Monday, March 24, 2014

Living With Others

Having defined exactly what and who we are as individuals, how do we live with other individuals?

Most, if not all, individuals interact with others because they each have something in common with the others.

In the family, it is this idea of blood being the common and members of a family are compelled to take care of each other. In traditional societies, the extended family is the welfare state and the challenge of each family against another family is to see whose family will last the greatest number of generations. (There are also those who are quite happy to annihilate theirs right within the current generation because to them life is suffering and not worth keeping.) That is why some families leave behind commercial and political empires on earth.

In society in general, there is a tendency to pursue a uniform way of life. Traditionally, these have been dictated by folk festivities which surrounded the agrarian economy, as there is a season and time for work and a time for play. Eventually, these get supplanted by religious commands which tries to replace communal or tribal authorities. The struggle for power between the political and religious continues until today. So long as religious power overwhelms political power, there is a tendency for one religion to try to dominate the rest. If political power is in control, the tendency is for one race to dominate the others.

There is also a battle between political power and economic power. Political is often derived through the exploitation of economic power, as businessmen back politicians. Economic power can be pursued with economic power, as businessmen gain political power and re-configure the economy according to his or her advantage.

Against this confusing array of conflicts in human societies, Plato suggested the Philosopher-King or the Benevolent Dictator - one authority who knows what to do in the interests of all individuals and for society as a whole. For this to be plausible, there must be a common elements in all that is otherwise very messy among human colours.

Of course, the common element in all societies of human beings are human beings - and their right to exist on this earth. It is this protection of human lives and the assistance given to the poor and incapacitated that has influenced our thinking on how to live together with each other and with others. We may be look different, eat different, talk different, but we should be able to recognise ourselves as fellow human beings.

It is only when human societies are not properly organised and when some unfortunate ones who are left out of the mainstream that some troubles might start - such as stealing to feed oneself and one's family. The challenge is simply to find things for people to do to feed themselves and to keep themselves occupied, apart from being occupied by non-action as would be through meditation.

But the greatest wisdom could be that there is a place on earth for each and everyone and somehow one should be able to live, the degree of comfort or pleasure may be determined purely by our own expectations of ourselves. Living in confidence is probably an important first step for living well with others, so that one is always prepared to share with one's neighbours which can only be easy when one has no worries about tomorrow.

To be able to live happily in the here and now is critical for living well with others, no matter who they may be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Living With Ourselves

Since we can't get away from ourselves - except through mind-altering substances or madness - I suppose we just have to learn to with with individual selves.

It is tempting to attribute all cleverness to ourselves and faults to others. It is the wisdom of all religious teachings to attribute all cleverness to others and faults to ourselves. By blaming others, there is nothing much you can do to change things, unless you are really madness and decide to decimate everyone else - this has been done many times before in recent history. By taking faults to be our own, we have to learn to cultivate ourselves so that we are at one with society and the rest of nature. Learning to cultivate ourselves is called the art of living.

The Taoist masters will tell you that the most versatile way of living is the natural course way, which is the way of the water which flows smoothly through all obstacles and in the end be at one with the mighty ocean. It is certainly true that human life is nothing but a series of downhill steps as far as the physical aspects of all creatures are concerned. We, of course, would like to think ourselves to be constant and undying and live forever, which gives us this idea, from all pagans, of the spirit and, from the ancient Greek, the idea of soul. It is this undying part of ourselves which we are trying to cultivate despite the frailty of the body.

The undying part, we will discover, consists of several layers. First, we have ideas - thoughts that we get from our parents, families, friends, teachers, and the media, and not excluding politicians and religious preachers. In our formative years, these ideas are important, as they help us to live with others in society by sharing common values and common expectations. These ideas are important also because they drive the modern prosperity, with new inventions and new ways of making use of the materials that we find around us, by remoulding and reshaping them into objects which we can fall in love with. In modern management teaching, these ideas are called creative ideas and by "thinking out of the box" we get more and more of different lines of thinking - and hurray, the world we live in is full of concepts and things, just like a supermarket. We can shout with joy, or we can live in despair as to how to choose in order to focus on what is good.

Second, we will discover that in a world without ideas and concepts, we have the mind - this vast expanse of the interior of ourselves which we can dwell in forever in peace and quiet, so long as we do not allow thoughts to arise and interfere with the calmness and clarity. While the most common way of achieving this state of mind is said to be through meditation - which is true - but it is not entirely by itself only. The way to a clear and calm mind is through wisdom - and understanding or what is and what is not, to be able to discern reality from fiction created by our forebears and ourselves, and to not run away from the certainty of our eventual demise.

Wisdom is achieved by reading and observation, which together is customarily called education. Education is to learn from those who have learned before us, by Mencius's definition. Therefore, we read to have conversation with dead poets and thinkers and wise men and women. We reflect in quiet solitude in order to realise their true meaning. We observe whether their sayings are true in reality.

Having had wisdom, the next step is to act wisely, meaning in accordance with our understanding of things as they are. Of course, everybody acts whether we consider he or she to be wise, for he or she may think himself or herself so, as others will think of us as being crazy. But the beauty of this is that everybody get to live the life that he or she thinks fit, so long as he or she does not prevent others from doing so as well. This is the great mantra of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the individual - which was a revolt from the control of whole societies in the past by religious elders and now by political despots.

Putting aside the world for the time being, the ultimate challenge for each one of us is to discover ourselves (i.e., our own truths) and then live accordingly. Simple, and it is.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part IV)

Our own standard of living is the product of our own doing - be it high or low according to some comparison with the past or with others today - and it is really up to us to achieve that standard.

At the most basic level, our standard of living is based on our own ability to acquire what we need or what we want - farm or hunt for food, weapons, housing, transportation, amusement, spiritual pursuits (usually to remove some form of uncertainty). We do it our own way, with the benefit of teachings from wise old men in the communities of long ago or recent past, with what we usually term as "our way of life" or our "culture."

These traditional cultures are very dear to most of us because they give us a sense of identify of ourselves and of our community. The purpose again is to remove uncertainty as to behaviour or acceptance, so that we can sleep sound together without fear of being harmed in the middle of the night.

The advancement of knowledge and technology in the last few hundred years have opened up a whole new world of standards, whereby we are able to create things that we all want to use or play with. The march of knowledge and technology is incessant - but whether it is always for the better is a subject for discussion.

Even with the availability of knowledge and technology at our disposal, whether we are able to enjoy them or not depends on our ability to absorb them and make use of them. For those who cannot do technology, they can still access it if they can do good in their area of specialisation and earn the means to acquire it. This indirect route of acquisition of knowledge and technology is by far the most efficient and hence prevalent today.

But there are societies today which are unable to enjoy the frontiers of technology because of their inability to absorb and to apply. We know societies which have spent a mass amount of cash to build sophisticated equipment which are left to rot because they are not being maintained properly or simply left unutilised. It is this waste of technology that is probably most pitiful especially when the drudgery of living can so much reduced with the aid of some simple machines.

The standard of living is therefore nothing but the state of our minds, as all inventions are the product of the imaginations of human beings. The world is so much richer for its multitude of gadgets and fiction.

It is inevitable that those who have an overdose of technology would yearn for the simpler life of the "past" which can always be found in some remote interiors or islands. But probably only for a respite. This is where "cultural" tourism comes in.

We decide how we want to live - except for those who are held in confinement against their will.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part III)

When politicians make the statement that they will improve the standard of living of the rural areas to that of the cities, the emphasis is on the word "improve". So, it will be a progressive process of efforts over many years to try to improve the livelihood, and that can go on forever as the cities also progress.

Equality is an ideal concept which we all try to pursue for society but which in practice is very difficult. No two persons can really be equal, as equal as they may be as twins. But it is possible to have equality at major points that those points can be established beforehand.

In the rural-urban divide, the key points will be livelihood (or opportunities for), public services (such as education, healthcare, water, electricity, roads), connectivity (such as airports, seaports, telecommunications), others such as public housing and public transport. It is doubtful whether the rural areas will get highrise buildings where land is plentiful and the people unused to unnatural heights. Nor do you get heavily regulated roads as in the inner cities.

It is in taking into consideration the whole situation together that one can make any sense of how to compare the rural with the urban or the islands with the mainland. It is a political ploy to pick one or two factors for emphasis as an expression of dissatisfaction or incompleteness.

I suppose at the end of the day, the ultimate objective must be to ensure that every member of our society, if we are to be proud of the society in which we live, enjoys a decent standard of living, no matter how poor. The key elements must be general cleanliness, health and education so that the individual is able to make the most for himself or herself instead of being a burden on the rest of society. This is where we must look back at the simpler and more rudimentary lives of our youth or of the past to appreciate that prosperity does not necessarily consist of an endless accumulation of material junk at home or elsewhere. It can just be a life simply lived in peace and quiet.

But we cannot stop human beings from being themselves, as they try to obtain assurances and reassurances from themselves or others that they will be alright in the future, that the future is going to be alright for them. If the society is small, there could be communal co-operation as in rural communities. In large urban settings where neighbours do not know each other, then all frustrations must be directed at useless public figures who can only make promises, whilst intelligent persons like the complainants themselves feel helpless. The level of comfort is different in the rural and urban areas. Some people call it stress, others call it drive.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part II)

It may be said that generally the standard of living today is better than the standard of living in the past (however back we may want to go) especially in terms of material advancement, except for the poor for whom the earth does not seem to belong to them.

What I mean is that, if we are to reflect, what we are enjoying or could enjoy today is much better than what our parents or grandparents did enjoy or could have enjoyed in their times - in general of course. If we think that the smartphone is anywhere superior to the land-line or the post, then the statement is true. If we think of the benefits of clusters in towns compared with solitary isolation in remote villages, then the statement is true.

There will be those who argue that the world has gone wrong and going back to the simple life of days gone by is the best thing to do for mankind, and they will disagree with the statement. There will be families who used to have great fortunes and are now reduced to poverty, then they may be also disagree. But in general, I think it is fair to say that life today is much much better than before.

The point is that, regardless or where you are today, be it Washington or a far flung island on the South Seas, regardless of the size of your wallet or the number of vacant real estate that you have managed to amass around the world, as you sit quietly in your own home, you must surely feel that you are lucky to be alive today and have the opportunity to enjoy what the world today has to offer. I have often said that life is like a buffet lunch - you can choose what you want to consume.

The prosperity of the world today is the variety of goods and services that are in the market for anyone of us to consume or try to consume (like that Leica Monochrom whom most of us cannot really afford).  We may not in the end consume them, but to have that opportunity is a god-send.

As the markets grow and the world shrinks, it is really up to each of us to what we want to do in order to enjoy ourselves while we are alive in this world. There could be other worlds, but we do not know for sure - though we can imagine for sure. The certainty is now, and now is real.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Standard Of Living

The standard of living is different from the cost of living.

As a rule of thumb, they are inversely related: the higher the cost of living, the lower is the standard - all other things being equal, especially the level of income.

The problem is this: the higher the income, the higher are the prices. There are many factors involved. The quality of the goods and services consumed are generally higher, because you get to pay more for it. The place you eat is air-conditioned, the waitresses are pretty and well-costumed, the table cloth is nicer looking, the plates are gold-rimmed. If in general, you get what you pay for, higher prices would therefore means higher quality and hence a higher standard of the things you consume. That is, you have that level of income to pay for it.

But higher income also means that you really do have to work so much harder for it. You may get the same wage rate per hour but if you work very long hours, and you have a bit of profit share thrown in, then you could have a very income at the end of the year - compared to your friends who are having a good fun in the village socialising all day long.

The pursuit of wealth is a human flaw driven by a sense of uncertainty of the future, as if wealth can bring reassurance that our future is good when we suffer (work hard) to acquire it, eschewing all normal commual relationships, except those that deal with money. There is certainly a cost in the pursuit of high income, and it is often in human values, wholesomeness of being, peace of mind, calmness of nerves, and, if I may add, health as in gums and teeth and lungs and liver.

The world of high income is an artificial world, in the sense that it is a world that is disconnected with the natural reality - deliberately. It is a Matrix created where the pumping in of money, in whatever form, is meant to stimulate the residents inside, and they all run here and there full of activities and anxiety, and that high level of activity, to economists, is measured as GDP. The money pumped which then flooded everybody and everywhere is income. The valuation of piles of bricks and mortar is the value of real estate.

But in far flung places like Sarawak or Saipan, where man-made structures are few and far in between, man lives with nature in a spiritual connection in that there is fear and hence respect for the unknown, where human restraint and humbleness is the proper behaviour in life, each living on the barest minimal of materials which sustaining himself in high spirits, there is that sense of oneness with nature, a sense of being alive. The money income is low, the rate of consumption is low, but the rate of saving of the natural environment is huge, through abstinence.

The World Bank tries to measure the standard of living through the instrument of PPP - Purchasing Power Parity - by adjusting money with prices and other things (since a house is a house is a house, now matter how much it costs). There are debates.

For me, it is futile business to try to compare judgements and values. The highest standard of living lies in your preferred way of life, if you are already pursuing it. All other ways of life is therefore sub-optimal, and your goal is to go from sub-optimal to optimal.

My favourite quip is that most of us live only half a life - only the good life. But life is both good and bad which we should both if we want to live a full life. That's why artists live on the fringe and swing between jubilation and depression.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Most Expensive City

Singapore is the most expensive city in the world in 2014, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The EIU says that its report is meant as a tool for relocation by expats - which means that they look at a standard basket of goods and services are required by an expat family, based upon a lifestyle that is supposed to be typical of New York. So far, so good. There is nothing much to argue about here.Same basket of goods and services - prices in one currency across all major cities. On this basis, the conclusion is that Singapore is the most expensive for an expat family looking at relocation, followed by Paris, Oslo, Zurich, Sydney, Tokyo.

From my economist's perspective, the real wage of an ordinary working person is one shelter, one means of transport, some food, and some form of entertainment. And probably an environment for raising a family. I think this set of real goods and services is almost the same everywhere - except for those who are unemployed, unmarried, handicapped, disadvantaged.

The only major difference is the type, for housing - a flat or a (terrace) house, for transport - a car or public transport, for food - a sandwich or a plate of rice, etc. Every country is different and it is very difficult to say which one is better or not. (The EIU has an easy job because it defines one standard and applies it across the board.)

Much of how we live and enjoy our lives is a product of shared experiences and community support. To have gone through especially tough times together may be an excellent common ground for bonding, even if we probably did not enjoy the toughness at the time. This is why the world is filled with stories and stories about how human beings survived life on earth, and it is these stories that keep us all going even as we struggle in our daily lives right way in our own little ways.

The freedom to express our views and let our views be heard is one of the basic joys that human beings can have. Most of the time, we do not know the truth and hence we engage in gossips and rumours and hearsay. For those who wants a bit of certainty to calm their sanity, they try to indulge in facts - whatever those may be.

Home is a unique place in our own heart, and wherever we may live, we should be able to feel at ease with ourselves. But when we really do not need to dislocate ourselves in search of that pot of gold, we all will inevitably want to return home and die and be buried in our birthplace. This should be the inalienable right of any person who is born anywhere. This is closure.

So, it doesn't matter whether our hometown is the most expensive city in the world or not, or whichever ranking it happens to be in. Our hometown is always priceless. It is only for those mercenaries who have to go out and fight for their livelihood that they want to make sure that they are not being shortchanged for their pains. The peoples of the world in their own homes have all lived in their own ways. And often happily. This is a fact.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Galloping Prices

I suppose we must get used to living with higher and higher prices. Inflation seems to be here to stay and we are now happily forming what economists call "the inflationary expectations". We have many clever people telling that higher prices are normal and consistent with the monetary base and the interest rates and the income level. Of course, everything is consistent with everything else. If we squeeze a goose by the neck, that the face of the goose is red is consistent with the restriction to its neck.

Inflation, and expected inflation, is excellent for speculators. Expected inflation makes speculators look like heroes and prophets and expert investors. There are now countless happy speculators of vacant property lots who imagined themselves to be millionaires when they look at brick and mortars and ignore the debts they have accumulated. With fools like them also all the times, these millionaires look like a sure thing, so long that their expectations on inflation is sustained. Banks and property developers have colluded to produce an asset inflationary situation which everyone hopes is not a bubble so long as locals can over-extend themselves on credit and foreigners can be induced to add pressure to the demand. Banks deliberately fool themselves into thinking that real estate is solid collateral for loans and if a customer defaults, the bank can always get back the money by forced selling the property. This is okay with one property; but if it is the whole sector, then we are talking bank bankruptcy. Banks should be asked to keep sufficient reserves with respect to their loan portfolio, rather than paying their executives huge bonuses based on accrued and future incomes.

Inflation creates poverty among those with fixed borderline incomes. It is okay for the rich guys to brush aside prices which have doubled on the normal essentials they consume. Of course, in the end, everybody will make ends meet by hook or by crook, and this may mean for some that they may literally have to eat grass to stay their hunger and survive the day. The market is cruel. Price adjustments work because it is impersonal. No money, no deal and hence no food. Higher prices mean there is greater competition for food and those with no money goes hungry. Price adjustment is rationing in a market-oriented way - there is no one person to blame.

We have a clever government who happily after the elections release all the caps on prices just because the government itself is overspending. The government continues to indulge in huge projects. Cutting subsidies on fuel to zero is one of the most dangerous idea that the government can entertain. It pretends to market efficient but it creates social hardship and hence unrest. Fuel subsidy comes from this idea that this country has oil and gas which should be sold at the world market price and then using the proceeds to help the nation and the people. Instead, the government spends it all on itself. So because the oil money is coming in short, it is imposing a tax on every transaction in the economy. This silly little tax idea that has been in the textbooks for so long that everybody seems to have forgotten what it is all about. You don't tax income because you want to encourage entrepreneurship. You tax consumption because you want to discourage it. But if go back to the Keynesian paradigm where you gladly decry the silliness of saving and applaud consumption because it generates demand that keep up employment, then I think we all economists are getting our knickers twisted. We are simply giving out mixed signals to the people.

I am happy with GST if the government abolishes all other form of taxes - income taxes, import duties, withholding taxes on savings, etc. Afterall, there is no tax on gains from stock market speculation. Just concentrate on GST and make it efficient. This will reduce the size of the government, and cut expenses.

After the price increases and the confusion of the GST implementation, we shall happily suffer from a depression. I think the government should watch out on this. You cannot get out of this by announcing more mega projects. You just have to set the local environment right for industries, for the small inventors and the entrepreneurs (no, not the traders and carpet baggers). You have to rebuild the basic economic infrastructure. You have to get the banks and the businesses to serve the local communities. Globalisation has got us all to think global in general and no one local in particular.