A Roo of One’s Own

February 19, 2011

America has it’s own Roo!

He’s a Republican Congressman, Tom Rooney, from Florida, and he gave John ‘Boo Hoo’ Boehner’s a lot to cry about the other day.   More on him later.   But first, let’s settle a controversy that fires many a barroom debate:  what sport features the the better athletes:   soccer, football, baseball, basketball, tennis, etc?

I believe the matter was settled definitively by Wayne Rooney’s upper 90 bicycle kick, described in this space last week.   Granted, it takes superb coordination to lace a 100 mph fast ball out of the park, return an Andy Roddick 150 mph serve, leap through a forest of seven foot high millionaires to make a basket — but these guys do all this with their hands!   Just like the famous observation that Ginger did everything Fred did, but in high heels and while moving backwards, Wayne Rooney picked a rocketing cross out of the air with his foot, while he was upside down, and drilled it into the upper corner of the goal!

But it was an unusual alliance of conservatives and liberals trying to cut the deficit who were crying GOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the other day when the $3 billion extra engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter went down to defeat.    Nearly everyone opposed it, including the Secretary of Defense, but usually that doesn’t matter, especially when the project will bring jobs to home state of the Speaker of the House — in this case Boehner of Ohio.

I was there, outside Boehner’s office, my ear to the keyhole, when he took Congressman Rooney to task after the historic vote:

Boo:   You knifed me in the back, Tom, and I won’t soon forget it.  

Roo:   Boo, I’m confused here.   You said when we took power we were going to cut the deficit.

Boo:    Yes, but not by cutting my pork spending!    You killed a project that would benefit my constituents and my corporate paymasters!   Those are the people who bankrolled my campaign and put me in this office! 

Roo:   But you kept saying “We’re broke”!   And that we had to make sacrifices!

Boo:   Not us!  I was talking about the Democrats and their constituents making sacrifices!   Jesus, Tom, and that’s not the worse of it.   But cutting defense spending you’ve taken away one of the best weapons we have against the Liberal Dems.   Now how am I going to accuse them of being unpatriotic and trying to weaken America when they push for more cuts in the defense budget?

Roo:   But maybe a strong defense isn’t just about spending money.   I mean, the guy that attacked us on 9/11 spent less than $100,000, and in response we’ve spend trillions and we still haven’t captured him.    In fact, you could argue that spending all that money has actually put us in a weaker position, which is maybe exactly what Bin Laden intended.

Boo:   Is that you talking, Roo?   It doesn’t sound like you.

Roo:   No, it’s that guy with his ear to the keyhole.    He’s doing the Deus Ex Machina thing on me.  

It’s only February, and it’s already a year like no other.

Help me, Cassius, or I sink!

I am nearly at the halfway mark, and, if I had a time machine, I would go into Cervantes’ study, tap him on the shoulder, and initiate the following exchange:

R:    Yo, Mikey.   Got a minute?

C:    (Turning around, fixing me with his bloodshot eyes)   Si?

R:     Whatcha workin’ on?

C:    Quien es Usted?

R:   Just another one of your readers.   From the Year 2011.

C:   (brightening)    Me estan leyendo cinco siglos despues?

R:   Yes, still reading you.   Well……that’s what I wanted to talk about.

C:   (turning fully around)    Sigue.

R:    This Canonist character.    I was thinking.    Is he really…..necessary?    I mean, does he advance the plot in any important way?   ‘Cause, wid all due respect…..I find him a bit……well…….

C:   Aburrido?

R:    Yeah, boring!   That’s it!   I was looking for the right word, but, you….you’re the great writer, of course.    Aburrido.

C:   (eyes welling with tears, clutching his head in his hands)   Ya sabia!

R:    No, no, please!   Don’t take it like that!    Everyone gets writers block now and then!   You’re probably trying to figure out what comes next for El Caballero Andante and his Faithful Escudero, right?    And while you waited for something brilliant to come along you sort of……slotted in……the Canonist.

C:   No te gusta el canonigo?

R:    He’s not your best.  

C:   Lo odias!   Dime la verdad!   Te da asco!

R:     Mikey, take it easy!   I’m just giving you my opinion!   If you don’t want it, don’t ask for it!   What are you doing?  Put down that sword!

For those unfamiliar with the term, “jump the shark” comes from an episode of the long running TV series “Happy Days” when the desperate writers, having tried everything to maintain the viewers’ interest, had the main character water ski over a shark.

Exactly.   

Even the best series seem to fall prey to this, although, haunted by the shark metaphor, today’s screen writers seem to eschew the more far fetched devices in favor of the more mundane.    The Sopranos, for example, commenced it’s demise with the infamous “Johnny Cakes” episode.   Damages, after an impressive first season, decided to start off season 2 by making the incomparable Glenn Close corporate witch character weep.   You can imagine the MALE director selling that one to the actor who created the “bunny boiler”:

“You want me to what?”

“Cry.  You know, like when the Terminator asked Sarah Conner  “Why iz da waddah comin’ from ya ayyz?”

“Somebody call my agent!  Now!”    

But I will press on.   It’s got to get better, right?  It can’t get worse.

Of Mice and Voles

February 14, 2011

I looked up from my Cheerios this morning to see a giant red tailed hawk carrying off a vole in his talons, who, until then, had been happily living in my compost heap in the corner of the back yard.    He seemed to wave to me and say, in parting, “Happy Valentines Day!”

A Vole is a member of the rodent family, but less well known than mice or rats.   There is some history there.   At one time, about a hundred years ago, voles scored equally with mice and rats on the “Rodent Recognition Poll”, held annually in most democratic countries.   That all changed when the mice chose Creative Associates as their agency, and Mickey got his now famous shot on “Tugboat Willy.”     After that, the voles made one bad career move after another, ending, of course, in rehab.  

The sight of that hawk with the hapless vole in his talons got me thinking:   time to update the family crest.   I’ve always loved the Mexican symbol with the Eagle devouring the snake, which the Chichimecs claim is taken from a real incident which led to the founding of Mexico City.   You could easily envisage the conversation taking place between the chief of the Chichimecs and his Aide-de-Camp when confronted with such a spectacle:

Chief:   Okay, if we’ve been looking for an omen, or a portent, of where to found what will be called in the future Mexico City, I think this is it.

AdC:    I don’t know, Quimosabe.  

Chief:   Come on!  What else could it be?

AdC:    Deus ex Machina?

What do you think, would a hawk with a vole have the same staying power?

Walk Like An Egyptian

February 13, 2011

Who sang that, anyway?   Was it “The Bangles”?  Debra Harry?   Annie Lennox?    Someone else?  The first to answer correctly gets to ask “The Mad CEO” a workplace question.

So, he’s gone.   Chillin’ like a villain at Sharm el-Sheikh, where, in an apparently unrelated incident, a tourist was recently devoured by a shark.   At first, I thought ‘Is he crazy’?  Depending on whether the revolution ends here or takes a Robespierran turn, he could be face justice at the hands of an angry mob.  

Then I looked at a map.   Duh.   Saudi ‘Tyrants-R-Us’ Arabia is just a camel’s leap across the Red Sea.   Hosni probably has a nuclear powered sub parked in his swimming pool, ready to sail at a moment’s notice.

Now comes the hard, Egypt.   With the army in control, any changes are likely to fall far short of the wild expectations of the revolutionaries.     The army may have been willing to part with Hosni as a symbolic offering to the mob, but will they roll over as easily if their own privileges and economic interests are threatened?    This is the worst legacy of all “coddle the dictator” foreign policies:   an armed forces that has morphed into a business, with tentacles deep into every sector of the economy.   This same twisted social contract serves to keep all the other members of “Club Tyrant” in power, from Mugabe to Kim to…..take your pick.

Meanwhile, the neighbors are watching anxiously through their drawn shades.    How far will it go?   If it goes only so far, and vested interests are preserved, we may see a few more Heads of State roll (Make room for one more, King Abdullah!)   But if it spins out of control, and the mob pushes for real changes, the blood could reach the river.

Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, check out “Roo’s” bicycle kick goal against Man City.   Say what you will about his private life, the boy has that foot-to-eye coordination down!

With the controversy of Global Warming safely tucked away into its (warm) bed, we can return to topics I know something about.

I was in Managua yesterday, putting on a command performance before the Board Of Directors of the Nicaraguan Central Bank, who we hope will confer a Finance Company license on FINCA Nicaragua, so we can mobilize more resources, reach more clients and offer them a wider range of services. 

In my youth, an audience like this would have sent me into paroxysms of anxiety, as when Eminem appeared on the stage for the first time:

The music, the moment, ya nevah let it go, yo

Ya got one shot, do not blow this opportunity

Comes once in a lifetime, yo

 After which he repaired to the head and blew his guts out.

 I wonder why I like both my parents’ (RIP) music and my kids’ at this stage in my life?  

 The composition of the Nicaraguan Central Bank board is interesting to say the least.   All but one of the members used to wield an AK 47 against the Somoza dictatorship, which they overthrew in 1978.   The head of the Superintendency of Banks (think Federal Reserve), who was also present at the meeting, is married to one of Somoza’s daughters.

 I was in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 1979, when a hit squad ambushed Somoza’s armor-plated Mercedes.  It was obviously a professional operation.   A few blocks from Somoza’s mansion in an upscale Asuncion neighborhood, a gunman emerged from the right side of the road, drawing the attention of the driver and fire from Somoza’s bodyguard.   The bazooka guy popped out from his cover on the left side, and fired a round which pried the roof off the Mercedes, decapitating Nicaragua’s former President.

 From Asuncion, I went to Managua, just in time for the wild celebration.   (I’m not asking you to make any connection here.   Though my friends did; they were convinced I was involved in the operation)  

Damn, I have a lot of stories!   People are always telling me:  “You should write a book.”

Wait a minute, I have!   63 days to Release Day!

Interesting that, after all the effort by the Reagan Administration, all the money, all the lives lost in the civil wars in Central America, we have today leftist governments in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, populated by former guerrillas.  Not the result Ronnie had in mind.  More interesting, they arrived via the ballot box.  They didn’t shoot their way into power this time as they did in 1979.   Eleven years later, over confident, they got booted out by Violeta Chamorro, only to return to power in 2006 after the conservative candidate, Aleman, discredited his party with his blatant corruption.

But here is the amazing part:  in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, the right wing elements in those two countries are accepting this result peacefully.

Is Central America a hopeful portent for what might eventually occur in other regions in conflict, like the Middle East, if we are just patient enough?   And if so, what lessons, if any, does the Central American Solution hold for that part of the world, in terms of a Path to Peace?

 A recent Op Ed in the Washington Post had the temerity to suggest that, in the case of Egypt, we might be in a better position today to help steer that country in a healthier direction (for us) had we more openly supported the democratic, centrist elements in the population vs. “coddling” our Despot of the Day (and the past 30 years), Hosni Mubarak.

 This reminds me of when I was on a tennis court with Ambassador Dean Hinton, in El Salvador, in 1983.   We had just played an energetic doubles match, and Hinton wanted to vent his frustration with my boss, Wild Bill Doherty, Executive Director of the AFL CIO’s labor program in Latin America.

 “A real bunch of amateurs,” Hinton growled, as we drank cerveza Suprema, post match.  “That’s why you guys are,.”  He brandished his racquet at me.  “And you can tell Bill Doherty I said that!”

As with most great comebacks, I didn’t think of mine until a few days later:   “Well, Dean, I guess when the professionals screw up, we turn to the amateurs for solutions.”  

 If you’ve been following this blog, I was referring to the sweeping land reform program my colleagues and I designed and thrust upon the shaky Revolutionary Junta, which, after implemented, created for them an overnight constituency of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers and their families, and broke the momentum of the guerrillas seeking to overthrow them.

That political coup had only been possible thanks to my martyred boss, Mike Hammer, who had worked for years during the 60s and 70s supporting the Salvadoran peasant farmers, persuading them that they could achieve their aspirations through peaceful, democratic means, vs. joining the armed insurrection.   This, in sharp contrast to the Conventional State Department Wisdom which held that we had to support right wing dictators as the only viable alternative to communist insurgencies.

 In that board room of the Nicaraguan Central Bank, 33 years later, one thing was going through my head: 

 I mean, they came to power anyway, for Christ sake!  The end result was the same!

 Speaking of Sisyphaen undertakings.   The morning of the meeting I noticed, in the Nicaraguan Prensa Libre, a photo of one of my old running buddies from the El Salvador days, Bill Brownfield, who has risen through the ranks to the point where he has a title rivaling that of Idi Amin:   Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.   Bill was next door in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, announcing that the State Department will spend $200 million fighting the war on drugs in Latin America.   My CFO for Mexico recently told me that a “corner boy” in Mexico now pulls down an average of two large a day, or $60,000 a month.

 Good luck with that one, Bill.

 I can imagine a conversation between the Head of Narcotics in – take your pick – any given Central American Republic, and the top Drug Lord in the country:

 Head of Narcotics (HON):    Am I speaking with El Rey de Las Drogas?

 Top Drug Lord (TDL):    Who wants to know?

 HON:    Chepe, it’s me.    La Cabeza Anti Droga de la Republica

 TDL:    Oh, oh oh.    ‘Sup Dog?   Hey, congrats, saw you’re gonna get a few million to fight the War on Drugs!   Man, I’m scared now!

 HON:   Shut yo’ mouth.   Got a proposition for you.

 TDL:   Lay it on me.

 HON:    Who’s your biggest competitor right now?

 TDL:     Dude named El Gordo.   Wasted one of my homies the other day.  Chopped his cabeza clean off.   Set it up on the highway like a lane divider.  

 HON:    Tell me about it.  What happened to just a plain old .45 entre los ojos?   What would it be worth to you if I, you know, made him disappear?

TDL:   You could make that happen?   (skeptical)   Just how you gonna do that?”

 HON:   (laughing)   With the millions I just got from this Brownfield cat, how you think!”

I wish I could say I made that up.   It went down EXACTLY like that in Mexico.

 Damn, it’s hard to stay on message!   Diane, where are you!   Diane!

 We’ll pick this up – with another contest and valuable prizes!  — over the weekend. 

 In the meantime, please weigh in, if so are so inclined, on this “Coddle the Dictator vs. Support Grassroots Democracy” trade off.     And don’t tell me it’s a “false choice” – unless you think it really is.

Global Warming Solved!

February 7, 2011

As promised, today we get at the root cause of one of our most vexing problems, Global Warming.  As to whether human activity is the cause of global warming, scientists are equally divided —  99% say yes, 1% no.   However, a new study from the the recently opened Ronald Reagan Meteorological Studies Center* weighs in heavily on the side that human activity has absolutely nothing to do with rising sea temperatures or any of the other supposed symptoms of a planet on the verge of boiling its inhabitants alive sometime in the not-too-distant future.

*  A law enacted by the 122th Congress makes it a felony to name any new building after anyone but Ronald Reagan

The real cause of Global Warming ?  

If you guessed Sciurus carolinensis, aka, the Grey Squirrel, congratulations!    But don’t fire up that Hummer or coal furnace just yet.  Bear with me while I walk you through the latest science.

Grey Squirrels originated in the UK, millions of years ago, and emigrated to America about the same time as the first settlers, and for the same reason:   religious persecution.   Squirrels are the chief source of Squithane, which has a molecular makeup similar to it’s bovine cousin, methane, but  is 100 times more destructive to the ozone layer than methane.   And, as chief researcher at the Reagan center, Cleetus Hule, explains, squithane becomes even more dangerous when combined with the sparks set off by a squirrel attempting to cross a street in heavy traffic.     How so?  I asked him in a telephone interview.

“You ever watch one them critters trying to cross a road in heavy traffic?   You’ve seen them standing on the curb, up on their hind legs, right?  Makin’ eye contact?   You know what theys thinkin’.   They’s thinking, this driver, he’s, like, probably one of them animal lovers, so likely as not he’s gonna stop and let me run across.”

“So the squirrel starts across.    But when he gets 1/2 way, and the driver ain’t slowed down a bit, you can almost see a little bubble comin’ out of his head:   ‘Huh, maybe this guy isn’t an animal lover.   Maybe if I keep going, he’s going to run over my head with his left front tire.”

‘So he starts back to the curb.   But by this time, there’s a car coming in the other direction.    So he slams on the brakes, digging his nails into the asphalt.   If you ever seen a squirrel crossing a road at night, you’ll see little sparks coming off his feet.’

These sparks, Hule explains, are what converts squithane into an even more powerful reagent, “Acornite”, which could even be a whole new element.

What is acornite, and why should we fear it?

“We don’t know,” says Hule.   “But we can assume it intends to do us harm.”

Hule has also localized the greatest concentrations of both squithane and acornite in the world, and you will never guess where that is.

Hyde Park, London.

Consider this:   Every year, millions of foreign tourists pass through London, and the vast majority of them visit Hyde Park at least once.   When they do, you can see them positively enraputured by the very tame grey squirrels, standing up on their hind legs, begging for peanuts and bits of cracker.

IF YOU VISIT HYDE PARK IN THE NEAR FUTURE, AND YOU SEE SOMEONE ATTEMPTING TO FEED THE SQUIRRELS, PLEASE ALERT THE NEAREST CONSTABLE, OR, IF NO POLICE IS IN THE AREA, FOLLOW THESE SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS:

1.  Unzip your jacket.

2.   Spread the panels open

3.  Leap through the air towards the person feeding the squirrels.    The panels of your jacket will puff out with air, giving you additional loft (think Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and enabling you to reach the offender, knock the peanuts out of his hand, and land safely a few feet away.

You will have just saved 100 Polar Bears.

Happy Birthday, Ronnie!

February 6, 2011

Now, say what you will about our 40th President, the cat knew how to plan ahead.   Synching his 100th birthday with the 45th Super Bowl — no accident, I say.  

Americans have always had a soft spot for Ronnie.   It’s somewhere at the back of our skulls, which, normally, houses the higher functions of reason and logic.   When his smiling face appears on the screen, when he begins to intone, with that lovable wobbling of the head:  “Ya know……”      Even if we know it can’t be true, he makes us want to believe it.   It is said that when his Budget Chief, David Stockman, tried to tell his President that he could not balance the budget by spending more than he took in in tax revenues, Ronnie, looking baffled, asked “Why not?”

Stockman was purportedly so disillusioned with Washington’s dysfunctional culture, he went  back to Wall Street, where he was accused (but never convicted) of duping investors and running his investment company into the ground.    He’s a complex fellow.   He advocates raising taxes on the rich.   He was my neighbor when I lived on Dupont Circle back in the 1980s.   Rahm Emmanuel once rented my condo.   I was at a Hollywood soiree  a few years ago with Rahm’s brother, the real life “Ari” from “Entourage”.    Some call this “degrees of separation”.    In Washington, this is all the cache you need to claim someone as “a Dear Friend.”    As in, “Oh, yeah, Rahm, Ari and I are dear friends.”         

My own relationship with Ronnie is also complex, as well as nuanced.    (Everything these days is “nuanced”.   If not, it has  “subtext”.   It is both nuanced and has subtext, see a doctor immediately.)    Twenty years ago, I began work on a novel “Ronnie’s Greenhouse”.    The novel took place in the year 2050.   The Republican Party, greatly diminished after a string of electoral defeats, desperate to recover the black magic of the Reagan years, sends a forensic team out into the environs of Bel Air, California, in search of Ronnie’s DNA.   They strike paydirt:   Many years ago, Ronnie’s horse, Jelly Bean, threw him onto a cactus, leaving a minute sample on one of the thorns.   From this, they reconstruct “Ronnie II”.   The battle over whether Ronnie II is, in fact, a different person and eligible to run, rages at the level of the Supreme Court.   Clarence Thomas casts the tie breaking vote.   Ronnie II is in!

That’s as far as I got.   Jessica, my agent, has promised me that if “Handbook” does well, she will help me market “Ronnie’s Greenhouse”.    Come on, now, Jessica, you promised!

All right:   to work.   Anonymous, co-winner of the Oscar Wilde quote, has two questions, one of which is “light hearted”, and the other “a little more serious”.    I don’t know if I’m subverting blog protocol by answering here vs. in the comment chain, but here we go.   

Light hearted question goes to the thorny, timely issue of profits earned by microfinance companies.   “While I am a firm believer that microfinance is a good thing, does it remain “good” when the people who are lending make huge profits?”

Whew, if that’s “light hearted”, does descending into a Black Hole feel like a walk through the Gardens at Giverney on a sunshine shot day in May?     Never mind.   Let’s answer the question.

There are warring perspectives on this, vying for the heart and mind of public opinion.    At one end of the spectrum is Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which was originally funded with grant money, but now is capitalized mainly through savings of its client-members:  6 million low income Bangladeshi microentrepreneurs.

For most of the brief history of microfinance, practitioners followed the lead of Yunus, building their MFIs first with donations, and then “graduating” to more traditional financial structures like commercial banks and finance companies, although these were specialized institutions focusing on the mission of helping people in developing countries escape poverty.

About ten years ago, some practitioners, inspired by the example of Silicon Valley, questioned whether the same model that made software industry entrepreneurs rich could work in the microfinance field.   This involved making an “angel investment” in a young MFI, then scaling it up rapidly so that revenues and profits grow at astronomical rates, resulting in a high “valuation” (say, 10 times book value) when the company goes public, producing a massive “pay day” for the founding investors.    The first to try this model was a company named Compartamos in Mexico, where the founding board members and management team made as much as $50 million each.   The second was in India, when a company named SKS scaled up a warp speed, growing from several hundred thousand clients to 9 million in a few years, leading to an IPO which turned its founder into a multi millionaire.   

People like Yunus and many others were scandalized by this use of microfinance, a tool associated with helping poor people, to make people rich.    

The practioners in Compartamos and SKS, however, argue that they are still “good guys” (albiet now multi-millionaire good guys) and that the Venture Capital model was the only way they could raise sufficient capital, quickly, to scale up their MFIs and enable them to help millions of clients quickly.

They have a point.    However, they also have created two big problems, both for themselves and the industry.   

The first problem is that they have tarnished the crown of the whole microfinance industry, which for a long time was considered to be driven by the purest of motives:  helping people get out of poverty.    This “halo” was tremendously useful in gaining the support of individuals, governments, and bank regulators, who were often willing to go the extra mile to help MFIs carry out their missions.    Now, sadly, we are perceived by many to be just as bad or worse than the pirates on Wall Street who crashed the Global financial systems and reaped massive profits in the process.

The second — and to my mind, larger — problem is what this rapid scaling up to create value has done to the clients, at least in the Indian case.    It has over indebted many of them, and, if we are to believe the local politicans in the Indian state Andar Pradesh, even driven some to suicide.

To say the least, this is not what those of us who founded the movement had in mind for the future of the industry.

Is there another path?    I believe there is.    It lies in the potential of “social investors” — or “impact investors”, as they have come to be called — to provide the capital to scale up the industry, and in a way that does not require the extraction of mega profits, but rather leaves the lion’s share of the fruits of their labors with the clients themselves.

I better stop here, or I won’t have space for the “serious” question on office dress etiquette, or, as Anonymous puts it: 

Do you, as CEO, ever feel the need to wear yellow check trousers, red sweater and yellow check scarf when at the office, and do you ever have to speak to people in rhyming couplets?

 

How did you know?   Most days, I spend a full hour before the full length mirror in my bedroom, trying on different ensembles until my wife tears the clothes from my hands and forces me into something she thinks won’t force everyone at FINCA HQ to put on a welder’s helmet.  

By God, I see the word count is at 1244.    Sorry ’bout that.    We won’t get to Global Warming today.   But as Scarlet said:  “We’ll worry about that tomorrow!”

I’m going through a rough patch with Don Quixote right now.    I feel like Ed Stafford, that mad Brit who treked the length of the Amazon river over the course of 860 days — and for what?   What was he/am I trying to prove?

I suppose it was worth discovering that “timeless” books — especially ones over 1,000 pages — can have some very “untimeless” passages.    The part I just slogged through was a pointless exchange between a priest and someone referred to as a “canonigo”, which sent me fleeing to my Casell’s Dictionary (which is, uncannily, 7.5  inches thick, same as my edition of Don Quixote) to find the translation “canonist”, which sent me fleeing to my Oxford Dictionary, only to learn that, instead of being an artillery sergeant,  is someone who traffics in “sacred texts”.    The priest and the canonist kept me spellbound for 21 pages while they discussed out of print romantic novels, the kind you would find today in the checkout line of the Safeway.   

I’m sure things will pick up.

I went down to El Salvador last week, to check up on FINCA’s program there.   FINCA El Salvador is one of our remedial programs, having once  been a star in our firmament, but more recently one of our few under performers.    We have a number of important initiatives, like figuring out how to transform our NGO into a legal entity with the ability to provide more products and services to our clients, which for some reason had been stuck on spin cycle.   I learned the importance of casting a jaundiced “eye of the owner” on a program at certain key junctures in its development, which has the salubrious effect of energizing everyone to put the house in order before the boss steps off the plane.  

There were multiple problems with the program, all of them self-inflicted, I am sorry to confess.   We had made serial bad hires — people who in my book I describe as “Destroyers”, either of the “Proactive” or “Passive” kind.   A Proactive Destroyer is someone who means well but, through their incompetence, drives off all the good talent and runs the program into the ground.    A Passive Destroyer is a time server who makes an unspoken contract with the staff not to rat him out while he puts the operation on autopilot — and a gradual but steady downward trajectory.   

The program is on a more positive trajectory now, thanks to our young, energetic director, but the environment for microfinance in El Salvador has grown challenging, owing to high levels of indebtedness and a deteriorating security situation.    I went out to visit our office in Apopa, a little town outside of San Salvador, where we recently opened for business in the heart of the market place.   Every single little shop had a guard in the doorway, armed with a shotgun.   The staff told me that when they do credit analysis with our clients, many of them include a line item for “protection payments” extorted from them by the local gangs in their expense budgets.  

The security problem isn’t limited to El Salvador, of course.   A recent trend is that many of the Mexican drug lords are relocating to Central America, where they aren’t pursued by the armed forces as aggressively as in Mexico.   The attached photo was taken from one of our branch offices in Honduras.   It depicts the untimely demise at the business end of a 9 mm of a local drug lord’s son, whose nom de guerre was “Chepe Tortilla”.  

RIP Chepe Tortilla

It’s just another variable in the immensely challenging business of trying to lift up poor people in Developing Countries.   Talking to our young, enthusiastic staff, which includes four Americans,  three women and a guy, you would never know they do the impossible on a daily basis.         

Tomorrow:   The same right wing research think tank that brought us “Guns Don’t Kill People, Bananas Do”, releases another landmark study:  “Human Activity Does not Cause Global Warming”     The real culprit?   Sciurus Carolinensus.

A Long, Hard Blog

February 4, 2011

As in “slog”, of course.   Why, what were you thinking?

I’m not feeling very “Presidential” today, Diane, so look out!

Diane is my Communications Director, aka “Handler”, in charge of keeping me in line and on message.

She tries.

So, we (remember, you are all part of this pilot) have been at this a little over a month, so it’s time to take stock.  

The site stats way that we have logged 546 “views”.   On one really big day we hit 93.    The daily average seems to run around 15.   Is that good?   I have no idea.

Speaking for myself, I’m having a hell of a good time.  

Not to nag, but no one has responded to yesterday’s contest as yet.   I know,  I know, you’re busy, it’s the end of the week, Super Bowl coming up….    Well, let me make it easy for you.    We’ll do multiple choice.   

The question:  What was Oscar Wilde referring to when he described “the unspeakable in hot pursuit of the inedible”?

a)    A family of rednecks pulling into a fried chicken franchise

b)  Sarah Palin stalking a moose

c)   Any politician seeking any high office

d) a fox hunt

Still no?   All right, a final hint:    Oscar Wilde died about 100 years ago.

That’s for this week, got a plane to catch.   Have a Super Weekend!

W Made Us Do It

February 3, 2011

It seems whenever something good and democratic happens in the world, a Republican steps forward to take credit for having made it happen.    When Gorbachev very sensibly decided to cut out of the arms race before both the Soviet Union and the U.S. went bankrupt, Ronnie was hailed as having made Gorby blink and defeated the Ruskies.   Others have suggested that the massive investments in defense the U.S. made during the Cold War were unnecessary, and had we just huffed and puffed and blow the Berlin Wall down, the Soviet Union and its ridiculous economic model would have collapse on its on, saving us a ton of money and the “need” to run up the first of the gigantic Republican Deficits.    

The most recent example is that W is now being credited by some pundits for setting in motion the wave of democracy sweeping through the Arab world.  

I agree with them.

Yes, you read that correctly.

In the same way that a giant asteroid should be credited for wiping out the dinosaurs (sorry, Sarah.  It wasn’t, as you were told, that Alley Oop clocked them with his club, one by one, until they were all gone), in the same way that the Bubonic Plague gets credit for population control, W should be recognized for his pivotal role in toppling dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt.  

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

You see, it was all part of a Master Plan W and Cheney cooked up, after they first destroyed and then rebuilt Iraq.   As failed Presidential candidate General Wesley Clark once revealed in an NPR interview, the Bush Administration had a plan to knock off the rest of the Arab world, country by country.    The problem was, before they could do it, W maxed our credit cards.   When he tried to charge the next trillion to get the effort to overthrow Iran’s government, his Amex bounced the charge back, together with a massive penalty fee (rumored to be on the order of 25 billion).

So he had to come up with a Plan B, which was destroy the global economy, which in turn created such hardship in the Arab world, that the people finally rebeled.    And it’s working like a charm.

As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the Rest of the Story.”