Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Differences in Similarities, and Similarities in Differences

I was thinking of a very important question last night before sleep: will I keep repeating my mistakes, and tire myself to death without being effective, or will I rise from the repetition (輪迴) and start having a life that's incrementally accumulating (that is, I will learn to do new things, in new ways, even if still making mistakes, they will be new ones).

I came to think about these questions after spending a lot of frustrating time, doing repetitive and extra work, in order to get over another milestone of my life.

At the end of the thinking, it came to me that I wanted to become a Realized One (覺者), and for whom I can now understand why this may be important and a worthwhile goal to pursue (in the Buddhism tradition :). Because, regardless of whether reincarnation exists and whether we have a soul that's passable to the next life. Reincarnations and repetitions occur in many different forms in our daily life: we keep eating, sleeping, working, and may repeat certain cycles of working / spending / working / spending. People might even spend an entire life, without having any ideas why they're doing certain things, or how they have gone through life. I do not want to pass moral judgments on whether such ignorance is good or bad, because it's simply a personal choice to make. But if you can see past the repetition, you may find it more meaningful, and perhaps enlightened, if one could live on a path of growth and new experiences, instead of repetitive living, perhaps becoming more fulfilled, happy, and satisfied in the process.

What I realized waking up this morning was: for many people, four things are what they care about the most: How to live? (so to have enough food, shelter, etc. to survive) How to reproduce? (so to find a mate and form a family suitable to bear children) How to find happiness? (so to entertain one's self and keep one from boredom) and How to face Death? (so to have peace of mind and ease, when getting sick and old, and have a Nice End). (In Chinese, they would be: 如何生? 如何繁衍? 如何快樂? 如何死亡?) For some, they might even ask the question: Where did I come from? And where should I go? (and we call these people the philosophers :) Most people are only concerned with the first four questions in daily life.

In answering these four, what I've found is that we have intentionally created a lot of repetitions in order to answer the four questions (for example, mass productions, broadcasting media, and restaurant franchise, which all allow lots of similar products / services be copied and made quickly, so to satisfy people's needs in a scalable way). Yet, once everything becomes common, people become bored and uneasy, and yarn for new and different experiences, or value things that are rare and never-before-seen. I thus came to suspect, that there's something inherently human, or perhaps even living, that tries to Seek Differences in Similarities, and Seek Similarities from Differences (同中求異, 異中求). To find differences, because that will ensure new skills to carry us through different environments; to find similarities, because the essence of life is to make more copies, and sustain the existence of those copies. Abstracting similarities from differences allow us to copy more easily (this is the essence of mass production and franchises :).

It's actually an old Chinese saying, but what it essentially say in this context, is that the essence of life, may be to continue one's existence. This is how the copying and repetition comes. Single cell organisms basically reproduce by self-replications. However, life later evolved (at least on this Earth) to allow slight differences to occur in the offspring (via mutations and sexual reproductions). This has the advantages that as the environments are constantly changing, you are better off if your tools for living do not stay the same. Thus, if the environment suddenly favors or requires a different set of skills or abilities, some offspring of yours may still survive. So while copying is essentially what life tries to do (our DNA is 99.9%+ similar with our parents or other human beings), variations becomes an important tool too for life to evolve and thrive. I'm thus suspecting that this is why both aspects are important and dominant for human life even at the higher level: for many, most of the time we seek security, certainty, predictability, conformity, and we take comfort and ease from knowing them. This is all important and even programmed, and why repetitions, franchises, mass media or productions, are thriving so well in today's society. We simply make this simple and fundamental Life's Requirement, more profound and omnipresent at the higher level of our living. However, at the same time, endless repetitions may also be dangerous in the long run, because if we only always do things in a certain, similar way and never learn new abilities, when environments change or become hostile to the previous lifestyle, one may not survive or live well. And that's the value of new experiences or explorations.

We need both of course, too volatile and uncertain, life may become dangerous and end early. But if too uniform and repetitive, one may also lose the ability to adapt or adjust, when things change. So what is the right path? This is something that cannot be answered universally, but a decision each person can only make individually. Because each strategy to life has its merits and pitfalls, and only time and environment will tell which ones are 'currently' more successful than others, and of course, that changes too. As for me, I believe I would enjoy from less repetitions, and more new experiences. Even if I do make mistakes, I hope the mistakes are new and bigger ones, than those I've already had :)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Economic Growth

Yesterday I had a great dinner with some tofu teriyaki (I'm a vegetarian). It was fun to see how the cook made the food in front of you. I enjoyed the meal, the process, and was fully satisfied at this interesting experience at the end. Part of the fulfillment also comes at the cheap price: the meal costs about USD $3 and included all-you-can-eat fried rice. On my way back on the bus, it came to me that this is the meaning of economic growth: on average, everyone in the society consumes more, but also becomes more skillful to produce more, so that everyone's consuming / producing ability increases. And when everyone's consumption / production increases, the economics grows.

So indeed economic growth can be seen as a form of progress: making more, having more, and consuming more. But is such thing always better? As some of the productions may do harm to environment or people? Or the exchange might be unfair / unlawful (labor exploitation, or extreme poverty / richness caused by unfair distribution) But then I realize this is a question of “what do you consume?” You can also consume spiritual / knowledge goods (which I do.. mostly) and lower your material production / consumption (to lessen the environmental impact). So the ills in modern societies may not be inherently the fault of economic growth (as protesters of WTO or G8 believe); but rather, what the society chooses to produce and consume. For example, if society chooses to spend resources and focus consumption / production on education, on social work, on caring for the sick / poor / old. Then there may still be quite some economic activity (more social workers and exchange of their productivity), but in a service fashion with minimal environmental impact. In fact, one may argue that the growth of service sector in developed nations, reflects our shifting needs from the material world to the mental / psychological, or even spiritual. So for my verdict, perhaps economic growth isn't inherently bad after all. From another point of view, growth is inevitable as humans always want to become more / have more / enjoy more, or become better at certain things. This pursuit is relentless and likely will never end. However, while 'growth' is unstoppable, I think we can choose in what aspect shall we grow: for material collection / production, or for other types of activities / services? (for example, do shopping in the virtual world instead of real-world shopping, invest in education / learning instead of buying bigger houses or furnitures).

If so, we might actually enjoy the benefits of growth, without having to cause harm or make permanent damages to the environment or other living beings in the process.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Let Social Works Become a Noble Form of Consumerism

This morning while jogging, I spotted a homeless sleeping by the river bank of my usual jog route. It was probably the first time I saw a homeless near the riverbank, to my recall, and so I was somewhat surprised, at how poverty seems to have grown to affect people in new places. It also reaffirms the widening gap between the rich and poor, reported in the news.

How to help the poor and needy (and I meant really help, not just giving them some temporary assistance), has been something on my mind for a long time. And as I try to understand poverty and solutions people have proposed (an excellent reading is Redesigning Distribution, where the concept of basic income is explained. The idea is that a monthly allowance for basic living should be given to all citizens as a basic right, much like public education, health case, and pension), a recurring theme in my discovery is that poverty does not have to be a permanent state in society, but rather, it relates much with 1) how much the society can make/produce, and 2) how those wealth/goods are being distributed. In fact, one view (and one that I personally subscribe to) holds that in modern societies where per capita income exceeds USD $10,000, the total amount of wealth produced by the society is enough to allow everyone to live a relatively secure and comfortable life, even with some people not working at all!

Why then? Does poverty still exist, and there are still extreme poverty, even in very well-developed nations such as U.S.? The simple reason would be the disproportional distribution of the wealth generated. It's quite common that wealth is concentrated on a small rich and powerful group of people, who accumulate and also decide how wealth should be allocated. Of course, in most modern societies, wealth is being generated and distributed via some form of market mechanism, which is probably the most efficient known form of wealth production and distribution. And then we have one of the three certainties in life: the tax system that also re-distributes wealth to make public works (roads, schools, hospitals) possible. But apparently, having a highly efficient market, or even a well-intention government, still does not solve the poverty problem, where some unfortunate souls are bound to suffer and not benefiting from either the market or the tax system. They either do not have enough skills or motivations to earn a good income in the job market, or are too shy or physically / mentally incapable to seek help from the government (let along the inherent ineffectiveness of governments).

It seems then, that until some form of basic income-like social security system can be put in place (which is another story, but even so, it'll remain a government-sponsored program with all the pitfalls and problems), the best hope for solving poverty remains with the private sector, at the hands of the people, or some willing members of the society.

There are numerous examples of how the private citizens, through the forms of non-government organizations (NGOs) or non-profit organizations (NPOs), have helped to improve social welfare. One well-known recent example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has become the largest humanitarian organization on Earth in only a short few years, simply due to the commitments and managerial skills of its founders. During one trip to Australia, I talked with a IT professional next to me on the airplane, who told me that in Australia, because labor jobs are very well-paid, if a blue-collar worker is willing to work a few extra hours each week, he/she can earn even more than what he makes as a white-collar professional. This discussion let me to believe that poverty really is not an unsolvable problem, but something that directly relates to how a society chooses to spend its money. If the society accepts and ensures that wealth be more equally distributed, then we may bring better social welfare to everyone, as already happened in Australia.

So if we accept that poverty is caused by unequal distribution of wealth rather than the insufficient production of wealth, and we still wish to retain the current market economy and tax systems (assuming they won't change any time soon), how can we make wealth better distributed so that poverty may no longer exist?

One possibility is through higher taxation, especially from the well-to-do. But given the human nature of preserving wealth at our own hands, and the general distrust of government's transparency or efficiency, raising enough tax so that basic income can become universal may still take a long time. A more practical and feasible way seems to be the well-to-do people's own willingness to re-distribute. But how would this be possible?

The insight I had this morning was that all it takes is really a change in attitude and mindset. During my most recent trip to Japan, I was amazed at how expensive a piece of paper or cloth can cost, simply after some small thoughts and designs are put onto it. Obviously the material cost of the paper or cloth is not much. However, after adding a little artistic design, its price / value increases such that the affluent would still be willing to pay the higher price.

It's probably no secrets that the rich consumes / buys at a different level than ordinary citizens, and that people with different incomes have different spending patterns on the types of goods. For the rich and affluent, simple and basic material consumerism can no longer satisfy their needs and desires, so they seek higher-value products that could bring either atheistic enjoyment, pride, or social status to them (think of LV bags and brand products). Shopping or consuming no longer is a material activity, but a social, artistic, even spiritual one.

The change in attitude and mindset that we need thus is if the rich can see buying and spending for social welfare, is actually a noble, atheistic, and even spiritual thing to do. Instead of shopping for sports cars, luxury home and boats, jewelries and LV bags, if the rich can actually shop for, say, helping 50 kids in developing nations to go to school, or helping stray dogs and homeless a place to stay. Then our social welfare may be much improved, by simply consuming more of these Social Welfare Goods.

However, one important trick here is that these social works or social benefits, need to be packaged, branded, promoted, sold, and even be displayed (as trophies), just like any other existing consumer products. Because otherwise, the rich will not have access or ways to actually buy these products as consumers. This will take some experiments and quite some ingenuity. However, if it can be done (packaging and selling social welfare), then it may bring a much needed change to the landscape of social welfare or wealth distribution.

Just like sub-prime mortgage was creatively and ingeniously packaged as bonds to be divided and sold in global market (which subsequently caused the largest economic disaster in recent years), perhaps we need ways to package and sell social welfare services and products to the rich people in easily accessible and promotable forms. The key here is packaging and productizing, so that all the usual marketing stuff can be applied, except this time they are for the social welfare of the less fortunate members in our society.

I don't yet know the specifics of how this might be done, but it looks promising to bring changes to an issue that is as old as humanity.