Monthly Archives: March 2020

OUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH FOREIGN AFFAIRS – PART I

In last week’s blog we discussed what I believe our foreign relations at best are on the wrong track and at worst are a literal disaster. Both Republicans and Democratic administrations, as well as Congress, have created and sustained what I think is a real mess.

On the personal front, Gabriele and I have traveled extensively, having visited over 80 countries and seen all seven continents. As part of these journeys, we’ve had some direct experience with our country’s foreign affairs by completing six assignments for USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.

The USAID projects were interesting adventures that started in the fall of 1996, when we went to Baia Mare, Romania, about 300 miles north of the capital Bucharest. It was a small city of about 150,000 people near the border with Ukraine. It had been the main supply point for the now closed mines in the nearby mountains.

Living in this transition period between the defunct communist regime and the new era with everyone struggling to get into a free market economy was difficult for all.

Under communism, everyone had a place to live—mostly stark grey concrete apartments—and a job with almost no incentive to grow or promote. The stores had little to sell and the people didn’t have much money anyway.

Now the stores had much more, but jobs and money were scarce. In general, most people weren’t sure if they weren’t better off under communism.

Our first night in Baia Mare, Nehi, our host, sponsored a dinner for us in his little café. We were served a whole fish (with the head still on). Didn’t eat much, but it was nice.

There was no milk anywhere in the city, but bananas in every small boutique grocery. We were given an apartment on the 9th floor of an office building where the elevator worked occasionally. We had a single burner hot plate for cooking and a shower that created hot water by passing through an electric arc.

It was rainy and cold during our first couple of weeks. Our only heat was an electric heater in the middle of the living room until our client finally bribed an official at the gas company to turn on our gas before the prescribed start date.

There were one or two restaurants, but only menus in Romanian and no one spoke English. After a week or so we discovered a farmer’s market on the edge of town with different produce each week.

Many people took advantage of relatives who had farms outside the city to get their milk, eggs and occasional chickens.

Our client, Nehi, who had offices in the building, had invited us to help him expand his business services activities into trade shows. However, by the time we arrived, his partner, the Chamber of Commerce, who owned the building, had decided they would produce the trade shows and wouldn’t need his involvement.

On weekends we hired a car and drove to visit nearby towns and very interesting scenic spots like the cemeteries near the border with colorful five-foot pictured wooden tombstones depicting comic portraits or scenes from the deceased’s life, as well as strikingly unique wooden churches.

We met with all of Nehi’s employees and many of the building’s tenants, at least those that spoke English.

One morning, we put the heater on in the living room. Gabriele was in the electric arc shower and I turned on the hot plate to boil water for tea and, WHAM, we blew a fuse. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so we did both.

After about three weeks, we developed a report outlining several areas of activity expansion for Nehi’s actions. We recommended starting business training programs, starting a tourism promotion bureau and providing consulting services for individual businesses.

In our fourth week, we left our 30-page report with Nehi and took off for a week in Budapest, Prague and Vienna. We had a fabulous time; ate real food, saw great sights and enjoyed long hot showers.

We tried to arrange our trip through the local “travel agency” but they had no clue what we wanted or how to do it. We were finally able to do it with the Bucharest office of USAID.

Faced with this new obstacle, we set out to find new areas of activity. Nehi, our client, was a former administrative manager for the communist run mines. He and his wife ran a bakery to support an orphanage that currently had about 12 kids in residence. He spoke excellent English and was very hospitable.

He ran a small breakfast and lunch eatery in the building and charged us tourist prices until we objected and asked for the same prices as the locals. Of course, it took a week or two to figure that out.

We arrived in Romania and stayed overnight in one of the two Bucharest hotels. The next day we flew up to Baia Mare. As our plane landed, we were surrounded by a squall of machine gun soldiers who escorted us into the terminal. Never did figure out what they were protecting.

By the way, USAID required consultants like us to be married. Gabriele and I decided we had an international marriage that was consummated each time we flew overseas.

With care packages from my LA office, we got by with packaged soup and hot chocolate, as well as what we could scrape from the local groceries.

Each night we sat in our living room and felt sluggish and sleepy. We told this to someone and asked about seeing a doctor. They told us not to worry, it was just the effects of the lead smelter in the center of town; nothing to worry about!

When we returned, Nehi was glad to see us and proceeded to take us to visit some factories and the nearby mountains. We kept asking about our report and when we could discuss it with him. No response!

We figured he didn’t like our report and maybe we should just go home. Right on the verge of taking that route, Gabriele figured out he spoke good English but probably couldn’t read it too well. With that in mind, we suggested that we review the report with him.

Over the next two days we verbalized everything in the report and he was excited and enthusiastic about everything we recommended. We were now nearing our six-week commitment and he wanted us to stay longer.

We declined and hoped he and his people could implement as many of our recommendations as possible. Unfortunately, one of the problems with these projects is there is no follow-up so you don’t know what, if anything, happened.

We were in Bucharest four or more times during our stay in Romania and saw what was once, and could again be, a beautiful city. The Pizza Hut had good soft-serve ice cream and edible salads.

According to Google, Baia Mare is now down to a population of 136,000. There are now 26 hotels and it has become something of a tourist destination.

We’ll tell you more about some of other assignments next week.

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RETHINKING OUR FOREIGN POLICY

During the last 40 years, our main thrust in foreign affairs seems to have been to shower money on all the dictators, human rights abusers and power-hungry autocrats the world over. I guess we did this in the hope we could get their oil and influence them to be a little more democratic.

It’s estimated that our foreign aid budget is a little north of $50 billion going to 25 countries. That breaks down to about $18 billion in military assistance, another $17 billion in economic aid and about $14 billion through USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The most substantial part of our foreign relations bribery goes to Israel and Egypt who split up almost $5 billion between them.

Not hard to see how little we’ve accomplished, except to make the tyrants bigger bullies.

Wonder why it has never occurred to our Washington elites, be it Democrat or Republican, that we might accomplish more by providing money and counsel to build schools and better educational systems, as well as more effective economic aid. Maybe Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, ought to have been the Secretary of State.

In a recent book called “Mission Failure: American and the World in the Post-Cold War Era,” by John Hopkins’ Foreign Policy Professor Michael Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum argues that the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy were an aberration, an era when America became so overwhelmingly more powerful than any rival that it got geopolitically drunk and decided that it didn’t just want to be a cop on the beat protecting our nation, but also a social worker, architect and carpenter doing nation-building abroad.

It was all done with the best of intentions, and in some cases did save precious lives. But none of the efforts achieved the kind of self-sustaining democratizing order we wanted, which is why neither the last two presidents nor the current one wants to be doing any more of that—if they can avoid it.

Beginning with the 1991 decision by the first Bush admin to intervene in northern Iraq and create a no-fly zone to protect the Iraqi Kurds from their country’s genocidal leader, Saddam Hussein, “the principal international initiatives of the United States” for the next two decades “concerned the internal politics and economics rather than the external behavior of other countries,” writes Mandelbaum.

“The main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what they did and how they were organized within them,” writes Mandelbaum, referring to U.S. operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and toward Chinese human rights policy, Russian democratization policy, NATO expansion and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“The United States after the Cold War…became the equivalent of a very wealthy person, the multibillionaire among nations,” he argues. “It left the realm of necessity that it had inhabited during the Cold War and entered the world of choice. It chose to spend some of its vast reserves of power on the geopolitical equivalent of luxury items; the remaking of other countries.”

In each case, “the United States sought to make the internal governance of the countries with which it became entangled more like its own democratic, constitutional order and those of its Western allies,” Mandelbaum adds. “In the Cold War, the United States aimed at containment; in the post-Cold War, the thrust was transformation. The Cold War involved the defense of the West; post-Cold War foreign policy aspired to the political and ideological extension of the West.”

“These missions,” he notes, all aimed “to convert not simply individuals but entire countries,” and they had one other thing in common: “They all failed.”

Don’t get him wrong, Mandelbaum says. The U.S. beat back some very bad actors in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and later in Libya. “The military missions that the United States undertook succeeded. It was the political missions that followed, the efforts to transform the politics of the places where American arms prevailed, that failed.”

But what if we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and post-authoritarian age? The kings, colonels and dictators of old did not have to deal with amplified citizens deeply connected to one another and the world with smartphones. The old autocrats also had vast oil resources or aid from superpowers in the Cold War to buy off their people. What if they now have bulging populations, dwindling oil revenues and can’t buy off their people or shut them up?

The only option is more consensual government and social contracts among equal citizens. But that gets us back to Mandelbaum’s argument: What if it’s up to them and they’re not up to it—and the result is growing disorder and more and more of their people fleeing to the world of order in Europe or North America?

Then there’s the United Nations. We give them $2 billion in dues and another $5.7 billion in voluntary payments to finance UN programs and funds. What we get is a platform for nations who vocally oppose our American values of democracy, justice, free enterprise, privacy and property rights.

According to the Democrats, George Bush was a cowboy who conducted our foreign relations as an ego-powered bully who alienated the world and cast the U.S. in a poor light. His naïve intention to democratize Iraq was costly and ineffective.

Along comes St. Obama who promises to embrace the world’s friends and foes and recast America’s image throughout Europe and the Middle East. His reign on the global stage is quite over, but it doesn’t appear he’s had any more success in restructuring our image or accomplishing anything long-standing than Bush.

Certainly, what we’re doing now is helping create an image that we are weak and indecisive. Neither the Bush nor the Obama approach has made the world like us any better. Maybe we shouldn’t care.

Our current president, Donald Trump, came into office with a dedicated position to balance trade inequities around the world, but no agenda in the foreign affairs arena. He has vigorously pursued that posture and repaired the rupture in foreign affairs along the way.

His predecessors have allowed the trade imbalances to grow and he is determined to correct that problem.

The bottom line is we very much need new thinking and a new approach to what we spend on Foreign Relations.

We should start by making it clear that governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ART

Today I am a man. No, that was my bar mitzvah speech 66 years ago.

Would you believe today, this very day, I am 89 years old. No kidding! Somehow, someone let me live this long.

For 40 years or more, the DMV made me take a driving test every two years because of my poor vision. Last time out in 2013 they gave me a license for five years. I fooled them, at age 87. I stopped driving because I wasn’t comfortable on the road.

And now…drum roll, please! I want to give you my birthday present. Ready? Take one-half an avocado and mush it up and put it on half an English muffin. It’s delicious and a real healthy, light-weight breakfast. All components from life coach Julie Wilhoit.

Sold my car to Carmax and that was a pleasant experience. Nice folks! That same month I acquired a 4-wheel electric scooter and that got me around nicely to the drug store, coffee shop, CVS and a lot of doctors around here. The scooter was great, but the sidewalks tore me apart.

Then last spring I had a series of returning back and neck problems (L4/5 and S1), which led to a July 5th episode where I couldn’t move out of a chair. So, Gabriele got some good-looking fireman to come and take me to the Marina del Rey Cedars Hospital (4 blocks away) where I spent the July 4th weekend while they tried to figure out what was wrong.

With the aid of blood tests, x-rays and scans of all kinds, they finally got to a scan that showed problems in L2/3. With the help of a CT scan at the hospital, they pinned the problem down to a bone spur in that L2/3 area. That was what was causing pain in my legs while the lower back was causing the back pain.

The doctors I was seeing all sort of agreed I couldn’t consider surgery but I needed to see a pain management doctor. This is kind of a mystery classification. Almost all the pain management doctors only do injections of one kind or another.

Oh my gawd, I turned 89 today. I know they say it’s only a number, but my personal experience tells me there’s a lot more involved than just a number.

There’s only so much you can do to thwart the physical and aging problems.

Since July of last year, I have fallen about 12 times. Fortunately, none were serious but some allowed me to have a tour of all the local ER’s. Main cause was probably Gabapentin. It reduced the back pain but made me unstable. Now off it but still a little unstable.

My father lived to 91 (the last seven years in a nursing home) and my mother made it to 97 before deciding she had enough.

I’m not sure how 89 really happened. Certainly, I never gave any thought to being 89. No one gave me a clue or prepared me in any way. On the other hand, I’m sure I wouldn’t have listened.

So let me be honest with you…are things the same—NO! Have things changed that I don’t seem to be able to control—ABSOLUTELY!

• I have shrunk almost two inches
• It’s a lot harder to make decisions
• I struggle to be fast on my feet with comments, retorts or clever responses
• Still have a good sense of direction, but now uneasy about if I’m driving the right way
• Having anxiety, especially about trips and going anywhere
• Takes me longer to write anything, like my blogs
• I now wear flannel shirts all winter
• Can’t think of anything clever to reply on Facebook postings
• Becoming more ambivalent and blasé about going to things; theater, events, and the like
• Not sure I want to travel anymore. After 81 countries and seven continents, maybe it’s enough.
• Every activity seems more of a hassle
• I like staying home more than I ever imagined. It’s just more comfortable.

Is this really happening? I used to be quick on the draw with decisions, comments and opinions. Yes, I know the alternative is not desirable, but does it all have slowly get taken away.

Physically I’m doing pretty well:

• I have almost a full head of hair
• Only about 10 pounds overweight
• Eat less, especially at lunch and dinner but don’t lose weight
• BP is very normal, with no drugs
• Cholesterol a little high
• Have neuropathy—cold extremities and very poor balance. With the help of a trainer, my balance has improved in spite of doctor’s predictions.
• Teeth strong and healthy
• Only real problem is walking. I’m slow and a little like a drunken penguin.

I never tried:

• Surfing
• Skiing downhill
• Skating – roller or ice

I never ate:

• Short ribs
• Octopus
• Pigs knuckles

I always heard that old people sleep a lot. Sure didn’t work that way for me, at least all at one time in bed. At least a nap or two helps!

I’ll give you another report in 10 years, God willing!

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SHARK TANK INVESTORS OFFER SOME ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

Let’s start with:

Robert Herjavec, one of the sharks on ABC’s Shark Tank, has great advice for small businesses. “You need to have distinct value,” he told Small Business Trends. Herjavec had some other advice for small business; “You really need to know your numbers and you have to have a very clear marketing presence.”

Herjavec has called Tipsy Elves, an ugly Christmas-sweater company, his best investment on the show yet.

Herjavec invested $100,000 for 10% equity in the business in 2013. Two years later, the company pulled in over $10 million in sales and expanded to other holiday apparel.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from the founders’ pitch: They brought energy. Herjavec says if entrepreneurs are able to entertain him, they caught his attention.

“Investors are tired, they’re cold, they’re hungry. They hear boring pitches all the time.” “You have to entertain me.”

When Tipsy Elves cofounders Evan Mendelsohn and Nick Morton appeared on the show in 2013, they gave a quick spiel about their company. Then launched into a surprise fashion show.

Models wearing goofy Christmas and Hanukkah sweaters strutted their stuff for the sharks, while Mendelsohn and Morton provided commentary on the looks.

It was silly, but certainly entertaining—which may have helped the former dentist and lawyer grab Herjavec’s interest.

Barbara Corcoran shared the best advice she gave Shark Tank entrepreneurs who made $2 million in three months.

PiperWai cofounders Jess Edelstein and Sarah Ribner were underdogs when they pitched their all-natural deodorant to the investors on Shark Tank’s premier episode, resulting in weeks of back orders. Corcoran encouraged the cofounders to fire their unreliable partner and find a new supplier.

“And fortunately for me, they’re women that listen,” Corcoran said. “I can’t say that about all my entrepreneurs.”

She said that many Shark Tank entrepreneurs become reckless with their money during the sales spike following their episode premier, as if the “Shark Tank buzz” is everlasting. It’s why she’s telling them to remain disciplined and focused, and to not let the flow of income distract them from building a foundation that can be scaled.

“They’ll have a huge business—you wait and watch,” Corcoran said.

The company was just under a year old—but it was far from enough to convince most of the Sharks that PiperWai could compete in such a crowded field.

Barbara Corcoran admired Edelstein and Ribner and decided to make a deal for $50,000 in exchange for 25% of the company. When the episode aired in December, the tiny company made a big splash. In the past three months, PiperWai has brought in more than $2 million in sales.

The sudden explosive success known as “the Shark Tank effect” can actually be a curse to a business whose owners aren’t prepared for it, and so Corcoran stepped in to guide them. Her advice to Edelstein and Ribner, she told Business Insider at a Zebit event on Tuesday: “Don’t spend the money. Lock it up. Pretend you’re poor.”

PiperWai wasn’t built on a major investment. “What got them from Point A to Point B is not money, but creativity, intelligence, and chutzpah,” Corcoran said. “And that’s exactly what’s going to build them a huge empire in the future.”

In a slight reversal, Mark Cuban offered Robert Herjavec some friendly advice. “Just recently, over lunch, Cuban looks at me and says, ‘You know? You’re a good guy. And so I’m going to give you a piece of advice. You have to dream bigger,” Herjavec recalls.

“You’re always trying to protect your downside, think about the upside.”

It was a very rare moment where the two agreed on something.

The fear of risk or downside can hold many talented entrepreneurs and professionals back, according to the multi-millionaire.
Focusing more on the upside, or your potential for success, pays off, Herjavec tells CNBC in a video-call from Google’s headquarters, where he was advising young entrepreneurs for a “contest with Frito Lay.”

He cites the time it took him to expand his cybersecurity company as an example. Before Herjavec’s start on Shark Tank, the Hervajec Group operated only within Canada.

“I never thought about expanding outside of Canada,” he tells CNBC. “I don’t know why, maybe I didn’t have the confidence.”

But three years ago, he finally made the leap. Today, the company operates in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.

In their recent conversation, Cuban reminded Herjavec to keep thinking about new opportunities, instead of worrying about the risks.

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