Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Black Year

It was Queen Elizabeth II, who I first heard using the phrase “annus horribilis”. It wasn’t a part of Prince Philip’s anatomy that she was referring to, but to the travails of the recently concluded year of 1992, in which she witnessed the break-up of several family marriages and a fire at Windsor Castle. More recently, the Economist referred to the year 2008 as Wall Street’s annus horribilis – at the end of which, of Wall Street’s five big securities firms, only Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley still remain in recognizable existence.

It has been a shocking and all-pervasive black year – even extending to the White House. However, with a Black in the White House and a Brown at 10 Downing Street, the Indian community is celebrating a hard earned victory, and preparing itself for an age of Indian domination of the world. Black - a color which used to be dreaded in all its shades, and at all places, but particularly on the skin of the female offspring, is no longer an anathema. We expect the Sunday editions of Hindustan Times to soon carry matrimonial advertising mentioning “wheatish skin” with a sense of pride, rather than a tone of apology.

Unilever India, which swelled its corporate coffers on the sales of Fair & Lovely, is already thinking of phasing out the product and is evaluating preliminary concepts of Dark and Comely. China, another country with fondness for fair skin, except on Western journalists (and where, Olay the market leader, refers to the product category more precisely as whitening creams, rather than fairness creams) has started a campaign to educate its people on the benefits of black color. Chinese companies, which are desperately trying to remain in the black, as the rest of the world plunges further into red, also support the change.

The real question is to what extent this victory will benefit the poor blacks who have been receiving a raw deal from the world. A prime example is Michael Jackson, who was sued by the son of King of Bahrain for failing to write a new song and was expecting to be bailed-out by Obama. Michael also received inspiration from Obama’s victory and was seen humming “It don’t matter if you are Black or Brown” but was eventually disappointed and was last reported to be writing Chapter 11 of his autobiography.

Al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist, who threw his shoes at George Bush, said that he will continue to throw shoes at all American Presidents, regardless of their color. Asked whether he will match the color of the shoes with the color of the President, he said that in shoe throwing a contrasting, rather than a matching color makes a better mark. That is the reason why he threw a black shoe at Bush and soon plans to order white shoes, in case an opportunity arises to use them on Obama.

In the meanwhile, sipping black coffee in snow white Alaska, Sarah Palin was heard vehemently denying allegations that she is unfamiliar with the concept of contraception. Having five children was her single handed attempt to populate Alaska and increase its share of the electoral college – a mantle that she successfully passed to her sixteen year old daughter. “I hope we will have a black child in our family soon,” she said, hoping that her future generations may succeed in the task that she failed in.

Written by Ashok Sethi

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Joe the Plumber

The more astute observers saw it coming. First it was the clogged toilet of the international space station and then the defective plumbing in the offices of Lehman Brothers forcing them to spend precious time to walk to the public toilet. Insiders say that the financial engineers at the legendary investment bank couldn’t handle being torn between the fear of an opportunity loss of millions of dollars by their temporary absence from their desks and the urgency of relieving themselves. Plumbers sabotaged further by connecting the plumbing pipeline with the financial pipeline and substituting debt paper with toilet paper.

For John McCain and Barack Obama It was the fear of being forced by unusable toilets in the White House and the prospect of walking up to the public WC at the Capitol in the middle of a discussion on the Iraq war, that prompted them to reach out to the plumber lobby with unprecedented concessions and incentives.

Needless to say that members of other professions are not amused at this blatant discrimination. A representative of the baking industry issued a statement, “Our products are the reason why plumbing is so important”. Jack the baker remarked that, “the inspiration of the financial experts to make the stock market rise to such frothy heights came from our success in use of self-rising flour. It is unfair that the plumbing industry is singled out for tax breaks”.

Bill the butcher is also peeved and contemplating his next move. His industry’s effortless shift from prime-cuts to poor quality sub-prime cuts provided the relevant theoretical foundation and the terminology for sub-prime mortgages. The industry has been facing significant hardship as misplaced health concerns drive more and more consumers from steaks to grilled fish and sausages to cucumbers. If special incentives are not provided to stimulate consumption of meat and butchers’ cleaver not supplied at a subsidized rate, there will be more financial havoc for all and more will be sent to the slaughterhouse. “Don’t kid with us – the steaks are high,” Bill the butcher warned.

However, the most telling response came from Sally the stripper, who has been unsuccessfully lobbying for several years for exemption of entertainment tax on strip dancing by demanding it to be declared it an art form. “We are the only ones with untainted assets now,” she proclaimed. “And they are available for inspection to anyone for a small fee. If only there was as much transparency in investment banking as in our profession, we wouldn’t have been in this mess!”

Written by Ashok Sethi

Why can’t they be more like us?

Fearing the polluted air, the American Olympic cycling team arrived in Beijing wearing masks. The West continues to wonder why China can not fix its problems, and think and behave like them. President Bush’s address to the world on the eve of the Beijing Olympics raises some important questions

On behalf of the United States of America, I congratulate the Chinese people and leadership for the impressive preparation they have made for hosting the 2008 Olympics. But while I say this, I must also urge the Chinese to learn more from the great nations of the world – particularly America.

We run a benign state, providing generous loans to our citizens, to buy houses which are larger than their incomes would allow, to live in a comfort that they can not afford. We allow them to live from month to month, borrowing from one credit card to repay the debt of another, to continue to flourish in an end less circle of debt fuelled luxury. The Chinese citizens are deprived of these benefits and need to pay 30% down payment for their apartment, and provide income certificates to apply for a mortgage.

I acknowledge that our poor are now facing unheard hardship, including facing the threat of losing their 4 bedroom sub-urban mansions, Most glaringly their very livelihood is threatened as they are unable to afford the gasoline to drive their 3 gas-guzzling sedans to work. The Chinese poor live in villages on their farms and struggle to feed their families and provide them with clean drinking water.

America has been tottering on the verge of recession, lost trillion of dollars in ingeniously crafted collateralized debt obligations and its legendary manufacturing enterprises are making losses in billions of dollars. China’s economy, on the other hand, staged a record growth of 11.4% in 2007 and managed to grow at 10.4% in the first half of 2008, despite the chaos that we inflicted on the world.

We take natural disasters in our stride, neglecting hurricane Katrina till the man made disaster overshadowed the natural one. Chinese, also frequently blessed with nature’s fury, fly their Prime minister to Sichuan within two hours of the being struck with an earthquake, and mobilize the entire nation to bring succor and comfort to the afflicted.

Our citizens quake to step after dusk in downtown streets of Chicago, New York and other great American cities, because of fear of getting mugged, stabbed or raped. The Chinese youth roam freely and happily in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, while solemn faced Chinese policemen patrol in total oblivion of their merriment.

Our citizens have freedom – freedom to sell sub-prime mortgages, freedom to buy them, freedom to disguise them as respectable debt instruments, freedom to give them as AAA ratings, freedom to gamble (absolute luxury, when they can lose so much in the financial markets), freedom to buy guns (to escape from it all, if nothing else works), freedom to bomb Iraq (to share and divide the misery that we feeling our own country). The Chinese enjoy none of this freedom and are tightly controlled by a draconian regime with a misguided determination to protect its citizens from harming themselves.

While in most areas we want the Chinese to become more like us, there is one area where we want to retain our unique position and unassailable lead. We are the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Unfortunately this is one area in which China is becoming more and more like us. But our position as number 1 polluter is unshakable. We will not let the Chinese poor benefit from electricity, motorized transport or air travel. As we steadfastly refuse to sign the Kyoto protocol, we are determined to use all our power to prevent the Chinese from enjoying an excessive lifestyle which threatens the world with dire consequences of global warming.

I wish a great success for the Olympics and hope that they will change China for the better.

Written by Ashok Sethi