The Man With The Golden Gun

It’s pretty obvious that the colonel was murdered, which is unsurprising. I don’t think he was the suicidal type, and so his killing reminds me of the old Soviet joke, adapted to the Arab Spring.

What were Colonel Ghadafi’s last words before he commited suicide?
“Don’t shoot, comrades!”

Most of the exchange of gunfire was as usual sourced from AK-47s, so simple forensics for calibre and powder burns would establish that the dictator was killed by a close range pistol shot to the head.

Thing is, nobody cares. Although the whole shebang (excuse the pun) left the Tunisians with a kind of penis-envy since they’re trying Ben Ali in absentia. The Libyan situation has similarities to Iraq. More a set of tribes than a nation, lots of oil. Plenty of Muslim fundamentalists. A bloodthirsty dictator.

The West helped rather than invaded, so the revolutionary modus operandi was different. It’s as if the US had helped the Shia in southern Iraq overthrow the Sunni minority by arming them and bombing the opposition. This would have been a challenge for at least three reasons. First, it was not the way the Bush administration did things; second, a bunch of people in the Pentagon didn’t even know the difference between Shia and Sunni; third, such a move would have supported Iran. Having said that, Iran is already the big winner of the Iraq war, since its regional influence is now far greater than before 2003. And in some ways the same is true of Pakistan. It’s the law of unintended consequences.

Just as in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there is a predictable cycle of factional carnage followed by the appearance of a Strong Man (there it was the students) who is accepted because people are sick of violence and uncertainty. The succession from monarchy to muscle republic to democracy is a well-trodden path. France and Germany did it, Portugal did it. Recently, Brazil did it very successfully. How long a nation spends at stage two, the muscle republic, depends. In Portugal it was forty-eight years, two whole generations.

Stage two can end with a bang, such as in Libya, or a whimper, as in Spain. But the Spanish dictator Franco did it the sneaky way, by restoring the constitutional monarchy and easing out the bad guys (i.e. himself). And perhaps because of that the Spanish love their king.

In a democracy, other institutions of power emerge. They may be religious, as in the U.S. and southern Europe, or large corporations. Often, that also takes place at stage two. At the height of Latin America’s dictatorships, it was huge companies such as United Fruit that held sway.

Undoubtedly the main institutions of power include three groups. Big oil, arms manufacturers, and banks. Whereas in countries like Libya it is oil and arms that pull the strings, all over democratic Europe it’s the banks.

Portuguese government bond yield. The sharp increase follows the sub-prime bailout in 2008-2009.

In a perverse triangle, banks generate income through lending, by means of reserves that originate in the people, accrual of interest on loans, and so on. Far more than government, it is banks that stimulate clients to become indebted, touting the impossible dream that you can own anything you desire. On credit. Spectacular implosions such as the sub-prime crisis are the result. In the triangle’s second side, banks also lend money to governments, who are themselves in debt. When the boat rocks, i.e. when governments seem like a risky lending prospect, rates go up. The banks say yippee, because they know what governemnts will do next. Nations have three choices: austerity, currency devaluation, or default.

Europe is on the third side of that triangle, austerity. The irony in all this is that the source of money is only one: the people. The other two corners of the triangle are abstract human concepts. A bank or a government is merely a collection of people that do certain things to other people (sorry, I meant for).

So wages are going down, taxes are going up. A quick calculation of the difference between gross and net salary in Portugal and the U.K., using e.g. a higher end academic wage as a base, reveals that the net takehome pay in Portugal is over 20% lower than in England, for an identical gross. Part of this results from the fact that taxes are more difficult to collect. A recent show on Portuguese television confirmed what everyone knows. Car repairs, lunch in a restaurant, or a gift of flowers were examples of “tax-exempt” purchases. No receipt, no value-added tax. Which is running at 23% and counting.

The higher VAT goes, the more this will happen, destroying the taxation base of the economy, with knock-on effects on hospitals, schools, or road repairs. A number of wars in the Middle Ages were started as protests against excessive taxation.

A cartoon in the Portuguese equivalent of the New York Times explaining how the average person views the equitable nature of austerity measures.

But sales without receipt are by no means an exclusive of Southern Europe. I’ve regularly been handed bills in restaurants in Brussels on scraps of paper – no letterhead, no tax number. In Scotland I was in an establishment a few years ago that could not even supply me with a receipt. I ended up with a love note from the waitress.

And my first encounter with “informal” billing occurred during my student days in England. I was the proud owner of a VW bug, my first car – it was best described as a learning experience. When it required its annual inspection, I took it in to a nice garage near the university.

It failed on over twenty counts. I was mortified. At the time I lived on a road that had only three types of inhabitants: Indian and West Indian immigrants, students, and whorehouses. The whorehouses were great, with a diaphanous white lace curtain discreetly shading the bay windows, and a little Barbie bathed in a red light. I loved it all. I looked at my poor guilty vehicle, staring sheepishly at me through its six volt headlamps, and decided it needed another chance. The car, who was called Wilbur the Beetle, dutifully made it down to a shed at the end of the road, owned by an Indian guy.

I related my sad story. The Punjabi wagged his head attentively from side to side, looked at Wilbur’s confession of shame. We commiserated.

“Ve vill take it for another inspection,” he told me solemnly.
Wilbur brightened up immediately at the thought. Perhaps the first doctor was wrong. He waited anxiously for a second opinion. He held his Solex with anxiety.

A day later the Indian gave me a new certificate. The car had only failed on one count. Admittedly a rather serious one, half the floor panels under me were about to drop out. But I was thrilled by the sudden improvement in Wilbur’s health. Who says cars don’t get better with age?

Yes, my Indian automotive guru could fix it. Tax free. I guess it’s an old tradition in the Punjab.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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