the airplane and use WIFI even if you’re over the Atlantic or some desert in Iraq. JetBlue also offers this feature on their flights from London to New York and their studio suites in the first row of the cabin actually offer more room than first class suites on Emirates. You can pay roughly $300 for the studio suite upgrade when you book your seats in their Mint class.

On this trip to Dubai, I stayed 4 nights and moved to a different hotel each night. I’m trying to stay ahead of the assassins, you know. On previous trips, I’ve enjoyed the Burj al Arab but this time wanted to check out other places. The Bulgari and Four Seasons are in the Jumeirah Bay district along the water. They are away from downtown. Both properties are excellent. The advantage of the Bulgari is that their spa and pool facilities are open till 11 which matters if you arrive in the evening on a flight. Their hotel also offers touches of an authentic Italian hotel experience and is stylish without being too shishi. The Four Seasons was better on service (ie: if you ask for sunscreen they will give it to you whilst Bulgari sent me to the spa to buy it.) Otherwise, they were pretty equivalent properties. Looking out my balcony at the Bulgari I saw all these Russian superyachts. Not hard to find them if you look. The Four Seasons has a view of the water but alas they are filling in an island over what was water and they will build on it. I think in a few years they will lose their views. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that. The Four Seasons has a rooftop Italian restaurant with really cool décor and nice city views.

The Armani hotel is within the Burj Khalifa. Most of its rooms are on lower floors and there are some rooms on higher floors. I don’t think it matters much and the more spacious rooms are on the lower floors. They have a fountain suite overlooking the fountains on the lake by the mall but there is a terrace between you and the view and you can’t go out on the terrace. I found this hotel a bit too shishy – the hallways look like jail blocs and the architecture with all its curves and walkways is disorienting. You can walk to the mall but it is about 10 minutes and I got lost every time. It’s really long walk to get to the metro unless you know where you are going. There is a ton of traffic near the mall, especially during the evening. Better to just get in a taxi and go to the hotel where you want to stay unless you want to shop in the mall and keep walking your bags back to your hotel room. Across the street is the Downtown Palace hotel which is more of a 4 star property but it is a more traditional hotel design and perfectly good. Its fountain suites have the better view from across the lake looking toward the Burj Khalifa skyscraper and have balconies.

One thing to know about going here is that you will probably need an electrical converter for UK outlets which is different than the British or European standards. Just hope to get one from the front desk at your hotel or buy one at the airport.

Miracle Garden, Dubai

Met with a friend who was living In Singapore with his wife and kids and got sick of all this covid stuff there and was going to move to Australia, but they are even worse there in a real sick way. My sister-in-law was in a business conference in Queensland province, got covid, and wouldn’t be seen by a doctor there because the government made an edict prohibiting doctors from treating covid patients from other provinces of Australia (she is from New South Wales). Can you imagine late night TV comedians getting a load of this? Anyway, he moved to Dubai where, amazingly, he wanted a community with a Jewish school for his kids and they have one. Actually, Dubai now has a 5-star level kosher restaurant in the Armani hotel with several hundred seats which is overbooked for lunch and dinner with a terrace overlooking the fountains by the Burj Khalifa (and I didn’t see any noticeable security presence which you usually see at such restaurants, although it might have been plainclothes because in Dubai that is the way they do things to make tourists feel comfortable). Who thought Jews would be moving to Dubai, eating there like princes and going to the Dubai Expo with an Israeli pavilion that looked like any other. Another advantage to Dubai — $10,000 a month gets you a 5,000 square foot villa with a pool and you can get a live-in maid for $1,000 a month. Singapore gets you a 1,200 square foot apartment for 10K a month. Manhattan gets you a 2 bedroom apartment for about 10K a month in a decent neighborhood.

The Dubai expo was worth traveling for in its collective sense although there was no single thing I saw that blew my socks off. But if you were from a second-rate country and never seen anything like this before, you’d have been in heaven and lots of kids were there with school groups and they were impressed. They built a huge fairground with real buildings all over the place about half an hour drive from the city. There were many country pavilions, mostly telling you nice things about their country. There were also several theme pavilions put up by the UAE showcasing the themes of mobility, opportunity and sustainability. The mobility one was pretty cool and they had some big solar panels around. The USA pavilion was about space exploration and pretty lame. Saudi Arabia was very impressive and showed off the country’s beauty as a potential tourist destination. And they had this huge escalator ride with towering walls showcasing the country’s culture and history. China’s pavilion was fluffy and no real message. Israel had a DJ in a circular room made to look like a dance floor and did a good job of introducing itself to the neighborhood as a vibrant hip country. Australia had a cool planetarium-like show about its aboriginal roots. Egypt also highlighted its tourism prospects and the new Grand Egyptian Museum soon to open. My understanding is that it’s ready to go but that its president Sisi wants to be sure covid is past so that its moment in the sun is not lost. Germany and Japan were the favorites of the crowd but you had to have appointments or stand in long lines and my VIP ticket didn’t give me any priority for those pavilions and I didn’t have the interest to deal with several hours of lines. My ticket gave me fast track entry to the fair grounds and 3 course lunch in a lounge which was nice because it was 90 degrees outside and I was walking a lot. I would have rather paid more for the VIP tickets and had priority and I think they should have offered that to people who traveled long distances and spent good money to get to the fair. I also took a private 3 hour tour which helped me figure things out but that person couldn’t arrange anything either. I got through most of the fair in 6 hours and got butt rush and several foot blisters but I did it and got to do other cool stuff on the day I was otherwise expecting to return to the fair. They built a beautiful metro station at the fair entrance that goes to downtown and the whole metro is really nicely done. They also offer a first class cabin.

The Arab Gulf is a bit chilly at this time of year but still swimmable and the water is very clear. A fun attraction is the Miracle Garden, a big botanical garden of flowers and all kinds of castles, an airplane and other displays filled with flowers. Another new attraction is Deep Dive Dubai, a palace for scuba. It is a huge indoor pool several stories high and you go in scuba gear for a dive. They decorate the pool with things to see underwater like a car, a small house and other cool stuff. If you have no prior experience, this is the place to go because you don’t have to be certified to do it. It is a pricey ticket (about $500) but it’s a great experience and, although my ears did not pressurize well enough to let me feel good about diving deep underwater, I got the sense of what it was like to go underwater with scuba gear on and now I can say I’ve been there and done that. It’s not for everyone. They take video and you can buy the souvenir for not much more. Anything they build here they do grandly – it looks like a Swiss hospital when you go inside and the outside area is very impressive with fountains and beautiful architecture. It’s in a highly secure neighborhood where the royals live.

Elizabeth at Stowe, Vermont

Departing Dubai airport in premium class is really good – they have a private tunnel for check-in, security and immigration (they use biometrics) and you go up an elevator and boom you are in the departure gate area. There is a small gym in the airport hotel that can be reached directly from the departure gate area.

Although you can fly nonstop to New York from Dubai, there is either an early morning flight or a 2am flight that goes 15 hours straight and lands at 8am with a 9 time zone change. I decided to fly to London, overnight and then continue to New York. It’s 2 days of flights, but more pleasant for me. It’s a 7 hour flight to London and I enjoy the day flights more than the night ones, for one thing because I can enjoy the amenities and a nice meal on board. London also eliminated its testing requirements for entry and you can easily get a rapid test at the airport which I did because my whole stay in London was one night (the USA requires a test no more than one calendar day in advance).  I prebooked my test online before leaving on my trip.

London has electronic passport control gates so entry is quick and I was out of Heathrow airport in less than 10 minutes from the plane. My hotel of choice remains the Langham. It has a pool, spa, good breakfast buffet and a nice gym. There is a business lounge as well. It’s also well located to Oxford Street and to major Tube hub stations. Uber has really taken a bite out of the taxi market and it comes faster. I departed from Gatwick; it’s a pain to get there (about 90 minutes by car) and the Gatwick Express trains are not running due to covid although the Southern Trains do the route. But I didn’t want to do all that with luggage and have to do taxi, then a train and then a monorail in a place I’d never been to. The bright side to Gatwick is that the airport itself is small and easy. The Pret A Manger there is one of the best airport food operations I’ve ever seen. There are like 20 people at registers moving their butts to get you on your way. A week earlier we’d been in Orlando and at the airport you saw lines of 50 people with 2 or 3 people behind the counters moving in slow motion. JetBlue lets you use the Fast Track entry lanes at the airport if you are in Mint. Even if you are in Mint (their business class), it’s a good idea to bring some food on the plane. Their menus are a bit shishi. A flight attendant told me that they know this, but that their management doesn’t listen to employees and doesn’t care anymore about what’s going on. He’d heard that the airline will soon be sold. So you heard it here first. Too bad, because we really love the airline and would hate to see it folded into one of the legacy carriers (American, United or Delta). American I think is the most likely acquirer; they already code-share and the present deal is stacked in AA’s favor; JetBlue’s site shows all the AA flights but it’s not the other way around.

So that’s where we are as we end of the month of March. No doubt the world will have changed by the time you read the next edition of Global Thoughts. We are cursed to be living in interesting times.

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