The Patrimony

In politics, everything is relatives

Tag: family

Purchasing access to the United States through campaign contributions?

by fpman

This NYT story is pretty interesting read on how a wealthy Ecuadorian family may have secured access to the United States for one of its members, Estefanía Isaías. The lady in question is reported to have been involved in fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids for which she was barred from entering the country for a while.

Here is a particularly noteworthy detail of the story, on how the entry ban was eventually lifted:

“The Obama administration then reversed its decision and gave Ms. Isaías the waiver she needed to come to the United States — just as tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the family poured into Mr. Obama’s campaign coffers.

An email from (New Jersey Democratic Senator) Mr. Menendez’s office sharing the good news was dated May 15, 2012, one day after, campaign finance records show, Ms. Isaías’s mother gave $40,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, which provided donations to the president and other Democrats.”

A watchdog organization is subsequently quoted as pointing out the obvious: “When a donation happens and then something else happens, like the favor, as long as they are very, very close, that really paints a story.”

Roberto and William Isaías (of the two, Roberto is Estefanía’s father), who are named as “the family patriarchs” by the NYT article apparently considerably complicate relations with Ecuador given that they have been involved in the crashing of a bank there causing losses to the tune of $400 million. In Ecuador, they have been sentenced in abstentia related to this, and so Ecuador is actually demanding their extradition from the US.

That Estefanía may even have been employed by a fundraiser (Balsera Communications, focusing on the Latino populace) connected to the Obama team is not going to make this look any better from, say, Ecuador.

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Would you read an article about the “Lucky Sperm Club?”

by fpman

We sure would. In fact, there is one recent article like that in the Economist, and so we were happy to.

It is about family-run mega-firms in Fortune’s Global 500 where you can, in Warren Buffett’s expression, be born into fortune by being the lucky “sperm” (though based on our high school studies we think an egg may also be necessary to get lucky).

In the decade from 2005 to 2014 the share of family-managed large firms in the 500 has grown from 15% to 19%. The ratio has actually decreased somewhat over this period for Western firms, but in the emerging economies, and in fact in the developing world in general, being family-run, or at least being owned dominantly by one family, is apparently more the rule than the exception. Think of examples from Tata Corporation (of the Indian Tata family) to the Saudi Binladin Group (of the bin Laden family). Given all the “emergence” there is these days, those firms are now better represented among the 500.

Fortune500The 500 visualized (honestly, I didn’t count them)

Here’s the regional breakdown on firms with over one-billion dollars in annual revenue:

“Around 85% of $1 billion-plus businesses in South-East Asia are family-run, around 75% in Latin America, 67% in India and around 65% in the Middle East. China (where the proportion is about 40%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (35%) stand out for their relatively low share of family firms, because in both cases many large firms are state-owned.”

The whole article makes for very interesting read, and is highly recommended. Given the concentration of enormous power in the 500 firms in question they surely merit attention on the agenda of this blog.

Of most interest to us, however, is actually this observation in the article (following upon the discussion of research findings from various sources pointing in this direction):

“The families that do best are those which understand that their interests and those of their business can diverge, and put in place processes to manage the consequences of these differences.”

It may not be a popular idea but patrimonialism – let’s add a very important caveat: in its legal forms – in fact should not be inherently disadvantageous (or in other words “non-Pareto-optimal,” or a “public bad”), either in politics or economics. Patrimonialism is rather what people and circumstances make of it. It can resolve issues of trust and reduce transaction costs in both the political and the economic realm, and it can be practiced in an enlightened manner – with a view to the public good in the case of politics, and with a view to the good of the corporation in the case of a company.

It just doesn’t always happen that way.

Mr. and Mrs. Blair

by AiteVer

Throughout the last few years British news sites have been increasingly involved in covering the intertwined deals of former prime minister, Tony Blair. Tony Blair Associates (TBA) and his seven other companies make the flow of both money and advice difficult to follow, which has alarmed many in Britain and worldwide.

One of the juiciest stories gone viral in the past is that of Mr. Blair’s close connections to Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Astana’s questionable human rights record and continuing rampant corruption may throw doubt on the effectiveness of his advice on ‘good governance’ that TBA was initially hired for in 2011.

Blair_NazarbayevBlair and Nazarbayev at Downing Street 10 (photo: Eddie Mulholland)

Three years, a bloody riot in Zhanaozen, multiple handwritten letters, several blooming investments, a reaffirming book, and a comprehensive promotion campaign later the importance of Mr. Blair in clearing up Kazakhstan’s image seems unquestionable.

Having defused allegations that he ‘profits personally’ from the matter, it was interesting to see when his wife Cherie Blair, also an avid defender of human rights, recently accepted to review Kazakhstan’s bilateral treaties through her company, Omnia Strategy. According to the article, Mrs. Blair has declined to comment on whether Omnia won the job on a tender or it was directly offered to them.

Tony_and_Cherie_BlairTony and Cherie Blair (source)

The similarities between the ventures of the Blairs do not end at having a similar pool of clients. The organizational structure of their ventures and the use of limited liability partnerships (LLP) make it easier for the two to stay under the radar.

As the Blair name continues to pop up all around the world, there is little question whether the pair is planning to enjoy their well-deserved retirement.

How an Islamic State media officer views the issue of family

by fpman

The following dialogue is heard in the second part of a documentary shot by Vice News in Islamic State territory recently. It takes place inside a car where, while waiting, the journalist, Medyan Dairieh, is asking questions in Arabic from a representative of the Islamic State, by the name of Abu Mosa, essentially a media officer — or Dairieh’s minder.

Medyan Dairieh: “The war has been going on for a while. Don’t you have recreation time that you spend with the family?”

Abu Mosa: “To be honest, no. In my case, no. In the last few Eid celebrations, I told my children that I’ll not buy any sweets for Eid until the children of Daraa and Homs are able to celebrate, too. I don’t return home for pleasure, I only go when it’s important or I’m sick. I don’t, I don’t go at all.”

Medyan Dairieh: “Does that mean that you live for war all the time?”

Abu Mosa: “Yes. The family, honestly, is the least important thing. There is a higher purpose. No one would defend Muslims if we all sat at home with the family.”

Abu Mosa is no top decision-maker, of course, but he is a representative of a recently declared state (or political entity, to use a less loaded term). While his person may initially make this seem like an off-topic post for this blog, the subject he is talking about, and the similarity of thinking across the Islamic State’s jihadi leadership — given that their whole world view is in effect about demanding and expecting homogeneity of thinking, or the unity of the umma, i.e. the “community of the believers” — makes Abu Mosa’s comments significant on a larger scale.

This is a peculiar case — in reference back to our first post here where we said politicians having family comes with both good and bad sides in terms of political implications. Here the readiness on the part of at least some of the people in question to disregard even the bond to their own families, along with much else, in the name of their “higher purpose,” is… concerning. That, probably, is the scientifically accurate expression of what it is.

By the way, the documentary discussed here has five parts and you find the first of the five here.

Manmohan Singh: A bookworm in the crossfire of a book war

by fpman

“Strictly Personal: Manmohan and Gursharan” is a freshly published book by the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter, Daman Singh. Its promise is avowedly modest — you can read an interview with the author here, and another brief introduction here, to learn a few details about what you can expect from it.

DamanSingh_StrictlyPersonalCover of the new book by Daman Singh

Focused on the human side of Manmohan Singh’s political career it builds on the strengths of the former PM at a time when he might just need this, to shape perceptions of his legacy to his advantage. Being a nice, smart and humble person is what is generally regarded to have been his strength, and the book may as well be a reminder of that.

ManmohanSinghManmohan Singh’s Wikipedia profile pic

The father of major liberal economic reforms during his time as Minister of Finance (1991-1996), and later premier (2004-2014), no matter how much he was attacked for his policies, Manmohan Singh has always been respected for his personal qualities which even opponents did not usually deny.

A case in point is Sanjaya Baru, media advisor to the former PM from 2004 to 2008, who, while otherwise criticizing rampant corruption during Manmohan Singh’s time, goes only so far as to argue:

“Dr Singh’s general attitude towards corruption in public life, which he adopted through his career in government, seemed to me to be that he would himself maintain the highest standards of probity in public life, but would not impose this on others … In practice, this meant that he turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of his ministers.”

Baru is nevertheless one of those former team members from Singh’s cabinet who have published books dealing with his tenure that have done some damage to his reputation. Baru’s book has the telling title of The Accidental Prime Minister (referring to Singh himself there).

Meanwhile, the memoirs of a former Minister of External Affairs, Natwar Singh (in office: 2004-2005; no relation to Manmohan Singh) are also out since the beginning of this month, and copies of both that book (‘One Life Is Not Enough’) and Baru’s are selling fast — in record numbers in Indian terms.

Based on what we know from the press accounts so far, both books paint a picture of Manmohan Singh’s government (2004-2014) as one where Sonia Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party were really pulling the strings. See samples of what Natwar Singh had to say here and here. He even says Manmohan Singh considered himself “a very lonely man” in the “dyarchy” that left the most power in Sonia Gandhi’s hands.

This will once again reinforce allegations that as the frontman in said arrangement, the former PM may have been complicit — in a half-knowing sort of way, and in spite of his personal merits — in some corrupt wheeling and dealing going on behind his back. Such allegations include the undervalued sale of coal mining rights to investors under his government. “Undervaluing,” resulting in this case in lost revenues in the order of $210 billion dollars according to an estimate mentioned here, would imply informal kickbacks paid by the investors to certain beneficiaries in return, in what is a fairly typical form of corruption. That, if true, is certainly a bit too much to overlook without getting at least a part of the blame, even if Manmohan Singh’s approach to this may have reflected his understanding of pragmatism at the time and he may have seen no workable way to stop this from happening.

Coming several months after the publication of The Accidental Prime Minister, and a week or two after the launch of One Life Is Not Enough, Daman Singh’s book now is not the kind of book that would spend much time discussing such issues, however. Of Baru’s and Natwar Singh’s memoirs the author has this to say:

“I haven’t read either of the two books. They’re not the sort of books I normally read. As far as I can tell Natwar’s book is about politics which is not the kind of book am normally interested in reading … I wrote this book because I wanted to discover my parents as individuals.”

In her story, Indians can, for instance, sympathize with the young Manmohan, the former Cambridge guest student who, during his time in Britain, did not have much money and had to skip meals and get by on sixpence chocolate bars. They may get useful reaffirmation of Manmohan Singh’s generally positive image as a bookworm — as a man of constant contemplation. In Daman’s words:

“He worked in bed where he sat cross-legged with a pillow on his lap, a stack of files beside him. As he hunched over his papers, inscribing neat squiggles, he would tug his beard and mutter to himself. When he was not working, he was usually preoccupied with a book or else with his thoughts.”

Even the pratfall effect (i.e. that our respect for someone we already hold in high regard may increase after we witness the person in question commit a small, non-consequential mistake, or display weakness in some irrelevant area) may come — in consonance with the image above — to Manmohan Singh’s advantage. Quoting Daman again, on her father:

“He was completely helpless about the house and could neither boil an egg, nor switch on the television.”

Boiling eggs may be tough, but politics can be even tougher.  And politics at the helm of a country of 1.2 billion people can be… even tougherer. To say the least, under such circumstances, one may benefit from books written by empathizing family members. This is even more so in the wake of a wave of semi-accusing accounts by frenemies — people on your side who were always part team members and friends, part fellow travelers and opportunistic exploiters, as is the norm in politics.

Having said all this, these are of course only initial impressions from my part, in lieu of having read the book itself — to which I am looking forward.

The Cowpens Romance

by fpman

What we have embarked on here at The Patrimony is the coverage of political phenomena from a specific, peculiar viewpoint. This will usually entail discussion (i.e. a mixture of responsible, good-natured gossip and analysis) of something (and someone) related to a top decision-maker in this or that country. Today’s, however, is only the second post here so far, and its subject is slightly different.

In case you have missed it, this is what the Navy Times recently uncovered about the 2013-2014 deployment of the USS Cowpens in the Pacific, a tour that has seen the US Navy’s guided missile cruiser take part in disaster relief operations off the Philippines in November 2013, and subsequently get involved in a close confrontation with a Chinese amphibious naval vessel in the South China Sea during the course of December.

USS_CowpensUSS Cowpens (photo: US Navy)

It now turns out that the ship had an equally interesting ride over the 2014 leg of its Pacific cruise. In January, Captain Greg Gombert fell ill with flu-like symptoms, developed Bell’s palsy or partial facial paralysis, and, feeling weak and in a generally inadequate condition to continue to personally command his ship, found it necessary to retreat to the tranquility of his unit commander’s cabin (UCC) for the better part of the ensuing months. For the time being, he handed over command (his responsibility as CO or the Commanding Officer) to his temporary XO (Executive Officer), the chief engineer of the ship, whom he had previously promoted to the position after the predecessor XO had to leave prematurely — at a time when the new XO could not yet make it on board. The problem is: XOs come with a certain carefully determined level of required experience and specific training for the task, and the temporary XO did not have these. Moreover, with Captain Gombert spending most of the time in the UCC, the XO, by then the acting CO, did not even have the captain close by for those special situations with a narrower margin for error where superior experience can make a difference — she had to handle fuel replenishments in heavy seas on at least two occasions alone. This deviation from standard procedure may have put ship and crew at unnecessary risk…

Amidst this narrative you may have noted the gendered reference to the person of the XO. Yes, the executive officer happened to be a woman, by the (some would say remarkable) name of Destiny Savage. If you check out the history on the USS Cowpens, you may also find it interesting that over 2008-2010 the ship was commanded by a female Commanding Officer, Captain Holly Graf, who was eventually relieved of her duties related to allegations that she maltreated her crew. However, before one starts to theorize of a male-chauvinistic conspiracy against women in the Navy, and against women serving on board USS Cowpens in particular, it has to be noted that there indeed was some deviation from standard procedure in this case, even if no major mishap resulted from it.

Where gender certainly does come into play: Captain Gombert and Lt. Cmdr. Savage were eventually found guilty of “fraternization” by the Navy (that is, of being lovers, in this particular context). This, needless to say, is generally not tolerated within militaries, given the need for minds unaffected by ties of this kind in even the most demanding of circumstances. Based on what we know from open sources, the evidence of the two officers’ relationship seems to have been largely indirect though. They may have spent a couple of nights together in a hotel in the Philippines, may have been seen holding hands on one occasion, and Savage is rumored to have often made dinner for Gombert in whose cabin she spent considerable time. And the culinary specialist of the ship would swear that he saw Cpt. Gombert wearing boxers at least once while Savage was with him, and that this was romantically significant.

Savage_and_GombertLt. Cmdr. Savage and Cpt. Gombert (photos via KPBS and Thinking Housewife)

A ship usually makes for a nice metaphor. In this case, it epitomizes much of what this blog is about. For one obvious connection with the world of politics and decision-makers’ friends-and-relations, “fraternization” as well as having one’s actual relatives around can be an interesting issue in the latter universe, too, even as there are no similar anti-fraternization standards for political leaders (for a mixture of good and bad reasons).

But there is more to what the story of USS Cowpens may stand for. As James R. Holmes of the US Naval War College notes writing in The Diplomat, “ships are still islands — in effect self-contained societies — once they cast off all lines.” A ship’s leadership — even though officers therein rise to their position according to specific rules of promotion, or the institutional rules of the game — thus offers intriguing parallel with the leadership of a country.

One point I would make in particular pertains to imagining counterfactual scenarios and outcomes of the events that unfolded on board USS Cowpens. We often conceive of counterfactuals by thinking of circumstances that may have been different. “Had this or that happened, the result would have been different, for better or worse.” Yet it is equally easy to imagine counterfactuals by thinking of what would have happened had there been different people or even slightly different personalities interacting with each other in a given situation. Each and every member of the USS Cowpens crew may have made a difference in terms of how the merits of the case were eventually judged by the Navy — with the different interpretations they had, the way their interpretations evolved over time, the way they expressed what they thought, and the way they acted on the basis of their beliefs at any given moment.

Herman Wouk begins his classic novel, The Caine Mutiny, the fictional story of World War II destroyer/minesweeper USS Caine, by positing about the main protagonist Willie Keith that “the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.” Wouk’s masterfully woven plot is nevertheless a good example of how all personalities are important. Replace anyone, or even a personality trait, and you may end up in a different “possible world,” in the language of counterfactual analysis. Not to speak of how an objective description of what happened is hardly possible, and whatever remains may be interpretation rather than fact, from anyone’s respective point of view. In the story of the USS Caine, even Willie Keith is not completely sure by the end of how much he was right to make the decisions he made.

Much of this applies not only to ships and their crews of course.

There are good reasons not to count with personality and interpersonal relations as exclusive determinants of domestic political processes and international interactions, but they clearly are a factor, and often a very important one at that. And in as much as that is the case, this blog is on to something.

To be continued.

On kinship

by fpman

Test 1-2-3… mic check… raison d’être coming up… (sigh)

So we obviously owe readers a definition of what we mean by “relatives” in the header above. And what we mean is “kinship ties,” so we owe you an explanation of that, too.

We understand kinship ties as the set of consanguinal and affinal relations that can bind people together. Although consanguinal relations count most from the vantage point of The Patrimony, affinal ties matter as well.

For us, the notion of an “affinal tie” extends beyond relationships through marriage (not only those of the married, but those of the families of the married, too). Love and friendship and much else are included in this category. Cultures are different, people are creative, and we, for our part, are therefore open to consider alternative options, too.

Beyond this, our starting point is trivial.

Remember that poster (see below) for “The Social Network,” the movie about the rise of Facebook?

facebook

Our main thesis is that in most cases you do not become a political leader interacting with other countries, thus getting a shot at making millions of enemies, without making a few friends or having some solid kinship relations to build on. And even if by some miraculous circumstance you do not need those relationships to get to where you are you will still have all kinds of relationships which are bound to affect what you are doing, once in power.

This is what we are interested in. How human relationships of this kind shape decision-making, policies, politics, and even polities… Because even if not everything in politics is relatives (forgive us for the poetic exaggeration in the header above), certainly many things in politics are about relatives.

Now this has both dark and sunny sides, dead serious and lethally funny sides. All kinds of sides. We’re keen on covering all.