WRITING on a Memorial Day weekend break that I needed before plunging into an upcoming trip to the Middle East and East Africa, followed by a week of what is euphemistically called furlough - that's when you don't get fired, but you don't work, and don't get paid either - I realized that I had some matters that needed to be shared with my kind readers before my head went the way of Three Rivers Stadium. It is the usual, slightly bizarre group of issues that tend to torment me.
The first is the situation in Gambia. It is a small West African country of 1.8 million that stretches along the Gambia River. Its president, in power since a military coup d'etat 15 years ago, insists on being called His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh.
Here is what the former Lieutenant Jammeh is currently up to. He is afraid of witches and witchcraft. Many Africans and others are as well. So he has dispatched his loyal, red-tunic clad followers throughout the country to force villagers to drink what is described as a disgusting noxious broth to test their witchiness. If they live, they are presumably OK. If they die, they are prima facie guilty of the practice. Most of the Gambians who drink it are merely made sick or driven mad by the drink.
Your first question: What does this have to do with me? The answer is that Mr. Jammeh's horrid little dictatorship is fueled by revenues from European and American tourists, including some from Pittsburgh, visiting Gambia for the sunshine, beaches, and culture. Gambia is considered to have been the origin of the voyage of Kunta Kinte of Alex Haley's Roots.
Some authoritative person - the American ambassador to Gambia leaps to mind - needs to tell Mr. Jammeh to cut it out now or American and European tourists will stop coming entirely.
The second problem preoccupying me is the amount and nature of America's huge, growing debt to the Chinese government and lenders and their management of that debt. As of February, China held $744 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, up 53 percent compared to the same month in 2008. It is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries. Others include Japan, Venezuela, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Brazil. The total of foreign-held U.S. official debt is $3.2 trillion, 28 percent of the total U.S. national debt. It is estimated that China alone earns some $50 billion a year in interest on the U.S. debt it holds.
What bothers me is the thought of the leaders of China and some of the other countries in question - think of Iran, Venezuela, and Nigeria, for example - staying up late trying to decide whether to let the U.S. economy truly tank by selling or by ceasing to buy our Treasury bonds, particularly as their concerns grow over potential U.S. inflation. Contemplating that possibility, as the Obama Administration has pumped more money into the U.S. economy, has already prompted the Chinese to buy more short-term U.S. debt, giving themselves flexibility if U.S. inflation starts to soar.
A third problem that disturbs me is the rise in gasoline prices. It looks like the industry - producers, refiners, and marketers - is raising prices to increase its profits, because there are no discernible rises in demand, drops in supply, or necessary reductions in refining capacity to otherwise explain the gas price hike. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in principle cut production earlier in the year, but its members' respect of such quotas is generally indifferent. There is trouble in Nigeria, but there is usually trouble in Nigeria.
The oil industry operates on the assumption that American drivers are sheep, to be fleeced because they like to travel, particularly in the summer, starting with Memorial Day weekend. The shears are thus out and clicking.
The price of gasoline is up across the country, from $1.67 a gallon in December, to $2.06 last month, to $2.33 this month. Mr. Obama should look closely into this phenomenon, given the general impact of high gas prices on the health of the U.S. economy. A quick, greedy move by the oil industry could in a flash nullify any positive impact the President's economic stimulus measures might have on the economy.
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Middle East indirectly put the spotlight on a sad development: the driving out of many Middle East Christians who are the direct descendants of the original Christians in the region. That phenomenon has been particularly pronounced in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
It was certainly not the intention, but it is nonetheless the result of actions of the Bush administration in invading and occupying Iraq. The interfaith sectarian conflict that accompanied the war was why some Christians fled Iraq. Half of them left.
The Iraqis heard the word "crusade" in some of the administration's pronouncements. And recent revelations that then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's communications to Mr. Bush included Christian religious exhortations - Bible verses and the like - shows that element to have been at the core of senior Bush administration's perceptions of what the United States was doing in Iraq.
Heightened religious conflict inevitably has a bad impact on religious minorities, such as Iraq's Christians.
What reassured me this Memorial Day weekend was the inclusion of a measure in the credit card legislation to assuage the fears of gun owners traveling in U.S. national parks.
They will be able to defend themselves against possible attacks by squirrels, deer, rabbits, or other predatory animals. Mr. Obama's signature on the legislation will mean that the gun owners, bearing loaded weapons easy to handle, will no longer have to peer under every tree for a snarling, hidden Bambi preparing to charge.
We have that in balance to put against Gambian craziness, the Chinese owning us, rapacious oil companies' pricing of gas, and the biblical-era Christians being driven out of the Middle East.
What a great world we live in.