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David Rothkopf

Winner, winner, chicken dinner…loser, loser, now who’s dinner?

Are you paying attention, Hank? Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story subheaded "Macao Journal" in which it reported the sad boomlet in gambling away public money that has taken place in China. Officials head to Macao, the offshore island that has bet its future on gambling and now does more gaming business than Las ...

Are you paying attention, Hank? Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story subheaded "Macao Journal" in which it reported the sad boomlet in gambling away public money that has taken place in China. Officials head to Macao, the offshore island that has bet its future on gambling and now does more gaming business than Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined, and they bet away millions from the coffers of their municipalities, provinces and agencies. Popular ways of frittering away the national patrimony include blackjack, poker and something called Fish-Prawn-Crab, which is apparently played with dice but I could have sworn I ordered for dinner at Mei Wah in Friendship Heights just last week. The draw is seemingly so great for government officials that one study showed a majority of high rollers came from public sector jobs and like their brethren in the United States, the lower level officials tended to lose less money than their more senior colleagues. Mark McDonald, writing in the Times, observes, "Many of the biggest losers have been sent to prison and at least 15 have been executed."

To my way of thinking, I would say the ones who ended up in prison were not, then, the biggest losers. But on the other hand, they all seem to have suffered the initial misfortune of being public officials in China. In the United States, Hank Paulson managed to persuade the U.S. Congress to pony up $700 billion on a collective bet that it was enough to restore global confidence in financial markets. Trillions more are likely to be bet on a similar outcome via the stimulus. (The difference between a bet and an investment is, of course, the amount of risk involved which is in turn related to how much one knows about the ultimate outcome when putting the cash on the table. Since no one knew whether the financial bailout was enough to stabilize the financial markets, I’d say that puts Hank and his enablers in a league way beyond that of poor Li Weimin who only lost $12 million of the Chinese peoples’ money and now is looking at 20 years of hard time. Heck, if anyone in the current government can prove they only lost $12 million, they will deserve to be the next president. (Want a good take on what went wrong? See Joe Stiglitz’s excellent piece in the January Vanity Fair. For much of the past decade, it was popular for the "leave it to the markets" crowd to bash Joe, but his warning have all be borne out, though no one could quite call the outcome a last laugh.)

If you thought the U.S. Congress was clueless, you needn’t look as far away as China for comfort. Look instead to beautiful downtown Caracas, where the Venezuelan parliament yesterday moved closer to ensuring Hugo Chavez’s dream of employment for life. It makes giving George W. Bush another term look almost like a good idea. Almost. Actually, the best place for both these guys is in the rear-view mirror. I can’t wait to see Benicio Del Torro follow-up his star-turn as Che with the lead in Alo Presidente: The Musical. Oliver Stone to direct, of course.

I am writing this under a palapa on a beach in St. Lucia. I understand from my office that it is 11 degrees in Washington. But it’s not all rosy down here, either. We are experiencing a severe sunblock shortage and last night the little paper umbrella in my drink had a tear in it.

Best International Story of the Week (By Far) had to be the Times piece, also in Thursday’s paper "Art Hoax Unites Europe in Displeasure." If it were a television show, Tina Fey and "30 Rock" would not have won their otherwise well-deserved Golden Globe last weekend. The European Union wanted a big piece of art outside the offices of the European Council, one that would symbolize the rich diversity of Europe. A Czech artist named David Cerny was commissioned to realize a piece he called "Entropa" which was comprised of pieces in the shapes of European countries, each containing imagery evoking the country. Supposedly, each piece was from an artist from the country in question. Actually Cerny and a couple colleagues cooked up the whole thing themselves. And the results, when unveiled this past week, were not the celebration of the Eurocoolness that the EU was hoping for. As Sarah Lyall writes:

Here is Bulgaria, represented as  a series of crude, hole-in-the-floor toilets. Here is the Netherlands, subsumed by floods, with only a few minarets peeping out of the water. Luxembourg is depicted as a tiny lump of gold marked by a ‘for sale’ sign, while five Lithuanian soldiers are apparently urinating on Russia.  France? On strike.

…The Germans are probably not too thrilled that their country is represented as a series of highways that, looked at a certain way, possibly bring to mind a swastika. Spain has to settle with being a huge construction site, while Romania is shown as a Dracula-themed amusement park."

The government responses were particularly humorless. Said the Bulgarians, no doubt outraged at the depiction of their country as being comprised of hole-in-the-floor toilets when it is well-known that a good number of the toilets in that country actually now have flush mechanisms, "It is a humiliation for the Bulgarian nation and an offense to our national dignity."  Bulgarian national dignity. Who needs satire when you have Bulgarian bureaucrats?

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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