Global Thoughts — 25 July 2022

Freezing and soaked to the max in Iceland

This posting has various vignettes at the top, serious discussion about global troublespots later on, and links to travel notes about recent trips to Iceland and Ireland at the end of this posting.

One Sunday, at the last minute, I got roped into taking my son to see a New York Yankees baseball game. He was leaving to camp the next day and we had nothing else to do. It was a hot sweaty day and we were in seats with the proletariat around us screaming such family friendly ditties to the opposing team’s pitcher such as “Your Mother Hates You.” In the fifth inning the Yankees were down 3-0 to a good team and it looked hopeless. But then they started to catch up and the game went into extra innings. With 2 outs and the team’s best player in the batter’s box, he hit a home run (“It’s guaranteed” predicted Jeremy), and the crowd went wild after this 4 hour opera came to an end. The stadium started playing “New York, New York” and you had this momentary feeling of pride in your city that comes once every decade or so. It was just one of those days of summer you dream about.

I passed by a building where I once worked and I thought of this story: Once upon a time I was an attorney working in that law firm and the top lawyer used to tell me fairly often how stupid and useless I was. Then about 20 years later I hired the same law firm and the same guy was constantly telling me how brilliant I was. Amazing how the client is different than the employee.

The spa ritual at the Blue Lagoon

I saw The Music Man on Broadway with Hugh Jackman. He has a hard job because there are over 1,500 people in the audience, many of whom have paid $500 a ticket mainly to see him and he has to deliver. And he does. It’s a hard part to play and he carries the show along with the female lead. When the two kiss at the end, the audience roars, which they wouldn’t do if it weren’t Hugh Jackman up on stage. I think it is the reaction of many of those people wishing they were being kissed by that studly dude. The reason I’m commenting on it is that the Music Man has an interesting ending to its story which hits me in the gut because it says a lot about America. The people in the little Iowa town realize they have been conned and they decide that they just don’t care. It’s not that they want to deny they were conned to save face. Nor did they decide to take revenge. They decided that they appreciated that the con man who appeared out of nowhere and dazzled them allowed them to dream of greatness and even if the reality wasn’t anywhere near the expectation, they felt that the ability to dream bettered their community and made them proud. Even the dour librarian turns out to have known from Day One that the man was a con but she decided that her little brother was so happy with this man around town that it was better to let him go about his business and even helped him continue his con and allowed her curmudgeonly tough self to fall in love with him. This is an important facet of America that people elsewhere don’t get. People will put up with a lot of crap around them if they feel they have a shot at betterment themselves. It’s why capitalism always wins out over socialism in America. Some can get rich as long as everyone feels they could be that person. It’s part of Trump’s appeal and it explains why he continues to have a hold on a significant portion of the population – he’s a con and a brute and people know it, but average people feel that a bit of Trump could rub off on them so they let him be.

A sign that things are getting back to normal: I recently flew on United and the flight attendant said they had just resumed putting lemons and limes on board planes.

Does God Exist? Consider the following: I say my prayers every day. Maybe once every couple of years something happens and I miss a day. One day this past month I’m walking down the street around 6 in the evening and all of a sudden out of nowhere my son asks me if I said my prayers that day. My son is not at all interested in prayer and, more often than not, does not know which day of the week it is. But he did ask and it turned out that I was about to miss a day and thus I didn’t. Think about it….

I used to get backaches almost every day sitting here at my desk and then I got this chair from All33 called the Backstrong C1 black vegan leather chair. It has a built-in cushion in the back of the chair that prevents you from slouching in the chair. It’s about $700 and I got it for $100 less during a Black Friday sale last year. Since then, I haven’t had a single backache from sitting in my chair.

Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico

I don’t know if Boris Johnson has a friend in the world; when he resigned, I couldn’t find a single nice thing in print said about him. The funniest quote I saw was in a Bret Stephens column quoting Johnson himself saying: “You can’t rule out the possibility that beneath the elaborately constructed veneer of a blithering idiot, there lurks a blithering idiot.” I once wrote here on Global Thoughts an observation by someone who knew him saying that he had elaborately constructed the veneer of a blithering idiot, so this was right on point. The same goes for Trump – I wrote after about 2 years of his term that leaders in the Middle East were trying to figure out what his grand strategy was until they figured out that there was no grand strategy. In Britain, I think that Brexit was a bad move, both candidates for the Conservative party want to stay that course, and it will take a Labor prime minister to set a better course for the country if the party has a good candidate. I’m not there yet with an opinion about it, wanting to see the debates in August. But my understanding is that Labor is ahead in the next general election.

Ever hear of vertical farming? The Financial Times recently had a big article explaining this. It has the possibility to change the course of the way we eat and manage food around the world if it actually works. The more food gets grown in green-houses, the less we care about if crop yields are good or if supply chains break down across the world.

I went to vote in a primary election and every time I go to vote I get this depressing feeling that the US is no better than Russia because you vote but your vote doesn’t count in either country. Less than 10% of congressional races in the US are actually competitive and Trump was not exaggerating years ago when he said during the 2016 debate that the system is rigged. It’s only in a close election that votes might matter.

In the department of just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should: I’m wondering how this abortion thing is going to play out. I think the US Supreme Court overreached by overruling Roe v. Wade; this is a big country with people who need to live with each other, and this issue has people who are very agitated on both sides. I figure sooner or later you’ll hear about people blowing up or murdering people in these evangelical churches because pulling the country backward and telling people that something they’ve been doing for 50 years is no longer permitted is not going to play well with 50% of the country. I suppose that in a country of frontier mentality (just look at the way so many people feel about guns here – they think that every 18 year old should have an unfettered right to semi-automatic machine guns that according to military people I’ve spoken to have no other purpose in life except to tear the guts out of people) — some will want to fight fire with fire. Those that want abortion will have crazies to counter those on the right who used to bomb abortion clinics.

Hanging 10 in Puerto Rico on an electric surfboard

I feel this way even if Roe v. Wade was lousy precedent and even if you think that abortion is murder. Those same people who say that people should have the freedom to not wear masks or take vaccines and to exercise their own personal responsibility should not be telling other people what they can do with their bodies if they are being consistent about it. On one hand, I’m fine with states deciding for themselves how to handle the issue, but then you see Republicans racing to get Congress to put a national ban on abortions. If they have a majority in Congress (and they soon will because few people are going to vote in November based on abortion politics) plus a Republican president, this will be possible. Practically speaking, I think this is stupid theater. The world in 2022 is not what it was in the 1970’s and people who want to abort fetuses have more options than they had before and they will do what they want to do. The Supreme Court will be increasingly ignored as political hacks and their prestige as a judicial body above the fray will be lessened. This is not good for society as all sorts of norms crumble around us as people act like tribalists and hardly anyone wants to act for the good of everyone. People who hate the US are happy from these types of divisions. The US needs a president who will lead by consensus, meaning whatever he or she can get 60 senators to agree to, such as what was done with the recent gun control measure which passed Congress. This style of governing was what I had hoped Biden would do and he has utterly failed because he did not do this. Trying to lead by ideology has not worked for the past generation and is not healthy for the country. This is true on both sides of the political aisle. I’m hoping for a decent moderate in 2024 and I predict that Trump will be rejected if any normal person can be recruited for the job. According to the polls, any Republican can beat Biden except Trump and Biden is eminently beatable with even Democrats feeling he should bow out.

I was doing my best to ignore this January 6 stuff about the riot at the capitol, especially since I feel the Democrats are trying to milk this issue and the Republicans are fighting back harder than they should because of it. But I keep getting the feeling that if an elected official had gotten killed, we’d all be taking this more seriously. You read that Trump thought it would be a good idea if Vice President Pence had been hanged and you might laugh, but it wouldn’t be funny if it had actually happened. If Pence still thinks he needs to kowtow to this guy after reading about that, he’s out of his mind. I don’t think that Pence is presidential material in any event. There are better Republicans for that job description.

Waterfall in Iceland

Republicans and Independents are also paying attention to this summer series in Congress about the January 6th Rumble at the Capitol and they don’t like it – Trump’s image is taking a hit. I watched the season finale (and the first night of hearings) and was struck at the recordings of Vice President Pence’s security detail asking them to call up their families to say goodbye thinking they were going to die. Clearly, this was serious stuff going on there. Also, watching the outtakes of the Trump video the day after was painful; he was just totally absorbed in himself to the exclusion of everything else. I also felt that the Republican Adam Kinzinger, a member of the panel who led the questioning, delivered one of the best oratories at the end of the evening that I’ve ever heard.

A friend of mine suggested that America pass a new constitutional amendment: the right to do whatever the fuck you want as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else. Actually, that says a lot these days.

I’ve been paying my auto club membership since 2009 every year and figuring I’m getting some good insurance for my $50 a year. All of a sudden I get this letter offering me better services for more money from AAA to upgrade my membership. To make the argument the letter points out how awful my current membership is. Now I don’t feel so good about what I have and I really don’t need an extra 100 miles of towing per year. So I”ve decided I just won’t renew my existing membership. I wonder how many others like me will do the same.

Tom Cruise looks damn good for 59 years old. I haven’t been to a movie theater for a few years but the new Top Gun film was a 10, which is probably why it has grossed over a billion dollars. I wondered if they enhance his figure on the big screen digitally. My friends in the movie business say no, he just looks that good. My son watched the original on TV but found it boring and left.

I just love it when my kids hear some song from 50 years ago and think it is new and cool. Then I tell them it is an old song. But if they think the song is older than 10 years, they think it sucks and that it is ancient.

 

On a glacier-mobile in Iceland

I spent a lot of time this month on the phone with Icelandair taking care of our tickets to Iceland after the airline cancelled one of the flights we were supposed to take. If you call the US number, you hear this suicidal Icelandic music for over an hour and I wonder how many victims that hold music has taken. If you call the Icelandic office, the hold time is less, you reach much more intelligent people and hear a mix of 20-30 second vignettes of popular Icelandic hits that I promise you will never hear again for the rest of your life, that is unless you wind up on hold with that airline again.

I didn’t have so many night-time ball games on TV when I was a kid. We had Monday night football, but now there is Sunday, Monday and Thursday night football. Jeremy always wants to watch what promises to be an epic game on TV and Karen and I pretty much have the feeling that the TV in the living room is never ours to watch except during July and August when they go to camp or in the future when they go to college.

Here’s why Governor Ron De Santis of Florida might be the next president. My kids are in high school and their summer reading lists are full of shit as far as everyone in our household is concerned – everything is about slavery, transexuals, gay literature and Latinos (sorry “Latinx”, some progressive label attached to this ethnic group that in polls say that less than 5% of themselves refer to). There is nothing about white people in there or anything involving heterosexual people. My kids don’t want to read about gay love over the summer. This is required reading (they give you choices of books but they are all in the same category) and you feel that this is being crammed down your throat. People really do mind this on a visceral level and you can just imagine how there will be a storm of support for the GOP in the next election cycle to get rid of people who want to try and indoctrinate everyone’s children. My kid says she wants to go to a college in the south which hopefully will help her avoid all this crap. I’ve told them they don’t have to read this stuff and the school can talk to me in the fall if they have a problem because I am not tolerating this stuff in my house. I’m also upset because when we went to parent meetings at the school pre-admission they soft-pedaled the woke stuff and we didn’t expect to be hit over the head with it.

The BDS movement on college campuses – The movement basically says you should boycott Israel. So you think that this is full of antisemites? The problem is, if you talk to people dealing with the subject, that many of the leaders of these BDS movements are in fact Jewish. That makes it a harder problem to solve. I think that more programming should be directed toward high school students who have not yet committed to an ideological framework, such as a week in Washington with scholars and professionals. Directing programming toward college students is like giving antibiotics to someone already on life support. Middle East discussions in the classroom have become so toxic that kids with pro-Israel leanings have learned to shut up and not say what they think. Pro-Israel people have pulled out of careers in university faculties because they know they have no chance to advance in their careers unless they tout the party line on Israel. It’s a problem that progressives have hijacked college campuses on this issue, but it’s par for the course with many other issues that have become one-sided and coercive on college campuses. Makes me wonder if my kid ought to go to one of these high-class colleges that seem to be indoctrinating more than educating kids.

There’s a reason why Amazon is making a profit. My wife bought something online today for $72 that Amazon was selling for $130. It was a skincare product. I have been pricing things they sell such as paper towels because Amazon is often not the cheapest place to buy things.

Lava fields in Iceland

When I heard that Elon Musk was buying Twitter, I didn’t have a good feeling about it. I just don’t feel comfortable having a few guys (most of them Jewish, although Elon Musk is actually not Jewish) controlling all the “free speech” in the world between Twitter and Facebook and the other outlets they own through those companies such as Instagram. If you were a conspiracy theorist you would have lots to talk about, even though it’s a coincidence. I don’t want to punish companies for their success by turning them into utilities, but Elon Musk is not my idea of a responsible steward to be controlling this amount of open speech platform and deciding as a private company owner who gets to say what. If these are not public utilities, I at least feel more comfortable with them being public companies with public access to shareholders and regulatory accountability.

An interesting development in the US labor market: Older people are going back to work. Interest rates are low, inflation is high and they can’t afford to retire. So much for covid throwing older people out of the workforce. Young ones might be quitting and resigning for the past year, but I think this is a short-term phenomenon. They have little savings and in a recession they will be stuck and have to go back to work – even in a dreaded office. College graduates say they want to work in offices — how else will they get career mentoring and how else will anyone get meaningful internships if nobody works in the office?

Israel’s Yair Lapid now has to run the country and convince voters that he is a more capable leader than Bibi Netanyahu by the time they have elections November 1. Naftali Bennett, who couldn’t keep his coalition intact for more than a year, has been described even by his enemies as being as class act. You gotta give Netanyahu credit – staying in charge of that country is a tough act and he’s managed to do so for over 10 years.

One thing I hate about all this environmentally friendly stuff is that people are using it to skimp on things and blame it on efforts to be ‘green.’ Such as showers in hotels that put hardly any water out.

Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico

New York City is still very neurotic about covid. At your local Trader Joe’s supermarket on the upper west side of Manhattan, about 75% of the customers are still wearing masks even though mask mandates have been lifted several months ago. Our local Jewish Community Center, which I call the Neurotic Community Center, is complaining that their membership is down 50% and the amount of people using their gym and attending various kinds of classes is way down. Well, of course, they were driving people away for 2 years and now they are wondering why people went to alternative places? I would never have joined Equinox but for the fact that entering the JCC building and going into the JCC gym became such a toxic place to be. At one point during the pandemic, I tried to use their air pump to inflate a football and they wouldn’t let me in the building or take the ball upstairs to have it done. So I stopped my community membership; why give them $500 to be a member of a place that won’t even let you in the building or do anything for you. When my son had his bar mitzvah, they had so many covid restrictions such as having to show proof of immunization just to walk through their lobby to get to where you were going that several days before the weekend we moved an event there to another venue because I had guests who were not vaccinated who couldn’t comply with their demands. Even this June, they had not brought back family swim at the local pool. New York City is going to take a long time to get back to normal even if people are around and living here. It is battle scarred and people are just nuts. It’s not a happy place to be, especially as I travel around the country and the world and see people walking around acting normal. Let’s get something straight – all this liberal talk about protecting each other is nonsense. Nobody cares about you – everyone just cares about themselves (meaning you making them sick) and their own liability in case something happens to you on their premises. Everybody thinks they are going to get sick just by walking around outside even if nobody is anywhere near them. So if you are on an elevator or on the sidewalk – to the majority of New Yorkers, you are an existential threat.

About 5-7 years ago I recall training with a sports coach to learn how to throw footballs better because Jeremy was reaching the age where he wanted to play catch. Now he’s 14 and he’s coaching me how to throw footballs better (and doing a good job of it). And a few nights ago I saw Elizabeth (now 16) watching BBC World News on the TV because she was concerned about the Roe v. Wade ruling from the Supreme Court. My, how the kids grow. A bit scary seeing my daughter watching BBC News. I doubt too many other kids in America tune to that channel, but Karen and I both watch it. My parents used to subscribe to newspapers and that’s why I still get them in print. Kids definitely learn from parents.

This white homeless guy lives on our block for years now and at night he sleeps against the side of a building with scaffolding and he has his North Face luggage with him (rather nice stuff) and then in the morning he commutes with his stuff about 50 steps to a place on the street where he sits holding a sign all day long and pretty much looking down at the sidewalk. He pays no rent or taxes, looks pretty happy, has the best commute to the office you could imagine, and people bring him stuff all day long. Not that I want to be in his position nor would I care to ask him if he thinks his life has been one total waste of just sitting around for years on this one square block, but you just wonder why nobody from the City has done anything about him. But on a certain level, he’s got a great gig going. I would totally not be surprised if he has a country home somewhere that he goes to once in a while.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland
Blue Lagoon

Afghanistan is not a done deal as far as the Taliban. That country has been aggravating its neighbors and there are many of them such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Iran, all of whom are suffering cross-border attacks from militants inside Afghanistan. Pakistan thought the Taliban running Afghanistan would be good for them but they’ve been disappointed. China is hoping to do business there but the place is so unstable that investment is impossible. They might all get tired of this and decide to get together to get rid of the Taliban and put in something else that suits the neighborhood better.

Gun control? The various reforms being discussed would not have prevented the recent shootings in Texas. When you can print out a gun with a 3D printer, I’m not sure that gun control is more than a slogan. The guy in Japan who just assassinated the former prime minister made his own gun. But I do notice that kids around 18 seem to be a problem with these school shootings. Maybe it should be harder to get a gun before you are 21, just like it is with drinking. A dirty thought, but one worth pondering: There was that recent school massacre in Texas and the police stood around for over an hour before doing anything. I looked at the pictures of the dead kids – very few of them were white. Do you suppose that if more of the kids had been white that maybe the police would have gone in sooner?

David Leonhardt at the New York Times writes in his column that cities with mask mandates did not do better than cities without them. We saw the same thing in the UK a year ago. Forcing people to mask up is just not the way to deal with a pandemic. The NYC airports still require masks and hardly anyone is complying. Half the people on public transit are ignoring it too. It’s stupid already to have rules that people ignore. I’ll just keep waiting til a Republican comes along and gets rid of the rules. And anyway, who cares if you wear a mask or not? At this point virtually the only people in danger are those without vaccines and it’s not my problem if you don’t want to get your shots. It’s just obvious already; why does anyone have to keep arguing this point?

Volcanic cave, Iceland. At left, the lift that lowers you 400 feet into the volcano crater.

I’ve been having a really hard time figuring out what is going on with the economy and Russia/Ukraine in order to explain it to you. On the same page in the Wall Street Journal you will find an article saying that the stock market might have hit its low point, and another article saying that traders are betting the market will go down further. I’ve started accumulating some Berkshire Hathaway stock and am prepared to buy more of it if the market continues to fall. Although people are predicting a recession, I think the market has already priced it in and the history of recessions is that by the time they finally declare one, it is already over. I think people should copy Warren Buffett now and be buying stocks as they go down. Some companies such as Salesforce, Adobe and Oracle have captive customers paying subscriptions and they are very profitable even if their share price has been knocked down 50%. Petroleum companies are making huge profits now that oil is expensive. I’d be buying Berkshire Hathaway. Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are going to be worth more a year from now than they are worth now and they are going to only grow stronger as rivals are weakened in this recession. It’s a good chance to put stuff away at a bargain price. Yes, the prices might drop another 10-20% but you can average down on this.

I think you are getting closer to the point where idiots who were driving the market with stupid stocks are getting out of the market and the poor performance of retailers such as Target and Walmart shows that people will not pay higher prices for things, which will bring inflation down at some point. Russia’s war probably will stall into a simmering stalemate before the end of the calendar year so if there is no crazy variant that eludes vaccines and makes people more sick than the stuff that is out there now, hopefully markets will turn around in November after the US goes to elections and puts Republicans in control of Congress which also favors business.

There is inflation but you also see the price of gas going down, the cost of international shipping going down and bottlenecks easing, and a slowdown in hiring in certain industries. It took just 3 weeks for a shortage of computer chips to turn into a glut and all of a sudden you read about retailers sitting on unsold inventories. Then you read that gas prices might zoom in the fall when certain sanctions take effect against Russia. But so far Russia seems to be laughing all the way to the bank because they are making so much from the oil they are selling that they are perfectly happy to forego revenues from selling gas to the Europeans in order to make them sweat (literally). Europe may buy lots of its gas from Russia but Russia (in terms of its total portfolio) sells not so much gas to Europe.

TROUBLE SPOTS AROUND THE WORLD: DISCUSSION ABOUT UKRAINE, CHINA, MIDDLE EAST

I’m really glad that this war is about supply chains involving gas, oil, wheat and grains – and not avocados. I’d get really upset if I didn’t have a steady supply of avocados around here. That stuff has to show up every other day because their lifespan is so short. Gas for winter is being stockpiled now so you miss a few days here and there the world don’t stop.

Kylemore Abbey, Ireland

I can’t tell if anyone is winning the war in the Ukraine; we were told the Russians would run out of manpower and equipment by July and that doesn’t seem to be happening. However, the head of the British M16 intelligence service just made a speech today saying the Russians are going to soon stall and a website from the Institute for the Study of War that posts daily status reports says the Russians are not advancing well at all. The big food shortage doesn’t seem to be happening because crop yields from other countries are higher than normal and making up the shortfall. Also, a lot of what comes from Ukraine was being used to feed cattle more so than humans and farmers can choose not to feed cattle without it turning into a world crisis. From what I gather, it’s a slog on both sides with the West giving Ukraine enough not to lose but not enough to push the Russians back. So it’s a rigged stalemate that goes on forever because the Russians have no choice but to die in the war that Putin has declared and the Europeans are ready to die to the last Ukrainian who seem to be willing victims. The war is great for military contractors worldwide and for military academies that can test their software and intelligence models against a real-life laboratory (ie: how do you measure the will to fight). The Europeans are playing both sides and Biden isn’t really decisive, but in my estimation the long term is that this is not good for Russia because Europe is weaning itself off its dependency for Russian oil and that is going to be a permanent change.

Russia on the other hand is making a big strategic bet summarized by Gerald Seib in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. He is saying that Russia and China are trying realign the world from East to West into North to South. This means that Russia and China think that if they trade with most of the developing world, they can bypass North America and Europe and do well enough. It’s true that they can get numbers this way if you count votes in the UN General Assembly. The problem is that we’ve seen this movie before – it was called the Non-Aligned Nations Movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s and it didn’t really help Russia and China. Also these countries don’t really like China or Russia – they are just dealing with them and for autocrats in charge it’s more convenient to get arms from these countries to stay in power which to them is Priority One. In return, Russia and China have leverage which explains why these countries vote with them in the UN. Nevertheless, they need technologies and trade with the West because that’s where the money and power is if those countries want to have a future of growth to the next level. These countries don’t like the Chinese loaning them money and then foreclosing on their resources and national facilities such as ports if they default. Nobody knows the details of the agreements they reach, meaning these deals are very corrupt and benefit high officials at the expense of the country. Sri Lanka just had a revolution because of a fed-up population, and it will be interesting to see what happens with Chinese investments in Sri Lanka as a test case for what you can expect in the future.

Ashford Castle, Ireland

Everywhere I look I see Chinese failure. I wonder if there is an effort by the CIA and others to undermine Mr. Xi before his party congress in the fall because everything is just looking awful there. Chinese real estate companies are going bust and people are refusing to pay their mortgages. The country goes from one lockdown to the next with miserable economic numbers. Tech companies have been ruined with party bosses with no real business experience being installed telling them how to run their companies and the government is coopting them with investments, except that the investments go to companies that shape their goals to government goals, which is not based on market forces and which historically tends to produce poor results. No entrepreneur would ever trust the Chinese system again for another generation.  Young people in China increasingly see no future there and are losing faith in a government that is treating them as if they live in North Korea. Hong Kong is losing its best people and a merit-based financial system that works although China seems to think it’s fine to let them leave and have yes-men mainlanders take their places.

China has alienated the world by threatening everyone around them in Asia and elsewhere. Their military might be improving or it might be the same result of Russia’s ten-year buildup which turned out to be a farce. I wouldn’t want to be Mr. Xi finding out the latter the next time he tries to use his military because these authoritarian and corrupt military systems don’t seem to work well. Unless he knows better, he is strongest threatening everyone as long as he doesn’t actually do anything. As I’ve said before, Mr. Xi is probably the #1 reason China is destined to fail over the long term. It’s not good to have One Person become the Sun God for a nation of a billion people. The world needs a better future and Mr. Xi is not going to deliver that either for the Chinese or the rest of the world. It’s going to be a big headache for the world having the Xi and Putin Show around them. It’s pretty clear that China and Russia are creating a lot instability around the world that is adversely affecting the developing world because inflation, food shortages and recession affects them even more than the developed countries. We all know that neither Putin or Xi would win in a fair election having shown that they have completely failed. Just look at a recent Teheran Times newspaper with a front page headline “New World Order” showing Putin and the Iranian president sitting under a picture of Iran’s supreme religious leader in an empty room. What world order? Russsia, Iran, Turkey and maybe North Korea and Syria? China could have shown up to Teheran but obviously didn’t like the optics of being seen to be in this club of losers.

Penis Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland

It’s also an indictment of Biden to read two articles in the Economist in a month saying that his foreign policy in terms of China and the Middle East is virtually the same as Trump’s – not because he wanted it that way, but because he utterly failed at making any changes from Trump’s policies and so the status quo has remained in effect. His latest trip to the Middle East went poorly – the UAE sent an ambassador to Teheran the day after Biden left and arrested Khashoggi’s lawyer as he was passing through the airport. The Saudis let their displeasure be known through Karen Elliot House’s oped in the Wall Street Journal saying that Biden would have been better off had he stayed home. The fist bump with MBS looked silly and Biden trying to insist that he had told MBS off about Khashoggi undermined any chance of goodwill coming out of that trip. As someone who has spent a lot of time dealing with that country in a senior governmental position told me this week, Saudi Arabia is not the worst country with whom we are allied in the human rights department. Khashoggi was not an American citizen; Egypt has killed American citizens. Had Khashoggi been murdered on a street in Istanbul, nobody would be saying anything. Presumably, MBS made the brash and idiotic move of having him executed inside an embassy. OK, well I (your humble host) also did lots of stupid things in my earlier years but you live and learn. The guy’s gonna be running the country for the next 50 years so let’s just suck it up to a princely learning curve and move on, he says.

A problem with this Ukrainian war is that between Europe, America and Ukraine, nobody really agrees on what is the objective of the war. That means the war just plods along as long as Ukraine is willing to fight and depending on what others are willing to give them. I’m pretty darn impressed with the Ukrainians; they really have fought bravely and showed everyone around what they’re made of. Even if they have the most to lose, they have been playing a losing hand mighty well.

Two Israelis who are in Ukraine training troops told Haaretz newspaper that we “shouldn’t believe the BS” about how great the Ukrainians are doing. Their army is dilapidated with old-fashioned tacticians, and they are not well trained except for some units – it’s just that the Russians are so much worse.  Also, the Ukrainians are fighting for their survival while the Russians don’t even know why they are there or are being coerced to be there.

Black sand beach, Iceland

With Europe being forced to look at alternative forms of energy as it shifts away from its dependence on Russian oil, the world might wake up in a few years to find that it has finally become serious about moving away from coal-related sources of energy. If we can avoid nuclear meltdown, this may turn out to be a very important milestone in the world’s energy development. Germany for example could produce a ton of natural gas within 2 years if it would get over its irrational fear over fracking. More likely though, I think that nations are realizing that they cannot bypass coal and that they need to refocus on their internal sources of energy and come up with better supply chains that don’t involve potentially unreliable countries. Biden’s energy policy aimed at shutting down domestic coal-energy production is not realistic and clearly a Republican president and congress will undo it. Not that you can flick a switch here – domestic frack producers were burned once and won’t invest again unless they know the water is warm and gonna stay that way. Refineries will not invest unless they know they can count on good returns and not a continuous flip-flop in national priorities and regulations every time there is an election.

The silver lining in this Ukraine event is the rediscovery in the West that it is not in decline, that Russia was a big fakeout in terms of its military, motivation and economic situation, and that China is also more of a failure than a success in backing a loser, shutting down its country due to covid and not being able to recover its economy and in driving away anyone living there or in Hong Kong who has half a brain. The reality is that the elites of both China and Russia know all of this, even as they espouse all this bullshit for foreign consumption and to save face for their own advancement within a broken system led at the top by backward autocrats who are more interested in power than the advancement of their countries. It would be nicer to see America with 350 million people put up better leaders and have a better political climate for healthy debate, but at least when we do something stupid, we hear about it and strive to improve. They don’t.

People think that trade surpluses are the greatest thing for a country to have. Ask Russia about it, now that they are running huge surpluses. The problem is that nobody is selling them stuff and eventually they won’t be able to produce anything to sell anyone else if they can’t buy stuff they need to produce it. I was talking to a guy from Belarus and he was saying how Putin has showed the world that they were afraid of the big Russian army which has shown the world that it sucks. Ouch.

I’m wondering why the West doesn’t break Russia’s blockade of Odessa port so that foodstuffs from Ukraine can get out to the rest of the world. One reason is that Ukraine has mined the entrance to Odessa’s port to prevent the Russians from entering it. Stuff’s complicated. I’m glad to see though that Ukraine, Russia and Turkey inked a deal to get food out to the rest of the world through the Black Sea. All those complaints from the rest of the world must be reaching Putin. On the other hand, if Russia welches on this deal, I think the West ought to use NATO to get food out and dare the Russians to resist. as

Over to China now. I’m happy to see that the US is becoming more direct about telling Taiwan what kinds of arms it needs to order from the US. Past orders by Taiwan were not practical. The US is pressuring Taiwan to get more serious about its national defense.

Get this: The NY Times reports that in a recent survey, two-thirds of 20,000 people (the majority of them female) age 18-31 in China said they do not want to have children. Ouch! A year or so ago, I quoted a survey in the Economist about young people in China being very optimistic about their country. A year of zero-covid repression has wiped that optimism off the charts. Now anyone with half a brain in that country wants to exit because they see no future there, and they don’t want to have kids growing up there. George Soros now predicts that Mr. Xi might not get a third term later this year or, if he does, might find himself more restricted with his power than he expected. I said last posting that I don’t think he deserves a third term and that if China wants to stay down for another generation, they should keep him in power. I still think that way and this survey confirms that suspicion.

Chinese pilots are picking fights with Canadian and Australian pilots and sooner or later there will be a serious incident. I actually think this could be a good thing – if western pilots humiliate the Chinese armed forces now, there is a better chance that Mr. Xi might not be re-elected later in the fall. I think he is trouble. I’ll bet so do many others in China but he has things so wrapped up that they can’t oppose him. Yes, he is bad for China’s future, but I’d rather see a China with a better future and a more moderate leader. I am not a zero sum game type of person; I think that mutual success is good for all.

I just want to pause and say that if it sounds like I am just blowing off against China and Russia, I am equally upset with the fact that US policy seems to be behind the curve and from another era. We are stuck in a trap fighting with the Russians and Chinese and there is shared responsibility for this. Arab countries feel that the US is also at fault over this Ukraine issue due to provoking Russia with NATO enlargement. Our policy toward China with all these tariffs seems stuck in the mud. America doesn’t get on board this Pacific Trade Partnership and has been leaving China to fill voids all over the world. I thought Biden would do better than this but so far it just seems like stale recycled policy initiatives that look more like they are meant to please domestic constituencies such as labor unions. We haven’t done anything to promote skilled immigration, which I thought we’d do after 4 years of Trump. We alienate allies by not selling them things and force them to go to China to get what they want. So you stand in an Arab country’s air force base with our fighter planes and a block away are Chinese military officers standing by overseeing the drones they are buying from China because America won’t sell it to them. And then we are upset that the UAE is secretly building a military base with the Chinese. The UAE got hit with missiles this year and it took 3 weeks for an American to respond to them when they asked for stuff. I’ve already talked about how lousy Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East went when he had a mission to do and utterly failed in it. He still looks like he’s chasing a deal with Iran and nobody in the region wants it. This is what you get when you have a bunch of twenty-somethings running the show in Washington and when all the experienced people have been sidelined in favor of a bunch of young idealistic progressives wishing to put their stamp on foreign policy. Trump had his shit show going and now Biden is offering more of the same from Afghanistan a year ago through Saudi Arabia this month. It’s not working well and everyone is already looking forward to doing business with whoever wins in 2024. Russia can keep this thing going in Ukraine till a Republican takes over in 2025 who will be more likely to cut a favorable deal.

Volcanic glacier crater, Iceland

This Ukraine war is a real drag because Russia can just hold out and even if they lose they win. Putin is laughing all the way to the bank because economic sanctions never work. In Russia today, you’d hardly know there is a war going on and oligarchs have found safe harbor in capitols such as Istanbul and Dubai. Consider that Russia is now getting drones from Iran, which developed its drone system while under US and European sanctions. He is getting more money from higher oil prices and still managing to sell his oil. Western Europe and the third world is suffering much more than he is. Putin is counting on Western Europe crying uncle by winter but I have a feeling that, like Russia, Europe will figure out how to adjust to adversity from Putin’s economic sanctions and the energy apocalypse will not happen. Like I said, there are solutions there such as fracking for the Germans. Other solutions will be found. On the Russian side, Putin is a dictator and can control the information in his country and force everyone to suffer. The basic deal on offer from Putin to his subjects seems to be that as long as Russia doesn’t start drafting people, the Russian people will put up with the war. Biden’s diplomacy is not making anyone feel that they need to comply although it has kept the war within certain boundaries. And anyway, Putin is just completely destroying a country without the prospect of paying any reparations and every day he just causes more damage. He could keep this up indefinitely because there is no cost to him at home. You need to meet force with force and make him pay a price that his people can feel.  Maybe Putin has cancer and maybe he doesn’t. Cancer could go on for years for all we know. The heads of US and British intelligence say these rumors of cancer are poppycock anyway.

Don’t you have this feeling that the human race is not doing a good job of cooperating in the face of adversity? Did countries cooperate on vaccines or sharing information about covid? Nope. One country that did (South Africa) came to regret it after everyone dumped on them for sharing that a new variant was found in their country. Is the UN preventing famine and global inflation due to the Ukraine war? Have we actually learned any lessons from World War II that are being applied today? Not really except that we mention it all the time. Is it more probable that someone in the next 10-20 years will pull the nuclear trigger? Yes. And if you think it will happen in 10-20 years, it will probably happen sooner. Does it make sense that most of the planet is ruled by dictators and that democracies are in the minority (and even places like the US are susceptible to the likes of Donald Trump)? And that countries like China with a billion people are being run by a man who is not all that smart and Russia with a madman at the helm?

Ashford Castle

The planet earth has managed to sustain life for thousands of years but humankind was a blip on the spectrum, coming and going because although it was very smart, it did not cooperate with others and learn from its mistakes. China has seen this movie before with Mao and it ended badly. Russia had its Stalin and saw Hitler but now they are telling Russians that Stalin was not evil and the Chinese are telling Hong Kong children that the British were never in control of the territory. Covid has hurt everyone but that didn’t stop China from preventing anyone from investigating its causes and we all know it wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Jews are leaving Russia because they fear another Iron Curtain coming down on the country. The Jewish Agency has been told to stop operating in Russia (it is an arm of Israel that arranges for Jews to leave a country and go to Israel). I don’t think it’s a good idea for Putin to do this as it will force Israel to oppose it and the history of nations treating Jews badly is that they don’t succeed. It’s not a great time to hope for your kids’ future. I just hope that I manage to live out my life in some kind of a normal world but at this point I rate that probability at less than 50%. It seems that you need huge disasters every once in a while to remind people how bad things can get if they don’t cooperate for mutual benefit. It took 60 million dead in World War II to buy a generation of world order but the effect seems to be wearing off. We keep talking about how we should remember history but it’s just talk.

Next time they set up a UN, they shouldn’t let countries veto resolutions. Otherwise, you just have the Russians and Chinese vetoing everything they don’t like. Makes the UN useless. Of course, there won’t be another UN because nobody will agree to a UN that actually has the power to make a nation do anything.

Now, time for something totally different.

Waterfall in Iceland

Iceland is a country of 350,000 people that punches above its weight. It’s got some beautiful architecture, a diverse population because it is a Schengen country within the EU (and which helps it avoid staffing shortages in the tourist industry that is plaguing other countries with less liberal immigration policies), runs efficiently and is a nice, clean and beautiful country. Gas is $12 a gallon but many people have geothermal heating due to all these volcanoes that erupt across the country a hundred times a day at very small seismic levels, and some of the housing units we saw were beautiful. I’m told it is easy to start a tech company there. On the downside, the sun doesn’t come out 50 days a year in the winter although in the summer it doesn’t get all that dark. We visited it as a family for 5 days this June and the link to these travel notes is at the end of this posting. We had a great action-packed adventure; if you asked us what was our favorite activity, we don’t know because we had so many of them, such as being dropped 400 feet down a volcano, snowmobiling across a glacier, going on 4×4’s across lava fields and putting on potions and bathing in the Blue Lagoon. Karen and I will probably visit again at some point, if for no other reason than on the day of our Golden Circle tour, we were so rain-soaked that we all had to change our clothes twice in one afternoon (but in fairness, the rest of our trip had pretty good weather although colder than we expected for June with highs in the 50’s). Because nearly everything is imported, Iceland is an expensive country although after you go there the first time, you are likely to spend less money on subsequent trips after you go through your learning curve.

Once the kids went off to 7 weeks of summer camp, Karen and I went on our first week-long trip to Europe in the past 17 years. Dublin was not fascinating but it is a relatively inexpensive European capitol. The more interesting portion of the trip was several days in Western Ireland enjoying the countryside and the grounds of Ashford Castle, one of the country’s finest. If you’re a Downton Abbey fan (which my wife is), a visit here is meant to amuse you greatly.

We are trying to make up for lost time this year with the pandemic and have plans to go with the kids to Central Europe in August, London in November and Egypt-Jordan-Eilat in December. Because Europe has become a total shitshow for baggage, my daughter will have to learn to travel 2 weeks with one carryon suitcase containing just one pair of shoes. Yikes!

Click here to see my Travel Notes about our family trip to Iceland and my trip with Karen to Ireland.

 

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