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Posts tagged with Americans

Chief Little Turtle and the Second Amendment

Posted on January 4, 2013 by 1 Comment

I recently ran my “Should we politicize tragedy post?” on a University of Michigan alumni discussion group on Linkedin.  There were a lot of interesting and reasonable comments but overall, I was stunned by the vitriol that came my way from people who believe we are one step away from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – and yes, the two were mentioned in the same angry post without any sense of irony.  There also were stern lectures from many who absolutely, positively knew what the framers of the constitution had in mind, even though that was 223 years ago.

A lot of these people would like to think that the authors of the second amendment were wise, prescient men looking far into the future and recognizing that there could be a need for armed insurrection against tyrannical (perhaps even Socialist or Fascist – take your pick) governments, that would require assault weapons for every man, woman and child in America. You may need to read that again to fully absorb that.  Those people are out there, sure of themselves and if you’re one of them reading my blog, you may wonder where you took the wrong turn.

What seems to make sense to me is that times then were not a lot different than they are now in one respect. People often did things for their own interests and to serve the needs of the present day or in the case of the second amendment to organize the U.S. military and defeat Indian tribes who were preventing us from acting like most colonial powers (defeating the natives, occupying lands and annexing territory, i.e. our history). I know that’s anathema to all the faux Constitutional scholars and volunteer armed guards out there who lectured me but to others, you might take a look at this essay written by my friend, Eric George, after doing some historical research.  As with the title of this post, it’s called, “Chief Little Turtle and the Second Amendment”.

“During the American Revolution there emerged a great Native American military leader.  His name was Michikinikwa in the Miami-Illinois language; the closest English translation was Little Turtle.  Born into the Miami Tribe in what is now Illinois, he came of age fighting French troops allied with the Continentals in the Northwest Territories (present day Ohio and Indiana).  In 1780, General Augustin La Balme, after a successful raid against the British, made the grievous mistake of burning down a Miami village.   Little Turtle tracked down La Balme and killed him, along with many of his men.  He was by now a War Chief; he proved invincible in battle and his stature rose dramatically over the ensuing decade.

After the British ceded the homelands of their Native American allies to the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Little Turtle responded by forming a new Confederation of his own.  He allied the Miami with the Shawnee under Blue Jacket and the Delaware under the command of Buckongahela.  Their resultant victories against U.S. militias (the Continental Army having been largely disbanded after the Revolution) helped to expand their Federation to include the Ottawa, Wyandotto and even some of the fearsome Iroquois.

After the Confederation defeated the 1400-man force of General Josiah Harmar in October of 1790, a thoroughly irate President George Washington had had enough He ordered General Arthur St. Clair to march against Little Turtle with a combined force of former army, conscripts, and militia numbering over 2,000 men, to begin by the summer of 1791.  The ill-equipped force did not leave Fort Washington (think Cincinnati) until October.  By early November, fewer than 1000 troops remained due to desertion and disease when they camped deep in Miami territory. The result was as predictable as it was disastrous.  Confederation warriors surrounded St. Clair’s loosely guarded encampment under the cover of darkness and slaughtered over 600 men (and probably another 200 camp followers) at first light. Nearly all survivors were wounded.   By comparison, the Colonies had lost 88 men at the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.  St. Clair’s defeat stands as the worst loss of life by U.S. forces in all the Indian wars.  The casualty rate, in percentage terms, remains unsurpassed by any other conflict in any war to this day.  In a matter of hours, the Western Confederacy had annihilated one quarter of what remained of the U.S. Army. The staggering loss of life generated both public fear and outrage; George Washington fired St. Clair and the first-ever Congressional investigation into the Executive Branch was initiated.

It was no small wonder that scarcely a month later, on December 15, Congress adopted the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The Amendment read:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”

At the time, the right to bear arms was a given, as was the existence of now extinct militias.  Probably the most important words in the above Amendment, at least in 1791, were “well regulated” for Little Turtle had conclusively proved the new Nation utterly lacking in that department.

By word and deed, the Second Amendment was effective.  Five months later, in May 1792, Congress passed the Militia Act, setting minimum standards of readiness.  Among these were “a good musket, a sufficient bayonet, two spare flints, a knapsack, and a pouch containing at least 24 cartridges.”  In other words, just showing up was no longer acceptable.

In the summer of 1794, the Legion of the United States, well equipped and better trained, defeated the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present day Toledo, Ohio.  Casualties were modest on both sides.  Little Turtle eventually became a peacemaker; he finally met with Washington, and later on with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  He died in 1812, and was honored with a full military funeral.

The young nation that finally defeated him would clearly be unrecognizable to him today.  It has grown to have dozens of cities with more inhabitants than most of the original States in their entirety.  Its economy has become the world’s largest, an innovation engine for the entire planet.  The venerable militias have long since been replaced by State and local police forces, and a professional military that rules the land, sea and air.  The United States has become the most powerful Nation on earth. Its citizens now have little to fear, except each other.  For the Second Amendment that was written in large part to defeat Little Turtle and his Confederacy has now enshrined the use of a different sort of musket by our populace.

Weapons with a destructive force that our Founders could not have envisioned are now ubiquitous in America. With roughly nine guns for every ten civilians, the U.S. dwarfs all other nations in per capita gun ownership, with the possible exception of Yemen.  To the astonishment of the developed world, we trade assault rifles and semiautomatic handguns freely in unregulated markets. Our firearm related death rate last year was forty times that of our Founders’ old adversary, Great Britain.  Mass killings have become commonplace.   In the world’s most wealthy and powerful country, parents are now afraid to send their children to school.  Chief Little Turtle won a far greater victory over the White Man than he ever imagined.”

It’s a nice story that our Constitutional authors sat around pondering the future and how we might need to overthrow our government but the reality is that we had just finished overthrowing Great Britain, were bogged down fighting Indian Wars and dealing with the spectre of other adventurous European military forces.  Rather than think about how these men saw the future, we might ask what motivated them in the days in which they lived.  So, thank you Eric for this essay.  I enjoyed it and hope it gets some comments but please, save the vitriol for other venues.

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A difficult year to create a holiday cartoon

Posted on December 20, 2012 by 1 Comment

As many of my friends and associates know, I create a holiday cartoon every year with my good friend and former business partner, George Hughes.  This is the twelfth year that we’ve created a cartoon as the centerpiece of our holiday card.  George and I used to own an advertising agency together and we began to create cartoons there as one of the agency’s creative teams.  Now, as owner of my strategy consultancy, Futureshift, and George, who has gone onto wherever old artists go, continue to take on this annual project.

George illustrates and I write, although our best work has always come from equal collaborations.  When I moved to New York in 2000, through a series of coincidences, the famous cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, saw a few of our cartoons, liked them and sent me to The New Yorker to meet with their cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff.  When I called Mankoff, I used Feiffer’s name, which I’m sure is the only reason he took my call.  He told me to come in the following Tuesday and bring a lot of work.

I showed up at the appointed time with around a hundred cartoons.  Mankoff went through about 30 of them, never cracked a smile, told me most of them were terrible and before I could run to the door, said, “Show up every Tuesday with new work.”  That’s the way of the The New Yorker, I suppose.

For the next six months, I showed up every Tuesday with 7 to 10 new cartoons.  However, being a cartoonist wasn’t my day job nor was it George’s.  Mankoff always would tell me how we weren’t funny or our jokes didn’t work and then he’d hold onto a couple to take into their final grouping of 50 to choose from for that week’s issue.  Our problem, he lectured me one week, is that we were a team and he didn’t like the idea of teams.  After a few months, he began to support our work more but eventually, we ran out of steam in the face of having other priorities.  Maybe he was right about teams.

We didn’t view it as failure but as a call to take a different, more relaxed approach to cartooning and so we formed Gigundo Industries, the world’s largest, non-existent, virtual company, which is a subsidiary of an even larger, non-existent, virtual company called Enormco.  You can visit the websites for either company at gigundoindustries.com or enormco.com and there you’ll find dozens of cartoons to look at and even buy for your presentations, brochures, etc.  (A little crass commercialism doesn’t hurt now and then.)

The process of coming up with a good cartoon is not all that different from developing a marketing strategy.  Strategy formation requires taking a complex set of both internal and external inputs and distilling them down to a single direction that fulfills unmet needs.  Cartooning does the same but it ends with turning the situation upside down or placing it in a prison, doctor’s office, caveman times or some other real or unreal situation we can all envision.

Today, George and I come up with fewer cartoons but we always work on one for the holidays.  Typically, we talk about the year’s news and try to work up ideas based on what people have been talking about that is still current or top-of-mind.  Some years have been a lot tougher than others.  I think the most difficult year for us was 2001 following 9/11.  It was impossible to come up with an idea that would be funny or ironic.  I don’t recall now what triggered the idea of the cartoon below that was the result, but it seemed right for the times.  There was no caption.  There was nothing that needed to be said.

2002 was an extraordinarily tense year and you’ll recall the heightened security everywhere in New York and in other major cities around the world.  But at the same time, we began to laugh again and take ourselves a little less seriously.  That was the year we sent this cartoon out:

By 2004, the country was beginning to relax a bit more but still always conscious of our enemies around the world.  Santa, too, we thought, would have similar concerns and we came up with this.

By 2009, we felt we could move on to other topics and that was a year filled with the lunacy of the tabloids, or is that every year?  We decided that even Santa couldn’t be immune from tabloid scandal and this cartoon resulted:

We’ve moved around to a lot of different topics including the economy, labor, health and nutrition and last year, focused on the 1% who have become so wealthy during the last decade, even Santa.  All of our Christmas cartoons can be seen at the Gigundo Industries website and that brings me to 2012.

This has been a year in which we had a nasty and competitive Republican nomination race, a tough presidential campaign, the debt ceiling negotiations, President Obama’s re-election, the fiscal cliff and this past week, the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, CT of 20 young school children.  There simply is nothing but shock, dismay and sadness that can be expressed about losing these beautiful children and six of their teachers in such an awful incident.  The murders have been followed by outrage and arguing between defenders of gun rights and advocates of gun control.  While the majority of voices seem to be on the side of doing something about the seemingly endless stockade of automatic weapons in this country, we again seem so polarized in every societal issue that comes before us.  Where is there humor in that?  It’s hard to find but when you think about Santa’s world, you have to wonder how our times are affecting him.  Is his world as polarized as ours?  Of course, we’d like to think not, but then Santa has to decide whether we’ve been naughty or nice and you have to admit this has not been an easy year for him to make that decision.  That idea set our minds to wondering…and we came up with this for our 2012 holiday cartoon:

What else is there to say?  We’ll all find out on Christmas how Santa decided.  I hope that you and your families have a day filled with love, peace and joy.

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Should we politicize tragedy?

Posted on December 16, 2012 by 3 Comments

After Friday’s mass killing of 20 young children, ages 6 and 7, which follows so many other mass killings in recent years, it’s time we all read and thought about the 2nd amendment to the Contstitution upon which this nation is founded.  The amendment calls for:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Keep in mind that this amendment was written and adopted in 1791.  George Washington was still in his first term as president then.  It had only been eight years since the end of the American Revolution, although we were in the midst of the Northwest Indian War, taking place in what today, we know as the Industrial Midwest – Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.  Vermont had recently become the 14th state.

To say the United States was a very different place than it is today is an enormous understatement.  The country’s population then was a little more than 4 million, nearly 1/80th of what it is today.  The inventions of the American Industrial Revolution were still 40 years away.  The Colt 45 Revolver wasn’t invented and didn’t see use for another 80 years.  The firearm of choice in 1791 was a single-shot muzzle loaded rifle.

While we can certainly say that the framers of the Constitution were wise and prescient men, it would be fantasy to think that they envisioned a world where anyone on the street could buy an automatic or semi-automatic gun with incredible firepower and large self-loading magazines…and that’s where we are today.

We have an amendment to our Constitution that has been sanctified as a bedrock right for any responsible or irresponsible person regardless of their intent to carry a gun of virtually any type on the street, into schools or even places of worship.

Now in 1791, it’s likely that you could carry your rifle with you almost anywhere you went.  Of course, then you might need it to scare off an attacking bear, bring home dinner or keep your scalp if in the midst of a territorial Indian war.  There was also the need to assure the populace that a militia could be formed at any time to ward of an attacking nation or people.  Today, we have what is known as armed forces and police to handle that responsibility.

Hunting, of course, is an American tradition and virtually all hunters, the possible exception being former Vice President Cheney, are well-trained and responsible gun owners.

So why the need for weapons that can so easily kill dozens of people in only a few seconds?  Why is this right so sacrosanct in the United States today?  The chief lord and high protector of gun-of-any-type ownership rights is the National Rifle Association, popularly known as the NRA.  Their website is nra.org.  You should visit it so you’re familiar with the people that are protecting our Constitution and intimidating our politicians.

One section of the NRA website is called “NRA Opponents”.  Here’s who is listed there:

  • Animal rights activists
  • Anti-gun politicos
  • Brady campaign (instituting background checks for gun ownership)
  • Clinton gun ban (and more specifically, anyone with the name “Clinton”)
  • International Action Network on Small Arms (a global movement against gun violence)
  • Mayors Against Illegal Guns (with a photo of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to symbolize the arch-villain)
  • Obama Administration (you can guess which Marxist-Leninist, Kenyan-born traitor is pictured there)

The NRA has 4.3 million members and revenues of $205 million.  Yet, with this relatively small membership and revenue base, it has intimidated politicians of both political parties into subservience and fear of even having a discussion about gun ownership rights and laws to regulate them.  It has become an efficient political machine and advocate of gun ownership.  Today, there are more guns in the U.S. than there are people.  One-third of them are hand-guns and it’s estimated that another 20% are semi-automatic firearms.

It’s often said that we get the government and country we deserve.  If we tune out of politics and get politicians that create laws we don’t like, then we shouldn’t elect them.  I can accept that.  But I can’t accept that anybody deserves to be shot or have their loved ones shot and killed and nor should any civilized society allow this.

The NRA and its defenders who want to forestall any discussion about guns have already been saying we shouldn’t politicize this tragedy.  That’s exactly what we should do.  Even today, the 31 senators who are strong supporters of no restrictions on gun ownership refused to go on any of the Sunday morning talk shows.  Not a single one of them had the courage to stand up for their heinous beliefs.  This tragedy and others like it should cause us to take a stand like so many tragedies of the past.  Which side of the fence are you are on?  Are you for semi-automatic gun ownership or against it?  Are you for background checks and waiting periods or against them?  Are you for mass murders or against them?  These are not difficult questions to answer.

As perverse as it may sound, I’ve come to believe that these acts of murder are what the NRA wants, that they are anarchists at heart and their depravity guides them to thinking more murders equals more guns equals more support for their other political goals.  Does that sound extreme?  Maybe, but it’s less extreme than holding up rights for any clown to own weapons that can used to kill young children who only want to enjoy their school day.

Of course, we can do the usual and express our views to our friends and families and we can grieve with the victims who have lost their loved ones.  However, nothing happens in this country unless the majority speaks up and pressures their elected officials, the cowards that most of them are, to act and to do so now, to stop equivocating, to end their “cautious calls for action” and to do something real to end these horrid acts now.  So write, call and email your Congressional representatives and your town officials today.  Don’t straddle the fence or advise caution.  Get angry, politicize and demand action today.

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Over the fiscal cliff

Posted on November 12, 2012 by Leave a comment

Years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker called what lemmings believe.  It showed hundreds of lemmings charging off a cliff but instead of going down to their death, they were flying up to the sky.  Why else would they be so sure of themselves?

Being a part-time cartoonist (see GigundoIndustries.com), I thought of this cartoon the other day when reading about “the fiscal cliff” and the debate about whether going over it will harm the economy or is sure death…or perhaps, is the only sensible thing to do.  I spoke to my illustrator partner at our cartoon conglomerate and the following cartoon was the result:

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Political Myopia: Piercing through the nonsense and casting your vote

Posted on October 22, 2012 by 2 Comments

It’s “silly season” – so sayeth the politicians.  It’s time to throw every piece of mud at the opposition simply because a lot of people will believe it.  Fox, MSNBC, pundits who claim to know everything but in reality know nothing, and thousands of horrid political ads – it’s all a lot of noise that provides no reliable indicators on which is the best way to vote.

Can we look at some of the realities of the situation and some of the facts?

REALITIES:

  • Romney:
    • We don’t know what Romney would or would not do. Unfortunately, he’s changed positions so many times, it’s hard to figure whether he’s conservative or moderate.  The “etch a sketch” metaphor has been mentioned and fair or not, it was created by his own campaign manager.
    • Yes, he did a great job with the Olympics.  He had support and money from the government that he says isn’t working.  It’s unclear how he did as governor of Massachusetts but one would think that if he did a great job, he’d easily win the state this time.  Polls show he’s 15 points down.  You want to tell me that’s meaningless?  Please explain.
    • The only thing Romney has been consistent about is that he is a social conservative.  He’s supported the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade, favors DOMA and won’t take a position on the Lily Ledbetter Act.  If that’s what you want and you’re okay with his other murkiness, you should vote for him.
  • Obama:
    • Four years ago, we were headed toward a full-on depression.  We’re not now.
    • Corporate profits had risen more than with any other president.
    • The stock market has risen 14.7% a year under Obama.
    • Housing values had fallen one-third on average at the end of the Bush administration.  They’re rising again and have recovered much of the loss.

Now that we’re here, who can take us further?

FACTS:

  • The U.S. economy has done better with Democratic presidents than with Republicans.
  • Personal disposable income has grown nearly 6 times more under Democratic presidents.
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown 7 times more under Democratic presidents.
  • Corporate profits have grown over 16% more per year under Democratic presidents (they actually declined under Republicans by an average of 4.53%/year).
  • Average annual compound return on the stock market has been 18 times greater under Democratic presidents (If you invested $100k for 40 years of Republican administrations you had $126k at the end, if you invested $100k for 40 years of Democrat administrations you had $3.9M at the end).
  • Republican presidents added 2.5 times more to the national debt than Democratic presidents.
  • The two times the economy steered into the ditch (Great Depression and Great Recession) were during Republican, laissez faire administrations.

Don’t believe me?  Why not read the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool”?  The above facts can be found all over the Internet but click here to read this article from Forbes magazine.

Investment managers always point out that there’s no guarantee that past performance is an indicator of the future but given the choice between uncertainty and past negative performance versus a record and past positive performance, logic should say to select the latter.  But when did logic and facts determine a U.S. presidential election?

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2 contrasting days in America

Posted on October 13, 2012 by Leave a comment

It has been several days now that we watched the Vice Presidential debate and have been subjected to a discussion that’s more about whose demeanor and facial expressions have been better than about their policies.

Depending on from which side you see things, President Obama has either brought the economy back to a place where it can now recover or he’s brought us to a Leninist-Marxist precipice.  Governor Romney is either the biggest liar that has ever run for president or he is just the man we need to help America get back to its revolutionary roots.  It’s that extreme and it’s that myopic.  We’re losing sight of the big picture.

Yesterday, I attended the annual shareholders’ conference for The Baron Funds, a group of mutual funds led by Ron Baron who believes that it’s the quality of people who make great companies and that investing in them is a long-term bet on America.  The event is held each year at New York’s magnificent Lincoln Center. 4,000 shareholders attended.

During the morning, you get to listen to presentations from CEO’s of companies the funds have invested in.  Then at lunch, various entertainers perform in one of the many auditoriums at the Center.  Yesterday, the choices were British rock singer Joss Stone, Broadway star Kristin Chenowith, or jazz stylist Harry Connick Jr.  After returning from lunch, the senior analysts from each of the Baron Funds engages in a panel discussion about the past year’s performance and how they pick stocks.  When this ends, there’s a musical performance from a big name headliner.  In the past, it has been people like Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Elton John and others who you’d pay a lot of money to see elsewhere.  Yesterday, the headliner was Celine Dion – more on Celine later.

I don’t know if Ron Baron chose the CEO’s who made their morning presentations to make a point about the country’s economic stewardship.  I want to believe he did.  Here’s a brief encapsulation:

  • David Rubenstein, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of The Carlyle Group showed a different set of values for private equity firms than we’ve seen during the past year from Governor Romney’s turn at Bain.  From its start in 1987, Carlyle now manages $160 billion in investments with the goal of supporting good companies that create jobs and prosper for their shareholders AND employees.  For all his success, Rubenstein exhibited an amazing self-deprecating sense of humor and stressed the importance of giving back to America.  He has put his money where his mouth is by joining Warren Buffet in giving his fortune away.  What came across more than anything is that good values build great companies.  By the way, he said he has no problem with the regulations imposed by Dodd-Frank, which some politicians want to remove.
  • Steven Spinner, CEO of United Natural Foods was a little more meat and potatoes in his presentation…well actually, more tofu and bulghur… but he expressed a need to be more conscious about our environment and both the chemicals we put into our environment and our bodies.  The company is now the largest distributor in the U.S. and Canada of natural and organic foods and has become a $4.5 billion company with 65,000 sku’s and 23,000 customers.  Healthy foods raise our awareness of our environment and build successful businesses – quite a contrast to the right wing preaching that the government (and in particular, Michelle Obama) is trying to force feed us healthy foods we don’t like.
  • Robert Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts showed how a sizable business ($1 billion +) dependent on nature can prosper when it focuses both on good environmental stewardship and helping people enjoy all the recreational possibilities that enables.  What’s interesting is that they don’t own the land their resorts sit on.  They lease it from the National Forest Service, and have to work with the Service to show they are deserving of both permits and leases – a great example of how government helps improve our lives, supports business and is worth the investment we all make in it.
  • Frank Coyne, CEO of Verisk Analytics is all about Big Data.  This company dominates the insurance risk assessment business.  I have no idea of his political leanings (or most of the others for that matter) but he’s a former Marine who grew up in a lower middle class family from Scranton, PA.  There was not a trace of ego in his presentation.  He is clearly an American success story who rose from the middle – no trickle down there.
  • Kevin Plank, Founder and CEO of Under Armour, a $2 billion company that began in his basement in 1996, told an amazing story of how his experience as a college football player took him on a search to find better performance athletic clothing.  He displayed optimism, competitiveness and personal charm in telling his success story.  There was not a hint of dismay in his approach to the future.
  • Rich Barton, Co-Founder & Executive Chairman of Zillow, Inc. was the moderator of the analysts’ presentation so he wasn’t really focused on his or his company’s story.  However, he founded both online travel giant, Expedia, and Zillow, an online real estate search site.  He’s another American success story who displayed extraordinary optimism.

The last presentation of the day came from Ron Baron, CEO of Baron Capital Group.  Baron founded the funds in 1982.  Today his enormous success has made him a billionaire.  I’ve never met the man but in every conference I’ve attended, he always stresses his middle-class roots in New Jersey, his optimism about American business and his belief in America.  He doesn’t hesitate to mix patriotism into business.  As in past years, Broadway star Kelly O’Hara came out to sing America The Beautiful as everyone sang along.  This year, there was an additional treat of Kristin Chenowith singing the national anthem.  She raised the roof and 4,000 hearts with it.  (That girl has pipes!)

Baron gave his outlook on the economy, the stock market and reminded us why a long-term investment philosophy in good people who build great companies pays off .  He praised Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Ben Bernanke for his stewardship of the economy to a smattering of applause.  He showed how the stock market has climbed 60% since the days of doom and gloom four years ago to wild cheers.

Then, came the part that left me stunned.  He noted that we’re soon to have an election between President Barack Obama — maybe 20% of the audience applauded — and Mitt Romney to loud, enthusiastic applause that drowned out anything that had preceded it.  It left me wondering whether anybody had been paying attention all day.  The contrast to private equity investing with the Romney approach from David Rubenstein ‘s Carlyle Group couldn’t have been clearer.  Protection of our food sources and environment have helped businesses succeed, not fail due to over-bearing government regulation.  The economy never fell off the cliff.  Businesses and the stock market prospered and now they’re cheering for an uncertain change that promises to strip away a lot of the government support and regulation that has contributed to both success and fairness?  I don’t get it.

I grew up in a family that was firmly Democratic, although I believe I am more fiscally conservative than my parents.  While I live in New York, I continue to vote in Maine where I still own property.  There, like many Mainers, I’ve settled into a mode of independence, voting for moderate Republicans like Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe, independents like Angus King and Democrats like George Mitchell.  The contrasts to me this year couldn’t be clearer.  While I’ve lost some of my love for President Obama, I think he provides a healthier direction for America.  We have serious problems to fix but I don’t believe those will come from cutting everything except defense and frankly, I have a problem with disingenuousness.  Neither party can claim sainthood in this regard but I saw Romney claim himself as “severely conservative”, heard his campaign manager say they could just take out the “etch a sketch” and remodel him once the Republican nomination was secure and now he’s transformed himself into a moderate.  It reminds me of that famous Lincoln quote:  “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

In the end, just like Ron Baron says and practices, it’s about people and their values.  Not only do good people build great companies but they also build great countries.  I left the conference a little dismayed at the shareholders’ reaction to the election but still optimistic about the long-term.  To that, I can thank Ron Baron for this annual event.

This brings me to Celine Dion.  I’m not a fan and never have been.  She’s too kitschy for me.  Yes, she’s talented and a professional song stylist who’s benefited from great writers but in one song, Kristin Chenowith blew her away.   After all the great rock stars I’ve seen at this event, I was surprised at her appearance.  “Las Vegas East”, Ron Baron called it.  It certainly was.  Her big band, violins, lots of costume changes and a self-aggrandizing video were all on display.  Like so many other successes — only in America.

I thought of staying for a few songs and then leaving but then I thought of my daughter.  She’s a fledgling comedy writer in LA and she loves Celine.  She’s dreamed of going to Las Vegas to see her and has even asked me to foot the bill for the $250 ticket.  You can imagine how far that went.  But as Celine came on, I texted her knowing that she would be excited.  It was only the texting banter between us that kept me there for the duration.

Here it is:

So the afternoon entertainment is Celine.

SHUT UP!

Here she is:


You are breaking my heart.

HOW IS IT THAT YOU GET TO SEE CELINE DION PERFORM AND I NEVER HAVE?

Tell me everything!  WHAT IS SHE WEARING?  How many costome changes?  How many times is she fake crying?  AHHHHH

Is she amazing????  OF COURSE SHE IS!!!!

I guess because I own $30K of Baron Funds.  I wish you were here.  She’s too sappy for me.  I don’t know how long I can last.

OMG omggggggg!!!  Just revel in it.

Oh, here come all the big hits!  “I’m your lady” oooh la la

OMGgggg!!!!

Imagine her an alien from a special planet where the wind is always billowing her hair and dresses!

A lot of eyebrow action and the motions.  WAIT!  We have violins!  It’s a costume change!

AHHHHHHHH.  WHAT IS THE NEW COSTUME?

This is so unfair.

We’re waiting with bated breath.  Maybe she went out to pee.

Slinky, black and silver.


It’s cabaret time.

She’s magnificent!

I’ll record Titanic if she goes there.

OH SHE WILL AND YOU  BETTER.

She tucks her 3 little ones into bed and there’s video to prove it.

Stop it.

I think I’m going to throw up.

Me too.

It’s “Beauty & The Beast” time.

Oh, I love that one.  This is so unfair, it hurts.

I feel your pain.

It’s another costume change.

What will it be?  There’s James Bond music.

Ughhhhhhhhh

No, she just went to pee.  She’s singing “Goldfinger.”

A medley of 007 songs.  She’s got her fist in the air.  The audience is in a state of rapture.

Now, she’s patting her hip and swaying.  This Québécois lady knows how to have a good time.

She sure does.

This all sounds glorious!

A little piece of heaven.

I’ve run out of responses.

I’m just really jealous.

It’s “All by myself” now.  I know how she feels.  Carla left to go to a meeting.  So sad.

Double fist pounding on her chest.  Serious stuff.

Now, she’s singing “Spinning Wheel”.  Am I back in college?

Costume change!


This is amazing.  Never forget how amazing she is.

Elvis is in the building!

Here we go:  I’m sinking.  There’s an iceberg and the ship is going down.  I’m recording this.


It’s over.  I’m exhausted.

Holy crap!  Me too.

The Baron Funds Annual Conference is one of my favorite days of the year.  I am reminded of why I am in business and what I tell my clients through my consulting business.  I’m entertained in this incredible city and my belief in America is always restored.  This year, it also provided some fun with my daughter.  Is there anything better?

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My new friends

Posted on April 25, 2012 by Leave a comment

I’ve been receiving a lot of emails from people who say they know what I need and want and I never knew that they were so close to me.  The funny thing is none of them have ever asked me about what I need.  Actually, they’ve never asked me anything at all.  Well, that’s not true.  They’ve all asked for money.

Four years ago, I made a political contribution to Barack Obama’s campaign for President.  I expected that they would ask me again.  What I didn’t expect is that they would ask all their friends to ask me too.  I suppose that’s a good thing.  We can all use new friends.

During the past six months, not only have I received many, many emails and letters from President Obama but also from Michelle – that’s sweet, we’ve never met.  Also Joe and Jill Biden have written me, together and separately.  Obviously, I project a lot of charisma to attract all these important, new friends.  They told their friends about me too including Elizabeth Wilson, Patty Murray, Diane Feinstein, Debbie Stabenow, Sherrod Brown, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Charles Rangel and many more whose names I’ve forgotten, although I know none of them have forgotten me because they keep sending me emails and letters.

I know I probably sound overly suspicious but sometimes, I think the same person is doing all the writing.  They all say they know my needs, wants, dreams, aspirations and desires and it seems the same answer for all of them is mo’ money.

Yesterday, my son received a letter from Mitt Romney.  (I’m really upset that he didn’t write me.  After all, we went to the same elementary school in Detroit.)  But I guess he thinks my son likes him.  He must feel that way because he wrote, “you are one of America’s most notable Republicans.”  That’s something I didn’t know.  But never mind my son’s political persuasions, if that is indeed what they are.  I was really interested to read this letter because someone else had to have written it.  I don’t think the same writer who works for all the Democrats is writing letters for Mittens (my affectionate name for him – when you grow up nearby, you do those things).

So, I was really excited to see what gems Mittens was going to offer that might change my mind about the course of politics and all my political friends.  Here are a few tidbits:

  • “I believe in America.” – I feel so much better to know that.  I’m sick and tired of all these people who run for office and say they believe in Turkmenistan.
  • “Bigger government does not equal better government.”  That’s a tough one for me to take because I grew up singing, “The bigger the burger, the better the burger.  The burgers are bigger at Burger King.” And I thought Mittens believed in corporations.  That’s a rude awakening.
  • “I know how jobs are created.” And this is followed by his story of how he got the Olympics in great shape.  I guess we need more games in America.
  • “It could be worse.”  Now, he’s sounding like my grandmother although she usually followed with “You should be so lucky.”
  • Here’s my favorite:  “Washington is suffocating the American Dream.  We must save it.  How do we do that?  By believing in America…our future depends on it.”  Two quick flashbacks come to mind.  The first is Gerald Ford’s WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign where if we all came together and just believed, everything would get better.  He even wore a button that said “WIN” on it.  That helped.  I think I saw that in a movie once about a little girl who lived in Kansas.  She met a wizard who got her to believe but I don’t recall that his name was “Mittens”.  The second is Jimmy Carter’s famous “Malaise” speech.  His message of buck up sonny, stiff upper lip and all that never got off the launching pad.  All we had to do was be confident, he said.  Romney says all we have to do is believe.  I’m sure he can explain the difference.

Okay, so in many ways, the letter is a parody of itself.  Yet, it’s not much different than any other political letter, Republican, Democrat or Tea Party (yes, I got one of those.)  It ends with another request for money and you know what?  I know that money is the answer but it’s not money for anybody’s campaign.  It’s money for poor people, middle class people, education, research, healthcare, etc.  Oh, now I’m sounding like a Democrat.  I suppose I should toe the Republican line since I’m reading their letters and say that the solution is money for the moneyed few.

What’s most striking to me about this particular letter (and I’ll now have to start reading the others more closely) is that there is not one solution or proposal for how to actually make things better.  Not one.  Lots and lots of problems but no ideas, proposals or solutions, only a request for money.  They could at least get creative about it.  How about emailing me the Money song from Cabaret?  That certainly gets the point across with more élan than any of these politicians.

Or if you’re not a fan of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, how about picking one of the top 20 rock songs about money. You can find them at http://power98fm.radio.com/2011/04/25/top-20-songs-about-money-money-money/.  I’ve got to believe that Mittens is an Abba fan.  How about this one:

I mean how can a Republican refuse Abba asking for money.  They’re white, clean-cut, at least in their day, and they’re Swedish…oh, never mind.

I guess there’s no hope.  You’d think that some fund raising genius (and remember that a percentage of what you give goes to them) would come up with the idea of “let’s ask people what they think, what ideas they may have and then, after we’ve listened to them, we’ll ask them for money.”  It’s funny how when you ask people what they think rather than telling them, how they often respond better.  It’s called human nature but why would we expect our politicians to be human?  Come to think of it, doesn’t Mittens often get criticized for being robotic?  I wonder.

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Marketing Mistake #6: False Assumptions

Posted on March 20, 2012 by Leave a comment

This is the sixth in a series on Mistakes Countries Make and How They Can Get It Right

We just began work for a client in our 18th country.  While that’s only 7% of all the countries in the world, they add up to over 30% of the top 50 countries in GDP.  That’s not a bad sample from which to draw some conclusions about foreign businesses that are marketing products in the U.S.  We’ve noticed a number of mistakes and major assumptions that seem to be common among all of the countries that our clients have come from.

One I’ve increasingly noticed is the assumption that Americans are waiting for foreign products with bated breath.

It’s always struck me as unusual that foreign marketers often think that just their presence in this country will create demand.  Yet, I’ve been stymied for an explanation as to why this is the case.  I think I’ve finally hit on it.

For decades, people in foreign countries have looked up at the U.S. as the bastion of top brands, particularly among consumers.  American brands have become a badge for people to show that they travel and have sophisticated and Western tastes.  This says nothing about whether they like the U.S. or about their sentiments on American government policies or even whether, more recently, the glow of American brands is wearing off.  It’s history.

From the time of the Cold War when a pair of Levis could buy you a hotel and meal in Russia to today when Nike shoes can be found on the feet of people in countries around the world, Coca-Cola at their tables and McDonalds around every corner, American brands have had a pretty good track record of coming into a foreign country and quickly generating sales.  True, there have been monumental mistakes like GM trying to sell the Chevy Nova in Latin America, but for the most part, U.S. brands have meant sales.

So, it might stand to reason to someone from outside the U.S. to ask if they buy our brands just because we’re there, won’t we buy their’s just because they’re here?  Foreign marketers often miss two key facts about the U.S. that can cause their sales efforts to fail:

1.  We’re internally focused.

The U.S. is a big country, no secret there (take a look at the maps in an earlier post, “Mistake #5:  Size Matters”) The point is that most Americans don’t think about the rest of the world.  With the exception of only two countries, Canada and Mexico, we don’t have countries next to us, just more Americans.  Many Americans don’t read the newspaper or watch the news on TV and if they do, it is often likely to be local news or something specific to their interest or vocation.  Products from countries like Chile, South Africa, Greece, Vietnam, even those that are successful,  just don’t have top-of-mind awareness here.  (A rude awakening has been coming to many American companies as they find American cachet diminishing, which means more hard work for us to sell abroad.)

A by-product of internal focus is the notion of “American exceptionalism”.  Personally, I find this to be both arrogant and naïve on the part of Americans but it has been aggressively promulgated by one of our political parties, and is associated with blind religious faith that promotes a strong belief that God has chosen America to lead the world.  What many Americans forget is that Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” as a musical prayer to God to please bless us and this has been turned around so that many people believe it to imply that God does bless America at the exclusion of others.

The U.S. State Department recently announced that more than one-third of Americans now hold a passport.  Approximately two-thirds of those have traveled abroad.  Whichever number you pick, it means that the vast majority of Americans have never been out of this country.  Many of them operate on old beliefs about life elsewhere and simply don’t know how strong the middle class is and how good life can be in other countries.  Many of the cheerleaders for American exceptionalism condemn “European socialism” in the same sentence without noting that most Europeans pay far less for health care and education and take more vacation time off from work.

2.  We’re less well educated

This is closely related to point number one but consider these facts:

  • The U.S. ranks 33rd in student reading performance; 27th in math; and, 22nd in science. (OECD Education at a Glance, 2009)
  • The ratio of teachers to students in the U.S. is just below average in pre-primary education when compared to other developed countries; also just below average in post-high school education.  We do rank slightly above average at the lower and secondary education levels. (OECD, 2005)
  • We rank 9th in national IQ scores but 21 other countries including Mongolia, Estonia and Poland.  (We can take pride in tying Latvia and just narrowly beating out Belarus, Malta and the Ukraine.) (Lynn/VAnhanen Study)
  • The U.S. ranks 27th in gender equality, a key sign of both education and modernity. (WEF, 2008)
  • In the recent WEF 2011/2012 rankings, the U.S. finds itself 13th in higher education and training, 20th in technological readiness, 10th in business sophistication, and 26th in overall education,
  • We rank 12th in overall human development (UN Development Program, 2008)

I’ll never forget walking into a neighborhood restaurant in the town of An Giang, Vietnam, near the border of Cambodia, truly a different world, and seeing about 15 patrons riveted to the TV over the bar as they watched clips from the PBS Nightly News hour and then debated an interview with Donald Rumsfeld that they just saw.  Can you imagine the reverse in a similar scene in the U.S.?  Not likely.  It’s a generalization but foreigners tend to know more about the world and even about the U.S. than Americans do.

A Norwegian pharmaceutical executive told me a story about looking for a U.S. marketing partner.  While driving along the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey, he asked his prospective partner, “Isn’t this near where Washington made his famous crossing?” to which the chief marketing officer replied, “I don’t know.  I don’t follow that stuff.”  The Norwegian decided that if the man didn’t know the history of his own country that he didn’t want him as a business partner.

So what does this mean for foreign marketers wanting to enter the U.S. and expand their market?

First, don’t assume we know anything about you or your products.  Despite our flaws, we live in the most competitive market in the world and largest developed market.  You’ll need to educate us and that will take some time.

Second, there are so many competing products in the U.S., both domestic and foreign, that the quality of your products often matters less than the relationships you build with us.  We always say, “all things being equal, we’d rather do business with friends.”  Become friends with us.  Develop relationships.  Become a part of our networks and communities and like the first, that doesn’t happen overnight.

Third, find ways to link your values and experiences with ours.  What do you have in common with us?  Do you play baseball or basketball?  Fine, so do we.  Talk about it and you’ll connect more often.  Are you troubled by high taxes, inconsistent investments or supporting the elderly?  These trouble us too.  Show us how we’re alike and we’ll be more accepting of you and your products.

Finally and most important, think strategically, not tactically.  You need a consistent direction here in order to break through the clutter and to be successful, it should be based on the unmet needs of the U.S. market, not your perceptions of who you think you are (if you’re not convinced, start from the beginning of this article again).  A strategy based on market needs will trump tactics every time.  A set of ad hoc tactics that are not integrated or tied to a strategy won’t cut it.

And if you’re confused about market needs, adapting or developing your strategy or what kind of tactics work, all you need to do is ask us.

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‘Tis the season

Posted on December 14, 2011 by 1 Comment

Did you notice what began right after Thanksgiving?  I’m not talking about holiday shopping, although if you haven’t started yet, join the club.  We weren’t even into the week after the holiday when I saw my first set of predictions for 2012.  By now they’re coming out at full throttle.  Predictions for food, wine, technology, social media, fashion, you name it, they’re on their way.

Some people make predictions to show how prescient they can be.  Others do it as a new business ploy, thinking that their business prospects will be swayed by their foresight.  One thing I haven’t seen yet is anyone measuring their success for the predictions they made for 2011.  I don’t think we’ll see much of that since it’s not part of the sport.  But I’m going to change that.  I’m joining the club of predictors and prognosticators and making twelve predictions for 2012, one for each month.  And I predict that they will all come true – 100%.  I’ll come back in a year to check and see if I’m right and then expect a crescendo of congratulations.  So here goes:

  1. People will talk. You can bet on it.  With a national election next year, the economy trying to rebound and the usual celebrities acting out, there will be plenty of chatter on TV, radio, the all-important blogosphere and by the office coffee maker.  If you decide to spend the year in some distant atoll in the Pacific, don’t fret, you won’t miss a thing.  It will all happen again in 2013.
  2. People will be interested in themselves. Face it.  There’s not a lot of altruism in the world.  Even those who say they’re altruistic often aren’t.  Political, business and social motives often spur our eleemosynary sides (always looking for an opportunity to use “eleemosynary” – look it up).  I’m not preaching about this.  I suffer from the same affliction.
  3. We will become more distracted. It’s been said many times.  There’s too much information and too many ways to communicate.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus.  That’s not going to change.  Huffington Post will probably add twenty more sections for us to while away the time.
  4. We will become more desperate. I’m going to take credit for something.  In 2009, I gave a presentation in Chile about business prospects in the U.S. during the recession.  At that time, I said the U.S economy wouldn’t return to some semblance of normal until 2014 at the earliest and most likely, not until 2016.  Why?  As large as our economy is – $14 trillion – it can’t recover quickly when our housing value loss is about one-third and real unemployment (reported + unreported) is probably closer to 16% than the reported 8.6%.  We dug a giant hole for ourselves by conducting two wars and cutting taxes at the same time.  Most Americans wish someone, anyone, would wave their magic wand and make things better.   It doesn’t work that way.  We have the patience of a two-year old.  I hope I’m wrong but I’d bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that we’re not.  If you’re one of those impatient types, plan your desperation calendar now.
  5. The economy may get worse but it could get better. Having just said that we’ve got a long row to hoe, we’re going to see some cycles in the midst of our misery.  Expect the current administration to do whatever it can to pump things up a bit before next year’s election.  And also expect the stock market to get overly pumped up before it gets let down.  Am I being overly dreary?  No, just realistic.  They also say pessimists are often happier people because their expectations are easily exceeded.
  6. All politicians will lie to us except for those who tell the truth. In our current climate, does anyone really think anyone running for election to be truthful?  They’re more likely to meet Steven Colbert’s low standards for “truthiness.”  Yet, there will be a few who will tell the truth.  They’re either the ones not running, retiring or the losers.
  7. Facts will be fungible. Who says you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts?  Nobody’s going to stop writing their own facts just because Tom Friedman says to in one of his brilliant columns.  The most current book next year will be, as it was this year, 1984, published in 1949 by the way.  How prescient was Orwell?
  8. Everything old will be new again. It happens every year, short is back and long is out or is it long is out and short returns?  Whatever.  Gotta keep those factories moving.
  9. What goes around comes around. Not all that different from #8 but the point here is to be nice to the people you meet on the way up.  They’ll look pretty good to you as you head the other way.  Success can be ephemeral, just like fashion.
  10. Blame will be assigned but not to ourselves. Here comes Tom Friedman again telling us to take responsibility for our actions.  When did this guy come along?  Sadly, we are in a world where no one jumps up and says “I take responsibility, now let’s figure this out together.”  It’s too easy to point the finger at politicians, business people, the media and each other.
  11. Difficult decisions will not be made but will be forced upon us. If we had begun making good decisions 30 years ago, we’d all be driving cars that got 50 miles per gallon, that’s when we’re not taking mass transit.  We’d have a fair tax code.  Banks would be our guardians instead of robbers and CEO’s would be making 10 times the average worker, not 300.  All this may happen soon but at an enormous cost and it will be forced down our throats.
  12. At year-end, predictions will be made for 2013. I can guarantee this one.  There will be plenty to say next year at this time.  I’ll check to see if I’m right but I don’t think I’ll make predictions again.  I’ll just reprint this entry.
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My 9/11, Part 2

Posted on November 21, 2011 by Leave a comment

(See prior entry for Part 1)

My travel ordeal from 9/11 was complete and I slept through much of that day.  My plan had been to get out and see Asunción but lack of sleep and hunger took over.  Besides, as I didn’t have my luggage and didn’t know whether it would arrive, one of my priorities was finding a few basic clothing essentials in case I was going to make my presentation the next day in jeans.

After lunch at the hotel, I walked outside where some workers were erecting a large sign for the conference.  They were showing me as the second headliner.  The top dog was Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia.  I suppose he deserved to have his photo over mine

I walked across the street to the local mall to buy a clean shirt and underwear.  (Something about the idea of talking to 700 people in suits while wearing three day old underwear didn’t have the right appeal.)  What can you say about a mall?  They’re pretty much the same all over the world in both developed and developing countries.  That’s both comforting to a wayward traveler and a bit disturbing as we continue to lose our national identities.  Was that Benetton store I just walked by the one in the Rosebank Mall near Johannesburg?  No, remember I’m in Asunción today and it’s the Shopping del Sol mall.  How could I forget?  There’s Burger King in the corner.  Maybe I can get some good Paraguayan food there.

Underwear and socks, no problem.  I picked those up at a completely forgettable store but now I wanted a nice shirt so the conference attendees wouldn’t think I walked to Paraguay.  I walked the corridors of Shopping del Sol mall looking for the right kind of store.  Then I saw the words “Christian Dior”, the store name, “Giorgio Patrino” and most important, “Liquadacion” plastered all over the windows and underneath “40%, 50%, 60%” – my kind of place.

Like most high-end stores around the world, the well-dressed staff looked me over as I entered and saw a downtrodden mess of a man and I could tell they were considering asking me to leave.  But my quick gringo response to the salesman’s query, “solomente buscando” gave me away as someone who might have a wallet stacked with credit cards, so he gave me the run of the store and I soon found the fancy shirt section.  After a few minutes, I found a nice Italian shirt in my size.  I looked for the price and there was none on the shirt, always a bad sign.  So I asked the ever-watchful sales man for the price.  He looked at me, looked down at the shirt, smiled and said 819,000 guarani.  Now that sounds like a fortune in guarani but a quick calculation told me it was about $190, in my world, a fortune to pay for a shirt.

So, I looked at him, looked at the shirt and said, “muy, muy, caro!”  He shrugged.

I pointed to the store windows at all the Liquadación signs and cleverly said, “es imposible que el precio es correcto; es mas barrato in los estados unidos; es mas barrato en Italia”  Although, frankly, I had no idea what the shirt would cost in Italy but clearly, he could see that he was dealing with one tough hombre.  So he took out his calculator and gave me a new price, “645,000 guarani.”

I shook my head and said, “todavia mas caro.”

He went to work again on his calculator, looked back at the store manager who nodded at him and, after a moment, he offered, “385,000 guarani.”

Maybe I could have gotten him down further but he had dropped his price by more than half, so I said okay and the shirt was mine for $90.  He seemed like a beaten man, although the manager was smiling behind him.  I left content but thinking that this exchange could have taken place almost anywhere in the world.

I returned to my hotel to work on my presentation.  As numero 2, I wanted to be good and I had been asked to speak for 90 minutes, something I had done once before but it’s a lot of work to keep the masses entertained for that long.  What preoccupied my mind though was what Karin had said to me during our drive to Asuncion when I asked how they were going to get me out of the country as I was there illegally without a visa.  She said, “there may be a bribe involved.”  I began to wonder what life inside a Paraguayan prison might be like.

Later that day, I met some of the officials of the Paraguayan Trade Fairs organization.  One told me he was a good friend of Paraguay’s Vice President and assured me that I wouldn’t have to pay the maximum fine, which I learned was $6,000.  “I’m sure we can get you out for no more than $1,000.”  Good thing I got that shirt for half off.

The conference and my presentation the next day will be covered in later blog posts.  However, the organization was very professional and my session was well attended.  I had started to think about looking like Steve Jobs up on the stage wearing jeans but Karin showed up the previous night with my suitcase, so I looked pretty much like every other suit in the place, only I had a headset mike and earpiece so the simultaneous translator could tell me to slow down or repeat a sentence.

The following day, I had scheduled a lunch with a cabinet minister in Chile, a meeting that I didn’t want to miss.  I looked to see if I could get to Buenos Aires the night after my presentation so that I wouldn’t miss my morning flight to Santiago but the last flight out of Asunción was too early for me to make it.  The next morning, I was scheduled for a 6:00 am flight to BA and then the short flight over the Andes to Santiago but that meant I would have to leave the hotel at 4:00 am to go through customs and make my flight.

I had dinner that night with the owners of Paraguayan Trade Fairs.  The same gentleman who told me about paying the fine sat next to me but said nothing about my visa.  However, he was genial, interested in my speech from earlier in the day and well-traveled.  He said something to me about the region that I think encapsulates some of the culture of the countries in the southern cone region of South America, “Paraguay looks at Argentina and Brazil; Argentina looks at itself and Chile looks at the world.”  I find all three countries to be a bit provincial but Chile is certainly the least so and the one that has built a strong economy based on global exports.

Years ago, on a Scandinavian trip, I heard an expression about that region which goes, “The Finns design a product; the Swedes build it; and the Danes sell it to the Norwegians.”  These are generalizations but there is a little bit of truth in them that describes their national character.

At 4:00 am the next morning, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed (as much as one can be with four hours sleep) at the hotel when Karin, her husband and 18 month old son pulled up to take me to the airport and get me out of the country without a jail term.  This couple deserved a medal for how they took care of me, although as my local travel agents, they felt some responsibility for not ensuring that I knew about the visa.

Karin asked me how much money I was carrying.  I told her a couple hundred dollars and a little more in euros.  “Forget the euros,” she said.  I was trying to as I acquired them when the euro was about 20% higher.

When we got to the airport, she walked with me right past the security entrance to go through customs.  There was a guard there but he didn’t bother to ask for our tickets or passports but ahead of us was the usual lineup of customs agents sitting in boxes stamping passports and asking probing questions about travelers’ visits.

I waited in line for our turn, not knowing what Karin had in mind.  She pointed toward the end of the row and said, “See the guy in the last booth?”  I nodded  “That’s our man,” she said.  Now, I knew some sort of fix was in but had no idea how it would turn out.  When we got to the head of the line and it was our turn, we walked over to our “hombre elegido”.

Karin asked for my passport, handed it to him and commenced a rapid negotiation in hushed tones.  She seemed irritated at what he was asking for.  I thought about my newly honed negotiation skills buying a shirt two days earlier and was about to offer some suggestions when I heard a stamp come down on my passport like a hammer. She took my arm, walked me to the side and asked, “Could you give me $60?”  I pulled a couple hundred dollars out of my wallet and began counting twenties.  She pushed my hands down so that no one from customs would see.  I gave her the bills and she directed me toward the x-ray machines.  I lingered for a moment wondering if I was to watch her buy my way out but she motioned for me to leave.

Thus ended my trip to Paraguay.  Smuggled in and bribed out, a first and hopefully, a last for me.  The flights to Buenos Aires and then to Santiago were non-eventful except for the incredible views of the Andes.  I made it to my lunch meeting in time.

On the whole, it was a pretty interesting adventure, although one loss was that I never got time to see Asunción.  Perhaps, though, my introduction to the wonderful hospitality of the Paraguayans made up for that.

One final coda to the trip was that from the time I got off my flight in Santiago until I walked into my hotel in the city about 15 miles away took about an hour.  It was the kind of efficiency one sees in places like Zurich and wishes for in London.  The contrast to my trek to get into Paraguay was evident and I thought again about the direction these countries face and the way they are developing themselves.

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