Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year...Forecast for 2009

Happy New Year everyone! The past year has just whizzed by even though it was quite an eventful one.

This year was chock full of political intrigue. Thank God the elections are over in the USA and we are now moving on with a new President elect. Any sane person hopes it is a positive change after 8 years of arguably the worst federal governance in my lifetime.

2008 will also go down as the worst year economically for both the USA and international markets since the Great Depression. Reality has finally caught up with credit happy consumers and governments. I should say "partial" reality, because I think 2009 will bring out significantly higher deficits and realities of how huge the international economic shenanigans really has been. While I know real estate and retail markets are down significantly in the USA, as I pass the New Year here in Las Vegas, I see plenty of people still traveling and spending in the malls AND the casinos. It’s not in the numbers they are used to...and with some of the deep discounting; it IS hard to resist buying at some of the significant price cuts we see from the retailers currently.

The keyword in my mind for 2009 is...CHANGE! I think we will see many changes this year...some for the good, others not. Some of the hopefully positive changes will be...

-Continued reality of woeful economics and lack of savings on the part of first world citizens will force many to rethink their priorities, cut back on spending, and go back to a cash economy.

-A new government administration in the USA at least as it looks so far should bring new and more intelligent leadership to the Federal government. Of course this could be a double edged sword as some of the ideas they have may not work or be detrimental in the long term. I do hope that in general the new government will follow through with their promise of pursuing détente and dialogue throughout the world versus solving all our crisis with the barrel of a gun. This approach has obviously not worked in the short or long term.

-Many people will be forced out of their current stagnation of thought and/or career with job losses/cutbacks forcing many people to rethink their short and long term strategies on career and lifestyle.

-Some people will recognize the need to read and understand the global issues in economics, climate and warfare and how all of this is impacting their financial and lifestyle positions. Hopefully more people will get their heads out of the TV media and more into books and deeper referential sources for understanding what is happening in their world currently.

Of course, some potentially negative changes continue to face us in this New Year:

-The masses continue to look for government controls over their lives, bigger government to cover their own lack of personal responsibility, and thereby the further destruction of personal freedoms, democracy and capitalism. These will be replaced by socialism, legislated morality instead of true morality, and increased antipathy on the part of individuals to control their own destinies.

-Socialistic changes will cause more rich and independent citizens to look for escapes for their money and lifestyles. More money and people will flow to offshore and emerging markets. More walls will be built between the haves and the have nots. The chasm between the two will continue to increase.

-During times of increased uncertainty, more people will turn to mystic religions versus struggling with difficult realities. There will be more fundamentalism fueling domestic and international conflicts of reason and actual warfare internationally will increase because of this.

-There will be less money for new technologies and "green" lifestyle pursuits. Human desperation will promote short term objectives for relief versus focus on long term struggles and solutions for climate change, dependency on fossil fuels and humanitarian aid.

To sum all this up in abbreviated form, I think 2009 will be a mixed bag of tricks. We will hopefully see some creative thinking and new ideas germinating from the current crisis of leadership and economics. We humans ARE sometimes resilient...and the current crisis globally will be a test of whether current generations are up to the challenge of solving some significant problems. Economics are at the core of everything of course, so let’s hope people both in government and the private sector are able to reshape our financial picture. We each need to do our part in this.

Personally, I will be very focused on building business and I think we will see a lot more people looking to invest and even move to emerging Latin American countries that we are operating in. I also will continue to focus on humanitarian efforts. We have local initiatives to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and we hope to increase those activities this New Year. We all need a balance between pursuing success and sharing success. If both individuals and governments can keep a reasonable balance between getting and giving...the whole world has a chance to grow, prosper and use information and money for GOOD. That is our current hope for the New Year.

Peace and prosperity to all this New Year!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mysticism...running the world?

I have developed what some might call "a problem" in life. I have come to a point where I reject ALL forms of mysticism that seems to run our lives, our religions, our governments, even our medias.

Part of these ideas hit home again with me yesterday when I was visiting the Embera Indian village. Here was a race of people who have survived for centuries without global knowledge or education. They only recently started using money and telephones. In the midst of all this they continue practicing a mix of ancestral worship, holistic medicine, and just in case...some of them embrace Evangelical Christianity.

I have to preface this blog for some of you who don't know that I grew up with very heavy Evangelical Christian roots. That background is still a very real part of my thinking and value system...yet I spent a majority of my teen and young adult years "fighting the devil" of doubt. Yes, Doubting Thomas (one of Jesus' beloved disciples) is probably my favorite disciple of history. He was sometimes strong and sometimes weak in believing what he was told by Jesus. Yet, he had the advantage of knowing him "in person" and seeing his works. If HE had a problem believing Jesus was going to rise from his grave in three days, should it be any wonder many of us do?

I have studied the Bible quite thoroughly, went to my share of church services, and read most of the renown "apologists" for the faith of the last 2000 years. After all that, I still have a problem sifting fact from fiction, God from Man, and mysticism from reality. I have talked to many significant "ministers" of the faith who also quietly admit their struggles with Christian dogma.

And if that is not enough, I am tired of all the politicizing and media slanting of religion. Take the recent hoopla this week of President Elect Obama asking Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration. It seems the gays, some Jews, and probably not a few Muslims are quite offended at the choice. Personally I totally understand the choice as Mr. Warren has written a number of successful books and chosen to mix politics and religion going back to the first debate with John McCain. So why was it OK for him to moderate that forum, but NOT do the prayer at the inaugural? I guess Obama needed to form a chorus of ALL religions represented in America to please everybody...American Indian chiefs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Catholics, Protestants and even Humanists...EVERYONE should have a representative at the swearing in it seems to guarantee God's blessing on America.

What does this have to do with "mysticism"? I am going to throw out a probably controversial position with many of you. I hope you will read with an open mind. First, what is mysticism, or a mystic? For this discussion I choose the second two definitions in the dictionary as more descriptive...

1)A belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible by subjective experience.
2)Vague, groundless speculation.

I will submit the idea here that all of man's religions are "mystic" in nature. All "faiths" demand a certain "leap" from reality to that which cannot be proven. We justify our progressions of faith based on some innate need to know or answer all of life's difficult questions. Why is there war? Why some people are good and other's evil? What is the DEFINITION of good and evil?

Now most people reading this will probably think of a multitude of Bible verses, passages in the Quran, or quotes from their various religious leaders or teachers to answer those short but difficult questions. Yet, at the end of the day I submit that those definitions are based on human majorities or wealthy minorities throughout human history who have sought to bring peace and happiness to the human masses through strict guidelines of living...behavior modification is what it might be called in the science of Psychology.

Now why bring up this "nasty", divisive diatribe against human traditions and belief systems? Why can't I just go along with the throng of faithful believers from which I came? Life would be so much simpler and I would probably be loved and respected more.

One of many reasons is that I see mysticism through religion running our world at present...and not in a positive direction. Most of the world's wars and differences between the haves and have nots are based on fundamental differences of "belief". How do YOU name God? If you pray, what do you pray for? World peace and an end to poverty? Understanding and enlightenment...though you are afraid to pick up a book or listen to someone with ideas contrary to yours?

Most humans in our world spend 90% of their time in families, churches and synagogues preparing to defend themselves from the "unbelievers". I should say, 90% of their free time which is very little, because most people in the world spend 90% of their waking hours in a short life just working and thinking how to get by...find food, shelter and either stay alive, or "keep up with the Jones". Few of us have really studied comparative religions or even human psychology. Some of us who have are really screwed up with many internal conflicts and a sense that "the more we know, the more we know we DONT know". So, we find ourselves not fitting in, feeling a bit more alone in the world of thought, and some get downright desperate to the point of finally giving in to a "leap of faith" they really don’t understand...or totally escaping from the world in general. I am meeting more and more "escapists".

Again, what's my problem with this? My problem is the lack of intelligent conversation on the crucial issues that face our very survival as humans. My problem is the many voices in religion, government and the media who manipulate and control our thinking with diversionary attention tactics. Have you ever wondered why the media focuses so much on death and murder, robberies and mayhem, instead of political issues, economic theories or even positive scientific discoveries that often save millions of fellow humans? No...THEY want us living in fear and faith, waving our political identity flags of moral superiority, and thinking that WE are more right and therefore hold more value in the world than those who are not of our race, nationality or religion. Most Presidents and leaders both domestic and foreign continue to invoke God into their speeches and interviews. "Faith is important" they say, but heaven forbid if you don't believe in supporting their wars or unfair socialistic practices. They want to legislate morality for their own ends...and FORCE anyone who doesn't agree to see it their way. Unfortunately in my mind, all religions and governments I have known are guilty of this "mystic manipulation".

Now I am meeting scores of people everywhere I go who are questioning ALL authorities. They have been let down or misled by hypocritical clergy and government leaders. Their economic advisers and managers have taken the masses on a ride of mystic manipulation that everything is all right with their money and their debts. If you just believe and keep spending and borrowing...God and your government will bail you out of whatever financial devastation you encounter.

I know this is coming off harsh for some people, but I am truly fed up with mystic manipulation of our world. I am concerned about many groups of humans who to date have not found a way to participate in the common discourse of human affairs. I am concerned for many stout hearts and minds that COULD lead our world out of these modern "Dark Ages"...but whose voices and thinking are being strangled by the larger chorus of "leaders" who control our Medias and institutions. Is this a "conspiracy" by a few to control and/or profit from our ignorance and trust? Or are we just born to be "sheep eventually led to the slaughter", crying out for God to "save us" or destroy those who are persecuting us.

Let me wrap up for now with a little more positive messaging. If my combined lifespan of thought tied to this little blog helps ONE strong thinking person participate in the dialogue of reason and action...then it is worth whatever cost of "rejection" I am risking with this blog. I am not here to promote a cause, religion or movement. I am just one human trying to reach out to others in a rational way.

I think Jesus, Mohammed, and most of the world's religious origins of personality were real people. I just think we humans have taken some of their original good works and message, and diverted it to our own extrapolations and justifications. I think it's time for the "power of one" to come alive in each of our minds and souls to make a difference HERE AND NOW. Let us not rationalize our inactions to some belief in a mystical "future life". We humans are reaping what we sow NOW in our economics, our bad health, and our complacent or negative reaction to all that is going on around us.

We need more souls like the anonymous young Chinaman in Tiananmen Square who stood in front of the tanks that were ready to attack the people. No one knows what happened to him and death estimates from that 1989 protest range anywhere from 180 to 6000. Who really knows? "They" don't want to say.

We need more "Paul Reveres" who rode through his region announcing the impending attack of the "British". A lot of people probably didn't believe him.

And we need more people like Jesus, who in 33 short years revolutionized his time and space in the world. He was put to death for going against the status quo and religion of his own people. His death...and reported resurrection...revolutionized the minds of the masses in those times. I don't know if I will ever be put to death for my ideas and beliefs, but least I can do is write a blog and hope it is a positive influence in a needy world. Hopefully the next "Jesus" won't be so heavily misquoted or used by the powers that be.

Now to only have the strength to push the "publish" button...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Emberas...A Life Impacting Experience

Today was one of the highlights of the year for me, perhaps one of the top 5 of my lifetime. A group of us ventured to the nearest indigenous Indian village of the "Embera" tribe...a race of people going back hundreds of years in this region of Colombia and Panama. It was so impacting, I could not go to sleep tonight without posting this blog and posting up a photo tour of our day...before I forget some of the details. The overall experience I will NEVER forget and you can share some of the imagery at

I won’t have time or energy in this one sitting to cover all the aspects and thoughts that ran through my mind today. I may have to add on to this blog over time these next weeks. For sure I will be back to visit these people who I gained quick admiration and respect for. I also come away wanting to help them...but at the same time...I am concerned about their being too affected and indoctrinated with our "first world" ways. Here's why...

The people I observed today were friendly and open, attractive inside and out, and showed hospitality and openness that I personally believe was extended by Indians initially all over the Americas...North, Central and South. Yet, invariably these Indian cultures have been devastated by white civilization, white religion, racism and violence. Where these people live there is no police, no federal governments to pay taxes to, no locks on their doors and windows, no razor wire around their community centers. They hunt, fish and live off the land for the most part. They trade and make a living by the works of their hands guided by their imaginations and traditions. I don't know if I want them learning "my" way of life. I think they would be much less happy than the eyes and smiles I observed today.

Sure, these people are living a little better now since tourism has started knocking on their door. They now have 15-25 horsepower boat motors pushing their tree trunk hardwood longboats instead of paddles. I observed a number of "weed whacker" machines and gasoline cans within their village. There are soft drinks available and a community phone booth in the center of their community which ties into a satellite on a tower at the high hill overlooking their village. They have "friends" from all over the world now...and Doctors who come there for cures and new information on herbal treatments by the Shaman.

When they have visitors, these people put on their best festive outfits, and "cover up" more than when strangers are not around. I sense their natures as being shy and peaceful, yet they are not totally immune to the human desire to learn new ways and understand other cultures as well.

Our new Peace Corp friend Amy who is spending two years helping them tells us that they are eager to learn and many of the young people are striving to continue their educations in the big city. They think they want access to computers though I hope they don’t end up spending as much time and energy on one as I do. I think it would somehow take away a part of their soul and culture if they try and imitate what my culture has become.

They have many babies and small children, but I never heard one cry the whole day we were there. The little ones quickly run to all corners of their little community without the whining and insecurity you see in first world and "city kids". The kids are not afraid of adults, but rather seem to WANT to be around them. It was just a day of "other worldliness" that is hard to describe or carry on in the modern world we operate in.

I think there is a lot of meaning in today's experiences which I will be examining in my head for many weeks and months to come. No, I will probably not move to such a village or trade in my wardrobe for a loin cloth even though I think it would be many do so. But I think I will try and maintain some perspective between the ways of life I observed and experienced today...and the hustle bustle, consumer driven life we seem to have been dropped into from the beginning.

THe big question for today as it unfolded was...who was happier today...the lady honking from behind me in her brand new Mercedes, frustrated at the huge line of trucks and obstructing traffic keeping her from her next appointment...OR the loin clothed Embera helmsman who steered us to his villages waterfall and people? I think I know the answer.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Birthdays and Buckets of Golf Balls...

A friend of mine sent me this message early this morning. It seems especially fitting on today...another birthday. The years fly by, people and opportunities flash through your life, and each year gets more important in how you spend it. I hope this story impacts you positively as it did me...

After a two year battle with cancer, teenager Miles Levin, unfortunately lost his fight.However, during his final years, he achieved a level of self-awareness, courage and wisdom that most of us will never reach.

"Dying is not what scares me. It's dying and having no impact." Here's what Miles said just one month after being diagnosed with terminal cancer:

"I went to the driving range the other day and I was thinking...I was thinking about how you start out with a big bucket full of golf balls, and you just start hitting away carelessly. You have dozens of them, each individual ball means nothing to you so just hit, hit, hit.One ball is practically inconsequential when subtracted from your bottomless bucket. There are no practice swings or technique re-evaluations after a bad shot, because so many more tries remain.Yet eventually you start to have to reach down towards the bottom of the bucket to scavenge for another shot and you realize that tries are running out. Now with just a handful left, each swing becomes more crucial, so between each shot you take a couple practice swings and a few deep breaths. There is a very strong need to end on a good note, even if the preceding shot was terrible, getting it right at the end means a lot. You know as you tee up your last ball, "This is my final shot, I want to crush this with perfection; I must make this count".

Limited quantities or limited time brings a new, precious value and significance to anything you do. Live every day shooting as if it's your last shot. I know I have to." --Miles Alpern Levin, July 7, 2005

Like Miles suggested, we should treat each day as a precious ball of life. Take your time, take a breath and make a practice swing. Make each shot count and most of all finish strong!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Freedom is Compliance?

These past days and weeks I have gotten lazy and decided other people are writing what I think better than I, here is another repost from former Representative Bob Bauman. More information on our "leader's" ways that I want my friends and family to be aware of...

The U.S. Congress, soon to be in increased control of the Democrats, will waste no time in helping President-elect Barack Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to "shut down the tax havens," Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) predicted last week.Levin, the long-time Senate leader in attacking tax havens, predicted that his legislation, the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act,. S. 681, first introduced in 2007, will become law next year with the support of the President Obama, who was one of the bill's original co-sponsors.

It is not too much to say that Senator Levin is a fanatic when it comes to his often irrational attacks on tax havens. He has created numerous false myths to support his radical views.

Typical of Senator Levin's wild claims is his statement that "tax havens are engaged in economic warfare against the United States and honest, hardworking American taxpayers". In my opinion that is a patent and absurd lie.

Big spending, high tax politicians such as Carl Levin resent these jurisdictions because globalization has made it much more difficult to impose confiscatory tax rates. Indeed, tax rates have dropped dramatically since 1980, in part because havens have led to greater tax competition among nations.

Daniel J. Mitchell, senior Cato Institute fellow specializing in tax issues, has pointed out that competition from tax havens has reduced taxes worldwide, and that the leading tax havens (for non-citizens) in the world are, in fact, the United States and the United Kingdom.

In most cases, tax havens are free and independent jurisdictions. These countries are freely making their successful way in this world of global economics by offering low or no taxes on foreigners who do business there. Unlike the United States - where Levinism has systematically destroyed financial privacy - tax and asset haven nations such as Switzerland and Panama, guarantee financial privacy by law.
But Senator Levin has a long history of attacks on the financial privacy and individual rights of Americans.

Start with the fact that in the post 9-11, 2001 congressional panic, Levin somehow conned the gullible Bush White House into adopting some of the worst parts of the PATRIOT Act. These Levin provisions helped destroy Americans' financial privacy and gave government police virtually unchecked power over domestic U.S. financial and banking activity.

A companion Levin-Obama bill even goes so far as to curtail centuries-old legal rights to create and operate freely offshore trusts, corporations, and other entities traditionally used to protect assets. Ignoring the U.S. Constitution and the presumption of innocence, the senator's legislation would force any American with offshore financial activities to prove their actions do not involve illegal tax evasion.

So having been warned, I remind you that there is still a window of opportunity before Big Brother's anti-offshore law comes into effect. Consider exercising your rights while they still exist...

It is legal to have and use an offshore bank or other financial account. It is legal to create and donate assets to an offshore asset protection trust or family foundation. It is legal to form and operate an international business corporation (IBC). It is legal to acquire dual citizenship and a second passport. It is legal to voluntarily end U.S. citizenship and thereby remove yourself from the U.S. tax system. It is legal to purchase offshore life insurance and annuities that allow deferred taxes. It is legal to invest in offshore mutual and hedge funds, precious metals and real estate.

BOB BAUMAN, Legal Counsel
Sovereign Society

A few brief footnotes of my own...

Does anyone else see the irony of these government leaders who have overseen the economic debacle our system has become are now trying to legislate that what little remaining capital we Americans have in the USA needs to stay in the USA BY LAW? This is like the wolves forcing the chickens to continue laying their eggs in the henhouse...for which the wolves hold the keys!

I predict that if Obama goes the way of Levin and other ultra liberals in the USA will see billions of dollars leaving the USA system long before they can "lock up the chicken coop". This will only escalate and speed up the process of America's economic collapse. I hope Ron Paul and the few other realists and constitution supporters in Congress can offset this radical mentality of these feeble, liberal government "aristocrats". I hate to say it, because Levin is from my home state...but it is these life long politicians who are largely responsible for putting my country and home-state in the financial condition it is in. These people should ALL be bounced. I know some X-Gens who could manage better than these bafoons...yet we continue to get the government we "deserve" (vote for).

The best thing that could happen for America to quickly recover economically is position ourselves as a competitive tax country for ALL world citizens...including ourselves! If the government wants MORE tax revenues, they had better find ways to make business profitable and productive within its borders and creating more jobs...otherwise they will be "beating on rocks to find water" economically speaking in a very short time.

Next time you hear a Carl Levin or such person talk about "shutting down tax havens", remember that the USA and United Kingdom are the two largest havens in the world. To do away with tax competition globally will be another form of self-immolation on the part of our own government and financial system. If you want to continue losing your independence and sovereignty over your livelihood, just keep nodding yes to these hegemonists...

I want no part in THEIR version of "freedom by compliance". Just look where it has gotten us...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Quotes from our Leaders...

Worth reposting...and no additional comments necessary...

Our great country was founded upon Trust; trust in our government leaders, trust in our commercial system, trust in our currency, and trust in each other. Without trust, a Republic will fail. A Republic is ruled by the people, not power hungry politicians, lifetime bureaucrats, or corporate interests. Our currency is imprinted with the words, “In God We Trust”. It is not imprinted with “In Ben We Trust” or “In Hank We Trust”.

Over time, trust in our government, financial leaders and corporate leaders has declined to the point where Americans cannot and should not trust anything they are told. It is essential that every citizen do their duty and skeptically assess everything they are told by politicians, bureaucrats and corporate CEOs. They will continue to speak authoritatively like they know exactly what will happen in the future. They are lying. None of these experts can even predict what will happen next week, let alone next year. If you don’t think my advice is applicable, just read what these “experts” have said in the last few years:

Political “Experts”
George W. Bush, Sept 2007:

The Federal government will not bail out lenders — because that would only make a recurrence of the problem more likely. And it is not the government’s job to bail out speculators, or those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could never afford.

Christopher Dodd, Chair, Senate Banking Committee, Financial Post, July 12, 2008:

These institutions [Fannie and Freddie] are fundamentally sound and strong. There is no reason for the kind of [stock market] reaction we’re getting.

Phil Gramm, July 10, 2008:

Misery sells newspapers. Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day.

Barney Frank regarding Fannie & Freddie, 2005:

I do think I do not want the same kind of focus on safety and soundness that we have in OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] and OTS [Office of Thrift Supervision]. I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.

Barney Frank regarding Fannie & Freddie, 2007:

I believe there has been more alarm raised about potential unsafety and unsoundness than, in fact, exists.

Financial “Experts”
Alan Greenspan, October 2004:

Improvements in lending practices driven by information technology have enabled lenders to reach out to households with previously unrecognized borrowing capacities.

Alan Greenspan, 2005:

There is a chance that housing prices could fall, but its effect on the economy will be limited.

Alan Greenspan, May 2005:

The use of a growing array of derivatives and the related application of more-sophisticated approaches to measuring and managing risk are key factors underpinning the greater resilience of our largest financial institutions .... Derivatives have permitted the unbundling of financial risks.

Alan Greenspan, October 1, 2006:

I suspect that we are coming to the end of the housing downturn, as applications for new mortgages, the most important series, have flattened out…I think that the worst of this may well be over.

Henry Paulson, January 2007:

The market impact of the U.S. subprime mortgage fallout is largely contained and that the global economy is as strong as it has been in decades.

Henry Paulson, April 20, 2007;

All the signs I look at show the housing market is at or near the bottom. The U.S. economy is very healthy and robust.

Henry Paulson, March 2, 2008:

I’m not interested in bailing out investors, lenders and speculators.

Ben Bernanke during Congressional Testimony March 2007:

At this juncture, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.

Ben Bernanke, May 5, 2007:

We will follow developments in the subprime market closely. However, fundamental factors—including solid growth in incomes and relatively low mortgage rates—should ultimately support the demand for housing, and at this point, the troubles in the subprime sector seem unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.

Ben Bernanke, October 15, 2007:

It is not the responsibility of the Federal Reserve—nor would it be appropriate—to protect lenders and investors from the consequences of their financial decisions.

Timothy Geithner, May 15, 2007:

Changes in financial markets, including those that are the subject of your conference, have improved the efficiency of financial intermediation and improved our confidence in the ability of markets to absorb stress. In financial systems around the world, the capital positions of banks have improved and capital markets are becoming deeper and playing a larger role in financial intermediation. Financial innovation has improved the capacity to measure and manage risk. Risk is spread more broadly across countries and institutions.

Investment “Experts”
Warren Buffett, on Bloomberg TV, May 3, 2008:

The worst is over.

Moody’s internal email:

Sometimes, we drink the kool-aid.

S&P internal email:

It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

S&P internal memo:

Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.

MikeThomson, Financial Post, April 25, 2007:

Chairman Bernanke has succeeded; the economy has been positioned on a sustainable track for manageable expansion: A Goldilocks scenario that is neither too hot nor too cold.

Jim Cramer regarding Bear Stearns, June 22, 2007:

And I believe there will be NO FALLOUT whatsoever beyond the funds, despite the innate desire by so many people to rumor and panic the marketplace.

Jim Cramer, August 4, 2008 – market is down 28% since then:

I am indeed sticking my neck out right here, right now… declaring emphatically that I believe the market will not revisit the panicked lows it hit on July 15, and I think anyone out there who’s waiting for that low to be breached is in for a big disappointment and [they’re] missing a great deal of upside. My bottom call isn’t gutsy. I think it’s just a smart call that all the evidence points toward. Bye, bye bear market. Say hello to the bull and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Ben Stein, August 13, 2007 – market down 40% since then:

The stock market is cheap on a price-earnings basis, profits are fabulous, both here and abroad, stocks are a lovely place to be. I have no idea what the S&P will be ten days from now, but I am confident it will be a lot higher ten years from now, and for most Americans, that's what we need to think about. The subprime and private equity and hedge fund dogs may bark, but the stock market caravan moves on.

Ben Stein, January 27, 2008;

The losses in the stock market since the highs of October 2007 are about 14 percent. This predicts — very roughly — a fall in corporate profits of roughly 14 percent. Yet there has never been a decline of quite that size for even one year in the postwar United States, and never more than two years of declining profits before they regained their previous peak.

Corporate “Experts”
Stanley O’Neal, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, January 2007:

We finished the year positioned better than ever to capitalize on the array of opportunities still emerging around the world as a result of what we believe are fundamental and long-term changes in how the global economy and capital markets are developing.

John Thain, another former CEO of Merrill Lynch, April 8, 2008:

We deliberately raised more capital than we lost last year ... we believe that will allow us to not have to go back to the equity market in the foreseeable future.

Charles Prince, former CEO of Citigroup, July 2007:

When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.

Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide Financial, July 2007 after he sold $138 million of stock:

But as I do reflect on it, and I do a lot, that nobody saw this coming. S&P and Moody's didn't see it coming, but they simply just downgrade bonds, they don't take hits. Bear Stearns certainly didn't see it coming. Merrill Lynch didn't see it coming. Nobody saw this coming.

KenThompson, former CEO of Wachovia, October 2007:

I’m confident our company is in the right businesses for the long term and that our strategy of being in high growth businesses and markets, our laser focus on customer service, our expense discipline, and our commitment to strong credit risk management, will create value for our shareholders in the future.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

China Overtaking us Musically as well?

In viewing this video this morning, I couldn't help but wonder what this piece on musical education in China means to us competitively in the USA. All we seem to hear about is the growth and economic revolution going on in China, who happens to hold huge percentages of America's national debt. And while I'm sure we could find USA examples of similar music prodigies to compare to, I doubt our system keeps up with China in the growth in numbers of pianos sold and the enlargement of their concert halls to sustain the booming numbers attending classical concerts in China.

To me this is just another small example of how our American culture has digressed while others like China are rising. If we American's do not quickly rediscover our commitment to disciplined growth and development, we will continue to decline and be overcome by cultures that less than 50 years ago were in shambles.

For China's sake I truly hope the new spirit of freedom and development continues and helps their huge population feed and educate itself towards a more open society. For America's sake, I hope we don't fall into their historical condition of blindly following dictatorial leadership and hopeless causes.

It's time for healthy competition between all superpowers in the world. Competition in developing culture, economies and personal disciplines...not guns and bombs.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Banks and Credit Cards...the Next Bailout

I really AM trying to find and write on more positive news and ideas...but today's combination of crisis economically, politically and even natural disasters forces us to look realistically at what is going on around us and motivates us to plan or adjust based on the facts and trends at hand.

This Op-Ed last week in NYTimes brings to consideration the next shoe to drop in the USA economic crisis. The circle of financial collapse in the USA is not close to terminating yet. Round one has been a combination of Wall Street corporate America and the USA government’s mis-managing and mis-appropriating BILLIONS of dollars of income from taxpayers and consumers...and now asking the US Taxpayer to bail out all these major corporate institutions PLUS the government behind them. Yet, the fallacious part of this agenda is where this bailout money will come from.

Let's face it; the government only has a couple sources of funds...we taxpayers and possibly the "spoils of war". Yet, it seems we fight wars without any of the spoils these days accept for the billions exchanged between the government fighting machine and the private military industrial complex that sells to the government to propagate these wars (oops...I'm sorry. We don't have declared "wars" anymore, just regional conflicts). Of course, many of our elected leaders profit from funds or even "blind ownership" in many of these private one could argue, "conflicts" are good for THEM. But, to get back on track, where does all this money for wars and bailouts come from? The TAXPAYERS! To my knowledge we are getting no payments from Iraqi oil in return for our defense of their country and "freedoms". What spoils of war are we gaining in Afghanistan...and why stop there...what are we gaining from the BILLIONS we spend fighting drug cartels and dealers? I see no progress, I see no gains.

So...if all of these wars and bailouts are on the backs of the USA tax system, it seems quite logical that we need to look at the economic condition and "credit worthiness" of American business and taxpayers. With many personal portfolios dropping in value 40-50% at least on "paper" in the current stock market recession, and businesses cutting back, cutting jobs and seeing less profits because of the sudden reversals in "consumerism"...just where is government going to find resources for current and future "bailout" needs? And who is to blame for being in this predicament?

Going back to core reasons and values, I think the finger points back to each of us Americans who have bought into the spirit of consumerism and sold our souls to easy credit and "keeping up with the Jones". As long as we have had low unemployment and easy credit, we have been mostly focused on OURSELVES, our image, and blindly trusted our government and financial institutions to be there for us when needed. We have made large tax contributions to government and paid large interest to these financial institutions. In return they almost jointly market back to us the pressure to buy buy buy, borrow borrow borrow, until the point where they "own" us. Is it only me who sees the lunacy of this circle where we are offered contracts on TV and in the mail constantly urging us to slit our own financial the same institutions and government that COUNTS ON our profitability and savings for income that fuels all this activity?

In short, what we have here is the next reality of what I fear will be a long term "reality check" for our country and its institutions. And this reality will affect the whole global economy, so EVERYONE should prepare and or adjust for the storm. Because when the consumers come knocking on governments door for relief of THEIR historical financial mistakes, any remaining funds that came off their backs in the first place will have already been raided by the very institutions and government that offered them all these "benefits" for decades. There is no such thing as "free money", and it is going to take each of us individually protecting and adjusting OURSELVES to protect from the oncoming devastation of our own past actions and/or inactions.

I am afraid we are in for a long needed re-education that "A is A" (see my previous blog on "Objectivity"). Sometime in life the math always adds up. Action-RE Action. We need to plan and get back to analyzing some of those very basic realities. It is time to cut bait with cards, home and car loans, and for sure retail spending. And if many of us do this, it will unfortunately speed up the process of financial devastation to the financial markets and the government least in the short term. It will be a tough number of years. But SOMEHOW we have to take back our individual responsibility and sovereignty over our own fates. WE have to tell the government what we will and will not accept...after all, they are just OUR representatives, right? Only when we are able to once again build and save for OURSELVES and our security will we be able to rebuild true wealth and security. All of these short term bailouts and gyrations in the markets are basically temporary Band-Aids over the true gaping wounds of our reality. It is time for each of us to do our own part to weather the storm and survive. And, I'm sorry to say, it may mean following the rich to investments and holding patterns financially OUTSide of the USA system that has now revealed its true, dysfunctional head.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Colombia...Myths & Mystique

As my wife and I are in the middle of another visit to Colombia this week, visiting her relatives and pursuing some business opportunities; I am compelled to communicate some fresh observations and comparisons of this dynamic country with both Panama and the USA. First a few general points of interest on Colombia itself...

Colombia is the 26th largest nation geographically in the world and the fourth largest in South America (after Brazil, Argentina, and Peru), with an area more than twice that of France. It also has the 29th largest population in the world and the second largest in South America, after Brazil with over 44 Million people. Colombia has the third largest Spanish-speaking population in the world after Mexico and Spain. Their style of Spanish is the most Castilian, or pure, Spanish after Spain itself. You could argue that Colombia was probably the most heavily influenced country in Latin America of Spain's culture during the days of "Conquistadores".

Colombia's location with the equator and its substantial variety of elevations and climates provide this unique country with a large range of climates from year around snowy peaks to tropical rain forests and beaches to dry, arid deserts. Its three largest cities of influence are Bogota the capitol, Medellin the city of eternal spring, and Cali, a significant trade center near the largest Pacific port of Buenaventura. In the last few years I have personally gotten to know Bogota, my wife's hometown, Medellin and Cartagena. We have been in Bogota these past few days and will spend three nights in Cartagena starting Sunday.

Bogota and its municipalities have an estimated population of 8,244,980. In terms of land area, Bogotá is also the largest in Colombia, and its altitude (2,640m) makes it the third-highest major city in the world, after La Paz and Quito. Higher than Denver and Mexico you really sense the thin air the first couple days you are here, especially arriving from the sea-level resident town of Panama City. This factor also makes it quite cool and rainy compared to the other major cities in Colombia though this close to the equator they don't get snow at this elevation. You have to dress warm and this time a year carrying an umbrella is recommended. Bogota is a robust, clean and well organized city. The public transport system is modern and effective compared to other major cities I have known and the highway system about town is contemporary as well though this trip I notice more road deterioration on the secondary roads than my last time here. The good news is there is a LOT of road work going on with a number of them closed during reconstruction. That makes traffic heavier than normal on other routes, but hopefully once the projects are completed will bring some relief to the congestion as well. Taxis are plentiful, new and cheap as well. Most trips cost around 6000 pesos...or $3 USA (current exchange is roughly 2000 pesos to the dollar which has fluctuated up and down about 20% this past year with the dollar value gyrations).

Bogota is the center of the county's economic, governmental, military and cultural systems. The many Colonial buildings, many dating back to the 1500 and 1600s, are beautiful and "built to last". (See wikiepedia's profile on Bogota and many nice photos of the city HERE). Most modern structures are of beautiful golden colored brick laid by fine artisans of bricklaying. Buildings 30-40 years old look like they were built last week...maintained very well. The people dress very well here though of course there is still the vast divide between the classes, rich and poor. But overall, Colombia has a robust economy and second highest GNP in South America after Brazil.

We are setting up business in Colombia as an expansion of our Panama business efforts. While Colombia is a much bigger, diversified market than has a bigger culture gap than Panama and Costa Rica with North America. English is not as widely spoken here and because of the past decades of civil unrest with a couple guerilla factions who have been profiteering on international drug trade...mostly selling to the US...Colombia has historically been seen as a violent, dangerous place to travel or do business. That has been changing drastically these past 6 years especially because of strong leadership of the current President Urribe. Most of the Colombians are very supportive of this current administration and the cleaning up of the guerilla activities which are now largely relegated to outreaching jungle corners of the country near the borders of Venezuela or Ecuador which give these elements a place to run when tracked down. The borders are not secured it seems. This past year the masses of Colombians worldwide have finally become very activist in pushing for eradication of the guerilla factions and release of the hundreds of political prisoners these forces have kidnapped. I have always felt that it takes a whole majority population to empower these kinds of changes versus just waiting for government leaders to do something. There was another large mass demonstration against the FARC movement on Thursday pushing to release more prisoners before the holidays. The momentum is on the side of the "good guys".

The productivity and cleanliness I see in Colombia is testament to the culture and work ethic that I perceive as being much stronger than in Panama or Costa Rica where we have been operating the past 6 years or so. I would not want an employee based business in either of those two countries because of the socialistic employment laws and general laziness and lack of ethics in the general populations. Colombians on the other hand are far more productive and energetic towards progress as far as I can observe. Those that are in Panama or Costa Rica truly stand out in their service attitude and intelligence from the natives of those countries. While some could say I might be biased by marriage, I am basing this on what many other peers of mine have observed in these markets as well. The Colombians smile and are more open than most of the other Latinos I have interacted with. Education is highly valued here, and healthcare is at a very quality level...and INEXPENSIVE. Many foreigners are discovering Colombia as a quality and inexpensive destination for healthcare, especially in the areas of plastic surgery and dental care. I have a friend who came here with us who needs major dental reconstruction work. His quote from our Doctor friend was $3500 compared to over $25,000 quoted in the USA. The x-ray machinery used was very modern compared to what I have seen in other Latin markets.

Cost of living in Colombia, and Bogota specifically, seems to be a mixed bag. The cost of vehicles and gas to run them seems a bit higher than Panama and of course the USA. The "sin taxes" are heavy here on alcohol, wine and other imported goods. Cigarettes are half the price of the USA, but smoking has been banned in most public places in Colombia like was recently passed in Panama. The costs of real estate here seems to now be a better value per square meter than Panama, and from my observations of the comparative construction sites I think the quality is much higher in Colombia. They also import less of their construction products since they have a broader industrial and mineral production base in Colombia than Panama or Costa Rica has. They have significant industrial production of cars and other machinery here including General Motors, Kellogg and other international manufacturers and distributors to this region based in Colombia. That provides a broader range of import/export than most other countries in Central and South America.

Politically, Colombia is a presidential representative democratic republic as established in the Colombian Constitution of 1991. The Colombian government is divided into three branches of power; the executive, legislative and judicial with special control institutions and electoral institutions. The President has the most power and the current President has the highest rating in recent generations. The country seems to be moving forward with a fury after decades of conflict, corruption and indifference. Many Colombians who fled political prosecution or threats from guerilla factions are starting to return to their home country. While many found success and more income living and working in the USA and Canada, many have not been successful in adapting to those cultures and miss their families and homeland. I predict that with the rising economic crisis and loss of jobs in North America, many will find the prospects of returning to Colombia a positive idea. Profits are going down and taxes going up in the USA, which will more than likely squeeze out the poor and many in the middle class who were up and coming in that system.

There are a few myths about Colombia that I want to address. Colombia's greatest problem is the international "perception" that it is grossly violent, corrupt and "backwards". To be sure, there are zones and remote areas still controlled by dangerous and rebellious factions who have staked their lives for generations on the principles of "revolution" and "revolt"...class warfare if you will. I'm sure there were times and circumstances justifying much of that sentiment in history. Unfortunately, over time these causes get worked out or absorbed in the society and the "revolutionary" wakes up one morning to find himself quite outnumbered and unwanted. The human reaction in many of these cases is to "continue the cause" at whatever the price and they build their whole identity as a revolutionary for only "revolution's" sake. In addition there are many external factions or powers that take advantage and manipulate these "revolutionaries". There is much evidence of this now between Venezuela's President Chavez and other political forces in Ecuador who seem to be giving harbor to Colombia's "revolutionaries" and supporting them with arms and supplies to carry on their crusade. Just this past year, Ecuador and Colombia almost went into direct combat at the border they share because of a squad of Colombian military who took out some FARC leaders just over the border in Ecuador. One should see both sides of this issue where borders should be respected, but the neighboring nation also should respect their neighbor and keep their neighbors enemies from using their territory as well. One has to naturally ask the question why a neighboring country would give shelter to the enemies of the state.

There are so many interesting international political issues to discuss; there is neither time nor space to cover them all here. Let me focus on a couple main issues that should be considered between Colombia and the USA.

Colombia and the USA have had a fairly long history of peaceful and meaningful interaction. The USA government under Teddy Roosevelt brokered the separation of Panama from Colombia back at the turn of the 20th century. The USA's primary interest in that was obviously the construction and control over the Panama Canal. It seems to me Colombia just went on its way without too much reaction to building of the canal. Colombia has maintained a balanced international relationship with both Spain and the USA while retaining sovereign distinction. Culturally they are more like Spain. Economically and lifestyle wise, consumerism has caught on here as well from the media and political exposure to the USA. The cities are becoming more and more cosmopolitan and the younger generation is catching on quickly to technological advancement and North American style consumerism. This is a double edged sword as we start seeing the breakdown of many cultural traditions such as family values and professional education in exchange for the making of a quick buck and living just for the "NOW". Divorce is on the rise and some of the youth culture represents to me futilistic expectations based on the failed establishment and the emptiness of their new material world. There seems to be a competition internally now between the Colombians finding their "soul" and unity in relationship to the historic internal conflicts, while experiencing bigger generational gaps and less family unity in both business and home life. It is like Cosmopolitanism comes with the cost of lost traditions...and everyone starts wanting to be alike on the outside while being a little "hollow" on the inside. Many moderns exchange reading books and interacting within their families with pursuing quick wealth and outward appearances of new cars and homes with the latest trimmings. While the goal of economic prosperity is not a negative, to sell your soul or identity to get there probably is.

Many friends and family members have often expressed concern about my security in traveling here. I have to say I feel more secure in Colombia's major cities than I do in the USA's major cities. Sure, there are bad factions and neighborhoods to avoid...but overall there is a strong police and military presence that seems quite focused on "keeping the peace". They don't seem to be so much about the little infractions of traffic and misdemeanors as they are about keeping the citizens safe from robbers or terrorist type elements. If you look at things realistically, there are fewer guns here per capita than in most USA cities and it is much harder to buy/find one. It would be interesting to study the number or levels of USA gangs and felons to the number of Colombian "gangs" and guerillas. It is estimated that the FARC, Colombia's largest revolutionary group is down to about 4000 members now. Compared to USA's gangs and drug "bad guys", I would guess the factions there are a higher percentage of people per capita than in Colombia. There's a little research project for someone to take on...

The biggest barriers to entry in Colombia in my opinion are language and currency differences. If you don’t speak Spanish here and not accompanied by someone who does, you will find it hard to find your way around or take a taxi somewhere. Most business hotels have English speakers somewhere near the front desk, but in the restaurants or other service levels, hard to find. The other mystery to me is why the banks and laws do not allow foreign currency accounts such as US dollars. To exchange money is an expensive and laborious process here. The banking process is very bureaucratic and difficult for establishing accounts. Unless you "know somebody", a foreigner or foreign company is hard-pressed to establish a banking relationship...and they are definitely about "knowing your customer" which has been driven by the USA banking system post 9/11. That is probably a good thing to a point, but to put so much interference in establishing business relations that it gets to a point of defeating the purpose, you find many foreigners just going away without established business relations here.

An upside to the financial systems here is that Colombia is not as exposed to the current global financial crisis spurred by overextension of credit in the USA. Mortgages, known here as "hipotecas" are a fairly recent phenomenon as most people own their homes or condos outright and passing them down through generations. Credit is expensive and not as freely given here as in North America. Banks will rarely lend more than 70% of the purchase price...and most loans are based on 50% cash deposits on the line. That keeps business and consumerism on more a "cash" basis than a credit one. As Americans are now discovering, that is not a bad trait to return to. But, those traditions are also arguably keeping Colombia behind the curve of international trade and tourism. A couple sources have told me that Colombian authorities are now reconsidering their positions on currency and banking laws. I hope they do establish more international currency friendliness because as I do business here, I would like the option like I had in Panama, Costa Rica or Mexico to have dollar accounts and not have to constantly wrestle or plan for currency swings when I enter into future contracts.

I also hope to see continued free trade relations pursued between the USA and Colombia. I am concerned that the Democrats in congress have blocked the current free trade bill that has been pushed by President Bush and been in limbo for months now. As I've stated in other blogs here, I am not a proponent of government or state led trade relations between countries. These "free trade" agreements tend to be more about mutual protectionism and intergovernmental cooperation than about true free trade between large and small businesses in the various countries. I would like to see these agreements hacked out by real business counsels on both sides of these agreements who are the true producers and traders in the various countries. Having bureaucrats in the middle politicizing all transactions is NOT my idea of FREE trade. That being said, something is better than nothing at this point in the game, so I would encourage our countries to implement some form of the current agreements that have already been negotiated. If the USA doesn't "get it done", they will find themselves shut out of some profitable enterprises and exchanges, and perhaps more importantly lose political influence with the only remaining power in South America besides maybe Chile that are friendly to United States interests. China has already ratified a trade agreement here and throughout most of this region. Is it in the USA's best interests to leave the region more heavily under the influence of socialism and communism? I don't think so.

These are interesting times to live in, both as an American and as a global traveler/consumer. There are many new technologies and discoveries to be excited about. There is huge growth and potential in international business and trade relations. Yet, all we hear about are the negative events, the barriers, the misunderstandings. It is time that all the world's citizens get out of their own backyards of self interest and get in touch with the exciting and interesting variety of ideas and lifestyles our world has to offer. Colombia and other countries in this region are unique and different in many ways...yet...they have the same goals and desires that we have in North America. Most all of us prefer to live in peace, prosperity and positive hope for the future. Unfortunately we are surrounded by the voices of conflict, negativity and telling us all the reasons why we CAN'T live or trade peacefully with our global neighbors. We need to start looking more at our similarities than our differences...and it needs to start with all global citizens individually. We can no longer count on our governments or corporate institutions to speak or act on our behalves. They aren't. So...we each need to spend time outside the foxholes of our own existence and examine the possibilities at large with ALL our neighbors. Personally, I am finding my neighbors in Colombia an interesting and viable alternative to interact and build life together with. I think I am seeing signs that they have the same interests in return...

Monday, November 24, 2008

More Bailouts????!!!!

Every day the past couple of weeks it seems the media is filled with news of the various HUGE companies coming to Washington, DC looking for federal government bailouts for their companies and industries. Once again, the "big guys" of our corporate economy can jump right to the head of the line looking for PUBLIC funds to cover their proverbial "derrières". In most cases, these are some of the most egotistical, hedonistic business leaders in the world. It seems all the heads of Wall Street and the "Big 3" automakers no longer believe in free enterprise and competition. They seem to think that just because they have grown to such a behemoth size in a few decades and employ so many thousands of people...they should have carte blanche to manage their companies any way that they choose. They think they are too big to fail. Their boards allow them to spend money any way that they choose as officers of the company...and in most cases these "leaders" of corporate America have huge "golden parachute" contracts that insulate them from almost ANY fallout of their own actions or failure of leadership. In a competitive, free market world, this would be unheard of...or at the least...we would allow companies taken down by bad leadership to live by the fruits of their actions...or inactions maybe.

But now...their multitude of sins, lack of competitiveness and stewardship over BILLIONS of dollars in revenues simply translates to an attitude of "if you let us fail, you will lose tens of thousands of jobs, and our foreign competitors or foreign debt holders will continue to squeeze our poor souls out of the markets." These people have the audacity to place the risk and blame on everybody but themselves. We have seen this industry losing competitive steam against foreign competitors like Toyota, Nissan and others for YEARS now. How much more of this will thinking Americans continue to put up with?

The most appalling representation of this last week was the heads of the "Big 3" automakers all flying into DC for congressional meetings asking for billions of dollars in bailouts. These CEOs ALL flew in on their private huge jets, limosined to the halls of Congress, and then without squinting or blushing at all, asked for the government via the country's taxpayers to bail them out of their debts. I watched some of these proceedings and found myself very angry with these conceited, cavalier and myopic executives with ner an apology nor plan to pull themselves out of the dump they put themselves in economically. They have been playing "Wizard of Oz" for so long that they have lost touch with the reality of their circumstances...and for that they are asking the American people to cover their proverbial asses. If they succeed in getting their bailout, their boards will probably OK each of these guys a huge bonus with it...or maybe an upgrade on their corporate jets? Wouldn’t surprise me.

I think Ron Paul has it right in his diatribe against where our government seems to be headed on these bailouts during this economic crisis...

We must remember that governments do not produce anything. Their only resources come from producers in the economy through such means as inflation and taxation. The government has an obligation to be good stewards of these resources. In bailing out failing companies, they are confiscating money from productive members of the economy and giving it to failing ones. By sustaining companies with obsolete or unsustainable business models, the government prevents their resources from being liquidated and made available to other companies that can put them to better, more productive use. An essential element of a healthy free market, is that both success and failure must be permitted to happen when they are earned. But instead with a bailout, the rewards are reversed – the proceeds from successful entities are given to failing ones. How this is supposed to be good for our economy is beyond me.

I truly do feel for many of my friends and even relatives that work for or are retired from automakers in America. They are obviously "feeling it" in their stock plans, 401Ks, and stand to risk many of their benefits such as healthcare. Yet, from the investor’s side, there HAS to be a better way to turn things around than just giving the greedy bullies on the economic block whatever they want to "guarantee our survival". Let's get these plastic weasels out of the henhouse of free enterprise and bring in some leadership that has more to say than just "I'm sorry" and "help me or else". It's time for REAL leadership and solutions. If I were a Congressman, I wouldn’t even want to see these people on my doorstep again. I would put a sign on the door "no solicitors". You can get those signs for like 99cents at Walmart...who according to reports by the way are having a very decent quarter economically.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Relationships...of People and Trees

I don't know about you, but as I grow older...and hopefully wiser...I do more reminiscing and connecting the dots between all my past experiences, relationships, and how I have arrived to my present state of existence. Between my previous educations in communication and psychology and my practical sense of who and what events have been key in determining my life decisions, I have come to the consensus that who we are is the sum of all the relationships we have experienced and/or chosen in our lives.

When you really ponder this, it gets a bit complicated and onerous. Complicated, because relationships are a combined matter of the heart, mind, social and even cultural mores. Onerous because many of our relationships can be harmful and stifle our growth. Some relationships, especially those of family we were born into, we have no control or choice over. So at ground zero of this missive we start from the premise that much of our relational history we really had no choice over. For some of us that has been a positive benefit and for others who grew up in less hospitable family environments, it has been a handicap in our effort to develop into successful, fulfilled persons.

Of course many volumes of thick, hardbound books have been dedicated to psychological studies of who we are based on our genetics and family upbringings. There are more psychologists, ministers, sociologists and other professions studying the roots of human psyche than there are IRS agents looking to collect taxes. Human behavior can be so bazaar and unpredictable that one of my favorite sayings in life has been "why go to the zoo when you can just sit around any city in the world and observe the behaviors of the most interesting animals on Earth...humans".

Much of our initial behavior and interaction derives from our DNA genetic code and probably the relational programming and temperament we learn in early childhood. Yet, time after time we see spectacular examples of individuals who against all odds and adversities, rise to levels of greatness and proficiency that is totally foreign to the roots they came from. I guess it can come down to the question of how some "bad" people come from a good family or traditions, and vice versa, how some great humans can arise out of the ashes of devastating family conditions. For me that dichotomy points to the reality that no matter what circumstances and influences we come from, our minds and spirits if allowed can climb to whole new levels. We are the ONLY animals who have the power to become whatever we imagine we can be within reason and choose our relationships based on higher values than just physical attraction. The physical is part of our makeup obviously, but there is so much more to it.

I am convinced that where we control our destinies as far as identity and values are concerned is proportionate to the relationship choices WE make as we move through life. This starts at a very early age. We, like most animals in the kingdom, start out imitating and mimicking other people. Early in our life, we usually imitate our fathers or mothers depending on which sex we are. Boys are groomed to play with guns and trucks, girls are encouraged to play with "Barbie dolls" or clothes. Later on our behaviors modify a bit based on our first "best friend" or group of young peers who encourage us one direction or another in our behavior. Some of us are pressed towards athletic/physical competition; others of us are more exposed to intellectual or artistic pursuits. Some of us fall into the "brainy" group, others more about looks and image. Some lucky individuals fall into both camps which can increase their odds of success in society.

The hardest thing to do in life is decide as an individual what or who you want to be without regard to your upbringing or root environment. I would say MOST people in the world just go along with the program, fall in line, and live up to the expectations of their families, friends and others. A small percentage of people are able to break free of external controls or influences to become truly independent thinkers and doers. Let's face is not "popular" to flow against the tide of society, family or otherwise. Most of us grow up in very controlled environments where we are rewarded for conforming and punished for "independence" or uniqueness. Those who don't fit in are often marginalized and ignored...which usually has lifelong consequences of being isolated and ineffective in the mainstream of humanity. But, then again, a very few rise through this cloud of non-identity to become significant icons of leadership or geniuses of creativity who stand out so much in the crowd that the "Crowd" now wants to adapt and adopt this icon's image or capability as their own. I would suggest that most of the world's "over achievers" are people who pursued very different paths from what they were originally "wired" socially to pursue. A few examples...Bill Gates, Warren Buffett...and yes...President elect Obama. Without knowing every biographical detail of these examples, I know enough generally about their backgrounds to know that they took paths very different from their original "programming".

One of my stepfather's favorite sayings was "as a twig is bent, so grows the tree"...and with my activities in youth of working his tree farm together...I was able to see this play out in nature. Trees that grew up heavily shaded by bigger, more mature trees did not grow as fast and were always limited by the size of the big tree it grew under. This was OK for brand new plantings that needed temporary shelter from the elements, but eventually trees that sprouted a little further from their source experienced more sunlight and got more rain...which caused it to grow faster and freer. Young trees that were stomped on or feasted on by deer or other animals in the kingdom often grew into weird shapes and sizes, or completely died before maturing.


I have seen this same phenomenon of nature play out in lives around me. Many people are so controlled and "under the shadow" of their families or peers that they will never grow to their potential or outside the shade of those limiting influences. You listen to enough people telling you what you CAN'T do for long will believe them eventually.

Other people through circumstances or by design have been allowed to grow with less controlling influences. They have been free to take in the sunshine of fresh new ideas mixed with “rains” of experiences that cause them to grow fast and independently...without restriction. Of course, too much sunshine or water on a young sapling can cause premature death as well. But, if everything is in balance with the nature around them, those elements will actually make a person stronger...alas the old adage "what doesn't kill you makes you grow stronger".

You can have all balance of nature going for you when along comes a predator of some form that stomps all over you or tries to "suck the life out of you" such as a bloodsucker might do in nature. My comparison to this would be the bad influences or even uncontrollable circumstances that happen in life which can dampen your spirits, threaten your finances and even your very life. The key difference between humans and trees are that humans are more MOBILE...both physically and mentally. If we choose to, we can usually find a way to move away or towards certain influences. If we are satisfied with where and who we are, there is probably no need to move or change our circumstances. Sometimes we just ride out the storms. But, for those of us who are not satisfied or living lives of "quiet desperation" where we are planted...perhaps it is time to consider some "moves". It can be physical adjustments, or simply mental or relational ones.

I strongly believe we make our own destinies based on the relationships we pursue or stay in. There is good and bad in some of our relational traditions. As stated earlier, we cannot choose the families we are born into. In most cases, we find great meaning and connectedness in our family bonds. "Blood is thicker than water" as the saying goes. Yet, many people I have met are also heavily stunted in their growth based on accepting proximity and security by staying "close to their roots". They don't have to worry about too much sun or rain in their lives, because the bigger trees will always decide how much of each they should get. In exchange, they give up the joy and freedom of the "sun" beating down on their faces and miss those “rains” of experience washing away all the "dust and debris" that has built up on their branches from the "bigger trees".


In life I have had my share of failed relationships...with friends and with women. At the same time, the long term relationships that I continue to treasure are those that have positively influenced my life and values. I am freer than many people because I have allowed myself to move in new directions throughout my life. I have been open to many different experiences and people. Someday maybe I'll even write a book about that wide variety of people who have influenced my growth...both for positive and negative. I retain control and responsibility over my own life BECAUSE I don't allow any other person to have an OVER-shadowing role in it. If people start controlling us, that usually means they don't accept us as we are...or they want too much from us. I have learned the hard way a few times not to pursue or give in to people that want to manipulate or control me. Instead, I have learned to gravitate towards a few "trees" that offer me enough space to get my share of sunshine and rain, yet I can look up to them and see how and where their source of growth is coming from.


We all have been hurt or damaged by other people at some point in our lives. When this happens, it is part of the human condition that we experience pain and react…sometimes in very sub-conscious ways. Some of us live the rest of our lives REacting to the hurts others have caused us. We hole ourselves up in some corner of life holding on to our pain and covering up our wounds...never again to take the risk of relating or getting close to someone else because of the fear and expectation of being "stomped on" again.

Others of us are able to pick ourselves up and keep moving until we find a better relationship to connect to...a shadier spot next to a bigger and better "tree". Some of us need more shade than others just by our natures. Like trees, certain people are just stronger and more independent than others at getting by in life. Those trees/people tend to stand out in a crowd...they are not clumped together in easily identifiable groups. It takes a while to totally understand and take in their beauty...and that is OK. Often times, we want to be like them...but in reality we cannot because we did not grow up in the same family or under the same circumstances or diet of sunshine and rain. Yet, we still should appreciate the difference and respect the uniqueness of nature.

Let's face it, our relationships, or lack thereof, are the catalyst for whom and where we are in life. If we are rich, it is usually because we grew up around moneyed people or we were successful in selling or meeting the needs of other people with money or serving our employer. If we are poor...well, we didn't do any of the above. If we are happy, usually it is because we are around happy people. If we are down and depressed, it usually means we are alone or surrounded by negative, depressed people. Our lives and values are determined later in life by the relational choices we make. If we want to be successful, we need to surround ourselves with successful people...but then again, not so close or connected that their success overshadows our own capacity for it. If we want more passion in life, we need to pursue other passionate people and relationships. This is how we will make it happen. Remember, we have the unique ability to pick up and move ourselves towards the "forest and trees" we want to live and be influenced by.


And finally, it’s all about balance. We will never find the relationships we want if we are totally shrouded and shaded by the relationships we have. Sometimes we have to take more risk to get where we want to go relationally. This may mean going through seemingly long times of being alone. If there is purpose and consideration in our alone time, then it can be a very positive growth period for our personal lives. Being alone doesn't have to mean being "lonely". Loneliness comes from being dependent on others...their reactions to you...their approval or lack thereof towards you. Being too focused on other’s reactions will cause your life to wilt and falter. On the contrary, if you are able to self focus in a positive manner...reflecting in the sunshine and rain of your own life without the definition or permission of will more clearly see which "trees" you want to be like versus just looking for shelter in the "forest" of life.

One final correlation between trees and I mentioned earlier about my family's tree farm, some of my best adolescent memories were the days and hours spent working the tree farm with my Stepfather. It was a truly bonding experience...and even though we didn't grow up from the same "blood roots", I was fortunate to have his shade over my life for those key formative years. His tree of life was strong, quiet, and independent yet underneath sensitive and even complicated. But...just like his careful tending of the trees, he tended carefully to the nurturing and caring of my mother, sister and me. We all should be so lucky to be transplanted near such a productive and plentiful "tree". Better yet...may we all aspire to become that kind of "tree" to someone else.

Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers....Psalms 1:1,3

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Guatemala...on the Rise

Over the past year I have been hearing bits and pieces about growth and progress in the Central American country of Guatemala. Since I have now spent almost 10 years of my life in Central America, from Mexico to Costa Rica to Panama, my ears are always attuned to what makes this whole region cook...or not.

First, a few observations from the macro level. Latin America represents a significant percentage of the world's population and strong emerging markets. While "Latins" or "Hispanics" share a common language and many common traits, each country I have experienced between Central and South America harbors unique and special cultures that need to be understood and respected if one wants to interact with them. Since North America's melting pot has now become a second home to so many disparate groups in this demographic, it is even more important for "Americans" to know and understand their neighbors...even if they may be "Distant Neighbors".

One of the best books I first read when moving to Mexico in the early 90s was called "Distant Neighbors". To this day the book remains one of the best reads I have found to help understand the vast differences in culture and thinking between the USA and Latin America. Though this book focused on real life experiences of a "Gringo" couple trying to adapt to a new life in the country of Mexico, I have come to believe the same lessons can be applied to most any Latin country a foreigner or "gringo" (common term for USA tourists) may want to travel or live in.

While I feel my home country has developed unwarranted immigrant "phobias" and outright repugnant forms of bigotry and racism on many levels, the reality is that the USA is now irrevocably challenged to mold and blend with the new demographics of Hispanics who now make up the largest block of "minorities" in the USA. I will save the discussion of the immigration issue and racism for another day, but for the sake of simplicity and focus here, I want to suggest that we American's cannot just blanketly lump all Hispanics or Latinos together in one "camp" of race or culture. If you've studied ANY reasonable amount of world civilization history, you become quite aware of the unique and varied cultures that over a couple thousand years have melded into a unique and diverse culture now called "Hispanic". Their traditions go back much further in time than the comparative history of North America as we know it, and I personally think there are many positive traits we North Americans can learn from our "Distant Neighbors" and that their presence in the USA has been a positive stretch of our own culture and ideals. Let's face it, much of our Western USA was part of Mexico less than 200 years ago. On to Guatemala...

Guatemala is a country of about 13,000,000 people bordered on the north by Mexico, Belize to the northeast, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast. While being colonized by Spain in the 1500s,they proclaimed independence from Spain in 1821. In the 20th century it was run by a variety of military juntas and dictatorial leaders. It has also had long periods of civil war and unrest. Guatemala had a long history of fighting between their government forces and insurgents from 1960-1996 until finally a lasting peace agreement was reached in December of 1996. Since then there has been continued corruption and a history of civil rights violations. The USA via the CIA has also had significant roles and manipulations of the country’s leaderships and military controls over the past 40 years as well. In the past 4-5 years, free trade agreements have been put in place and the country seems to be on a new path of sustainable growth and development even while the gap between rich and poor continues to be quite dynamic.

On January 14, 2008, a new, younger President was elected, Alvaro Colom. While coming from leftist leaning, socialist roots, he seems quite focused on business and economic development. This is a refreshing change from military rooted and corrupt Presidents of the past. A special report on Guatemala is available at this link…and seems to spell a bright future for this newly emerging Central American country. President Colom's core focus seems to be lifting the masses from poverty, pushing for inclusion of all elements of civil society to reconciliation and unification, and has aligned himself more strongly with the fight against narco-trafficking and better relations with the USA in that and other agendas. With their GDP growing 5.7% in 2007 and external debt dropping to 12% of GDP, they seem to be going the opposite direction of our own USA economic system.

It seems that Guatemala is poised to benefit from its rich natural resources and energy production with this new leadership. They are pumping a lot of money into their tourism sector and along with that, security measures to lessen the crime and corruption that so long kept much of their growth in check. Guatemala also seems quite committed to growing their financial services and real estate sectors and compare quite favorably with the corporate and bank privacy laws that Panama has grown up on for a long time in this region. If you believe everything this article states about the current and future development of Guatemala, Panama should be watching in its rear view mirror as Guatemala is bigger and closer geographically to the North American markets that have arguably driven the tremendous growth in both Panama and Costa Rica the past decade.

With all that I have hearing and reading about Guatemala, I will plan to visit soon to see things for myself. Who knows…if the dollar keeps falling against world currencies, the “quetzal” might not be a bad currency to have a position in.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Sarah Palin Aftermath...

I'm not sure about the rest of you, but I continue to be amazed at the continued spin about Sarah Palin and her "15 minutes of fame" as the Republican VP nominee. I agree with many of the pundits who say that while Palin initially gave McCain a post convention "uptick", in the end I think she cost him many independent votes he needed with her obvious lack of intellect, international knowledge and abuse of the English language. It is not at all about her sex or class...but to think she was the smartest, brightest of Republican candidates McCain could call on as his VP is a scary proposition to me and I think called into question his judgment to lead the federal government.

Dick Cavett put it best in his column this week...

November 14, 2008, 10:00 pm
By Dick Cavett
The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla

Electronic devices dislike me. There is never a day when something isn’t ailing. Three out of these five implements — answering machine, fax machine, printer, phone and electric can-opener — all dropped dead on me in the past few days.

Now something has gone wrong with all three television sets. They will only get Sarah Palin.

I can play a kind of Alaskan roulette. Any random channel clicked on by the remote brings up that eager face, with its continuing assaults on the English Lang.

There she is with Larry and Matt and just about everyone else but Dr. Phil (so far). If she is not yet on “Judge Judy,” I suspect it can’t be for lack of trying.

What have we done to deserve this, this media blitz that the astute Andrea Mitchell has labeled “The Victory Tour”?

I suppose it will be recorded as among political history’s ironies that Palin was brought in to help John McCain. I can’t blame feminists who might draw amusement from the fact that a woman managed to both cripple the male she was supposed to help while gleaning an almost Elvis-sized following for herself. Mac loses, Sarah wins big-time was the gist of headlines.

I feel a little sorry for John. He aimed low and missed.

What will ambitious politicos learn from this? That frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences that ramble on long after thought has given out completely are a candidate’s valuable traits?

And how much more of all that lies in our future if God points her to those open-a-crack doors she refers to? The ones she resolves to splinter and bulldoze her way through upon glimpsing the opportunities, revealed from on high.

What on earth are our underpaid teachers, laboring in the vineyards of education, supposed to tell students about the following sentence, committed by the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High and gleaned by my colleague Maureen Dowd for preservation for those who ask, “How was it she talked?”

My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.

And, she concluded, “never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.”

It’s admittedly a rare gift to produce a paragraph in which whole clumps of words could be removed without noticeably affecting the sense, if any.

(A cynic might wonder if Wasilla High School’s English and geography departments are draped in black.)

(How many contradictory and lying answers about The Empress’s New Clothes have you collected? I’ve got, so far, only four. Your additional ones welcome.)

Matt Lauer asked her about her daughter’s pregnancy and what went into the decision about how to handle it. Her “answer” did not contain the words “daughter,” “pregnancy,” “what to do about it” or, in fact, any two consecutive words related to Lauer’s query.

I saw this as a brief clip, so I don’t know whether Lauer recovered sufficiently to follow up, or could only sit there, covered in disbelief. If it happens again, Matt, I bequeath you what I heard myself say once to an elusive guest who stiffed me that way: “Were you able to hear any part of my question?”

At the risk of offending, well, you, for example, I worry about just what it is her hollering fans see in her that makes her the ideal choice to deal with the world’s problems: collapsed economies, global warming, hostile enemies and our current and far-flung twin battlefronts, either of which may prove to be the world’s second “30 Years’ War.”

Has there been a poll to see if the Sarah-ites are numbered among that baffling 26 percent of our population who, despite everything, still maintain that President George has done a heckuva job?

A woman in one of Palin’s crowds praised her for being “a mom like me … who thinks the way I do” and added, for ill measure, “That’s what I want in the White House.” Fine, but in what capacity?

Do this lady’s like-minded folk wonder how, say, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, et al (add your own favorites) managed so well without being soccer moms? Without being whizzes in the kitchen, whipping up moose soufflés? Without executing and wounding wolves from the air and without promoting that sad, threadbare hoax — sexual abstinence — as the answer to the sizzling loins of the young?

(In passing, has anyone observed that hunting animals with high-powered guns could only be defined as sport if both sides were equally armed?)

I’d love to hear what you think has caused such an alarming number of our fellow Americans to fall into the Sarah Swoon.

Could the willingness to crown one who seems to have no first language have anything to do with the oft-lamented fact that we seem to be alone among nations in having made the word “intellectual” an insult? (And yet…and yet…we did elect Obama. Surely not despite his brains.)

Sorry about all of the foregoing, as if you didn’t get enough of the lady every day in every medium but smoke signals.

I do not wish her ill. But I also don’t wish us ill. I hope she continues to find happiness in Alaska.

May I confess that upon first seeing her, I liked her looks? With the sound off, she presents a not uncomely frontal appearance.

But now, as the Brits say, “I’ll be glad to see the back of her.”