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Posts Tagged ‘Society’

 

I arrived in Bangkok, the city of the “Sidewalks of Death.” Should one stroll about the town one might: find the sidewalk beneath of him suddenly open up, plunging him into the fetid miasmatic water below and carrying him off to the equally pestilential waters of some ancient canal, there to drown — trip on a crack in the pavement sending him tumbling into the street where he is maimed or killed by hoards of crazed bikers trying to beat the traffic light — be attacked by rabid soi dogs and sewer rats who gnaw off his ankles — be abducted by an evil tuk-tuk driver and disappear forever — be set upon by a group of manic ladyboys pouring out of an alley who either ravish his body or beat him senseless and steal his money. I love this city.

 

The flight from Rome to Bangkok was uneventful except during the leg from Kuwait to Bangkok where the young man sitting next to me, who appeared to be a religious of some sort, insisted that I listen to a recording of incessant chanting by some Iman or something. That was OK because there is nothing I prefer to sleep through than chanting.

 

Bangkok is hot (but not as hot as is parts of California right now). It rains every afternoon and evening— often big grumbling thunder showers. So, I go about whatever I go about these days in the mornings and lie in my bed and stare at the ceiling or tap away at my computer in the afternoon and evenings.

 

Thailand is billed by the Thai Visitors Bureau as the “Land of Smiles.” Thais have at least 15 types of smile, none of which means I’m pleased to see you — except for of shopkeepers, grifters and bar girls who unfortunately see you only as an ATM machine.

 

In the morning, as I walk from my apartment to the health club, I check to see which of the denizens of the street I have come to recognize over the years are missing since the last time I visited. The massive homeless young man often seen sprawled in a stupor on the sidewalks of Soi Nana or wandering in a daze down the street seems to be gone. The one-legged “king of the beggars” as I named him because of his handsome features, meticulous trimmed hair and beard who I now and then see entering for lunch some of the better restaurants on Soi 11, has resumed his post on the sunny corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 5.

 

My part of Bangkok continues to change and disappear. The old buildings with the cheap restaurants, go-go bars, and nightclubs get torn down, replaced with gleaming silver towers boasting that they contain the greatest award winning condominiums, or offices, or the finest of the three or four other luxury hotels with the same name in the city. The people who lived, worked or played there move out and new people move in — the ongoing migration of a vibrant urban area. The extent of pain and dislocation caused by it is usually a function of how rapidly it occurs.

 

One of Thailand’s major preoccupations is with massage. It is ingrained in the religious and cultural subconscious of the country. The Thais even developed their own brand of massage that is taught in the most prestigious temples throughout the nation. It consists of vigorous application of the hands, elbows, forearms, and feet by the masseuse to various points on the customer’s body accompanied by periodic sudden stretching or wrenching of his joints. Although a Thai massage can make you feel great after it is over, many people find the process too painful. As a result foreigners often, after a brief flirtation with “the real thing,” eventually turn to more traditional massage with its vigorous rubbing of the body with oil, with or without a happy ending. Many “legitimate” massage establishments do not provide happy endings (it is, in fact, illegal).

 

Speaking of legitimate massage in Bangkok, I would like to make a pitch to those who may visit the city to try Silk Spa on Sukhumvit Soi 13. It is rated by several travel magazines as one of the best massage parlors in Bangkok. My old friends, Gary and Pui, own the place. Gary is Canadian. He plays ice hockey in the Thai ice hockey league. The Spa is located on Soi 13 about 50 yards off Sukhumvit. Inside, it is a little gem of a place. Gary spends many days designing and building the interior. The evidence of his craftsmanship is everywhere, from the handsome gray slate floor and attractively painted walls of the massage rooms to the marvelous two person sauna with its shining blond wood. I go there three or four times a week after I finish my mornings at the health club.
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Although I like Bangkok a lot, there is one thing I despise. That is when I am riding the bus or the Skytrain and hanging onto the strap because it is crowded and I see someone, who I am convinced is older and more decrepit than I, get up out of his or her seat and offer it to me. I usually reject the offer somewhat coldly, unless of course, I am very tired. Then, I take the seat and sit there mortified (a word not often used anymore) on the one hand and relieved on the other. It is these internal conflicts that…Hmm, I think I’ve gone on about this long enough.

 

I spent a couple of delightful hours with my friend the Old Sailor. He is a kind man who has lived a fascinating life as a sailor, commercial deep sea diver, treasure hunter, and the like. He lived most of his life on or by the sea in South Florida (Key West), the Virgin Islands, Easter Island and French Polynesia (Bora Bora). He now resides in a second rate hotel in Bangkok. The walls of his room are covered with photographs organized by year. When I asked him about that, he said that he was beginning to have trouble remembering things. He had, he went on, an interesting life and he did not want to forget any of it before the inevitable dimming of the light.

 

One day, at a nearby Italian restaurant, in the course of our rambling conversation, he began a sentence with the words, “I sailed the Windward Passage three times.” It seemed to be an interesting story was in the offing and I was right.

 

One time, he either worked for or partnered with the Captain of a boat docked somewhere in South Florida. The Captain was having a dispute with someone over money or ownership or something like that. So, in the middle of the night, he and the Captain took the boat, leaving with no money between them and almost no gas to power the engines. So, they broke into a nearby refueling dock during the dark of night, refueled, and set off for wherever. Needing money, they stopped in the Virgin Islands and found a gig towing a large sailboat through the Windward Passage south of Cuba to Jamaica.

 

Somewhere near Cuba, a storm came upon them. At that most inopportune moment, their engine decided to quit and the boat slowed down. Unfortunately, the large sailboat did not and it smashed into their stern grabbing onto it like a shark grabbing onto a seal. Even more, unfortunately, the bowsprit of sailboat broke off and began thrashing back and forth across the deck making it impossible for the two adventures to get to it and untangle the lines and separate the boats. So, they spent the night hoping they would live to see the sunrise. The tale stopped there. Obviously, at least the Old Sailor survived. I do not know what became of the boats or the Captain or whether whatever he was fleeing from eventually caught up to him. I see in this a potential Hemingwayesque novella, “Captains Not So Very Courageous.”

 

A few years ago, some travel magazine commissioned a poll in which people from many countries of the world were asked if they thought it was ok to cheat foreigners out of their money. The citizens of no country responded with acceptance of such callous amoral behavior anywhere near 50% except for the Thais, over 80% of whom could see no problem in that conduct.

 

On Wednesday, I had lunch with the Gemologist. He is also a well-known ethnologist (The Vanishing Tribes of Burma), artist (sculpture and painting), adventurer, writer, businessman, raconteur, and man about town. I have written about him before. He has recently returned from several trips into the hill country of Burma where he photographed one of the hill tribes in their traditional dress and re-established his trading connections with the Gurkha miners and gem merchants working there. He has resumed trading high-value rubies and sapphires and showed me photographs of several beautiful examples (in the one million dollars and up each range).
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A Million Dollar Flawless Sapphire Recently Sold

 

It is always a pleasure spending an afternoon with him. We spoke of many things, mostly our disappointment with the political situation in America and the rigors of getting old.
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Young Person asks— “Do you have any pointers you can give me?”

Experience Person responds — “Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.”

YP — “Please explain.”

EP — “You’re young you still have that sparkle in your eye that drive to go out and save the day and let the rest sort itself out. But when you think like that, people can take advantage. Employers want your services. Agents want a cut of your pay. Companies want you to sell their products. If you’re not careful, you give yourself away for less than you’re worth. You trust people who you shouldn’t. You play with fire, and you get burned.”

“That’s my advice to you, ‘Don’t get burned.’”

YP —I was more looking for things like keys to advancement.”

EP — “Oh … that. Just survive. Live through enough experiences, and you’ll advance. For an intelligent and smart person with your kind of background, that’s the easy part. But if you do that long enough, eventually you learn that your job isn’t about being self-sufficient or doing the right thing. Really, we just do what we do for money. And when that finally starts to sink in, you face the hard part of professional life: the big questions.”

YP —“The big questions?”

EP —“Yeah. Is there more to life than just advancement and looting? Are we more than just numbers in some accountants ledger, statistics written on our resume? And the big one, the one that haunts you every night on the job: Why are we doing this anyway?”

(Adapted from Orconomics: A Satire [The Dark Profit Saga Book 1] by J. Zachary Pike. Gnomish Press LLC.)

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There once was a country that viewed itself as a fair and just society. They even called themselves the “Fair and Just Society.” Like most societies, they could be divided into three groups of people. One-third of the people had the least amount of the income and wealth in that society — let us say only about 20% of the income and wealth. The second or middle one-third had about what would be the average of that societies wealth and income distributed among them, say 30%. The last group, the wealthiest one-third, had about 50% of the wealth and income of that society.

Let us also assume that at some point the members of the Fair and Just Society agreed among themselves that there are certain things that they all need and should be paid for collectively, like, for example, the common defense, roads, education of the Fair and Just Society’s children and so on. And let us further assume that the members of this Fair and Just Society agreed that these collective expenses should be paid for by each section of society according to their means. The lowest one-third agrees to pay 20%, the middle 30% and the top one-third 50% because they all agreed that that would be fair and just.

Now let us assume that all things have worked out reasonably well for our Fair and Just Society and that even the poorest one-third had enough to eat, clothe and shelter themselves and everyone was pretty happy. Then one day, for whatever reason, good cost control, a sudden jump in productivity, the discovery of oil or gold or whatever, the Fair and Just Society finds that they have collected more funds than are needed for their common expenditures (Defense, education, etc.) and decide to ask the people what they should do with it.

Upon hearing this everyone was happy, no one more so than the upper third and their agent who was sent to speak to the representatives of the Fair and Just Society. He told them that because his employers were the upper third in income and wealth they knew more about money than anyone else and that it was very complicated and because of that he recommended that the money be returned to the people in the form of tax relief because then each individual will be able to choose what it wished to spend it on and so they will each benefit individually and the economy would benefit in general by this infusion of money.

Some of the representatives upon hearing this could not fully comprehend why giving to each person to spend as he wishes was better than all the people deciding together on spending it on something that would benefit them all the most. After all they argued, the money still gets back into circulation and the Fair and Just Society gains an asset owned by all the people. And some even thought at least some of it should be held for a “rainy day” when it might be needed. But most of the other representatives agreed that giving the money back to the individuals seemed reasonable and fair. So they asked the representative of the upper third how he suggested that it be done.

“Well,” he says, “I was hoping that you would ask that. Over lunch I prepared this chart.” And he whips out a chart. “What this chart shows” he says, “is that you should give all this money to the upper third because, not only do they know more about money than anyone else, they having so much of it after all, but also since they do not have to spend in on necessities like food and stuff they will have this excess cash that they will invest in new factories and the like, you know, to make shoes and canned soup.” “And,” he continued “they can even take some of that money and, oh say, pay for research or start-ups and increase productivity and things like that”.

When the agent of the upper third finished speaking, the representatives of the Good and Just Society all looked at one another for a moment then broke out laughing. “You cannot be serious,” the Chairman said, “no one in their right mind could possibly be so stupid as to believe what you just said. Nevertheless, as a fair and just society we do think that it is fair and just to return it equally to all in accordance with their contributions to the common good, a 10% reduction to the bottom third on their 20% contribution, a 10% reduction to the middle third on their 30% contribution and a 10% reduction to the upper third based upon their contribution”. And with that they all got up and left, still chortling and shaking their heads.

Now because this is a parable, we will assume that in fact an across the board 10% reduction in taxes is fair and just.

Of course, we all know that for many reasons an across the board reduction in taxes was not fair and just at all. For example, the lowest one-third would most likely spend it on consumable necessities like food, clothing and shelter since their 10% would not be that much money. Or, as the agent of the upper one-third was overheard telling some of the representatives of the Good and Just Society outside the hearing room. “They will probably just spend it on dope and booze and taking a few days off work.”

The upper one-third on the other hand probably would also spend some of it on dope and booze, but they would still have a lot of money left over. So they will call in their advisors and direct them to take this excess cash and use it to make more. After the advisors leave, the upper third would probably take a puff of their joints, a sip of their Mai Tias and brood about the workers in their factories that did not show up for work that day. Eventually they decide that they would have their secretaries draft letters to the Representatives of the Fair and Just Society complaining about the morals of the lower one-third and a lot of the middle one-third and that in the future any tax cuts should all come to them. That done, they will leave on vacation, using some of the money they received from the Fair and Just Society, because they believed they earned it.

The representatives of the upper third then met to plan how they will turn this cash into more cash for the upper third and along the way turn themselves into members of the upper one-third.

They reasoned that after all that money spent on dope and booze there would not be enough cash left among the lower two-thirds for the upper third to invest their money to acquire it from the lower two-thirds. Nevertheless, there would be some and so they decide to increase their marketing budgets to persuade the lower two-thirds to spend whatever money they have left on products produced in the factories owned by the upper third. But still the upper third had a lot of money left over from the gift the Fair and Just Society had given them.

“Let’s use that money to buy the assets of the lower two-thirds,” suggests one of their representatives.

“But the lower third has no assets,” complains another.

Yes, they do,” states the first. “We can buy their future and their freedom. We can give them some of our money to buy more dope and booze and tell them that they can pay us back from their future wages with a sizable profit to the upper third of course, and substantial commissions for us. And then we will tell them that since we have given them so much money and we know all about economic things, we being so rich and so smart, they can trust us to keep them in dope and booze forever. And in return they will agree to vote in the elections for the representatives to the Fair and Just Society as we the agents of the upper third tell them to.”

“As for the middle one-third,” he continued. “Many of them have worked hard and amassed some assets like their houses and their small business, so we will point out to them that because of all their hard work and our knowledge of finance, their assets have appreciated and they would be wasting that value unless they put it to work. Then we will loan them some money in return for the owning their assets if they do not pay us back.”

And they all agreed that was a good plan and they put it into practice.

Now it came to pass that this worked so wonderfully well for a while that the lower two-thirds, although actually poorer, appeared to be living so much better than they had been. As a result, they thought the agents of the upper one-third were much smarter than they were. And also, so much money was flowing into the hands of the agents that they soon began to replace some of the upper one-third.

Then one day there was, of course, not enough things for the upper third to buy because almost all the assets had been purchased and almost all of the futures mortgaged and on top of it they had even more money now with nothing to do. So the agents of the upper third went to the members of the upper third and showed them how instead of making things or buying more assets they could simply gamble all this money on the economy because everything was so good and the agents were so smart things would keep getting better and better and except for a few corrections now and again they would make even more money.

Then a funny thing happened, soon there were fewer members of the upper third who actually made things, they had been replaced by the agents who really did not make anything at all.

Then of course there was what is known as a “correction”, the lower two-thirds had mortgaged all their futures and no longer had the money to buy things. So as the factories closed down the lower two-thirds began to lose their jobs and their homes and businesses.

Some of these people turned to the Representatives of the Fair and Just Society and asked them to do something about it. Unfortunately for the lower two-thirds, the Representatives of the Fair and Just Society had by now all been replaced by the employees of the upper one-third. Nevertheless they agreed to look into their concerns.

“No problem,” they said, “we can make everything better by cutting those things we have been paying for up until now and lowering taxes on the upper one-third so they can invest even more.  We can pay for whatever essential community services are left (like protecting the assets of the upper one-third) by borrowing from the upper one-third and it all will work out just like it was described in that chart.”

Now we all know that that’s what really happened, but since this is a parable we will assume that everyone actually did believe that the distribution of the money was fair and just and that no one could have possibly foreseen what actually did happen.

So, the representatives of the Fair and Just Society a few months or so after making the fair and just present to the people were surprised to find, that while the income and wealth of the upper one-third grew exponentially, the lower two-thirds barely held their own and their debts to the upper third increased even more rapidly than the upper third’s income.

This being a Fair and Just Society and their representatives, not yet being replaced by the employees of the upper third, understood what that meant for the future of the Fair and Just Society. So, they convened a meeting and called in the upper third and their agents and told them, “We all made a mistake and in order to avoid an economic catastrophe and to preserve the Fair and Just Society, you are all just going to have to give all the money back”.

OK, I will admit maybe that this a fantasy and not a parable. But still…

MORAL:

1. No society, if it hopes to survive, can surrender to an individual, institution or groups of individuals or institutions unbridled and uncontrolled dominance over its economic and political well-being, no matter how apparently beneficial it appears at the time.
2. We are better off as a society to agree to what we want our society look like and act to make it so than to just hope for the best or trust to our individual efforts alone.
3. A fair and just society never ever follows the advice of those with the most to gain financially.
4. A fair and just society resists giving collective funds or advantage to those with the resources to compete for them on their own.
5. There is no magic wand, invisible hand, or strong and brilliant leader that can save us from our folly. If we believe that, then Pogo was right when he said so long ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us“.
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