Pope Francis sends out a strong message against economic greed

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

It’s been a long time since I have listened to what a Pope might have to say. But Pope Francis strong words against economic greed certainly made me sit up. It’s always been my feeling that the Catholic church has lagged behind its community. Not that other religions are necessarily doing a better job of keeping up with the global societal changes. Saudi Arabian’s women not being allowed to drive is a case in point.

However, this new Pope is bringing a fresh breath of air into a rusty and quietly working towards becoming defunct religious community. For once it feels like the Pope is a humanitarian rather than a doctrine sprouting head of a church mostly out of touch with its people.

It’s almost like the previous Popes were supporting big business and keeping their regular customers out in the cold. This South American Pope is calling it as it is.

Economic greed is killing off the world.

It’s really strange that we middle and lower class folk are accepting the status quo. Sure there have been some minor skirmishes. Some grass roots movements. I even had to look up the Occupy Wall Streeet movement’s name. That’s how far it has receded in our minds.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who used to wonder at how the people in past historic times lived through oppressive regimes without doing anything to improve their own lot. Think of various Kings and Dictators who treated their subjects with total disdain. And the masses took it all in. How could they we think.

Well. We are doing it again. Aren’t we? We are allowing a bunch of people, a small handful to totally dictate how we live. 10% of the population in the US own 80% of the wealth. And we allow this. And we buy into it because the propaganda these folk spit out at the population is that according to the American Dream anybody can make it to that 10%. You just have to work hard.

Ah no. Not really. You have to first of all be white, male and be born into a family that already has the silver spoon to give you at birth. This way you can buy your journey into Harvard or Yale if necessary and you can network your way into CEO positions. And you can gather the support you need on the Board to pay yourself outrageous salaries and bonuses.

Of course there are some outliers who have made it without the above advantages of birth. That’s why we have such a celebrity culture. Most of the celebrities have gotten to their position through talent, hard work, luck and by knowing how to manipulate the system. Same applies to the Tech billionaires.

But the real money and power lies with the banking sector and business.

And for the first time a Pope, who is supposed to represent the moral compass of society, is pointing out in his Christmas message that the world is totally unbalanced and dictated by a greedy few folk. Too much money is sitting in too few hands. And the inequality is as bad outside of the USA. Even socialist Europe has a sinking middle class.

What to do about it? Well it’s a good start when people with power, such as the Pope, start pointing this out. Perhaps a ground swell can get going. People actually realising that they do not have to buy into this. That they do have power in numbers. And it’s just about getting those numbers together. Of course I’m not advocating another French Revolution with heads being chopped off. But a vote against excessive salaries would be a good start.

Pity the Swiss didn’t manage to push their really sensible law of minimum wages for senior management through i.e. linking Executive pay to the lowest paid worker. The law was supposed to ensure that Executives should not earn more in a month than the lowest paid worker earns annually.  Didn’t quit make it.

There is no reason why 10% of the population own 80% of wealth except that we allow it. We ordinary people who are happy when we can make ends meet and have a bit over for a treat. This is not our lot. This is not fate or karma. It’s straightforward theft by a few on many.

What to do? Well taxation is a good start :) The system is there. It just has to be implemented.

Penitence for the bad amongst us

 

Messina: Pulling the float for the Virgin Mary during La

Messina: Pulling the float for the Virgin Mary during La Vara, August 2013.  Image Credit.

Italy has been in the news quite often for the goings on of its rather colourful politicians. One noteworthy proponent being Silvio Berlusconi. He conjures in ones mind the perfect example of what the Mafia stood for. Political player, entrepreneur and above all else a person who felt he or she stood above the law.

Berlusconi is such an individual. For years he has done all of the above. With his media empire he has manipulated the opinions of the Italian electorate and has managed to stay in power even though he has spent a fair amount of time in court defending himself against a bunch of suspected crimes such as soliciting sex with minors, bribery of civil servants, accounting fraud and more. Above the law. And in fact when it came to the push, even changing the law so that he could escape conviction.

Just like Al Capone, famous Mafia godfather in the USA, he was finally caught on tax evasion charges in 2012. And yet he remained in government. Ignoring all against him. It was only during the last week that he has been forced out. And it seems he is finally offering penitence in the form of community service.

An image on Spiegel caught my eye during the past few days. An image of penitent sinners pulling a float holding the Virgin Mary taking place in Messina during August 2013. It seems the most penitent people are also sometimes the most corrupt. Apparently the people pulling the heavy float (physically) are doing this to be forgiven for their sins. Anybody see Berlusconi there?

Unlike Berlusconi the new mayor of Messina is a barefooted, anti corruption teacher who is seriously fighting the evils of the Mafia in his part of Sicily, historically considered the birth place of the Mafia. One wonders how long he will survive.

Makes me think of the various processions held in Marbella, Spain. Virgins of various names and functions get pulled around as statues or floated in the sea. And the cities governing officials from a few years ago have just been handed long term prison sentences for corruption. A cool €24 billion fraud. Wonder how many of the crew being marched into prison have pulled the Virgin Mary’s float here.

Is there any correlation between penitent Virgin Mary float carriers and the level of corruption practiced by the individual. Probably not…

Effective strategy against terrorism – stop the manufacture of arms

Image courtesy of Sofrep.

People are making money out of selling arms to terrorists. Sure it’s companies. But, here’s a reality check. If you have shares in Dassault Aviation, Sukhoi, Mikoyan, EADS, Finmeccanica, Thales Group, Lockheed Martin, Boeing or BAE Systems then you are making money out of terrorism.

Or what about an investment in companies that appear harmless? General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi, Saab, Hewlett-Packard and the list goes on. Shocker isn’t it. And if you have investments in such ‘harmless’ investments such as Unit Trusts you will find that the bundle of companies they invest in will surely have some of the above in their portfolios.

While government leaders shake their heads at Algeria and the terrorism attack at a BP natural gas plant the main point that is seemingly always missed is who supplied the terrorists with arms. It isn’t really about a gas plant that needs better protection or an Algerian army overzealously riding in guns blazing.

No the real question surely should be how did the Masked Brigade, who claim responsibility, get the funding and arms to launch such an attack and kill 80 or so people. Or so the media have us believe. Could of course be more or even less one hopes.

It’s the same weird logic that keeps the Americans in guns. There would not be the same killings in schools or movie theatres by gun madmen, however unhinged they might be, if they could not get hold of guns. Throwing knives isn’t really an alternative option.

Don’t allow the selling of guns to anybody in America and you would have a considerable fall off of random shootings in public spaces.

Same principle applies to terrorist groups. Do not sell guns to anybody. And you would have a fall off of terrorism.

For instance Germany, upstanding citizens and all of that, have one of the largest armament industries in the world and in fact are the third largest arms exporters in the world. In 2011 exports topped €10Billion, of which 42% went to third-party states outside NATO. In particular Saudi Arabia is a faithful customer. And one asks how many of these arms could end up in Islamist terrorist groups?

So before anybody else blames Algeria for this disaster, ask yourself the question:- who is giving terrorists the arms and ammunition to wage these wars.  Who is making the money.

What would you change about yourself?

A blog I follow mentioned this link to a documentary. The question asked to intellectually disabled people was whether they would change anything about themselves. The answers were surprising.

What do you think somebody would say asked this question? Somebody with Down’s Syndrome for instance who has struggled all his life to be recognised as a person rather than some freak of nature. What would you think this person would want to change about themselves?

Get more intellectual capacity? Be clever?

Many of the people who got the chance to answer this question wished themselves to be nicer people! Sitting in a wheelchair would you think that ‘being nicer to people’ would be something you would want to change?

Shouldn’t that get us thinking about disability? Isn’t our reaction one of pity towards people with disabilities? We feel sorry for folk in wheelchairs. We think they have something major missing in their lives if they can’t walk like we do.

We disregard people who speak slowly and appear to us to have primitive thinking processes. We look down on people who couldn’t cope with the school system. Or people who can’t look after themselves without help.

Perhaps, people with disabilities don’t want to be pitied. Maybe they are happy with what they got given in life. It’s our attitude that needs changing.

Every life has value. Every person can enrich another person’s life. In whatever way. There are no prescriptions, no rules that determine how we should enjoy this life. It’s up to us.

So what would you change about yourself? And what do you think about disabled people? Do you pity and cross the road to try and avoid them or do you see them as people who could enrich your own life experience?

Too much going out and not enough coming in

Here is a great example of what’s going wrong with the economy world wide. This one is about the US Postal Services that’s on the skids. Well, dead actually. Hoping to get a hefty bailout from the government to try and survive a few more months.

The US Postal Service is government regulated. It has one particular nasty law that states:

The law prevents the post office from raising postage fees faster than inflation.

At the same time the Post Office has labour contracts that have long guaranteed no layoffs to the vast majority of its workers. And management agreed to a new no layoff-clause in a major contract last May.

In a nutshell. Can’t cut cost and can’t raise prices. The end is nigh.

It’s the very same problem facing governments of countries. Of course most of them like the UK are in a major cutting mode. Mostly services that make life easier will be shut down by Govt who hopes that the people will take the slack. Help themselves so to speak.

But where’s the increase in revenue? Taxes for the wealthy or for companies. Higher luxury goods taxes for instance such as alcohol, 5 star hotels, first class travel, luxury motor vehicles. There is more than one way to get the filthy loot out of the wealthy 1% of the population who own about 40% of all wealth, globally. Or more shockingly in the USA the top 20% own 92% of all wealth.

Using the same tax system across the board, as happens in most cases of a tax systems , the middle class is the group of folk who carry the bulk of the tax burden. Remember that taxes were first introduced to get money out of the ordinary folk to pay for excessive spending by monarchs or the church. Not much has changed since then.

It’s shown again and again by the determined manner in which the Inland Revenue folk hunt down ordinary folk to make sure they pay their last cent in taxes. Yet the wealthy are able to hide their income by paying their cars through companies, taking their holidays as business trips, newspaper subscriptions through the business, clothes expenses hidden as uniform purchases, that case of expensive scotch as Xmas gifts to customers and the list goes on. I’ve done it as accountant for a company. Easy.

That tax system needs to change to make sure that revenue is collected from the wealthy. High taxes on luxury cruises, ski trips, high end clothing etc will be more appropriate than trying to tax their ‘salaries’. They don’t earn anything.

There has to be an entire mind change in terms of taxation. And of course all of this can be implemented. The VAT system in the UK for instance is incredibly sophisticated with exemptions, scales and variations that could make anybody’s hair stand on edge. What’s stopping the UK from introducing a 50% VAT rate on first class train travel, expensive entertainment centres, art work etc. And yes there is already a high import tax paid on many of these items. But there’s no reason why not let that 20% population that owns 90% of all wealth pay a bit more.

Well, you might ask yourself, why should they. It’s capitalism. It’s reward for risk takers, hard work, innovation, the American dream and a lot more reasons why the wealthy should be entitled to their spoils.

Sure. But when it involves stealing from the general population it’s a bit different. The CEO’s paying themselves 17% more this past financial year while retrenching the workers at a rapid rate are doing just that. If Apple’s past CEO could pay himself $1 per year because he considered his wealth to be sufficient then surely the rest of the greedy big shots can do the same.

Regardless of the little man as that’s not really the point here. The point is that if Governments want to be able to balance their budgets they have to do two things. Bring in more revenue and cut costs. Only cutting costs means that the poorer folk in the system are harmed again and the wealthy folk sit pretty.

Not a good system. The Arab world’s uprising will not be the only one. There are already demonstrations in several non Arab countries. Spain has had some and more recently Israel has had it’s streets full of people asking why their cost of living is so high and their standard of living is falling. And yet they are working as hard as ever.

These demonstrations have nothing to do with lazy, unmotivated, scum of the earth type of folk. This is all about ordinary citizens seeing the world go to the wealthy and their lot getting worse. The Greeks in particular have seen a Govt system where the ordinary folk pay taxes and the upper echelon swims in money. No wonder they are angry.

There will be more and more angry people out there. A French Revolution in the brewing. It’s just a pity that as history tells us one money grabbing regime is always replaced by another money grabbing one. It just gets a different name with a new bunch of people who have spotted the opportunity of being able to the top of the money tree by riding the wave of the ordinary people.

Same ol’ Same ol’. Pity us ordinary folk are always so willing to abdicate our power to somebody who stands up and says they will do it for us. We almost deserve to get nailed by the ruthless top order. Almost.

Yeah Can designs for Hope Center

New bookmark for Hope Center by Yeah Can designs.

It’s unusual for a brand new design studio to start off it’s client list with a free service. But that’s exactly what happened when Yeah Can took on the Hope Center in Hue Vietnam as a client.

The Hope Center is a small organisation that looks after disabled, disadvantaged people and a minority group the A Luoi by providing them with vocational training and work. It provides a loving and encouraging home environment to people in need.

The Center has been providing training in tailoring skills since it opened its doors in 1991. Graduates of courses are able to work in production making uniforms. The Hope Center has a well deserved reputation in Hue City and surrounds for its high quality and reasonably priced uniforms.

More recently the Center also started making handicraft products to tap into the creative talents of Vietnamese people. Vietnamese people have a natural ability when it comes to selecting colours and making beautiful patterns. Handicraft production fits perfectly into this.

Besides the classic small gifts and jewellery items produced there are also products made from the traditional handwoven fabric that the A Luoi weavers make. The beautiful colours are enriched by clever use of beads to enhance motifs and designs handed down from generation to generation.

The Hope Center’s graphic design requirements were for an upgraded corporate identity, material to promote the center and it’s services and products and a new web site. There are also plans for new signs for the building and the interior of a new shop.

It’s going well and new business cards and bookmarks to hand out to visitors have been printed and the new site is taking shape. Hope Center staff are so enthusiastic about the new look that they have come up with the idea of new uniforms for themselves incorporating the new colours. They are going to look great!

Everything of the very best for Yeah Can design studio and the Hope Center in Hue Vietnam. May they both grow from strength to strength!

A send off with a difference

The death of a loved one is celebrated quite differently in diverse cultures. Funeral customs are definitely strange to Western visitors to Vietnam. And there’s no better place to find out than when your next door neighbour dies unexpectedly or expectedly.

In this instance it seems an unexpected passing away. Granny was only 68 and she died at 2.00am. By mid morning the funeral preparations had started and the first signs of what was to come were to be heard around the area.

In the alley tables had been set up with a shade cloth draped from a building to a building on the other side of the alley. The band arrived and the shrine had been set up showing a picture of the person who had died. Incense burning and flowers, offerings all made a display.

In terms of unexpected, the immediate family only started wearing their white head scarfs by lunchtime. But the sound system had been set up and the band was playing well before then. And played for most of the day. Only to be interrupted by the odd breather or refreshment. A singer contributed his bit too on occasion.

One thing is for sure, the music played at these events is totally suited for a funeral. For a somewhat lengthy but very interesting podcast on this music go here. Lament, dirge, painful are words that one would associate with it. There is no mistaking that this is a sad happening. And it’s also not a shame to cry loudly and with passion. And a further article may be found here.

How different it is in places such as England or Germany where the less noise the more dignified the funeral is deemed to be. Church music is played that soothes the people attending and allows them to blank out any feelings. And the quicker it’s over the better.

Not here. This music will continue until the procession leaves the house scheduled in this instance for the next morning. And in fact the lament can continue for up to three days. It probably depends on how far relatives and friends need to travel in order to pay their last respects.

There is no way that one can ignore this rite of passage  if one lives in the area. You have to walk through the area on your way to anywhere. There is no getting around bowing ones head and looking respectful. A bunch of white flowers or the burning of incense should have been undertaken too.

Death becomes a communal affair with all parties contributing their sorrow and sympathy. It’s a part of Asia and in this case Vietnam more specifically that is precious. The woman next door had lived with the extended family as is custom.

Her many friends that came to keep the mourners company would have been local too and the people who brought their own small chairs and lined the adjoining alleys would have all known the deceased and each other.

It’s something the big city life in the West has lost – that sense of community where people from your immediate environment know you and appreciate your existence. It’s a good thing that has been lost.

Who asked the USA to be the morals police

Daimler agrees to pay $185m after admitting to bribery charges. These charges were made by the US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission on the strength of an investigation into the company’s global sales practices.

The question that needs answering is why the US would charge a German company for bribery they committed in foreign countries i.e. not in the USA. Is this the American way of bringing in money to fund it’s various financial bail-out activities or job creation programmes one wonders.

The crimes were committed by Daimler’s German-based exports subsidiary Export and Trade Finance and the Russian business Mercedes-Benz in Russia. So how does the USA fit into this picture?

Is this now the moral police or is it a money making racket by the US government agencies.

Now there is no doubt that Daimler paid out bribes. Daimler has no problem with admitting to this. They also state that they are cleaning up their house and a fair number of people have been fired.

So the issue is not whether Daimler paid a bribe or not. It’s accepted that they did and on many occasions. The issue centres around why the USA should think they are the world wide morals police and how they come to be charging this company operating in another country.  Surely the German government should have brought this action?

But talking about bribery and corruption, the USA is not exactly the country of virtue and lily white hands. Alone the lobbying industry so popular in Washington smacks of bribery and corruption. But if one gives it a name and places it in broad daylight for all to see then suddenly it isn’t bribery anymore. Is bribery only bad if it’s done underhand?

However, going back to the issue of jurisdiction because this is what it’s about after all, does this process recently completed in the USA mean that anybody bribing somebody in the rest of the world can be charged in the USA?

Your company is registered and headquartered in Vietnam for instance where bribery and corruption is part of doing business. It’s an overhead. Don’t open a business if you are not going to pay bribes.

Suddenly you get fined by the US Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission. You’ve been caught paying bribes. Well yes, it’s the only way to do business in Vietnam. Can’t exist without it. Even non-profits have to play the bribery game.

But the US Justice Department calls it a crime and you get fined. Is anybody safe from the long arm of this particular law enforcement agency?

Daimler’s case is not an isolated incident.  German industrial group Siemens paid $800m in 2008 to settle a US investigation into bribes paid by the company to government officials in Argentina, Bangladesh, Iraq and Venezuela.

That’s almost $1bn.. Will come in handy when trying to balance the budget in the US one supposes.

A few years of this kind of moral policing and collection of revenue could end up being quite lucrative to the US government. Might allow them to pay for all the bail-outs that have to be made to thieving, lying and law-bending US based banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions.

How long does it take for us to get corrupt

Quite a question to push out a few weeks before Xmas where it’s all about rewarding good behaviour! However, it’s a question that came up yesterday at an International Volunteers Day celebration in Hanoi.

A new volunteer, that is new to Vietnam, had just experienced her first two weeks at work in a fairly remote Northern Province city. It’s a new VSO partner so virgin territory so to speak.

She had had a busy two weeks being taken around and shown off as The Volunteer. Happens all the time in Vietnam. Volunteers are considered a sign of respectability. You got one of those? Good, you’re in.

During her recounting of her work she mentioned that she had brought more books than clothes and the University she is attached to grabbed them to copy them. She sort of wondered whether that might be legal or not. She’s from a European country.

The Canadian volunteer and myself, her audience, fell about laughing. What a question to have from a European person. Copyright infringement should surely be something everybody in the developed world knows about. Or so one would imagine.

What it did do though, this outrageous statement, make us reflect on how quickly we as volunteers could get corrupt ourselves – not that we necessarily consider the new volunteer corrupt I hasten to add. There was an exercise we did during our pre-placement training which made us reflect on when our moral barometer would kick in.

At what stage did we think the particular example of corruption was now wrong and what corrupt and illegal activity did we feel we wanted to allow because it would lead to doing some good.

At what stage would we consider the end would justify the means was the question we reflected upon. At the time we all had very strong ideas of right and wrong and where we would draw the line. Yet here was a volunteer two weeks into her placement and she was already breaking an international law.

But then you (and I) would be inclined to defend her action by saying that everybody copies books, music, designs and other easy to copy intellectual property.

Well exactly.

But what’s next? Do we shrug our shoulders when we see bribery openly discussed? Or do we buy into that too?

Let me give you an example. The Centre I work at trains up young disabled people in handicraft skills and at the same time sources business to give them employment should they not find employment with their new skills.

The Director has a great vision of building a model village at a more outlying area of Hanoi and has the land in mind, and in fact is renting it already, that would serve this purpose beautifully. Negotiations are quite far along to give her the land for the Centre, an NGO,. for an extensive lease period at little or no cost.

What is stalling the process? A bribe so large that she just doesn’t have the money for it. And what’s more, we have an interested donor to pay for the buildings.  What do you do? Do you find a donor to pay for the bribe?

Do you invent a project so that you can get the money to pay the bribe? Do you even know if this is the last bribe or are there more to come?

And what makes this situation any different to many others worldwide? It’s just the bribe that looks different surely. In the USA you might need that amount of money to pay for a lobbyist.  Actually probably a lot more!

In South Africa a decent sized motor vehicle usually does the trick. In fact talking moral issues here. here’s another one for you. Should BMW allow it’s cars to be bought for bribery purposes? Good question isn’t it?

So where do you think you would draw the line? And at what stage, and with what humanitarian outcome at stake, would you bow to the dirty tricks the world constantly dishes up to us? Got you scratching your head, I would imagine.

When does genius become acceptable

We come across the concept of tipping point mostly in popular culture, business or in trends. At which point does a smart phone move from being a gadget for the elite to an everyman’s have to have tool. Or an iPod becomes common.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava


When does that happen?

The thought crossed my mind when I came across an amazing architect called Santiago Calatrava. Or at least I found pictures of some of his building designs. They are breathtakingly different and beautiful and unbelievably courageous.

At what stage did another human decide that this so obviously different architectural style was safe enough to invest in. Because that is the question isn’t. When was the tipping point.

Because at some stage, once a few of us ordinary mortals have realised what magnificent work this is, then the reputation is made. He can design anything really and it will be approved.

How many beautiful buildings did he need to have designed and built before people thought of him as first choice. For instance the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Did somebody on the committee say, yes we have to have this architect?

As human beings we have the propensity to play it safe.We tend not to take risks and most of us have most ordinary tastes and opinions. We do safe and bland very well.

Just look at the houses we live in. The one is the same as the next. There are whole roads of same. We have the same kind of furniture, the same colours dictated by some fashion guru and we buy the same accessories.

In fact at one stage you could see which decade people got married by the furniture and colour schemes in their homes. Only reason that is no longer true is that marriages don’t last anymore.

This is us. No denying it. So how does an extraordinary designer get away designing and building these wonderful bridges, stadiums, buildings when we the public are so uninspiringly ordinary?

But there’s more! We ordinary folk can’t actually imagine the finished product if we see a sketch or architectural plans. It’s one of the biggest headaches architects have. Their clients cannot imagine what the completed building is going to look like.

And remember that buildings are not cheap. Bridges, especially the type this genius has designed, require extra special expertise and workmanship to make them happen. No ordinary concrete blocks, these designs.

Can you imagine what it must have taken to sell his first designs. According to Wikipedia it took ten years of his practice until he was allowed to build his first special project in Barcelona. He added the qualification of civil engineering to his portfolio of skills and his bridges are magnificent.

All I can say is thank goodness there was at least one if not a few brave people who had the capital resources available to them to be able to be the first to use this wonderful designer’s work and deliver a stamp of approval. It would have been a great loss if that had never happened.