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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: March 7, 2009

A SURPRISING CRITIQUE of the world’s 15th richest man, Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helú, who recently made a huge investment in the New York Times appeared in that very paper’s business section on February 16. Much of the criticism of the Mexican mogul comes from the fact that he owns Telmex, the country’s telephone monopoly, whose charges are among the highest in the world in a country that is among the poorest. “One journalist pressed him on how it felt to be worth so much in a country in which many people struggle to get by,” the Times reported. “Mr. Slim cut off the questioner…His curt tone made it clear he did not favor that line of questioning. Tagging him as “notoriously thin-skinned,” the Times, of which Slim may soon own 17%, quoted Denise Dresser, a Mexican political scientist: “Going down in history as an evil monopolist who fleeced Mexican consumers is not an image of himself that he likes, but it’s a true image.”

ZIMBABWE’S CURRENCY may be an international joke, with its $100 trillion note good in Kinshasa for a mere loaf of bread, but that same flimsy bill with its 14 zeros could fetch a tidy $100 from collectors in this country. A shrewd printer in Springfield, MA, Donald MacTavish, has been buying the African country’s ‘worthless’ old billion-dollar currency and selling individual bills for up to $25.

FORTY-EIGHT YEARS after president John Kennedy believed that desalination would change the world, some of the world is beginning to take the subject seriously — sort of. Saudi Arabia currently produces about 18% of the world’s fresh water-from seawater output and the Middle East in general is about to invest $30 billion in the technology. Algeria, Dubai, Libya, and Singapore all depend on desal for drinking water (The U.S., with two oceans to draw from still lags behind. One exception is California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the only one of 45 in the U.S. to be cooled by desalinated seawater). The oceans contain almost 98% of the world’s water, as Fast Company reminds us, and more than half of the world’s population lives within 65 miles of a seacoast. Yet, according to the UN,  1.1 billion people have no access to a clean, reliable supply of water and more than two million people a year die for lack of it.

A DECADE AFTER playing the part of Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, Emma Watson is now a multi-millionaire and harassed by the kind of paparazzi who lie on the sidewalk to photograph up her skirt. “The next day I woke up and felt completely violated by it all.” She says it was pretty tough turning 18. “Everyone wants a picture of me in a mini-skirt, but that’s not me. I’d never go out in a mini-skirt. I  find the whole concept of being ‘sexy’ embarrassing and confusing.”

SOME UNLIKELY MILLIONAIRES are pinpointed by a story in Forbes which reveals the way some government retirees are gaming the system to elevate their pensions to astronomical heights. Four in five public sector workers have lifetime pensions, compared with only one in five in the private sector, Forbes asserts, and the $5.6 billion that New York City, for example, spent on pensions last year was more than devoted to the combined cost of at least six other departments. In many places the early retirement granted to cops and firemen (some basing their pension on huge overtime boosts in their pay) means that it’s possible to ‘retire’ and stay in the same position, thus earning both a pension and a salary for the same job. The magazine names a former police chief in Delray Beach, FL, who retired with a $65,000 pension, took another job as police chief in a nearby town, and is already worth $2 million.

REMINDING READERS THAT left-brainers are managers (“verbal, logical, analytical”) and right-brainers are marketers (“visual, intuitive, holistic”) Adverting Age says the conflict is why it is often difficult for admen to sell their ideas to top management. “Certainty is the mark of a left-brainer, whereas holistic right-brainers are never quite sure,” the mag observes. “Management deals in reality; marketing, meanwhile, deals in perception. A marketing person has to sell a marketing idea to management in management terms — not in marketing terms.”

JUST FLAUNTING IT is not enough these days for some billionaires who are building monuments to themselves in the form of personal museums. What Fortune calls the ultimate status symbol is popping up not only in the U.S. where Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton and developer Eli Broad have art centers underway in Turkey, Ukraine, and most ostentatiously in Paris. Here the LVMH Group (Luis Vuitton, Dior, Dom Pérignon) boss Bernard Arnault hired Frank Gehry for a $200 million home for his art collection, its appearance described as “an iceberg dressed as a cloud.” Arnault says he has long had “a desire to speak in a different way” to customers but Fortune adds that “clearly there’s more than a touch of ego involved.”

The leader of Britain’s Social Democrats, Lord David Owen, used to be a doctor and in 2007 he published a book, The Hubris Syndrome maintaining that being in power affects the mental state in a way that can become pathological.  Now he has a new book out.  In Sickness in Power argues that psychological changes of power lead to “grandiosity, narcissism, and irresponsible behavior.”  Such leaders imagine that they operate beyond the bounds of ordinary morality.  “To a hubristic leader, lying, cutting corners, and even invading foreign countries are justified,” he writes “in the interests of accomplishing a supremely moral mission.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: Without being backed by gold, presumably nothing “guarantees” the currency? In which case, why can’t the Treasury just keep printing money until everybody has enough?…. ”Last year people won more than $1billion playing poker,” muses Samantha Bee. “And casinos made $27 billion by being around those people”….. Not long ago we armed the jihadists to fight the Russians. Are they now arming the jihadists to fight against us?…. “In Washington,” declares Michael Kinsley, “the scandal isn’t what’s illegal It’s what’s legal…..More than 4,000 books were published on happiness last year — eight times as many as in 2000…Vladimir Putin’s paintings of a night sky seen through a peasant hut’s window fetched $1million at a St. Petersburg charity auction….The National Review said it wanted to send NY’s tax-avoiding Congressman Charles Rangel some Heritage Foundation figures contradicting his allegations about army casualties, “but we’re not sure what apartment to mail them to”….Flying-while-Muslim” is the new “Driving-while-black”…. Cataloguing from around the world the 200,000 pictures it owns, the BBC plans to download them onto a new website….“Before you embark on a journey of revenge,” advised Confucius, “dig two graves ….. In the works at ABC, a new show Dating in the Dark is exactly that with contestants seeing each other for the first time when the lights come up…..And CBS plans a show in which a boss goes undercover to check things out in his own workforce….In London, billionaire adman Charles Saatchi will host a reality show in which six young artists will compete for a prize….. Another deft definition: Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly….. Absentee fathers owe $5billion in child support in Britain which is planning to confiscate driving licenses and passports of those they catch….“Wise men say nothing in dangerous times.” — John Selden (1584-1654)