Wednesday, March 31, 2010

(No.86) Visiting the ABC islands

It seems to Pat and me that most of the advertisements for winter Caribbean sun destinations directed at central Canadians promote stays on the Mayan Riviera, in the Dominican Republic and Cuba plus an assortment of islands like Jamaica and the Turks & Caicos.

Occasionally one sees something involving Aruba or Curacao off the the coast of Venezuela, two of the three 'ABC islands' of what used to be popularly called the Dutch Antilles (the 'B' in ABC refers to the island of Bonaire).

In the 1950s the Dutch grouped their six island colonies in the Caribbean into a political and administrative unit called the Netherland Antilles: the three ABC islands plus Saint Maarten (shared with France), Saba and Saint Eustache. This remained unchanged until ca. 1986 when Aruba became independent but with a continuing defence and political/monarchial relationship as one of three countries (along with the Netherlands and the Netherland Antilles) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The other five islands have since continued as the Netherland Antilles. Curacao and Saint Maarten are now headed toward the same status and relationship as Aruba while the remaining three islands will in future have the status of provinces of the Netherlands.

Both Curacao and Aruba, being in the southern Caribbean just off the coast of South America, are generally more expensive destinations for Canadians (and some Americans) to reach than the vacation resorts of the eastern and western Caribbean. That has not apparently affected Aruba's development as a major resort location or its attractiveness as a place for second (vacation) homes for Europeans and Amercians. Houses that are near the beach but far from being mansions start at $500,000 (U.S.) while a modest non-beach front property in Curacao can run $100,000+ (U.S.). American currency is widely accepted as well as being used to denominate prices on both islands.

The resorts in Aruba (far more numerous than on Curacao which is not blessed with as much sandy beach) ) are located on what we thought were attractive beaches and come in three categories: high rise, low rise and 'time shares'. They are concentrated near Oranjestad along the Palm, Eagle and Machebo beaches.

The American hotel chains are well represented as are an assortment of less expensive but far from cheap choices. Indeed, one of the newest competitors for the punters' dollars is the Riu. In size, ugliness and similarity of appearance, it reminds one of the much advertised Paradise Island resort near the harbour in Nassau, Bahamas. Curacao has not achieved the resort cachet of Aruba but it does have vacation hotels both in and out of the capital of Willemstad.

The house colours on the islands (especially Curacao) are cheerfully bright in what has come to be regarded as typical Dutch colonial style. Indeed we saw similar colours in an older historic area of original Dutch settlement in Cape Town, South Africa. The countryside on both Aruba and Curacao tends to be arid with cactus and scrub vegetation. Both islands are volcanic in origin.

The islands have an interesting mix of languages and peoples. Curacao lies 35 miles north of Venezuela and is 37 miles long and 7 miles wide at its widest point with a population of 170,000+. It seems to us inferior to Aruba only in being less well known in North America. By comparison Aruba, which we liked somewhat less than Curacao, is 21 miles long and 6 miles wide with a population less than the province of Prince Edward island at 100,000 or so.

In terms of things to do and to visit that don't involve merely a beach, Curacao is the superior destination. Both islands have international airports with direct flights to Europe and North America -- including directly to and from Canada via the odd 'vacation' air carrier.

Tourist safety, in spite of one Aruba case wildly over-publicized in the U.S. by CNN, is not an issue. The Dutch government maintains troops in the islands while in Curacao the Americans have a base from which they try to act against the drug trade originating from South America which apparently tries to move its products via airport smuggling on these islands. The U.S. presence is also directed, one Curacaon told me, at gathering intelligence on Hugo Chavez's regime in Venezuela which lies to the south of the island.

Based on my experience of Caribbean destinations both Aruba and Curacao are different enough destinations from those in the Caribbean that predominate with Canadians to be at least moderately more interesting. Based on the same shared experience Pat agrees that there is more to see.

Depending on whether one's only travel objective is to bake in the sun without regard to the location of the beach, either island might be considered an alternative to the more usual if their greater distance and comparatively higher cost are not a deterrent. Pat agrees again but notes that she still prefers the Canary Islands to any she has visited.

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

(No.85) U.S. health care reform: how big is the victory?

The midnight vote on Sunday March 21 in the U.S. House of Representatives passed (219 to 212) the Democrats' health care bill. It has been greeted by many of its supporters as an "historic" victory, as the most important American social legislation since the medicare and civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Is the passage of this bill really a fundamental change to the U.S. health care system, the sort about which I wondered in an article for the Toronto Star (" A puzzled Canadian ponders surreal U.S. health care debate", Sept.9/09)? The answer is yes -- and no.

The legislation, which goes back to the Senate for a reconciliation vote, represents a hard fought and much needed political victory for not only the majority Democrats in both houses of Congress but also for President Obama. Failure would have blighted the Democratic election prospects in Nov. this year (and may still cost them their majority in the House) and would certainly have dealt a body blow to the President's ability to get major legislation through Congress during the remainder of his term.

As for 'historic' change to the very expensive U.S. health care system, one which it must be admitted serves the majority of Americans well but a substantial minority poorly. The biggest change brought in by the bill is to extend health insurance coverage within a few years through a system of subsidy and mandating to 31 million of the more than 45 million Americans who have no health insurance.

Many American advocates of a Canadian-style single payer health system and many more who supported a modest 'public option' proposal regard the bill as a failure while others (like single payer proponent Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich) see it as better than nothing, indeed as a step which will keep alive the political battle for true health care reform, preserving a platform and an opportunity to push for further changes which either received no political hearing at all (a single payer system) or were dropped (the public option) in order to round up enough votes to pass something that could be seen as a positive change -- no matter how far short it fell.

There are indeed positive changes in the bill as passed. For example: it will eventually prohibit or restrict anti-patient actions available to insurers involving such things as caps on claims, denial of coverage, termination of coverage and use of pre-existing conditions as the reason for all sorts of 'no' responses. Moreover for individual policies and for small groups the law requires companies to pay out in claims 80% of premiums (an industry ratio now ca. 60%).

However I among others would argue that the bill will bring about something that falls far short of fundamental health care reform. Moreover many of the bill's changes will not be effective for a number of years: until 2014 or 2018 or 2020. Nor, it must be admitted, will the real cost of continuing to keep health insurance the monopoly of insurance companies be capable of being accurately assessed for some time.

The world-leading high cost of the U.S. health care system -- currently 17.3% of GDP -- will continue and one of the reasons for this will be the continuing administrative cost burden and inefficiencies of leaving health coverage exclusively in the hands of private insurance companies. This alone will preclude bringing American health care costs down to a level comparable to other western countries.

The modest "public option" proposal for making government-provided health insurance available (for those under age 65) in order to provide Americans with an alternative to insurance companies as the sole providers of health insurance was a particular lightning rod for opposition lobbying. It was dropped in order to get 'reform' through a thoroughly polarized political process. A victory for anti-reform interests.

One safe bet among many is that health insurance premiums paid by business and by individuals will continue to rise significantly. The tax on employer-provided 'Cadillac' health insurance coverage does not even start until 2018. Nor does the health care reform bill take any substantive action to address a very serious problem in every developed country including Canada: the steady annual increases in the rise of the country's overall health care costs.

The opponents of health care reform legislation before and after its passage in the House also characterize it as a major change for America. The Republicans (not one representative voted for the bill), the Fox News talking heads, the Tea Party protesters and others of that ilk also see the passage of the bill as historic but with a different slant -- as socialism, as a government takeover of U.S. health care (but without squaring the circle by explaining how this direction differs from Medicare and Medicaid), as a major blow to the freedom of Americans, etc etc.

This is consistent with the propaganda from this crowd during the health care debate of the past 13+ months. The opponents of health care reform in the U.S. have been quite successful in raising public concern about reform of the system. Fine, they are entitled to express their opinions, however far they may be separated from reality. What they are not entitled to is their own set of 'the facts' with which to misinform and mislead Americans.

However flawed and incomplete this health reform legislation may be it was passed after long and bitter debate because of a multitude of real facts, many of which reform's opponents consistently failed to engage. Of all of them, and the analysis will doubtless fill books in the years to come, the bill addressed a central core challenge of the U.S. health care system: a key to a country's ability to achieve superior health care results for its people as a whole is their actual access to care.

This is not merely a principle of intelligent health care systems it is directly relevant to the current indices of the lack of success of the U.S. system for so many of its people: among Americans age 55-64 the lack of health insurance is the third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer). In general uninsured Americans are significantly more likely to die prematurely than insured people. The estimates of the number of Americans who die each year as the result of not having health insurance (i.e., of not having non-emergency room access to the health care system) range from 20,000 to 45,000.

The truth therefore is this: the strongest argument for the health care reform bill's passage being historic lies in the fact that, before it became law, the non-partisan U.S. Congressional Budget Office projected that by 2019 there would be 54 million uninsured.

[Previous columns on RickardsRead.com on the subject of U.S. health care reform include column Nos. 51, 55 & 65.]

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

Monday, March 22, 2010

(No.84) Street theatre in the sky [locked in the loo]

The December 2009 Detroit bound flight carrying the 'bomb in my crotch' terrorist who had boarded in Amsterdam made the already tightly wound American Homeland Security people even more paranoid than usual about terrorists conspiring to bring down US planes. In order to placate the Americans and minimize negative effects on Canadian flights
our authorities quickly added extra layers of security for flights originating in Canada with U.S. destinations.

Like many air travellers Pat and I learned long since that saying anything at airports even slightly sceptical or disparaging about any aspect of security is unwise. Billions of dollars have been spent on convincing airline passengers here and in the U.S. that security is so very tight (while unscreened or only randomly screened checked baggage as well as commercial cargo are loaded into the holds of the planes on which these same passengers will travel).

Taking a flight on a U.S. airline recently from Pearson Airport Toronto to San Juan, Puerto Rico via Newark involved the usual multiple checking of IDs and boarding passes by the onsite U.S. Customs & Immigration officers and then at security checkpoints for passengers and their carry on baggage. Once through security we stopped for something to eat and then headed for our gate.

Subsequently, along the way to our gate, we encountered tables set up almost as if those behind them were selling charity lottery tickets in a mall. We were required to clear our previously cleared carry on luggage and have our hands checked for explosive residue in case, presumably, we had been slipped something nefarious when we stopped for coffee.

My immediate reaction, a verbal one expressed before Pat could give me 'the look' that says "shut up and don't be foolish", was to note that security had been carried out by their colleagues not half an hour previously before we could even get as far as this point in the terminal. Not surprisingly these security folks seemed to be aware of that fact and by then Pat had reminded me to shut up -- which I did.

She was right of course. One can cause unpleasant pushback from security people and in any case there is nothing whatever to be gained beyond momentary satisfaction from complaining or arguing about any security measures with security people. They are doing the job they have been assigned and, having encountered more than a few surly passengers, have notoriously small reserves of humour for extemporaneous comments about security measures of dubious worth.

The flight we were on was full. As the pilot prepared to descend for the landing in San Juan for which, as all but the wilfully thick appreciate, requires passengers to be in their seats and buckled up. We noticed that first one and then several flight attendants were trying to persuade a passenger in a lavatory to return to a seat and buckle up. The passenger, who turned out to be a young woman, refused to open the locked door and return to her seat. The flight crew pounded on the door repeatedly and became increasingly vehement in their demands but without success. They then advised the Captain and proceeded to remove the door to the lavatory, having informed the passenger that police had been called to meet the plane.

I was close enough to this performance of street theatre in the sky that I could hear the dialogue and, if I looked over my shoulder, watch some of the action. The passenger seemed unimpressed by the crew's demands and accompanying threats of serious action if she did not emerge. Once the door to the lavatory was removed she was revealed, as if proudly occupying a throne of gold, seated on the toilet from which she refused to rise until (she declared) she had the privacy provided by the door being put back more or less in place. This was, she declared, nothing more than that to which she was entitled since she was a "doctor" (of what she did not say). "I deserve respect," she said several times, a desire somewhat at odds with her refusal to do other than sit on the toilet when asked to return to her seat.

By this point in the drama the attendants were routinely being addressed by the passenger as "bitches". She did not seem to be intoxicated and her demeanour appeared -- under the circumstances -- fairly unexcited. Her unusual behaviour may well have been caused by drugs or by some sort of mental disorder or by boredom or perhaps by a combination of all three. At no point during this drama did she offer anything remotely like an explanation, sensible or otherwise, for her refusal to leave the lavatory and resume her seat during landing.

She did finally emerge and was escorted back to her seat and the lavatory door was reinstalled. By this time the plane was close to a landing and afterwards the plane was stopped a bit short of the gate for a few minutes to allow, we assumed, for the police to arrive at the gate for a meet and greet with the passenger in question. Inexplicably the pilot did not keep the plane back from the gate until informed of the arrival of the police. Instead he took the plane to the gate, the door was opened, the passengers unbuckled and (as room permitted) stood up. And that is how everyone remained for at least 15 minutes with nobody allowed to exit.

Finally a policeman arrived at the aircraft's door (it was now after midnight local time). At that point passengers were allowed to begin leaving and, one assumes, the 'doctor' from the lavatory street theatre in the sky was taken into custody. Arrested? And if so, for what? Possibly for having endangered the security of other passengers although she could hardly have threatened the pilot from her position atop a toilet.

An episode of street theatre played out in the skies over San Juan, Puerto Rico. Still, in the wake of the crotch bomber terrorist, nobody on the plane was laughing.

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca



Monday, March 15, 2010

(No.83) conclusion: A sleuth for every taste

This is the conclusion of the review article begun in the previous column (No. 82) on RickardsRead.com.

The article was written for two Ontario daily newspapers: The Record in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and The Mercury in Guelph. It was published in both newspapers on Feb.27, 2010.

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Frank Tallis is an English psychologist who has created one of the more interesting premises for a detective series. His novels are set in Vienna circa 1900. The lead character is not the police detective but the person on whom the detective calls for assistance, Dr. Max Liebermann. He is a medical doctor and a disciple of one of Vienna's most interesting residents, Dr. Sigmund Freud.

The Freud character, being Jewish (as is Liebermann), provides Tallis with a plot avenue to explore the nature and depth of anti-Semitism in pre-World War I Austria. Anyone who has visited Vienna will particularly enjoy the novel's references to the city. There are three novels in the series so far. Give A Death in Vienna (2005) a try.

Magdalen Nabb died in 2007 in Florence where she had lived since 1975 after moving from England to practise pottery. In 1981 she created a fictional Florentine police officer, Marshall Salvatore Guarnaccia. Her 14 novels featuring Guarnaccia are set in modern-day Florence and are mostly based on real crimes committed in that city.

The lead character is no hotshot detective in the Hollywood style but rather, if California is to be a comparison, someone closer in style to the American television Columbo.

Nabb's novels are well written and plotted and feature one of crime fiction's most interesting while personally unimpressive sleuths. Try Nabb's last Guarnaccia novel, Vita Nuova, published posthumously in 2008.

Another member of the 'new' school of British crime fiction writers is Graham Hurley. His novels are on a par with Billingham's when it comes to grit, set in the English naval port city of Portsmouth.

The two leading and continuing characters are an upright detective inspector and a somewhat bent, old-school detective constable. There are nine novels so far in this series. Try the latest one: No Lovelier Death (2009).

Perhaps inspired by Ian Rankin's success with his Rebus novels set in Edinburgh, Alex Gray created a detective inspector in the Glasgow police dept. to solve crimes in that Scottish city. The series, begun in 2007, is interesting for its depiction of Glasgow's atmosphere and urban landscape. The writing and plots are not up to Rankin's standard but are better than just acceptable. Try Pitch Black (2008).

T. Jefferson Parker is an American novelist who reminds me of Elmore Leonard, that old master of U.S. crime fiction. Parker has been writing crime novels for more than twenty years and his stories are usually set in southern California, Orange County and San Diego in particular. With the odd exception his police characters appear only in a single novel.

Parker is an excellent storyteller whose plots are usually very successful at sustaining reader interest at a high pitch. Some of his numerous titles can be found in print and in most bookstores. Any of them are worth a look; pick up Silent Joe (2001) or Little Saigon (1988).

Cetin Ikmen is a Turkish police detective and the fascinating creation of London-born writer Barbara Nadel. Through a dozen novels featuring Ikmen and his Istanbul police colleagues she has expertly conveyed a sense of modern Istanbul to her readers. Indeed, I think she is as successful at stimulating reader interest in that city as Magdalen Nabb was with Florence.

Ikmen is an older, perpetually tired detective and is as heavy a chain smoker as any LA 'noir' detective created by Raymond Chandler. Nadel's plots keep the reader more than casually interested. Try Pretty Dead Things (2007).

Finally, Ian Pears is a journalist and art historian who has written several novels set mainly in Italy featuring an English art dealer/historian named Jonathan Argyll and his partner/lover/wife Flavio di Stefano, a member of Rome's Art Theft Squad. If you are interested in art and the art world as well as crime plots then these seven novels combine the two in an elegant and interesting fashion. Try The Titian Committee (1991).

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

Monday, March 8, 2010

(No.82) A sleuth for every taste

The following column is the first part of a review article I wrote for two Ontario daily newspapers: The Record in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and The Mercury in Guelph.
It was published in both newspapers on Feb. 27, 2010.

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That luminary of British detective fiction, P.D. James, has written a non-fiction book (Talking About Detective Fiction) in which she draws a clear distinction between "detective" fiction on the one hand and "crime" and "mystery" fiction on the other.

I think many readers, myself included, tend to lump detective/crime/mystery novels into one large and enjoyable genre. When I find an author new to me and if I like his or her work, I look for other books by the same person, often a series of novels with the same lead character.

A particular favourite of mine over the years, and related only very distantly to James' detective novels, is the now-concluded series of 18 novels by the Scot, Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus.

Rankin's second post-Rebus novel is in the same premier league. The lead character of The Complaints (2009) is another Edinburgh detective, Inspector Malcolm Fox of the complaints and conduct department of the Lothian & Borders (Edinburgh) police.

Fox investigates other police officers and is loathed by his fellow police because of his role. Unlike Rebus, who was the sort of cop who attracted the attention of the complaints investigators, Fox is a reformed drinker. But like Rebus he has problems relating to women. He also has a similar sort of persistent, irritating and highly individualistic attitude to both authority and his job.

For those who enjoy both the Rankin and James 'schools' of detective crime fiction, there are numerous other novelists I can recommend, although not all with equal enthusiasm. Some lean more to providing entertainment and less to making one think. Some do both with great success.

Here are just a few of these authors. All have novels available in softcover editions:

Mark Billingham created a gritty London detective inspector named Tom Thorne several years ago. This series of novels feature plots and atmosphere distinctly darker than traditional police procedurals. Indeed they belong to a modern school of British crime fiction whose godfather I consider to be Ian Rankin.

Thorne is the sort of detective who is light years away from, say, Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey or P.D. James' Inspector Adam Dalgleish or even Colin Dexter's D.C.I. Morse. Give Billingham a try by reading his The Burning Girl (2004).

Very different from Billingham's novels are those of the new series from Susan Hill. She is a widely published English novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

In 2004 Hill created a character, Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, who is the core character (thus far) of four novels involving him with various crimes as well as with his extended family. Set in contemporary small city/rural England the novels put far greater emphasis on personal relationships than is often the case in crime fiction.

For reasons of overlapping character development and continuing plot points, the four novels should be read in the order they were written. The first is The Various Haunts of Men (2004) and the fourth and most recent is The Vows of Silence (2008).

TO BE CONCLUDED IN THE NEXT COLUMN -- No.83 -- on RickardsRead.com

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca



Monday, March 1, 2010

(No.81) Pt.4 - Financial services deficits: a screed

This is the fourth and final part of my screed on the subject of deficits of various types I have observed in the financial services business. Parts 1, 2 & 3 appeared (respectively) in column nos. 75, 77 & 79 of RickardsRead.com

Over a long career in financial services as well as a parallel public one as a writer/editor/speaker I have often differed both privately and publicly with the views of 'leaders' of the financial services business, particularly the life insurance part.

In my view there has been and remains too little basis on which to defer to the judgement and views of senior people in financial services. However, had I entertained any doubts on this score in spite of my own experience with and observation of such 'leaders', those doubts would have evaporated in recent years as I watched the results of so-called expert senior management at work in financial services.

There is no need to rehearse here an exemplary list of the greed and incompetence demonstrated by many of those to be found among U.S. financial services leadership (plus some examples from Canada -- notwithstanding the post-meltdown credit claimed by Canadian bankers and their media cheerleaders for a degree of financial probity actually dictated and enforced by Ottawa's federal regulators). What occurred right in front of the market fundamentalists' icon, before which so many in financial services bowed, was financial services 'leadership' generating the evaporation of trillions of dollars of equity followed by further trillions of dollars in costs by various governments and agencies in the form of bailouts, subsidies and incentives -- including some in Canada.

The idea, one that was so beloved by market fundamentalist groupies in business, that markets will correct their own excesses now seems not only quaint but hopelessly silly. Except of course to logorrheic commentators in places like Fox News.

I have known -- and known of, based on reliable sources -- more than a few company CEOs as well as platoons of senior executives in various companies.

The 2008-2009 financial services meltdown did not surprise me as much as it might otherwise have done because I have not observed anything approaching consistent brilliance within this group: a number were very bright indeed; several had IQs only somewhat above room temperature although (commonly) their political skills were highly developed; a few -- including some able ones -- were thorough-going boors and bullies. Adherence to principle was far from universal.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, considering the leadership of financial institutions in terms of the American financial meltdown, concluded [NYT, Nov.26,2008] that "some of our country's best-paid bankers were overrated dopes who had no idea what they were selling, or greedy cynics who did know and turned a blind eye. But it wasn't only the bankers."

Indeed it was not.

The performance of North American life insurance company senior management teams over the past few decades covers a spectrum ranging from the superior to the merely custodial and all the way over to stupidly reckless and self-aggrandizing with the majority somewhere in the middle. More costly corporate mistakes have been quietly buried than the financial services paparazzi (i.e., the financial media, the analysts and the rating agencies) have ever come close to realizing.

In the wake of the financial services meltdown it is clear that while some key executives have played unique and beneficial roles many others were directly and indirectly responsible for disastrous corporate results for which nonetheless they were too often paid obscenely large amounts of money. The reality seemed to be: the higher the level of incompetence and greed, and the bigger the financial losses to the company, then the greater the variable compensation paid to senior management.

One of my firmly held views, one related to any number of mistakes and miscalculations by senior North American financial services executives is this:

one should be very suspicious of claimed 'vision' and superior expertise by members of senior management, especially if that claim comes down to a reality supported by little more than corporate rank coupled with self-promoting publicity directed to an often receptive audience -- the financial services paparazzi.

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca