Market Commentary – February 2003

Having progressed about half way through the quarter's earnings reports, I am altering my view that the market remains severely overpriced. That judgment is true as determined by the price earnings ratio on the S&P-500, still about twenty-eight times earnings, but the reported number is skewered to the high side by many companies with losses and the high price of its high technology components. For most stocks, the price is neither high nor low, but some where in the middle. I am finding one company after another with a PE ratio in the fifteen to eighteen range, neither attractive nor notably unattractive. What I am not finding is bargains. After such a severe bear market, this is disappointing and unusual. Every bear market in memory has generated great buys, so the absence is not encouraging for the market. From these observations, I draw a number of conclusions. First, the direction of the market will be determined by whether or not the economy comes back and earnings advance. Off a low base, profits have jumped back, but at a level far under the previous peak, and there is no sign that the economy is picking up to serve as a basis for further gains. The majority of companies continue to warn of slowness. In each of the last two years, the experts assured us of a second half rebound, and it didn't happen. Will it this time? Who knows. Optimism about a pick up seems to be based less on solid evidence than the feeling that an upturn is inevitable after such a long period of slowness. On the other hand, the economy looks slower from a long term perspective. One industry after another is losing out to foreign sources. Sometimes the company is merely contracting out its manufacturing and profits do not suffer, but domestic jobs do. The latest I have come across is furniture. We are winning the arms war, but losing the economic war. Also suggesting non-growth is a worldwide trend is to flatness. It started in Japan long ago, and for years Europe has failed to achieve a sustained pick up. Why not us? The Fed has shot its bolt, though it could simply print money. The administration shows little interest in programs to boost the economy, rather it is using the need for help as an excuse for more tax breaks for the rich. Not much stimulus there. Second, forget the talk of Iraq war fears holding back the market, that is baloney. The economy is what counts. Will Iraq help or hurt the economy? Again, who knows. One thing for sure, we will pay the full cost of this war and its aftermath is going to be very expensive, so no war is probably the best alternative. And the market seems to do better when there is hope for no war or a coalition war. If we do get war, the already declining dollar will weaken, foreign money will continue to come out of our market, and deficits are going to explode (they already have). Sooner or later, that will lead to higher interest rates, not exactly a help to the economy or the markets. The Bush administration's international aggressiveness introduces a new equation to the stock market, and it is not likely to be a positive one. Third, if the bear market is over, any recovery is apt to follow the pattern of recent months: a hesitant back and forth movement. Major bottoms of the past, 1932 and the end of 1974 come to mind, were made because stocks had gone down too much and were extremely cheap. On both occasions, the economy remained weak, but prices had reached an extremity of valuation, and stocks went up regardless. That is not the case this time. As I suggest, stocks may be close to fairly priced, but they are not cheap, the norm at the end of a major bear market. As a result, any recovery in stocks will be gradual. Finally, I see nothing in the technical pattern to suggest that we have entered a new bull market, therefore as a believer in the trend, I have to presume that we remain in a bear market. New bull markets identify themselves by broad based strength. On a stock by stock basis, bad news has little affect because stocks are washed out and ready to go on favorable news. In recent months we are still experiencing disasters of the day. The market does not look right, and when you wonder why, there is no difficulty finding reasons. I never try to guess the economy, I look at what the market is doing and assume the economy will take the cue. The present cue is stagnation, with a high risk that the outcome will be negative because there is no indicated trend change. The non-taxed dividend proposal is the most interesting new front for investors. Double taxation of dividends has been around for a long time without harm to the economy, and the timing for a change is terrible since it provides only minor stimulus at the cost of adding to a soaring deficit. But our economy seems to need help, and the Bush proposal may indicate a movement toward comprehensive overhaul of the tax code (I think Bush is reckless, but that is not all bad). Making dividends non-taxable to corporations, rather than to individuals, would be a telling move, so that in its present form the proposal is not all that bold. If the benefit went to corporations, they would increase dividends significantly, at ultimately greater benefit to stockholders, earnings would get a considerable boost, and the stock market would probably recover. Moreover, the preference for debt to equity would be substantially reduced and balance sheets improved, a plus for the bond market as well (though a lot more stock coming into the market is negative). The present proposal has not been well received, even by Republicans, but resistance may work out best. Once the debate is under way, the benefit might be shifted to corporations. In turn, that would mean such a loss of revenue at a time of mounting deficits that the entire tax code would have to come under review. The Bush idea has stirred the pot, maybe something unexpected will happen. Although we are unlikely to get the fully untaxed dividend, we will get something. Investors were already looking at dividends as a surer way of making money in stocks, and whatever we get will further stimulate interest. Our stocks have been in a strange pattern since the October low, particularly this year. We ran way behind the sharp upmove in early January, then did much better than the market once it sold off. That pattern continues on a day to day basis - we don't do much on the big up days, but decline only slightly, sometimes even have a small gain, on the big down days. Since downers have predominated in the last three weeks, we look OK. But the pattern is strange. I think it says we are in the right stocks, that the rallies have been led by the wrong stocks, and if this market ever gets straightened out, with sound stocks going up and speculative ones trailing, we will do well. If a third bottom in the range of the August and October lows holds, we should get another strong rally. If so, I have solid candidates warming up in the bullpen that have not been bought because the market looks so bad.

Adolph Bush – February 2003

"Anesthesia, no matter how well administered, eventually wears off"- Frank Rich, N.Y. Times I have had an eerie feeling about George Bush from the beginning. He seemed a spoiled brat of no accomplishment who must be a poor president. That his vision did not extend below his own social level has been confirmed by his only domestic program, a determined effort to lower taxes, a policy that largely benefits the rich. Although he has done a remarkable job gaining political popularity, he has not dealt with the troubled economy and his policy of international aggression has earned us hatred all over the world. Despite the record, he is popular. How? Two factors are responsible: 1) he has developed into a brilliant politician and 2) he has skillfully played upon the emotions aroused by 9/11. Let us look at the record to see if the popularity is deserved. As background, Bush has little interest in government policy, and as a result the administrative side is left to others. At the same time, he is keenly interested in keeping attention focused on himself, so that other cabinet members do not get any notice. The result is that no one knows what is going on in this administration. That is important because obscurity has allowed the right to carry out anti-government programs unobserved. Some of what they are doing will end up as positive, but it is suspicious because of being done on the sly. Meanwhile, the game of politics is what entrances Bush, he merely adopts an issue here and there for its political impact. As for domestic accomplishment, he pushed for and got a mild version of an education program, but the changes have never been funded and it is now forgotten. It was compassionate impressionism, and the right does not like government programs of any kind. The main Bush program, the one he ran on, was a tax cut. Remember, give the people back their money. If the economy had kept going, Bush would not have gotten much, but fortunately for his tax program, he immediately ran into a recession. Now tax cuts could be economic stimulus, and suddenly were wise. We ended up with a new tax law far different from his proposal, but Bush got credit for it anyway, although it was a bipartisan effort at economic stimulus. The early benefits went mostly to the lower brackets, the upper bracket cuts were delayed, and the entire plan was set to expire in ten years because wiser heads were aware that financial pressures will mount after 2010 because of a major increase in retirement. Bush was not satisfied and almost at once began pushing for acceleration of the delays in the high brackets. When the Democrats made an effort for further tax moves because the economy remained weak, Bush pushed harder for acceleration and also for making the law permanent, not a sensible cause with any tax law, especially with deficits exploding. To defend the high bracket cuts that became increasingly questionable with the need to boost the economy, the president pulled a twist that has become his standard mode of operation, tagging any effort at changing the tax law as a tax increase. The notion that curtailing the reductions that had not yet taken place was a tax increase is ridiculous, but it seemed to create the desired impression. Not only did he use the need for more stimulus in this way, he introduced yet a further high bracket focused request to make dividends tax free. You could hardly get less stimulus for the dollars lost, yet typically Bush pushed it as a stimulus program. Bush's lack of interest in a truly stimulative tax program derives from an overriding belief that no one should be taxed at more than 25%. If that leaves the government short, then cut government. This is standard right wing dictum, but abrogates present management of the government and the economy. This fiscal irresponsibility comes out of Bush's lack of interest in economics. He simply ignores economists, as reflected in the departure of his entire economic team because no one was paying any attention to them and they were insufficiently cooperative in bending their economic beliefs to his political needs. Being on the Bush team means blindly following whatever he wants. He has never proposed a program for specifically dealing with the weak economy, as Clinton or Gore would have, a problem because we seem to be facing a new and more intractable situation. The style of baiting with high sounding motives and switching to a hidden intent first appeared in the tax area, and has become Bush's keynote, repeated over and over. For instance, the call for a prescription drug benefit started as a disguised attempt to curtail overall medicare benefits, while appearing to be the compassionate supporter of the aged. Something has to be done about soaring medicare costs, but rather than attacking the problem frontally amid careful study, we get a program aimed at tricking people into getting out of medicare and medicaid through a drug benefit (drugs may be expensive, but they are a minor factor in rising medical costs). The hydrogen power research project is fine, but it is an attempt to cover up despoiling the environment. Bush initiatives are almost always based on putting a favorable light on something the American people would not approve if addressed directly. Tax benefits of his programs always appear as averages, where huge benefits at the top average out reasonably well, but the median taxpayer often gets nothing. He uses statistics in the most dishonest manner, something all presidents are guilty of, but never to such an extent. Another example of domestic deviousness, escaped through the distraction of 9/11, is the business scandals. The Enron blow up could have been disastrous, for big business created the Bush candidacy, and Enron was his foremost corporate supporter. It had gotten several people into the administration, including a cabinet member, and its fingers were all over the proposed energy program. Suddenly, the very corporate leaders responsible for Bush's rise were revealed as greedy cheats using their position at public corporations to line their own pockets. Bush's problem was compounded by his man at the SEC having sworn to eliminate the reforms of his predecessor (standard practice for anti-regulation Bush). One gaff after another led to SEC chief Pitt being canned, but again Bush pulled a slick one, naming an old Wall Street hand to head the SEC, where he will be in position to protect the interests of the major brokerage companies. Again, Bush displayed that his loyalties always lie with corporations and the rich, he never has any interest in the common good. During the Enron and accounting fuss, Bush stuck loyally by his business constituency and would not hear of reform, until the Worldcom bust created such outrage that something had to be done. Only then did he sign the Sarbanes law increasing the powers of the SEC and adding supervision to the accounting industry. After signing the bill and rendering his usual tough guy speech about locking up the crooks (his backers!!), the president went right back to fostering his business supporters. He sought to undermine the new law by under-funding, to defang the new accounting oversight board by appointing a bumbling old man with little knowledge of accounting, and to protect the besieged brokerage industry by appointing a Wall Street stooge as new head of the SEC. Bush's most repeated act of governance has been sabotaging regulation to the advantage of his corporate and Wall Street supporters. They put up the money and he dishes out the rewards (it's called loyalty, a trait he admires above all others). With 9/11 arriving almost simultaneously with Enron, Bush had lucked out again. He is fortunate in having a soft press. The right wing press would have crucified a Democratic president under these circumstances. The Democrats don't have that kind of opportunistic partisan support, and the legitimate press seems to have a guilty conscience because of unfair treatment of Clinton over White Water. Another difference seems to be that Clinton drew an automatic distrust that went with an over-smart over-sexed poor boy from the sticks, whereas Bush has an establishment propriety that creates a clean impression. One of his most remarkable feats is maintaining an aura of cleanliness despite support for corporations that would normally be considered suspicious. Bush escaped unscathed from this contemptible record not merely because of 9/11, but also due to a knack for being perceived as a man of the people. That is no mean feat for an upper crust Ivy League aristocrat whose vision does not go beyond his own tax bracket. How did Bush get away with this favorable impression? There are a several parts. First, he has no personal interest in right wing, or any other, policy, ideology is not his thing. He is a politician who wants to get elected, and that is the only thing on his mind. Gingrich loudly positioned himself behind the right wing program, opening himself up for counterattack. Bush is silent. He leaves the dirty work to Cheney and those actually running the government, who operate quietly, covered by the headline grabbing Bush ranting on taxes and terrorism, Osama and Saddam. What little involvement Bush has is in backwater issues like education and stem cells. When questioned on domestic matters, he changes the subject by answering in terms of tax cuts or fighting terrorism. He can turn almost any question into getting Saddam, or earlier Osama. In control of the forum, he simply does not answer questions that might be embarrassing. In a recent conference on the economy with a group of financiers and economists, they got nothing, everything led to Iraq. Press sessions are used for propaganda about tax cuts and war on terrorism. He takes full advantage that anything he says is news, no matter how innocuous or repetitive. The 3/6 press briefing was a total loss from the point of view of actually answering the questions, and when anyone tried to follow up, he moved on. Using this formula, he no longer seems the idiot before the press because he never allows himself to be trapped in anything of substance that might make him appear awkward. But I want to pose a question - how can you trust a man who won't answer simply questions? The Bush presidency has marked a new phenomenon on the American political scene, management of the daily news to create a favorable impression of what is happening and what they are doing, taking advantage of the average voter's gullibility. Right wing opinion molders are skilled Wall Street traders taking advantage of the public's emotions. Their remarkably success has extended to taking over whole TV networks, and continually planting their people on talk shows as experts, or using their business influence to get far right programming, as in a show by a panel of the Wall Street Journal editorial staff. The ordinary listener is unaware that it would be hard to get more to the right than this gang. Next in the Bush act is the Texas cornpone drawl. Bush, the eastern establishment Yalie, has succeeded in pulling off a kind of slow, barroom-casual, slurred country speech with a gospel evangelical tone that makes him seem exactly what he is not. His acting has improved immensely, supported by a schedule that in a typical week includes four carefully scripted appearances outside the capital. Like no other president, he is always on the stump. No president has ever made so many speeches, or had so many speech writers. This is his role, and he is good at it (lately the cornpone drawl has been curtailed to appear statesmanlike). Others run the government, he makes speeches and smoozes. This is covered up by the press reporting everything as a Bush initiative when he usually has nothing to do with it, while cabinet members and staff have disappeared from public view. The minions are coached to praise his participation and judgment. The effort to built up the boss is orchestrated on a scale never before seen in American politics. Speeches are not directed at a specific topic, but at personal image building. A keynote to the Bush presidency is his extraordinary self-centerness. Here is an example, drawn from a puff job book by one of his speech writers. The speech writer writes what he considers a good speech on some subject, and Bush, who spends a great deal of effort editing, had marked up the speech so badly that the speech writer asks, what does all this mean. The answer, "you don't get it, the speech is about me", not whatever the subject was supposed to be. That's Bush, detached from events, but absolutely determined to hog whatever credit is available and ceaselessly working on his image. Let's face it, that's weird, weak, and most unfortunate for a president of the USA. It is a vital job, not merely a stage for enhancing image. The most remarkable example of the emptiness of Bush's domestic policy, and a foremost example of his political cleverness, is home defense. Following 9/11 you had to be blind not to see the need for a program of home defense. Bush did nothing, encouraged by the right wing abhorrence of any government program other than defense. The only exception was a massively overdone airport security program to salve the public and give an impression of activity. From a practical point of view, the airport set up is ridiculous, but it was good showmanship. Inaction on home defense brought the Democrats to attempting home security legislation, only to pull back because Bush was opposed (we don't want another government agency). The Democrats blew a heaven sent opportunity, failing to recognize that the Republicans and Bush could never have vetoed such a bill. When hearings about the shortcomings in intelligence and lack of action elsewhere captured the news, Bush, with an ever keen political ear, quickly slapped together a proposal for a massive new agency. At this point Bush's politically devious mind reached the point of brilliance. He proposed that the new agency not abide by civil service standards, a maneuver that put the Democrats in a bind because of their labor constituency (since a major reduction in civil service jobs was involved, the old personnel system will continue). Bush was then in position to assert that the Democrats were sabotaging home defense! You gotta love a guy able to pull off a dirty trick like that, real genius. As the election approached, he emphasized the imperative need to act immediately (when Bush finds a new political cause, it must always be done immediately), and the Democrats were holding things up. This affair was hilarious if you have no concern about truth and proper management of the government. With no program of his own and little interest in government, he feels free to work all the political angles, but you have to ask yourself if Bush recognizes the seriousness of his responsibilities, or is someone having fun playing games. The home security department is likely to be a mess, because Bush's interest does not extend beyond political expediency, confirmed by the unwillingness to fund new initiatives (admittedly hard with an exploding deficit). The massive, slapped together department is the wrong way to go about a serious task. It is almost as if the new department was sabotaged in its creation because the right does not believe in government programs. Eventually, another terrorist attack will be a great political event for Bush, and he can build capital throwing money at whatever area is hit, but the concept is prevention. Why would we, a democratic nation, be attracted to a man with no compassion for the public good, who supports survival of the fittest laissez faire capitalism that led to the rise of socialism and Communism two hundred years ago. The answer is that he is expert at covering up his true direction, achieved through clever political maneuvering and distracting the public with fears of terrorism and warlike revenge. Social programs will be smothered in a rising federal deficit, exactly the purpose of right wing reactionaries in control of policy. The opportunity to do something about a rotten financial system is already going by the boards, just as these people want. Moderate Republicans, who might have restrained the extremism, have knuckled under, impressed by the right's winning ways. The right wing program is impossible to understand until you realize that destroying programs they regard as socialistic is their goal. It is as if our form of liberal democracy, marked by the union of capitalism and governmental regulation in the interest of fairness, had not proven itself. These people want to go back to the jungle, to policies that failed long ago. They recognize that the law of the jungle will not sell in a democracy, so it has to be hidden behind warlike bluster, tax cuts that sabotage social programs, and dishonest numbers. The tax cuts were not intended to give back "your" money, but to destroy a surplus that permitted emotionally hated government spending (anyone looking at the numbers knew the surplus was a temporary bull market phenomenon). Huge deficits are of no concern because they foster the anti-government program. No one knows the consequences of soaring deficits. This president is recklessly playing with our future in support of right wing ideology that is not favored by the large majority of people. Unanimity gives the right wing a force far beyond its numbers, but a one directional government lacking debate inevitably becomes undemocratic. Employing expertly drawn myths of politically clever people like Bush, they are fooling voters. The sad part is that some right wing programs are fine, I think particularly of tort reform, a serious effort to trim costly bureaucracy and excess in government programs, and overhauling the tax system, but Bush shows no interest in these because they lack political impact. Reagan believed in the right wing philosophy, but he was a fair person and did not attempt to stuff it down our throats. As a result, not much happened. Cutting social programs is nickel and dime stuff that could help, but takes years of serious effort. Defense offers the only potential for substantial cuts. But the right remains determined and they have learned to work behind the scenes and cover up their actions. These people are both clever and ruthless, they know how to use power once they get it. The right needed a politically astute cover up artist, and they found one. Bush himself seems to believe in little other than that no one ought to pay taxes of more than 25% of income, but that position plays into the right's hand, and he is happy to lend his support for political assistance. It is testimony to Bush's absence of vision that a man so devoted to politics, an apparently devoit Christian, with no real interest in right wing causes, could allow himself to be maneuvered in these directions. In fact, Bush is our best hope of preventing right wing extremism. Being intensely political, he shows some appreciation that right wing positions could cost him a second term. Meanwhile, we are left with a domestic policy of inaction because the right wing program is to tear down. When all is said and done, we are a democracy and the right will lose. A government that lives off misrepresentation will ultimately fail. In both economic and international affairs, this administration is an utter failure. It can use war to distract the public only so long. If Bush's domestic policy is a blank in the face of rising problems, foreign policy is a disaster. Bush started out on a strange course, doing his utmost to offend other nations by abrogating old treaties for no apparent purpose and backing out of virtually all worldwide cooperative efforts. Again, this is standard right wing dogma, and it has now come back to haunt him over Iraq. The overwhelming factor in Bush's success at home is the war. 9/11 may be the luckiest event in presidential history, and the least lucky for the rest of us. The Bush popularity outside the right wing could not have been sustained without the warrior cover, for the difference between what his administration is doing and what he claims it is doing is just too great. 9/11 came to the rescue. You have to hand it to Bush, he realized the latitude the terrorist attack provided, and its ability to turn him from a bumbling aristocrat into a down home national hero. "War" provides an excuse for politically advantageous propaganda to deceive the public, justified as in the national interest. Let us go back and look at his war on terrorism, which has rescued a political career headed for the rocks. While it made Bush, the war on terrorism has not amounted to much. Freeing the oppressed people of Afghanistan was never our purpose, it had to be substituted when we failed to get Osama and most of his followers. When the terrorists holed up in Pakistan, Bush chickened out on chasing them down, as promised, and the war was fading away. Now his loud bombastic threats, so politically successful sat home, so outrageously viewed abroad, looked hollow. Something had to be done. Bush pulled another master switch by turning attention from Osama to his father's old enemy, Saddam. Rumsfeld had been talking about getting Saddam all along, now was obviously the time. Although there has never been any evidence that Saddam participated in international terrorism, he has potential for becoming dangerous, he was a most oppressive ruler, and he had defied the arms control agreement from the beginning. Going after him was a reasonably logical next step. Iraq also had the advantage of offering a big target, when it looked as if terrorists would present no large objectives suitable for our big arms approach. The war on terrorism was hard to make a real war. A "war like no other war" covered up the reality that al Qaeda was nothing more than a few thousand ragtag religious fanatics (even including other terrorist groups, you are not talking about even a small army). We could not fight them with massive forces, it was a more subtle job. Such a "war" is better seen as a patient police action, using a combination of reaction and prevention. Terrorism is a common phenomenon around the world and many countries have learned to live with it, as we are going to have to. The Cheney/Rumsfeld warmongers came up with a solution. Using the concept that terrorism can't survive without state sponsorship, they determined to fight or threaten into submission terrorist sponsoring states, but a base was needed and Afghanistan was not suitable. Iraq was the key: take over Iraq, which we had a reasonable excuse for doing, and use it as a base against the rest of the Arab world. Oil gave Iraq the potential to be a successful economic nation, and we might be able to establish a successful democracy. Bush then utterly butchered the Iraq program. He led off with his usual lionlike roar of emotional threats directed not only at Saddam, but at anyone questioning the legitimacy of such a move. Overstatement has continued ever since, leading to a failure to make a plain and simple case that was strong without invective. Having alarmed the rest of the world with his fevered ranting, Bush then made the mistake of yielding to Powell and going to the U.N. As delay met delay, and we became ever more shrill, we looked increasingly unhinged to the rest of the world and turned them against us. As a final indignity, we are threatening those who have a vote in the U.N. on proceeding against Iraq. Now we are backed in a corner where we have to go, and alone, or appear weak. Meanwhile we have the earned the hatred of the rest of the world and stirred up a nuclear hornets nest. What should Bush have done once the decision was made that Iraq was the next step in the war? First, the American people, as well as the rest of the world, needed to be convinced this was the right thing to do. Having looked at the facts, I believe this could have been done, but we never made a reasoned case. Bush screamed about evil ones and imaginary terrors Saddam was about to unleash, blowing the argument with juvenile bluster. The performance was so bad that the rest of the world began to wonder if Bush was not a lot more dangerous than Saddam. Many Americans and most foreigners were turned off. Clinton, for instance, or certainly Albright if Clinton was too hard a pill for them to swallow, could have been enlisted in support after all the troubles they had with Saddam, adding great strength to the argument, but the Bush presidency is all about Bush. He could not pass up the opportunity to swagger. The idea of a joint and thoughtful effort where he would have had to share is completely against his personality. Powell should have been send around the world in a diplomatic effort to re-form the coalition, and while it is doubtful he would have succeeded, he probably could have gotten a promise to sit on the sidelines. In the meantime, we should have been building our forces, the only hope of getting Saddam to give up. Powell was a liability in wanting the UN and was simply wrong that Saddam could be scared into leaving without troops breathing down his neck, but Powell should have been told to get on the team (Powell seems to be the only one that can get away with defying Bush, and if he were not black and the only one in the administration foreigners trust, he would be gone). Meanwhile, Bush continued his effort at intimidation, even going before the U.N. and threatening them with talk of irrelevance. The Bush U.N. speech, seen as great here, was a disaster internationally. You don't build a coalition by insulting potential allies, a high school graduate knows that. If we had moved ahead it would all be over now. Instead the world has lined up against us, we are supported only by those directly threatened by Saddam (the oil countries in the mideast), and a few bought off others and small countries sucking up to us for one reason or another. The people in every one of our so called coalition partners detest what we are doing, while we blithely brag about all our support. U.S. voters buy the sham, the rest of the world is appalled at our dishonesty. When you put the Iraq package together, it is difficult to recall a greater diplomatic fuck up in the history of the world. The idea of fighting the war on terrorism through a takeover of Iraq is intriguing, and it might work, but the odds are long. Sitting right in the middle of the Moslem terrorist world allows us to strike, but it also makes us highly vulnerable to terrorism. A military government in the land of the enemy is an ideal set up for guerrilla warfare and terrorism. It is not unlike our situation in Viet Nam, not to mention Somalia and Lebanon. It could work, but there is plenty of reason to bet it won't. Given the added factor that the cost will be huge and ongoing at a time our deficit is soaring, the wisdom of the move is even more questionable. It is a reckless gamble by the combination of a president who has never shown any willingness to think out problems and a militarist clique that has taken over our foreign policy. The polls say it is good politics, and that makes it right for Bush. Another important factor weighs against invading Iraq, the moral one. The Iraq invasion and what will follow is devastating for our position as the great land of peace, principles, and fairness. Strange that a group of evangelically inclined Bible pounders could go off on such a course, but the grouping of militarism, anti-government, and evangelical Christianity characterizes the hard right. What they overlook is the tragic break with our history and the principles that made us great. It not only saddens the rest of the world, but turns them against us. Imagine the U.S., founder and inspiration of the U.N., who worked for 58 years for peace with its help, threatening its very existence to satisfy our thirst for revenge about 9/11. It's a very sad day for America. An even more tragic consequence of Bush's loud-mouthed menacing is the sudden re-emergence of a nuclear threat. In our college days after the war we envisioned a chaotic world of A-bombs in the hands of irresponsible small nations. It never happened because the world was mostly at peace and responsible countries made an effort to keep A-bombs away from that sort of country. Suddenly it is real because of the threat we pose to the rest of the world. When you parade about threatening everyone, the other side is going to look for protection. The only protection against us is the A-bomb. Why didn't we go after Pakistan, where al Qaeda retreated? We felt its government would control terrorists, but after all the threats about harboring, others took note that Pakistan had the bomb. The "axis of evil" is probably the dumbest remark ever in a state of the union address. For a dramatic sound bite, he neglected to consider what Iran and North Korea were likely to do after being singled out. I doubt any other president in history would have acted so irresponsibly. Iran had to have accelerated its nuclear program and we have seen the reaction in North Korea. Bush had already threatened the 1994 nuclear control agreement with North Korea, apparently just because he decided he didn't like its head man, or anything accomplished by Bill Clinton. To compound the idiocy, we refused even to talk to them, though from every indication North Korea appears to be looking for a bribe, something similar, though undoubtedly more costly, than the agreement Clinton worked out. This is arrogant stupidity on a grand scale. Bush may have accomplished the inconceivable, let the nuclear genie out of the bottle. If it was a Democrat, the right wing would be screaming impeachment, but Bush has the public worked up to such a state of blind patriotism that few noticed this incredibly folly. If history is a guide, the Bush administration foreign policy is headed for a serious accident. The foundation of that policy is to get our way by war or the threat of war. These people are off in groundbreaking direction (for us) that has historically been tragic for any nation going down that path. The haughty, uncooperative, muscle flexing aggression probably originates with Cheney, and Bush glorifies in the Falstaff role of muscle flexing leader. His fixation on himself is the clue to Bush's willingness to do something so stupid. The precipitous break with our peaceful honest broker tradition is rapidly making us the most hated nation in the history of the world. How can the world's most hated nation be other than an inspiration to terrorists? The disastrously flawed international policy is part arrogance, and part Bush sounding off for votes at home. Loud-mouthed bully-boy talk by the leader of the world's most powerful nation could hardly be more counterproductive, but it has succeeded in driving the American people into a kind of get 'em at all costs mood that generates popularity for himself. As a nation we have reached that peculiar state of mind where doing anything thoughtful is shouted down as appeasement. Few of us at home, though many overseas, have noted that the Bush approach - playing on the psychology of revenge, threats aimed at raising the temperature of the people, heavy doses of propaganda about questionable successes and impending dangers, and, above all, focusing attention on ogre villains - is a political program developed by none other than Adolph Hitler. Hitler succeeded because of the depressed state of morale in Germany following World War I; Bush is succeeding because of the shock to American's feeling of safety at home. Bush has surprising personal similarities to Hitler, such as the intense interest in politics and disinterest in the governmental process, an insistence on absolute non-discussive loyalty, and self-important talk of being a great leader (embarrassing for a normal person). The effort is to transform the boasting into an image of tough guy fighting leader in whom we should place unquestioning patriotic trust. Sadly, it is working for Bush, as it did for Adolph. I do not want to make out Bush and Hitler as the same when they are obviously different (Hitler would be insulted to be equated with such an airhead). The point is that the political tactics being employed by the Bush administration are right out of Hitler's book, and Bush is ideally suited to carrying them out. The Bush role is to sell a Hitler-like course to the American people, and it is altogether sad that he has succeeded, while his impetuous rhetoric hastens our loss of esteem. We are going to win the battles, but lose the war, for nations that have behaved this way in the past (the you-know-who lookalike again) have always come to grief. The old saying, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is coming home to roost in America. It may be the saddest time in our history. Already the tough talk is beginning to bring on one crisis after another. In all the politicking, Bush has become a man who never tells it straight. He relates non-taxed dividends to job creation and helping small business, though the thread is thin and the major beneficiaries elsewhere. Prevarication is less noticeable in one whose public conversation amounts to silly utterances about evil doers and tax cuts as the answer to all our problems. Politicians are not known for telling the truth, what is troublesome is that Bush has somehow created a trust that allows him to get away with it. Although he changes the facts to suit the occasion, he never changes direction, and the fixation is not seen as narrow-minded, but great leadership. The image of leadership is a big thing with Bush, perhaps because he is such an unlikely leader. He is a man of absolutely no accomplishment in life OTHER than the remarkable achievement, all the more remarkable for his lack of prior accomplishment, of getting elected governor of Texas and then of the U.S. No other president has achieved such a miracle on so few credentials. On the leadership issue, he is the only man I have ever seen who constantly praises his own leadership, as if it can be willed by advertising. He brags about it, casting every decision as a great achievement. Bob Woodward's interviews with Bush in his strange new book, Bush at War, center on self-congratulation to a sickening degree, while also revealing his detachment from events and intense devotion to "communications", the euphemism for politics. All this self-back patting would be comical if he were not our president. This is a man who takes criticism as disloyalty, like a spoiled child who has to be right. Bush has an amazing talent for creating an impression of strength, yet most of the talk is misrepresentative justification for tax cuts or overstated finger pointing at evil doers (again reminiscent of Hitler). Many of those who listen to the words rather than being carried away by the emotion are appalled, and can't stand listening to him. I felt the same, so boastful, so obnoxiously pleased with himself, so black and white, so repetitive, so sophomoric, but now I listen, amazed at his gall and the willingness of the American people to fall for the jingoistic braggadocio. Our approach to the war on terror is all emotion, lacking in any effort to get at the underlying causes of Moslem hatred. Smash 'em and forget 'em, they are just evil (admittedly, dealing with people whose leaders want to go back to the seventh century is an experience we are not equipped to deal with). Eventually someone is going to research the obvious question - why do they hate us so intensely and what can we do about it (apparently the "communications" staff did ask the question, but on failing to come up with an answer - where in hell did they look - forgot it). Bush's lack of compunction about misrepresentation is not unusual for a politician, but he does it as a matter of routine, and avoids being caught because the public trusts him, though the very actions prove him unworthy of that trust. He and his people have no shame, to them it is winning the great game of politics, and they cover up their true intentions with clever talk that when stripped down is simply lies. Eventually this kind of thing has to backfire. It's like stealing, you can't get away with it forever. Voters may be gullible, but they can be fooled only so long. At some point the legitimate press is going to get tired of this stuff and turn on Bush. If you think about it, the Bush act is some where between amazing and appalling (the Hitler look alike again). The fact that he has gotten away with childish foot stomping and dirty political tricks encourages more of the same. This course must lead to serious trouble. This is a well brought up, well educated, son of a president, yet his actions in no way resemble those of a gentleman, or someone interested in governing in a fair and judicious manner. Bush will fascinate historians like no other president in our history, especially if he gets a second term. It is impossible to imagine a man more opposite from Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln didn't go to church, but thought constantly about the downtrodden. Bush is a religious freak, but couldn't care less about the downtrodden. Who is in fact more Christian? We have never had a president who said one thing and did another to the extent of this one, or a president who endlessly boasted and carried on about his marvelous leadership. No doubt we have had many egotistical presidents, but they did not advertise. I doubt any president has been more reliant on instinct (and he's proud of it!). Imagine relying on instinct when his decisions affect the entire world. Reliance on instinct probably reflects a lack of maturity that leads to fear of careful consideration. A man of conviction would want to participate in policy matters and be willing to discuss his actions. Bush does not evaluate, he reacts emotionally. That results in stirring talk, but dumb decisions. The Bush bluster and bullying is characteristic of those with deep seated lack of confidence, a bit like Lyndon Johnson without the brains and experience in government. The penchant for threatening anyone who gets in his way is not a sign of inner strength. One of his more interesting characteristics is a lack of awareness of who he is. If you want to make him mad, refer to his patrician background. Apparently he sees himself as a man of the people, even though his lack of interest in social programs and emphasis on tax cuts for the well off starkly reveal the patrician point of view. It seems impossible that he could not recognize ending taxes on dividends as a huge break for the privileged few, a virulent form of class warfare, to use the term he uses for its opponents. This self-interested way of seeing things is not unusual for a patrician, but it is amazing for someone able to win the presidency in modern times. Steve Forbes is in a similar position, but his arrogant fruitcake demeanor could never win. This suggests that Bush may actually believe some of the baloney he spouts, that it isn't all politics. Bush psychology may be overdone, for he is a devotedly political animal. The bombast reflects not just an absence of character, but is directed at domestic political consumption, making Bush a combination of under-confident blusterer and political Machiavellian. Whatever the case, it is interesting that the wanna-be cheerleader of prep school days now behaves like a swaggering football hero. As I say, he will be a fascinating study for historians. How much permanent damage can the Bush crowd do? Unless voters wise up about the bad situation we are now in with the rest of the world, and that domestic programs are aimed at boosting the rich and destroying social programs, he is likely to be reelected. Four more years and the damage could be serious. We will end up in a dark corner internationally, saddled with a crushing deficit and shrunken dollar, regularly struck by terrorists. My own inclination is that by the time of a second term, voters must recognize an undemocratic domestic policy and a shipwrecked foreign policy. The increasingly crowded Democrat candidate field reflects a feeling of looming catastrophe. But Bush is much cleverer than I thought, a true master of misrepresentation. I have been reading a book on Hitler, and it is amazing how his popularity continued to grow by means of rabble-rousing speeches, suppression of free speech, and originally bloodless military victories. Germans ate up his line, just as Americans are Bush's today. But we are not the traumatized Germans of the 1930s, we will come to our senses. While it seems strange that a man from the eastern establishment, with an internationalist father of conventional domestic and economic thinking, should have Bush's positions, they are simply standard right wing dogma. Despite his background, Bush is a Texan at heart, and we should not be surprised that he holds the same beliefs as Dick Armey, Tom Delay, and Phil Gramm. These positions can be summarized as less government and less taxes on the domestic front and a kind of isolationist aggression internationally. While I see tax cuts as playing to his fat cat friends, with income and taxes so concentrated today in the upper few, any tax reduction must necessarily go largely to the benefit of the high brackets. This very fact, though, suggests that tax cuts are not the answer to today's troubled economy. The problem for Bush personally and for us with him as our leader is that he is a weak man, as revealed in a frivolous past of non accomplishment and the present self-absorbtion, self-congratulation, unwillingness to debate or answer for his actions, and the constant deception. When confronted with a grand plan for action in the war on terror, and having to choose between different directions proposed by Rumsfeld and Powell, his weakness meant that he was bound to make bad decisions. Some combination of doubt and shortage of comprehension or thought inevitably led him astray. I think it likely that the Bush presidency will be one of the saddest in our history. Hopefully, mercifully for both him and us, it will be short.

Saddam – Running Cover For Dick? – February 2003

Free flowing propaganda about the pressing need to get Saddam, in which kernels of truth are built into wild imaginings as to his intent, worries Americans, and frightens the rest of the world. It took me a while and some study, but I am leaning to the idea that kicking out Saddam is the right move, that he really is dangerous, and that Iraq is a reasonable next step in the war on terror. The case is plenty good enough not to have been spoiled with exaggerated rhetoric. The American public could easily have been convinced, and, more significantly, foreign support was there for the asking, by making a straightforward case, as father Bush did in 1990, instead of sounding off like spoiled brats and bashing anyone offering resistance. Although the administration sounds like a bunch of warmongering klutzes, there is something behind the bluster. While they are so secretive that their own cause has been injured, there is something sensible going on here. I have been trying to figure out what it is. Our indecisiveness stands out because of the loud rhetoric, but it probably results from a struggle between two camps: the non-war Powell side and the Cheney/Rumsfeld warmongers. On the Powell side, the plan all along has been to use threats to get Saddam to comply. Assuming he wasn't the frenzied madman we portrayed, it was logical to assume that if we were firm enough (that is, took decisive steps to invade, the only way to deal with him) he would give up his weapons in order to remain in power. Unfortunately for Powell, we had threatened too often in the past, and Saddam had worked wonders with the U.N. and felt he could again, so we have had to follow through by positioning troops. The Cheney side is anxious to get on with it because, if Saddam saves himself at the eleventh hour, he will remain a threat and their plans will be thrown awry. In the end, Saddam will make the decision, which is unfortunate for us if he remains (so I am rooting against Powell at this point). What about the troubling political vacuum should Saddam be eliminated. The warmongers have a plan. Here it is. The following theory on what the hard liners are thinking comes from the February 17 The New Yorker, in an article titled After Iraq by Nicholas Lemann. Lemann uncovered a plan in the defense department, a mighty aggressive and optimistic one, but at least a rational approach. Remarkably, no one seems to have noticed because of intense concentration elsewhere. It goes this way. The belief is that terrorism can survive only with state support (right wing pundits have begun to recite this as gospel). One of the reasons we did not go after Pakistan, the new home of al Qaeda, is that the government there makes a passing attempt at not letting terrorists run free. Better to support the military government because if it falls, fundamentalists, who support terrorists, will take over. Pakistan's possession of the A-bomb adds to our reluctance, but the official reason is that the present government is "safe" as related to terrorism. Saddam, while not active in terrorism, provides a heaven sent opportunity for an aggressive strategy in the war on terrorism. The concept is to make Iraq an example, to put fear into other Moslem states that we mean what we say and will knock them off if they support terrorists. Iraq sits right in the middle of the Moslem world on the border of both Iran and Syria, the two main terrorist supporting countries. We will be right there, with all our arms, saying, clean up the terrorists or it is your turn to be crushed. Military force, or hopefully threat, will be used to bring enough pressure on the governments to get them to reform, modernize, renounce terrorism, and go after terrorists in their own countries. At the same time, gradual creation of a humane representative government in Iraq, operating in the Japan occupation style, will have a spillover effect on the entire region. Combine the idea that terrorists require state support with the immense pressure we will be able to apply by sitting squarely in the midst of the Moslem world, and you have a strategy for winning the war on terror. The apparently foolish urgency relates to Powell's fear that time is running for out his peaceful solution (which is not a solution as regards to Iraq and Saddam), and Cheney/Rumfeld's even worse fear that Saddam will wiggle off the hook at the eleventh hour. Supporting the idea of a forcible military government is that nothing is heard any more about regime change because we have no interest in a new regime, we will be in charge (at least for several years). This is the vital change brought about by 9/11, the inadequacy of regime change and the need for an occupation government. I understand we are pretty much ignoring the people who might have taken over (they are very fragmented anyway), and they are beginning to get worried. Liberal fears that removing Saddam will leave chaos behind are wrong. The fact that Iraq is a Versailles Treaty 1919 put together is all the better for the plan since it is relatively ungovernable anyway. The hard line theory is to make terrorism like piracy and the slave trade, unacceptable in the world (Bush is good at articulating this when he isn't carrying on about evil ones). Moslem countries used to be proud of their piracy, but we wiped it out (after Mediterranean countries themselves failed). We think it can be done again by putting pressure on every country to consider terrorism as similar to poison gas (used only once by Iraq/Iran since World War I) and the A-bomb (used only once/twice by us), that is to say, not acceptable for a civilized nation. The hardliners believe that, because of jealousy and our support for hated Israel, terrorism can't be ended through moral pressure. We've got to force it by making an example of what can happen to them and be on the spot to back up the threat. Afghanistan was a diversion, a get al Qaeda and Osama campaign that failed. We are accused of neglecting Afghanistan, but that was a side show. We won't neglect Iraq, because it is the key to the plan for defeating terrorism. Iraq offers another plus: it has the economic potential in its oil to be self-sustaining, and become a successful economic nation. We are going to supervise a major oil development program by seeing that reliable contracts are issued to oil companies in exchange for rapid development (another reason why we have to remain in control) because oil fits neatly into the overall plan. Oil can be used in addition to military pressure to bring non-oil countries, notably Syria, in line, perhaps even to produce enough oil to pressure Iran and Saudi Arabia. The hints coming out of Washington support this as the plan. It is reasonably sensible from the militarist point of view, but whether or not it is doable remains to be seen. The biggest danger is a perfect terrorist set up, an occupying army in an uncooperative country, where nationalism is added to the motivation of religion. Even if some see us as providing freedom from an oppressive regime, that good will is apt to quickly wear thin. It is Lebanon and Somolia all over again on a grand scale. The plan is also probably too optimistic about threat versus shooting, and any more invasions will make us look like a conquering hoard. I suspect we are overlooking the religious factor that makes terrorism more difficult to stamp out, the horrible example being set by Israel, and the difficulty of conventional forces against an at home guerrilla movement (Viet Nam already forgotten). Another probably unanticipated difficulty was the severity of the shock around the world, especially in Europe, at our provoking a war, a problem that will be intensified by an occupation government. I sense we have at least temporarily lost our world leadership, other than militarily, because of the hopeless diplomacy of the Bush administration, but it might be recovered some time in the future. No matter which alternative unfolds, the strategy could not be revealed. The very man Lemann talked to refused to say anything the other day before a Senate committee, leaving the impression we have no plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. There was a hint at a two year program for Iraq, but the real plan involves a lot longer. Revealing a plan to use Iraq as a long term foil to terrorism might have created even greater resistance. Even if countries like France understood what we were up to, the plan is extended, fraught with future problems, and undoubtedly very expensive, so they did not want any part of it. Both France and Germany are emotionally opposed to occupation, whereas we have the arrogance to think that everything we do is well intentioned. The perhaps unintended consequence is that we are going to be left with the full cost of the war and the occupation. While everyone is trying to figure out the cost of the war, the more pertinent question is probably the cost of maintaining a large army in Iraq for years, and the lack of maneuverability a large force there leaves us elsewhere. In the administration's mind, some of that cost can be covered by Iraq oil royalties on greatly increased production, but taking their royalties to pay for our occupation will create even greater bitterness abroad. Another reason for secrecy is Bush's determination for more tax cuts. Apparently we are looking at a deficit building toward $400 billion, before a war that might cost $100 billion (we have had to do a lot of bribing, not just to Turkey, so the cost will probably be much higher), and occupation another $50 billion a year. Put that on top of $50-100 billion more in tax cuts (remember, the largest portion of the 2001 cuts, those in the top brackets, have barely begun) and who knows where we are headed. It may seem inconceivable that Bush would take such a reckless course, but the far right is in charge of domestic policy and they view any tax cut as good. They are emotionally committed to chopping social programs, and how better to accomplish that goal than to make it a matter of national security. The lesson on the Iraq controversy is the bankruptcy of the Bush foreign policy. As soon as he came to office, the bashing of foreigners began, we pointedly refused to cooperation in any global effort, and most of our treaties were renounced. When the decision was made to make Iraq the second step in the war on terror, the Bushies immediately began bashing anyone who did not step up and offer support. The situation was made worse, both for foreigners and at home, by exaggerating the immediacy of the affair. It is likely that the tense international situation could have been avoided by reforming the old coalition through friendly face to face diplomacy. Proceeding recklessly ahead, while bashing anyone expressing caution, was the kind of thoughtless hot headed arrogance this administration has become noted for. When Powell talked them into going through the U.N., the case was already in trouble because of the president's excessive rhetoric, then Bush made a tragic mistake: he went to the U.N., made a grand, highly exaggerated, talk down his nose speech, and then threatened all who would not provide support. He even concluded with the extraordinarily unwise statement that the U.N. would render itself irrelevant by not following his lead, referring to them as a budding League of Nations. While seen as a great fiery speech in the U.S., at least in conservative circles, it was a truly amazing blunder, a blueprint for turning friends into enemies. These kinds of words are almost never used in diplomacy because they are so counter-productive. All of this is incomprehensible until you remember that the radical right wing wants to destroy the U.N. and exercise our superior military power to get what we want (in other words, the people calling the shots are seriously dangerous). However, after throwing away any hope for help and backing ourselves into a corner, we ought to go ahead and clean up Saddam. Reviewing the history of our ins and outs with Saddam, the following events are likely. The U.N. difficulties encourage Saddam to remain firm, but he will fold with action. We always open with lengthy bombing and when that begins, the game will be on. He will be back-tracking, we won't. He will try to remain by giving up the weapons (not all at once, chemicals first), thereby enlisting support from the rest of the world, we will want to go on, get him, and execute the plan. It will be a process, not a sudden happening. In this final showdown, our ridiculous diplomacy will make life much harder for us, but at this point we might as well win the war, and hope that Bush, if not his militaristic aides, has learned from the mistakes.

Atlantis Aquarium, Bahamas

Photographs of the giant aquarium in the Atlantis Resort, Nassau, Bahamas.

Cuba

Cuba FlagEven with the American travel ban, Cuba continues to thrive as a tourist destination for Europeans and otherwise. Before Castro, the Caribbeans largest island was very popular among U.S.-based tourists and business people; now, however, it takes a slightly more more adventurous sort to go there from America. But given the opportunity, those people simply can't be kept away. When the travel ban does get lifted you can be sure that Cuba will again be one of the busiest destinations in the Caribbean. If you would like to see the Cuba of modern American "mythology," it's better to go now. Once the U.S. government warms up to that nation enough to lift economic sanctions, as well as the travel ban, there will be a flood of investment into Cuba's tourist economy that is sure to change the face of the culture fundamentally. Cuba still has the colonial architecture that makes its cities so appealing ... even if the surface is well worn, the beauty is still there. There are also many wonderful beaches and lush highlands to hike. But if you are an American and plan on visiting Cuba, it will take some work. There are a number of programs that will sponsor government-approved trips from the U.S., or you can depart from a country that doesn't have a travel ban in place (although this is technically "working the system," as the American economic sanctions preclude spending unlicensed U.S. dollars in Cuba--ironic in that it's these illegal dollars that help keep the Cuban economy afloat) Traveling to/in Cuba Cuba MapFlights to Cuba depart from Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe. Because of the American travel ban, most people from the U.S. go through the Bahamas, Mexico, or Canada. A few cruise ships have started to go to Cuba, but most of them have to originate in the Bahamas, as they aren't allowed to go from the U.S. There are also many private pleasure crafts that visit Cuba regularly. Americans, though, should be cautious as the current U.S. administration is more strict about visiting Cuba; you could end up with a fine from the government when you return. Another alternative is to find a government-approved program on which to "piggy-back." There are a number of academic, social, or research programs (among others) that obtain licenses from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba. These same programs often--legally--sell spaces on their trips for tourists. More information about the U.S. sanctions against Cuba, travel restrictions, and guidelines for licensing and travel to Cuba can be found at http://www.ustreas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/sanctions/index.html. There is a domestic airline, Cubana Airlines, that will get you around the country once there. You can also travel by bus on the dollars-only Viázul line or pay pesos for a less expensive--and less comfortable--camiones particulares, privately owned trucks that can be found throughout the island. There is a train system, as well, though it is not as reliable as it once was. Weather in Cuba The weather in Cuba is much like the other places in the Caribbean, which means there really isn't a bad time to go. The rainy season is between May and October--the hottest time of year in Cuba. Like the rest of the Caribbean, droves of tourists arrive from the north between December and April--the coldest time of year for Europe, Canada, and the like. Cuba Information North / Central AmericaPopulation: 11 million Government: Communist republic Square Miles: 110,860 sq km Capitol: Havana (pop 2,200,000) Brades, in Carr's Bay/Little Bay (established after eruption) Official Languages: Spanish People: 60% Spanish descent, 22% mixed-race, 11% African descent, 1% Chinese Religion: 47% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 2% Santería Major products/industries: Sugar, minerals, tobacco, agricultural, medicine & tourism

Traveler Profile–Nancy Collins: Global Adrenaline

Nancy CollinsAs part of our effort to bring you essential stories and information on travel and culture, Travel Outward presents you with our first ever "Traveler Profile," where we will examine the lives of individuals making a name for themselves in adventure travel, education, and the cultural experience. For this inaugural piece we introduce you to Nancy Collins, co-founder and president of the adventure travel company Global Adrenaline. In the coming months, we hope to offer more material from the logbooks of Global Adrenaline, including feature articles based on the adventures they bring you.The word "overachiever" comes to mind, as I examine her resume. Her education alone is impressive, if not intimidating--she graduated with honors from Princeton University with a degree in economics, earned her Master’s of Science in development economics from Oxford University, and an MBA from Harvard, all before turning 32. Then there’s her employment history: five years working in corporate finance between New York and Sydney, Australia, with the investment bank J.P. Morgan; two summers with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) helping to pave the way for that nonprofit refugee relief organization to provide long-term care to people in need; and a year with the World Bank managing funds for much-needed supply of power to countries around the globe. All the while she was seeking action, adventure, friends, knowledge, and more by planning trips for her classmates, coworkers, family, and herself.
It’s true, this is the resume of a classic overachiever. But to be sure, she’s now doing exactly what she wants. As the president and co-founder of the adventure travel company Global Adrenaline, Nancy Collins is bringing curious people to remote regions of the world that they might never have otherwise considered. And subsequently, she’s helping to foster rich ideas, images, and knowledge of those places and cultures in the minds of a growing population of travelers. And what of all the development, business, and economics education she amassed over the years? Well, according to Collins, it’s helping her achieve these goals in the best way she knows how. Nancy Collins comes from a military family. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, and she spent her childhood moving around the country, mainly between Southern California and Washington, D.C. She speaks with the clipped pace of someone not used to staying in one place for very long, and while she didn’t get into the "business" of planning trips until the end of her undergraduate years, she acknowledges that her mobile upbringing influenced her as a planner and organizer, as though she’d been doing it all her life. "When I went to college," she says, "I thought I’d be a doctor. Then I thought I wanted to be a math major." But a few stabs at the complexities of advanced linear algebra quickly changed her mind, and Collins took on economics as her primary area of interest. On the side she started organizing class functions and get-togethers, and after graduating, she followed in the footsteps of so many young people with a background in economics: she went into finance. Over the course of her years working with J.P. Morgan in both New York and Sydney, Collins developed a heartfelt respect for the company that she is quick to voice today. "J.P. Morgan was great," she says. "If I were to get back into that kind of work, I wouldn’t want it to be with any other company." But in the end, she was drawn back to school. Collins entered a Master’s program in developing economics at Oxford, and followed that with an MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS). She spent the summers between in Macedonia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi with the IRC, and also continued her hobby as a travel and social planner. "I’ve always had an interest in developing countries," she says. Upon completing her program at Harvard, she went to the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as an investment officer helping to fund the construction of power plants in Chile, Argentina, and India. But Collins grew restless. She appreciates the results the World Bank’s labors, but Collins wanted to find a place with less bureaucracy that allowed her more personal freedom and control over the challenges she took on.
Soon after leaving the World Bank, her career took yet another turn. A group of friends contacted her with a proposition--"They told me about a company they were starting and said they wanted me to be a part of it. They didn’t know what part yet, but knew I would make a good fit." In their own words, her new partners needed "somebody who can make order out of chaos." And they were sure Collins could do just that. The company was London-based Altgate Capital--an internet startup that worked closely with the European finance community--and while it was a short-lived endeavor (Altgate has since closed its doors), it opened Collins’ eyes to the potential of being her own boss. Within months of leaving Altgate, she and new two business partners founded the adventure travel company Global Adrenaline. It was an opportunity to combine her interests in developing world cultures, her talents as a travel and events organizer, and her desire for more autonomy in her working life. At Global Adrenaline, the business is about "planning trips for young, educated professional people," Collins says. "There aren’t many companies that focus on that market alone." The adventure travel industry is a crowded one. There are scores of companies that include in their clientele the niche market at which Global Adrenaline is aimed specifically, and many of those are much larger than Global Adrenaline will ever be. But very few set their sights solely on young academics and professionals, and that, according to Nancy Collins, is part of what makes her company so unique.
"To be good at what you do, you have to be focused on your customer," she says, "...people are looking for very different things in terms of educational and physical aspects of their trip: the 12-year-old will want one thing, the 30-year-old will want another, and the 60-year-old will want still another." Global Adrenaline markets itself primarily to a group of people they know will be both intellectually curious and physically able--their clients want to go where they’ll be able to experience pristine nature and cultures that haven’t been overrun by bus tours and billboards. They want to go where the average family vacationers will not, if only because it’s hard to get there. But the company differentiates itself from its peers in another way--while many of the bigger names in the industry will cater to either backpackers on a shoestring budget or wealthier individuals who can afford extravagance when they travel, Global Adrenaline likes to balance elements of luxury with the realities of traveling in the third world, and they try to make this experience affordable across a broad range of incomes. "It would be wonderful if we could be truly global," Collins says, referring to the company’s name, "but we add a lot more value by organizing trips to places that are challenging in very specific ways." Part of this sense of challenge comes from traveling to more remote regions that take an extra measure of effort to reach. Global Adrenaline has organized programs such as cruising to the Falkland Islands and the rugged Antarctic Peninsula, rafting and kayaking the rivers of Patagonia, trekking through the Tsering Kang Himalaya in Bhutan, or climbing the snowy heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. They set themselves apart by including in their staff of local guides, individuals who are authorities in specific fields. For instance, on a trip that takes adventurers hiking to the north face of Mount Everest, one of the specialist guides is also a professor of Tibetan studies at a major New Zealand university who is fluent in local dialects and an expert in Tibetan culture. It goes without saying, there are great benefits to having someone with such intimate cultural understanding as a guide. But for Nancy Collins, there’s more to consider when building a travel program than the interests of her clients. Part of her--and thus, Global Adrenaline’s--philosophy is to give back to the communities they visit. "We make certain kinds of business choices that will be economically advantageous to local communities," says Collins. "We develop itineraries so they have culturally sensitive and educational elements."
This means, for example, providing accommodation in locally owned inns and houses, and using local suppliers, guides, and more, in an effort to ensure that all the money spent in each community goes back to that community, and not to governments and organizations that are likely to spend it elsewhere. Collins is open about seeking clients eager to delve into the realities of a culture, even if those realities are at times harsher than our own. But it should be made clear that Global Adrenaline clients aren’t expected to sacrifice their overall comfort in the name of cultural immersion. Each trip is staffed by guides who double as gourmet cooks, fixing daily rations that often blend local flavors with western-style cuisine; and while accommodations are typically split between lodges and tents, Collins works to ensure her clients are happy and comfortable in both: lodges tend to be reasonably priced three- or four-star establishments, and camp sites are often chosen for their spectacular settings and can include solar showers and a private "toilet tent." "I’m definitely more detail oriented, than a ‘big-picture’ person," says Collins, "which has worked out perfectly because, when you’re planning a trip for someone, everything has to be perfect." When asked about her own ideas on the people and places she is getting to know, Collins’ tone turns to that of an academic who began her journey studying the world through economics. "Broad generalizations can be made across cultures in terms of their level of economic development," she says. "There are a lot of things that are common to developing countries that are different for developed countries..." She goes on to talk about family size, income, education, and religious freedom as indicators of social development, referring often to the gaps between first-world and third-world nations. They are valid and well-constructed points that demonstrate her insight into the evolution of modern societies, but behind the academic jargon, one senses Collins has a greater, if simpler, understanding of what she would like her clients to take away from their trips: there are opportunities to learn that goodness exists in the differences between us, and we can interact with these communities in a way that benefits everyone. Certainly, in global times such as these, there are few more important lessons. Collins, herself, has gone on most of the trips her company offers, and--like any good business person should--she makes sure all of Global Adrenaline’s employees have a chance to experience them as well. "My favorite trips are the ones furthest from anything resembling civilization," she says. "I think I get the most out of a trip when I am challenged both physically and mentally. I don’t like to be spoon fed a cultural experience--you have to go out and do it." As with most things in Nancy Collins’ life, the future of Global Adrenaline cannot be predicted. She’s sure of its longevity--"it will be here ten years from now," she says with confidence--but the rest remains to be seen. "It takes a lot out of you on a personal level to start a business, but I wouldn’t do anything differently. It’s very personally rewarding to dump yourself into something that you have a vision for." Collins follows a "learn-as-you-go" mentality, believing that Global Adrenaline will grow larger as it matures; but while undoubtedly she would like to see her company included among the big names in adventure travel, she seems hesitant to turn it into a physically large company. "That’s not what I want it to be," she says. "When it’s smaller, it’s more like a family." And if there’s one lesson she’s taken away from this challenge, it’s this: "you realize just how important friends and family are." One senses there are many more turns in Nancy Collins’ life that even she cannot foretell. From Princeton to the World Bank to Global Adrenaline, she is an adventurer on an epic journey. And while we may not be there every step of the way, we can at least feel at ease in the knowledge that this is one person who’s working hard to make our world a better place.