2012 Election, Italy, Minnick, Shakespeare, Silver Valley


It’s fashion week in Paris. The skinny models are parading around with stern expressions and too high heels. What, they can’t smile while wearing the latest weird creation? Maybe their feet hurt.

More importantly, every week is fashion week in Siena; a city that is to style what Boston is to baseball meltdowns. The old city, sitting atop a Tuscan hill and, considering its age, a remarkably well preserved place, was once a rival to better known and more visited Florence. But for my Euros, Siena is the classier place. Walking back to the car after a day spent wandering Siena’s cobbled streets (wide paths in many places) we overtook an elegantly dressed, elderly Italian woman who seemed to be heading home from her shopping. She was dressed for the opera – tailored blue suit, stylish blouse and handsome and very correct Italian shoes. Just what most Americans wear to do the weekly marketing at Winco.

Rome’s bureaucrats were on strike – or perhaps just taking a long lunch – last week to protest government austerity measures, the central bankers struggle still with the debt of many European countries and unemployment in the 17-nation EU countries is over 11% – yet, the cafes are jammed, the hotels are booked and life goes on, while sophisticated Italians walk home from the market.

One story line his opponents have advanced against Barack Obama this election year has been the ominous threat that the United States, in a second Obama term, will slip farther in the direction of “the European socialist model.” Even if I believed, and I don’t, that Barack Obama harbors some real or determined socialist agenda, the American drift toward socialism on the European model just isn’t going to happen. Americans are fundamentally resistant to change and the elements of the European model we would have to embrace are so foreign – pardon the pun – that it just can’t happen here.

Two examples make the point. Virtually every automobile on Italy’s highways is a high gas mileage, high performance vehicle. You can drive the Renaults or the Opels for days while passing every petrol station you see. When you need to refill the tank the gas is, of course, much most costly in Europe than in the U.S., but you can go so much farther on a tank, or in most places you can walk or ride efficient public transport. Americans have been fighting over fuel efficiency in our automobiles ever since Mitt Romney’s dad made the American Motors Rambler, a fuel efficient alternative to Detroit’s gas guzzlers. The cars in Europe are smaller, lighter and extraordinarily fuel efficient. Obviously a socialist model we reject.

Or consider public transportation. The intercity train from Rome to Florence, as comfortable as any living room (except for the noisy and overly opinionated Canadian up the aisle), zoomed through the Tuscan countryside and deposited us, one hour and 27 minutes later, in the heart of city where automobiles are more trouble than they are worth. We couldn’t have driven or flown as fast, as comfortably or as cheaply. One can go almost anywhere in Europe on a train, often in great comfort and at high speed. Back home, we continue to debate the disinvestment in such infrastructure with governors in Wisconsin and Florida actually putting an end to spending on just the type of high speed rail Europeans take for granted. ¬†Public investment in transportation – other than the car and the airplane – have taken on the stench of socialism in the U.S. American addiction to the automobile will never allow us to embrace the public option and, besides, the private sector should undertake such investment just as it did when Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. OK, not a good example.

Europeans, as a rule, are skinnier, eat better, live longer, have better health care outcomes, lower poverty and infant mortality rates and – I have to say it – dress better than Americans. Further proof for radio talk show hosts, no doubt, that the European socialist model threatens the very existence of America’s manifest destiny to lead the world with half of our citizens overweight, many lacking health care coverage and more living in poverty than a decade ago.

Europe with all its troubles is neither a socialist mecca or a government-centric basket case. The United States with all its troubles is still the world’s economic engine – an engine that could be even more powerful if we could see our way clear to pick and chose from among the best of the rest of the world. Call it socialism lite.

Republicans Living Abroad ran an ad in the International Herald Tribune this week urging their countrymen and women living in Europe to vote for president. The message was simple and so American – “No Apologizes for American Exceptionalism – VOTE.” The United States is a truly blessed place, divinely inspired some suggest, but true exceptionalism might also mean that we take a break from telling ourselves how great we are and focus on what the rest of the world is doing that we might learn from.

The elegant Italian woman we saw heading home from shopping would, I suspect like most Italians, be very reserved, but also very generous to any American visitor. More and more Italians speak English very well and most tolerate a a level of American self assurance that we would find off putting in them if they were visiting our side of the world. I also doubt whether my elegant Italian woman has ever spent a minute, even while passing by the Burger King, reflecting on either American or Italian exceptionalism. The next time I head for Winco, I will remember her blue suit and elegant shoes and reflect on what she – exceptional as she is – might teach us about living well.



Humor, Silver Valley

Looting the Silver Valley

historic miningA Tory Money Man’s Connections to Idaho

How does an ultra-wealthy financial backer of new British Prime Minister David Cameron connect to the dusty miners in the nearby photo? In a word the connection is – money, and lots of it.

From the 1880’s forward, a narrow valley along the Coeur d’Alene River in far northern Idaho has produced more than a billion ounces of silver, not to mention tons of zinc and lead. Idaho’s Silver Valley at one time produced more than half of the nation’s silver and was the richest mining district in the world.

Like most of the world’s mining districts, the Silver Valley has long been a landscape of equal parts hope and hopelessness. For years, while the mines produced tremendous wealth, the pay was good and the jobs plentiful. Not many worried that the old Bunker Hill smelter was pumping out a vile mixture of lead and other bad stuff that killed off trees and tainted the soil.

As Idaho Public Television noted in an episode on the Silver Valley a while back, lead poisoning – long before the EPA or Superfund legislation – was a serious problem for smelter workers. “One early attempt to cure lead poisoning, called the Clague Process, passed an electric current through a miner’s body while his hands and feet were immersed in water. The Bunker Hill Company hospital used this method for several years, but it ultimately proved totally ineffective.”

In 1973, a fire at the smelter’s bag house removed the protection that had existed preventing high concentrations of lead from getting into the air and, in turn, in the soil, water and blood stream. The Bunker Hill ownership operated the facility for almost a year without adequate filtration in place and that, in part, helps explain why a 21 square mile area of the Valley is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country.

Now to David Rowland. David Rowland? Who’s he?

Rowland is, according to the Daily Mail in London, the man David Cameron has tapped to become the Tory Party treasurer come October. He is also one of the wealthiest men in Britain; a man who apparently dodged UK taxes for some years by living on the Island of Guernsey before resurfacing last year to contribute millions of pounds to the Conservative Party in Britain. It just so happens that Rowland was also once the CEO of Gulf Resources, the company many in the Superfund encumbered Silver Valley of northern Idaho believe looted that company and reneged on clean-up commitments that should have legitimately been his responsibility.

As the newspaper noted in a July 10, 2010 story: “Rowland found himself embroiled in the (Silver Valley clean up) dispute in February 1989 when his UK property company Inoco, which was controlled by a family trust, bought Gulf Resources which took over ownership of the (Bunker Hill) smelter plant.

He immediately sparked huge political opposition when he attempted to move ownership of some of the company’s assets to the tax haven of Bermuda – which would have prevented them being used to finance the environmental clean-up.

“The move was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department.

“Mr Rowland then, through Gulf, sunk $120 million in a property deal in New Zealand, thus putting those funds beyond the reach of the U.S. authorities.

“Gulf also attempted a hostile takeover of an Australian mining company which would have taken even more money away from the clean-up.”

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus was concerned at the time, and still believes today, that Gulf Resources intentionally took money out of the company – by one claim Rowland pocketed $100 million himself – to make sure the money couldn’t find its way into the Silver Valley clean up.

“I think the scoundrels looted the company,” Andrus said recently.

Katherine Aiken, the distinguished and scholarly dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho, is the historical authority on the Silver Valley. Her history of the Bunker Hill – Idaho’s Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1981is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the history and importance of the area.

Dr. Aiken told the Daily Mail: “When Mr. Rowland left Gulf Resources, the money was gone, which is why so many people went to court to try to get some back. People in (Silver Valley) bars curse when David Rowland’s name is mentioned. Gulf Resources was the villain here.”

Rowland denies he or Gulf Resources did anything wrong. They’ll never buy that line in Kellogg or Smelterville.

Perhaps it is true that money can’t buy happiness, but in large enough bundles money can buy a way out of costly troubles and into political connections.

For David Rowland who, anyway you slice it, left a lot of unfinished business in northern Idaho, three million pounds contributed to the British Conservative Party can obviously buy, if not happiness, at least a selective memory regarding his business dealings 20-plus years ago in a place called the Silver Valley.

Rowland’s net worth is estimated at $730 million pounds. Even ten percent of that would go a long way in the Valley.