Oranges and Quakes

I was looking at a juicy orange the other day and it set me thinking about earthquakes and stuff. What’s the connection? Well there isn’t – if you consider just the orange – or just earthquakes. But if you put the two things together, they are connected. Both are natural. And, for most of us, that’s where thinking might stop. With me, that thinking went on.

            I thought about the effect of withdrawing moisture from a fully grown juicy orange. I thought what if someone was to take an orange, a big four inch diameter juicy orange; insert a thin hypodermic needle and extract about 0.001ml of liquid? What would happen?

            For that first insertion, probably no discernible or even measurable effect; unless, of course, one had access to some ultra-sophisticated modern measuring and weighing devices that could accurately measure and weigh to 0.00001grams. I suppose such instruments exist, but I don’t know about them.

            Continuing, though, with these single needle 0.001ml extractions; when would the result of the extractions become noticeable? Would it take 100 extractions? Would it take 1,000?  10,000?

            It’s clear though, that at some point, the effect of the extractions would be noticeable and would produce an effect – an impact. A result. Perhaps it would take 10,000 extractions [10ml]. Perhaps, 20,000 [20ml].  Whatever it took, eventually, there would be an impact. Eventually, an effect.

            Eventually, the orange would be seen as no longer round and juicy. Eventually it would become shriveled and shrunken. The effects of the continuing extractions would change that orange. That orange’s internal infrastructure, its arrangement of slices and ‘pegs’, will change.

            In the 1920’s – that’s over eighty years ago, western oil companies began drilling – inserting the equivalent of hypodermic needles – into the earth in the Middle East. Eighty years ago, these oil drillers began extracting oil – juice – from the earth in small, then large, then larger, then copious amounts.

            Nowadays, oil companies count their daily oil – juice – extractions (they call it output or yield or production) in millions of barrels per day. For over eighty years, big and then bigger oil companies have been sucking a liquid from inside the earth’s innards. Most of that extracting has been concentrated in the Middle East.

            Has that long extraction process caused any difference in the earth’s upper and inner crusts – those things that geologists call ‘tectonic plates’ – the way it would if one had been extracting juice from a plump orange?

            Hmmm! I wondered? Is there – could there – be a connection between the earthquakes and other sub-strata upheavals that seem centred and concentrated in the area of the Middle East and its surrounding global neighbours in the Indian Ocean, Indian sub-continet, east Africa, and eastern Mediterranean?  Is there? Could there be?

            A while back, I was chatting with an American geologist who happened to be taking a busman’s holiday in Bermuda. We were discussing – that is he was talking and I was listening – about water problems in the US’s western desert area [Nevada, Colorado, etc…]. He explained that in the scientific community, there were some concerns about possible significant subterranean changes resulting from increasing usage of artesian wells to extract water and thus re-direct some subterranean water flows. He averred that little was known about it and that there was not much commercial interest or value in studying such esoteric impacts and effects; hence there had there had been little to no research into these unseen matters.

            Thinking about the 2004 tsunami and the recent earthquakes in the Himalayas and the earth shakings in Greece and eastern Africa, I’ve wondered…what about that orange?

 

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NOT PAST

Six decades ago, I was born into a Bermuda that, because I was black, consigned me into the bottom half of Bermuda society. Six decades later, no person in Bermuda is consigned in the same way. Now, birth to a single parent or into a dysfunctional family unit are the primary consigners of place.

            Race isn’t.

            Bermuda probably has more black millionaires per thousand of population than every other place on this earth. Admittedly, counting a Bermuda millionaire may mean just counting a homeowner, but that doesn’t change the dollar reality. Bermuda, with a white minority population, has a black majority government. There are no white faces occupying the government front bench.

            Still there are calls for some kind of reconciliation or rapprochement between blacks and whites. But is that necessary? Is it important? Does it matter?

            Does it really matter that there are places in Bermuda where pockets of people of like kinds gather?  Does it matter that ‘Docksiders’ is considered a white expat hangout; that the ‘Rec’ is a black club; that the AME Church is probably 99% black; that the congregations of Bermuda’s Lutheran Church may be 95% white; that ‘horse-racing’ is white and ‘motor-cross’ is black? Does it matter?

            I have little in common with a profane [I prefer clean language], beer-swilling [I prefer wine, and red wine, at that], inarticulate [I prefer intelligent conversation] person whose only interest is yesterday’s ‘game’.  No matter what colour or who that person is, I will not encourage his proximate presence.

            I, and all other Bermudians, have emerged from the separated worlds into which we were consigned at birth to one world where the people who traipse through my life – and through whose lives I traipse – are both black and white.  If I tell you that my niece has a son – you cannot tell if I’m describing a white or black person. The people who regularly turn up on my doorstep are of either race.

            In the recent past, in various public utterances, a few people – a tiny few – have looked back at Bermuda’s past and at past global history. They’ve brought forward issues of the past.  They talk of both reconciliation and revenge in a time where most young Bermudians have achieved a high degree of togetherness and are happily mixing and sharing their slightly different cultures and significantly different histories. These vocal few need to move on and let go of those elements of the past that are no longer relevant.

            Certainly, I know my racial history. Certainly, I know that my black history is different from white history. My thirteen years of writing and two books will tell you that.  I don’t hide it.  I’ve never hidden it. But I do not flaunt it like some tattered flag.

            Proclaiming that they’re from America’s black ‘ghettos’, black American Rap stars, have revived the use of the word ‘nigger’.  They demean themselves. They demean themselves to help them get more dollars for more ‘bling’.  They’re at the other end of the spectrum from Robeson, Malcolm X, Cosby, Colin, Oprah….

            Here in Bermuda, we’ve had the American speaker and writer, Tim Wise, try to get white Bermudians to do something or other – I’m not quite sure what – to achieve some kind of better rapprochement between black and white Bermudians.

            I don’t believe there is any need for that. We’ve achieved racial parity. There are no statutory barriers barring anyone from anything on the grounds of race.  The only barriers left are barriers against gender and sexual orientation.  For any barrier that still exists, if the will of the people is that the barrier should be removed, then the barrier can be removed in the two seconds that it takes to put an ‘X’ on a ballot paper.

            For either side in Bermuda, waving the race flag in today’s Bermuda is like having the Ku Klux Klan riding around in their pointy hats while wearing red, gold, and green robes – or Louis Farrakhan’s Muslims sporting White Aryan Race insignia.

            Racial pasts are past. The present and future lie in the kind of ordinary interchanges that I find so ordinary in my ordinary daily life.

            I’m black. I’m proud. I know my black history. I live my Bermuda life in a Bermuda that’s freer than it ever used to be. I live, today, by looking and thinking and acting and working forward. Not past.

 

PIGGY-IN-THE-MIDDLE

Bermuda’s middle class is certainly in the middle. They’re pressed down from the top by very high housing costs and limited high-end high-pay job opportunities that would allow them to earn the incomes to afford an average house. They’re squeezed out of the lower level jobs that were once used as the ‘second jobs’ that enabled individuals and families to supplement their incomes.

            Argus CEO Gerald Simons, has recently pointed out that, relative to incomes, Bermuda’s house prices are ‘four times’ higher than house prices in the USA, Canada, UK. Gerald also pointed out that Bermuda’s median annual household income is now $84,000, or $7,000 a month.

            But Bermuda is bedevilled by two impacts of the globalization of Bermuda’s unique isolated economy.  In Bermuda’s hospitality industry, in particular, wages growth has been held down by globalization. Service workers who were earning $10 an hour twenty years ago have not had their wages keep pace with overall increases in the cost of living. In 2006, wage rates for many service workers are still holding in the region $10 – $15 an hour, which is almost zero wage growth. 

            Elsewhere in this economy, in the past twenty years, wages have generally gone up by about 75% or more.  So a person who was earning $12 an hour in 1986 would now be earning – same job – about $20 – $25 an hour today.

            A middle class two-income Bermudian household with income levels at $15 an hour in 1986 couldn’t afford to buy a house. Despite wages generally keeping up with most increases in the cost of living, a to-income middle class household in today’s 2006 Bermuda still can’t afford to buy a house because house costs have gone up faster than wages.

            House prices and top end rents have been sucked upwards by Bermuda’s shift away from the six day staying tourists, to the six year staying International Business worker who requires quality accommodation and who can pay top dollar for it. What should be low end rents have also been sucked upwards by the vastly increased number of  lower paid – $10 to $15 an hour – expatriates who crowd themselves into lower end rental accommodations; and so deliver bigger rental incomes to landlords.

            So where is Bermuda’s ‘middle class’?

            At $84,000 a year – too poor to buy a house – too rich to starve. The whole class is hard pressed to find a decent paying ‘second job’ so that it can better its $84,000 a year income – and that isn’t because the second jobs don’t exist, it’s because many of the second jobs are now taken by cheaper ‘global’ workers.

            Upward income mobility is stifled by a combination of the narrow specializations and skillsets required; and parallel the need for immediately useful experience in a difficult business that is in intense and unforgiving global competition.

            In the past, Bermuda’s middle class climbed upwards by two-jobbing in a much bigger and more vibrant and profitable hospitality centred industry. Today, that’s not possible. So, in 2006, what does Bermuda’s middle class of 2006 do?

            It twists and turns and searches and frets. It finds itself shut out and shut in. It finds itself unable to do what it has done in the past.  Today’s middle class Bermuda household and family is really the ‘piggy in the middle’. Stuck whichever way it turns.

            That’s not good and it bodes ill for the future. Perhaps some middle class responses are seeping through now. Perhaps Bermuda is seeing the beginnings of a small exodus of Bermudian professionals and semi-professionals. People who recognize that any upward mobility that they want to achieve is only possible in another economy in another place.

            Bermuda’s economy is a unique economy. It needs uniquely high quality attention. Bermuda’s peculiar national employment profile coupled with Bermuda’s very high per capita and household incomes puts Bermuda in the same sort of expense to income position as General Motors Corporation finds itself in today. And just look at what GM is considering and is actually doing – and is being forced to do.

            I started by saying “Bermuda’s middle class is certainly in the middle”. Perhaps I should have said: “Bermuda’s middle class is certainly being squeezed out of the middle.” 

 

(PS – Thanks to the many people who wrote in to clear up my befuddlement.) 

 

LIKE BEASTS IN A CAGE

Like two snarling beasts, the two parties have bared their fangs, beat their breasts, uttered great roars, and circled one another. All this snarling, roaring, and breast-beating took place inside the divided chamber of Bermuda’s three hundred and eighty-six year old Parliamentary system. The snarling and fang-baring was the annual scrap over the morsel of Bermuda’s annual budget.

            Snarling and breast-beating is now done. The Budget is passed. The two beasts now pad off for an Easter break. Having rested, they’ll come back again. That’s Bermuda’s three hundred and eighty-six year old system working as it was designed to work.

            For three hundred and seventy-eight years it worked against the interests of the majority of Bermuda’s population. For the last eight years it may have worked for the interests of the majority population.  Democracy is all about the good of the majority without doing harm to the minority. For three hundred and forty years, Bermuda’s system clearly and specifically disadvantaged the majority and advantaged the minority. For three hundred and seventy-eighty years, the system was a democracy in reverse.

            With the big annual snarl now over, and after resting, the two beasts will return for more scrapping and posturing. That, again, is how the system works. Through it all, I’m still upset by one important, but admittedly esoteric, issue. Taxation.

            Why does Bermuda still retain the Customs Duty system as a major revenue raiser? Why?

            The basis on which it was first levied and then subsequently maintained, has changed. Using Customs Duty as a primary revenue raiser is now – I believe – both wrong and counter-productive.

            It isn’t just the demise of Trimingham’s and the special hardships visited on Bermuda’s still declining retail segment. Nor is it just the fact that our new-style tourism is not making, and in future will not and can not make, the revenue contribution through customs duty that our old-style tourism certainly did.

            I’ve observed that every time there is a new initiative to do something to enhance the quality of life for Bermudians, or to encourage investment in the tourism industry, the first – the very first – concession offered is an exemption from or reduction in Customs Duty. This has already happened with several other tourism initiatives. It has just happened again with Col Burch’s ‘Loughlands’ middle-income housing project.

            Clearly, very, very, clearly, many people in power see Customs Duties as a barrier or a difficulty or a negative. Why, then, keep the system? Why? Why not consider the obvious alternative of instituting a graduated Corporate Tax on Corporate profits on Bermuda companies?

            REMOVE the Customs Duty Tariff in its entirety. Or reduce it to a much smaller tariff on just some few luxury items. Or put on a small – 5%? – General Sales Tax. REPLACE the revenue from Customs Duty with a graduated Corporate Profits Tax that does not go higher than 8% total on annual profits in excess of $5,000,000. Give the International Business Sector a Tax rebate of 80%. This will mean that the maximum [graduated] tax paid by any IB entity would be 1.6% of their annual profits.

            Just look at the local company numbers. HSBC [Bermuda], declaring Bermuda branch profits of $120,000,000 would pay close to $9,000,000. Butterfield Bank, declaring $100,000,000 would pay about $7,500,000. Argus Insurance, declaring $17,000,000 would pay about $1,300,000. BF&M Insurance?  BTC? BELCO?…  Of course all these entities would first get ‘tax relief’ because they would not have to pay any Customs Duties.  Then there’s all those Accountancy and Legal firms. They would also get tax relief from Customs Duty, but would pay up to 8% on their annual net earnings.

            ‘Arrybody’  people, government, retailers, Tourism, International Business Service Providers, and International Business itself, must surely recognize that our tax system is outdated and needs to shift. So – shift it!

            Out with Customs Duty. In with graduated Corporate Profits Tax. Off with ‘tax haven’ sobriquet. On with ‘normal’ tax jurisdiction reality [just that we’d be taxing much lower than our competitor jurisdictions]. Start a real effort to lower some rocketing local costs and put a lid, of some kind, on our steeply rising and globally high local costs.            Instead of one more, and one more, and one more… time, giving concessions on ‘Customs Duty’; be bold and sagacious! Shift taxes! Use a graduated Corporate Profits tax.

 

HUMP DAY

Some call it ‘hump day’, others Wednesday. It’s the middle day of the week with as many days before as after. It’s that way now for the next election. Of course, under our Constitution, the next election could be next month or any three weeks from now. So I’m looking way down the down road when I say that January 2006 is ‘hump month.

            Only one person really knows when the next election will be called – and he ain’t telling; but if this Parliament does go the full five, January 2006 will be ‘hump’ month.

            This particular hump month, about the ninth ‘hump month’ that we’ve had since the 1968 Constitutional Order, finds a situation that’s much changed from those first eight humps.

            Hump one, way back in 1970 found this island still a tightly run oligarchy – not a true democracy. The 1968 election was the first election in which there was universal suffrage for anyone twenty-one and over. The UBP, then just two years old, had a stranglehold on the government The PLP, just five years old was struggling to attract votes from a population that eight years earlier, had just begun dismantling some parts of a system of legally supported segregation.

            This hump finds some people seeing all that as ancient history – as distant and remote as dinosaurs and mastodons. However, in human affairs, the past does tend to leak into the present.  This happens here, and it’s best seen in the huge contrasts between Hump Day One – in 1970; and Hump Day Nine – in 2006.

            Then, a relatively quiescent population. People, generally, were not inclined to be too vocal or too demanding. Now, this community is a huge and wide-open ‘talking shop’ with a much wider range of sometimes pungently expressed opinion as part of its steady daily diet. Then, people tended to be circumspect. Now people are direct.

            On that Hump Day, black Bermudians were looking ahead hoping to be able to gain a wider participation in Bermuda’s economic and political life; and seeking some social gains. On this Hump Day, black Bermudian capital is buying up businesses once considered to be white-owned.

            Then, Trimingham’s and Smiths – both the shops and the names – were business and political powers. Now, gone.

            What was once a tight little controlled community is now almost a ‘wild west’ town. Looked at another way – it’s as if we were all sitting in Sunday School in 1970 and in 2006 we’re all at a booze-up with a ‘dark and stormy’ in each hand.

            That’s how big a change I see.

            With that change has come a subtler deeper change. On Hump Nine, all Bermudians – excepting only those whose heads are stuck in the sands of the past – now know, for sure, things that they didn’t know on Hump One.

            Now Bermudians know that change is not disaster. They know that if you change political parties and those political parties change leaders, the sun will still rise and set in the same place each day.  They know that big businesses can go bust, and that other businesses can arise, and the ocean rollers will still roll.  Most importantly, Bermudians have now learned, through national experience, that sometimes what appears to be change isn’t really change at all. That a new voice coming out of a different mouth is often delivering the same message.

            Hump Nine finds a community in which the fear of the 20th Century has been replaced by the openness of the 21st Century. On Hump Nine, the small Bermudians who used to be cowed and silent are now large and vocal. On Hump Nine, the once small men and women who used to sometimes squeak like mice, have now developed the roar of the lion. A once quiet electorate has grown up, it has flexed its muscles, and it has seen the effects and impacts of its actions. This Hump Nine electorate is a now a changed and different group. More confident. More willing to argue – and argue back. More ready to consider more change.

            Just half a generation on, Hump Nine finds Bermuda a free-for-all wide-open more individualistic community that is forging its own new rules and is clearly unafraid of change.

            The little man has grown up, got himself the big sticks of confidence and knowledge,  and he’s not afraid of the bogeyman anymore…

WORDS AND VALUES

For the first time ever, after fourteen years of writing, I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Editor of the Royal Gazette. For the first time ever!

            My stand is in support of, and in agreement with, his response to the ruling of the Human Rights Commission on the use, over the airwaves and in context, of the words ‘house nigger’. So that there is no doubt or confusion over what Bill Zuill [the younger], wrote, here are his opening sentences:

             “Opposition Leader Wayne Furbert is a house nigger. So is Shadow Finance Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin. All black members of the United Bermuda party are house niggers.            By extension, Premier Alex Scott is, presumably, a field nigger.  So is Works and Engineering Minister Sen. David Burch. All black members of the Progressive labour party are field niggers.            All white Bermudians are honkies”.

            Bill Zuill has captured, precisely, the core issue.

            The Human Rights Commission, in its ruling, actually supports the use of the word and supports its use in the context in which it was actually used. To formally describe its use, in context, as insulting or unwise or distasteful or any other word except the simple word ‘wrong’ was and is wrong!

            Language is the means of communication between individuals. It’s the primary means of communication between groups of people. It’s also the means through which many human values are communicated. Language is also a political tool.

            Black Americans stood together and fought their way out from the ‘nigger’ laden world of ‘Jim Crow’ though the ‘March on Washington’ and on to Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice and Osaka Barama.

            Newer black Americans, pursuing American dollars, have taken themselves back into the ‘Jim Crow’ human value days by re-introducing the words ‘nigger’ in referring to black men and black people. Of course, taking commercial license with language, they actually write and display the word as ‘nigga’ or, plural, ‘niggas’.

            These newer black Americans also use devaluing language in describing their own black women as ‘whores’. Again, taking the same kind of commercial license, they actually write and display the word as ‘ho’ or, plural, ‘ho’s’.

            Seventy years ago, the Nazi Germans took the simple word “Jew” or “Juden” and, without ever changing the word itself, turned that single unchanged word first, into a term of opprobrium, and then, into a sentence of death.

            In a side column on page five of the Mid Ocean News of Friday 19th May 2006, an American travel writer was extolling the virtues of Bermuda as a travel destination. He spoke of our having a $69,000 per capita GDP – amongst the highest in the world.  

            I made a flash connection between that outsider’s view of Bermuda and my insider’s view of the use of language. I thought that Senator  Burch’s use of language, in context, was on exactly the same plane of usage as the language used by dollar-rich heavily blinged  black American rappers who strut and jump about their stages – raking in American dollars – by calling and demeaning themselves and all other black Americans – depending on gender – as ‘niggas’ or ‘ho’s’.

            Senator Burch’s use of the language, and the Human Rights Commissions decision on the use of that language were both wrong.

            Since April 1992, I have written over 460,000 words in more than 600 newspaper columns. I have castigated the previous government; been critical of this current government; fought – very publicly – with government Cabinet Ministers; tangled with other newspaper columnists; had a long running battle with the previous editor of the Royal Gazette. Through all of that, I have written as what I am. A proud black Bermudian man.

             I never have, and I never will, use the word ‘nigger’ to describe my fellow black Bermudians – even if they do disagree with me or if I don’t like what they are saying.

            Persons in public office, or persons speaking or writing in public forums should always use language that is appropriate and acceptable to all listeners and all readers – even if those listeners and readers strongly and angrily disagree.

            If not, put your too-big baseball cap on sideways, wear a too-big T-shirt outside your too-big pants, drape yourself in bling, and go “shuck and jive with the rest of ‘em”.

            With the Human Rights Commission ruling now in, the one certainty is that we have all seen a true and unpleasant demonstration of one person’s set of core personal human and political values; and a questionable set of values in another group of people.

 

GARGOYLES

During the Middle Ages, when those craftsmen built their cathedrals and other high churches, they added embellishments that, while they looked scary, actually served a useful purpose. The ‘gargoyle’ is an example of this kind of embellishment.

            The idea of the gargoyle, as I understand it, is that the gargoyle was deliberately given an evil face so as to scare off or ward off evil spirits. That was the gargoyle’s spiritual task.

            The gargoyle’s earthly task was to act as a means of directing roof caught rainwater away from the sides of the building. This was done in order to prevent the effects of water erosion caused by volumes of fast moving water running down unchanging paths and thus eating away the sides of these lofty and laboriously built structures. Those ancients were smart….and those ancients did all that without computers or even ‘leckalight. Just hand tools and commonsense.

            Nowadays, we have plenty of ‘leckalight, but we seem to go about the business of gargoyle creating in a different manner.

            Take politics, for instance. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone would see a need to create a political gargoyle – a political creature with an evil mien and a mean demeanour. It seems to go against the grain of the political process wherein the more often stated aim is to do things, or go about matters so as to garner maximum public support.

            In free and democratic societies, most normal politicians seem to smile, not grimace. Most politicians seem to ask for some kind or some show of public approbation. Most seek to present a congenial face to the public that either elects them, or gives them some kind of support.

            Of course, in some other flavours of democracies, the kind where you either support the GOTD or get jailed or otherwise badly and roughly handled; politicians see less need to smile and seek support. In these kinds of democracies, the politicians – usually operating well outside the limits of their written national constitutions and ignoring the laws of economics – see no need to do anything other than exactly as they please.

            In these democracies, as, for instance in Zimbabwe, the answer to financial difficulties is quite simple. Need more money? Print more money! No problem. Like the Germans in the 1920’s, just use a wheelbarrow instead of a wallet to carry your money around.

            So here, in my Bermuda, in a vote giving free democracy, I find it odd and most unusual that we seem to have a gargoyle politician. A politician – one politician – who finds it so incredibly easy to issue insult and spew slur. A true evil-faced political gargoyle.

            Gargoyles are attached to buildings. Mostly to high cathedrals. This political gargoyle is attached to a political party. Just as there are many facets to a cathedral, there are many other members of the political party. Just as one badly performing gargoyle will let evil spirits or water erosion damage the cathedral, so will one gargoyle politician damage all the other politicians. Even if they think – foolishly think – that they have nothing to do with him. That he is speaking only for himself.

            In the end, voters do have to put up with the politicians that the political and electing process sets over them. However, unlike worshippers in cathedrals, voters do not have to wait until the sound of Gabriel’s Trumpet and the Second Coming before change can be wrought; or before some other form of salvation arrives. Instead, at least once in every five years, voters have a chance to deal with politicians who are seen to be un savoury gargoyles. As well, voters can go even wider – if they so choose – and rid themselves of the whole bunch if they are unsatisfied with those who seem determined to support political gargoyles.

            In 2006, there is one thing that this Bermuda electorate now knows and knows absolutely. In 2006, this electorate knows that it gives power and this electorate knows that it can take that power away. This electorate has now done both. This electorate also knows – unlike the scary bogeyman promise of the ‘olden days’ – that the world won’t end if the government changes.

            But does the gargoyle and those determined to support him understand that? I think not.   Too bad!