Thursday, August 10, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 10.8.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

Life in Spain:-
  • The Spanish are not great vegetarians. At least 3 restaurants dedicated to these souls in Pontevedra have failed in the 17 years I've been here. Most Spaniards seem to think that jamón is not real meat. And here's an account of what happened when one vegan tried to get the meal she wanted in a restaurant in Fuengirola.
  • Some Spanish regions are planning to impose special tourist taxes, for one reason and another. I'm delighted to say that the Galician Xunta says it won't be doing this. As for fining the likes of Airbnb renters we'll just have to wait and see. Far more likely, is my guess.
  • Talking of tax campaigns, the police say they tested 3,142 drivers leaving the albariño wine festival in Cambados last week and charged 201 drivers for being over Spain's relatively low alcohol limit. Or 6%. So 94% had refrained from having more than one glass. Hardly traditional Spain.
There's a couple of interesting Comments to my bit yesterday on undergraduate literacy. Neither of my 2 daughters - both in their 30s - were taught either grammar or punctuation but, like reader Maria's daughter - picked them up from copious reading. I once commented to an 18 year old employee of mine that she wrote well but seemed to know little about punctuation. "You should see how my 14 year old brother writes", she replied. "He knows nothing about it"

North Korea: See an apposite article from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the end of this post. Is there anyone who disagrees with his observation that: If Mr Trump is reckless enough to launch his devastation in a unilateral strike against a chorus of informed warnings, he will bring about the moral collapse of American leadership and set off a pan-Asian arms race. The latent superpower conflict between the US and China will become a real one. Not to mention the immediate deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Here in the Pontevedra province of Galicia, one of our local councils has decided to tackle its perennial civil servant absenteeism problem by paying its employees a plus (bonus), if they work 90% of their contracted hours. As you might expect, this has not gone down well with the media. Or with anyone who puts in a full whack.

Finally . . . Unless you live in the proverbial cave, you'll be aware that gin has undergone a massive rehabilitation since its dog days of the 80s and 90s, when vodka became the fashionable tipple. It's now more popular that it was even in the days of Hogarth's famous Gin Lane (see below). And among a far wider spread of tippler. Here's a few noteworthy points from Gin, Glorious Gin by Olivia  Williams:-
  • Gin sales not just weathered the economic crisis of 2007 onwards but prospered.
  • This, in the UK at least, was largely down to 'weekend millionaires'. People who skimp during the week and then blow on some expensive product at the weekend.
  • After the UK, Spain is 'Europe's other major gin-drinking nation. And it's here where the fashion for balloon glasses started. Not to mention all the other nonsense that now surrounds this favourite drink of mine. After wine, of course.
Today's cartoon:-

Hogarth's Gin Alley . . . 



THE ARTICLE

Global order quakes as Trump blunders into an Asian maelstrom in North Korea: Ambrose Evans Pritchard.


The line dividing North and South Korea was drawn by two young colonels in the middle of the night on August 11 1945. They were thrust into a room, given a map, and told to come with a solution within half an hour. The Koreans were not consulted, and nor were the British or the Chinese. US military planners were focused solely on the surrender of Japan and the rush to pre-empt the Soviet Red Army coming down from the North. One of the colonels happened to be Dean Rusk, a Rhodes Scholar who would later become US secretary of state in the 1960s. He drew the line through the 38th Parallel because it “would place the capital city in the American zone”.  

The new frontier was arbitrary, like placing a trench of landmines through the middle of Oxfordshire. There is no ethnic difference between the North and South. As one US official put it: “Korea is the place where you see diplomacy in the raw, diplomacy without gloves, perfume or phrases.”  

Rusk feared that Seoul was indefensible, and he was right: the city was overrun within days when the North attacked in the Korean War. His fateful line is why so much of this great metropolitan area of 24 million people is today within artillery and rocket range, regularly threatened with a “sea of fire” by the Communist Kim dynasty.  

When US defense secretary William Perry asked whether it was possible to carry out a surgical strike on the North in the 1990s, the Pentagon told him that it might leave hundreds of thousands dead. Today Kim Jong-un has an estimated 8,000 rocket launchers and artillery pieces on the border.
A study by the Nautilus Institute said 30,000 civilians might be killed in the first barrage.  I have a personal stake: my grand-daughter is a Korean citizen, and spends part of her time under howitzer barrels below the 38th Parallel.  

Just when we thought the markets were becalmed, with equity volatility at 90-year lows, the ‘August Curse’ threatens to strike again. It was the credit ‘heart-attack’ on Wall Street exactly ten years ago that kicked off what was to become the global financial crisis, and it was Russia’s default in August 1998 that caused the East Asian financial crisis to metastasize.  

This has more in common with August 1914 when the long-simmering tensions between the status quo powers and a rising Germany erupted – in remote territory – into a battle for world domination.  
It embroils us all because it is the first super-charged test of whether US and China can manage their ‘G2’ global condominium. If markets are jittery as President Donald Trump threatens to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on Pyongyang, they should be.  Any misjudgment could shatter the globalised financial and economic system that underpins asset prices. Valuations are stretched to extreme levels on the premise that the international order is in safe hands. Quite obviously it is not.  

Today, the Shiller price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 index is around 30. This is the highest in 150 years of usable data, excluding the two anomalies of 1929 and the dotcom bubble. Bulls argue that this is sustainable because globalisation generates surplus capital, and generates red-blooded economic growth rates of 4pc or so. Well exactly, and what happens if ‘Chimerica’ suddenly goes off the rails?  

Chinese leader Xi Jinping patiently tried to explain the complexities of North Korea to the US president at their meeting in Florida. “After listening for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” said Mr Trump with disarming candour. That is a start, at least. But how much does this prickly petulant man know about the Korean War – that forgotten “meatgrinder of American manhood” – when the US fatally misjudged Mao Zedong’s red lines, invaded the North, and blundered into a full-blown conflict with China? Does Does he know how close General Douglas MacArthur came to acting on his plan to rein 38 cobalt-H bombs over Northern China, rendering it uninhabitable?

The atomic bombs were never dropped. But as Bruce Cummings writes in his poignant history, ‘Korea’s Place in the Sun’, MacArthur did create a zone of devastation near the Yalu River, flattening “every factory, city, and village” across a thousand square miles. He blew up the irrigation dams that watered 75% of the North’s food production. He reduced Pyongyang to rubble with incendiary bombs. Every city in the North was leveled. Each looked like another Hiroshima. Does Donald Trump know this when he talks of “fire and fury”?  Mr Trump’s wild threats are grist to the mill of Kim Jong-un. The hermit regime thrives on such bluster. It plays to the North’s siege mythology and justifies emergency sacrifice.  

Professor John Kelly from Pusan University said North Korea’s purpose in acquiring nuclear weapons is essentially defensive. The bankrupt regime craves a deterrent to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. “They aren’t stupid,” he said.  

But if hot rhetoric makes sense for Kim Jong-un, it is another matter coming from the White House. The danger is that this shouting match sets off a spiral that provokes Mr Trump into overreacting. If the Trump Doctrine is that US red lines must be enforced, he has maneuvered himself into a credibility trap. The tripwire is set low. He vowed to unleash carnage even if North Korea merely “threatens” the US.  

The military consensus is that the US cannot destroy Kim’s nuclear capability with a first strike and that any such attack risks a retaliatory holocaust in the Peninsular. The crisis can therefore be treated only as a containment question, working with the grain of South Korean and Chinese leadership in diplomatic concert.  

It goes without saying that almost the entire world agrees that Kim Jong-un must not be allowed to miniaturise nuclear warheads or master the ‘re-entry’ phase in a missile attack. All share this objective. But they also have zero confidence in the judgment and temperament of Mr Trump. 

At the end of the day, North Korea remains a Chinese client state.The conciliatory signals from Beijing have been complex and ambivalent. They can be misread.  

If Mr Trump is reckless enough to launch his devastation in a unilateral strike against a chorus of informed warnings, he will bring about the moral collapse of American leadership and set off a pan-Asian arms race. The latent superpower conflict between the US and China will become a real one.  

The US Congress can exercise only so much restraint. As President Richard Nixon famously said in the Oval Office tapes: “the President of the United States can bomb anybody he likes.” If only we had Nixon now.

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