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The Great Divide – Hopes and Fears in a Brave New World.

Posted by inspir3d on January 25, 2007

The great divide in my life isn’t about whether computers are going to take over the world, or whether globalization is going to dumb us all down into faceless nuts and bolts. It’s about my relationship with my 20-year-old TV.

Manufactured at an age when TV’s still had the courtesy to pretend to be furniture, it’s encased in real wood veneer and shutters which slide shut and lock with a tiny brass key. Quaint, you may say, only because you never had to hold a coat hanger in one hand and a co-axial cable in another while massaging them furiously to figure out the final score on a football match into the 60th minute – that’s the only way to get a picture from my TV when she goes on the blink. She lives by her own rules, she has a mind of her own.

Recently I have been toying with the illicit idea of getting a new TV – you know, one of those sexy ultra thin ones that don’t even see the need to pass off as furniture because through the years, they have sashayed their way into the privacy of our living rooms and claimed their right to intrude upon our lives. That, at least, is what the technocrats keep telling me, “you can’t stand in the way of progress,” even though anthrax, bird flu, SARS and Polonium didn’t look much like progress when you got real close to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be writing this while waiting to see a client on my Nokia Communicator if I were anti- technology. It’s true that the creatives and new post modernist realists fear that technology has made us myopic. But I don’t believe the creatives are necessarily people who are the first to take a hammer to anything that plugs and plays. They merely want to keep technology in its proper and rightful place. It’s a valid argument despite being somewhat quaint, very much like those who still appreciate the allure of a candlelight dinner. They believe just as the internet emerged out of the counter culture of the 70’s when people simply wanted a better way to communicate, so the next counter culture is going to be that of the mind.

This is the great divide that will shape this century, between those who want to entrust humanity to technology alone and those who want to embrace something inside people and planet. It’s an old struggle – between classical and romantic, between Aristotle and Plato, between those who want to shape and mould us into the relevant, functional and effective and those who believe being human simply means following the sort of abstraction we all call the inner voice.

At the heart of the matter, it’s a battle to find the deeper meaning of the self amid progress – “progress,” a word that we have come to associate with so many icons in our everyday life – globalization, continuous improvement, re-education, skill upgrading etc. Is it really progress? And if so where does it all lead to? Or is it just more rehashed hype that will impoverish more people than it enriches?

The only reason why I find myself questioning the whole ideal of progress in the age of globalization is simply because any debate invariably leads one into the proverbial hall of mirrors. Allow me to share with you a snippet of my thoughts, and take the case of the recent corporate tax cuts.

At one level we may say, we do not have a choice other than to cut corporate tax, because this is what foreign investors typically regard as the tipping point whenever they decide to invest in a country. That sort of argument really only makes sense, if you believe not having a choice is a logical way to premise a reason for doing anything, notwithstanding that cutting corporate income tax is hardly the brain of the year decision.

Besides, if one really considers the merits of the strategy (if it can be called that at all), it simply compels other countries competing for a slice of the economic pie to follow our footsteps in the foreseeable future. After all cutting corporate tax hardly ranks as a unique and novel differentiator, and any banana republic can well afford to bite the bullet when they are pushed into a corner.

By pursuing this short term strategy of corporate tax cuts, one runs the risk of triggering a war of attrition with competing countries, which curiously resembles the arms race, where the governing mantra, “what you can do, I can do better!” plays out and we all know how that tune pans out.

This raises the question, what if country X or Y ups the ante by cutting their corporate tax, matching us? Do we institute another round of corporate tax cuts? When does it all end?

Slashing corporate tax to attract foreign investors reminds me of the story of Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 days. During the last leg of the world tour, when the engine runs out of coal, Fogg uses the furnishings, floor boards and anything he can get his hands on as fuel. He reaches his port of call only to find there is nothing left of his vessel except a stark naked anorexic shell.

Are we doing the same thing?

Economists and game theorists have long debated the merits of pursuing a strategy of corporate tax cuts, though they may continue to disagree on a plethora of instruments which may either boost or militate against what firms continually define as “attractive” and “desirable” in the business context.

They are unanimous in their agreement that slashing corporate tax cuts as a means of attracting foreign investment constitutes a corrosive economic theorem simply known as value destruction: that’s what happens when the intrinsic value of goods and services are subject to mindless reductionalism that simply leaches out value in ever decreasing circles. In econometrics, it’s called the cobweb effect, where value slowly diminishes as the web tightens to a single point when the spider runs out of space to spin its web – the symptoms often resemble a debilitating disease – value evaporates away like camphor.

It’s inimical to sustainable growth, triggering off price instabilities at the blink of an eye, forcing firms to retrench workers by droves and packing and disappearing off like a traveling circus to yet another lower cost haven to drive costs further down. The semi-conductor industry along with the hardware business already suffers from value leveling, and the effects are nothing short of tragic. Though consumers may shovel platitudes on firms who continually deliver increased value by reducing their costs without compromising on megabyte footprint or increased bandwidth, at the other side of the supply chain, this simply translates into the onion life for millions of workers in the electronic industry, where boom and bust models proliferate at the slightest provocation where the threat of retrenchments, lay-offs and plant closures feature permanently like the ubiquitous “safety first” signage that hangs in production plants, only this sign reads, “your ticket may run out today!”

As a result, like the first space monkeys blasted off into space during the 50’s, we’ve been mentally conditioned to respond to what psychologists refer to as fear induced mind mapping – we can’t switch off the fear stimuli any more than dolphins can be expected to shake off their frozen smiles. We worry no end about losing our jobs even when all the statistics tell us our economy is growing exponentially. We fear unemployment even when the local rag tells us they have managed to break the one kilogram benchmark for their classified section – we are becoming a scaredy-cat society.

Job insecurity is simply part of a much bigger problem. The mismatch between real and felt risk in the work place remains vexing. Why do levels of fear remain so high when the factual evidence suggests little or no change in actual risk? There are a number of possible explanations. The media are inevitably much more interested in middle-class than blue-collar job losses, and news editors being news editors are disproportionately interested in highlighting these losses. It is also possible that the impact of redundancy is greater, even if the risk of occurrence is not. There is some evidence that the average length of unemployment has increased especially amongst the 40 something’s.

The costs of living in a scaredy-cat society are huge as economists have long noted this phenomenon, when they coined the jargon, “endogenous” force to describe the invisibles associated with sentiments, or the prevailing mood of the day, hour or minute – which either drives costs up or depresses them, opens or closes the aperture of opportunities. For example, a perceived opportunity to make a high profit will induce industrial researchers to seek and find new products and processes and bring them to the market as soon as possible to maximize on opportunity cost. The reverse occurs, if they perceive otherwise.

One of the ways that economics makes sense of the past, present and future is by factoring “exogenous” factors into the number crunching equation by absorbing family behavior, employment patterns, political decision making, and more importantly, the valence between our level of fear alongside the actual risk level. And if fear continues to predominate our lives, the economy suffers because consumers feel compelled to set more aside for a rainy day. Entrepreneurialism nose dives because no one wants to take the risk when the future is perceived as uncertain. Managers and professionals pay the price for their own paranoia, hanging on to unsatisfactory jobs for fear of the unknown, toeing the corporate line rather than cutting their own path for fear of rejection, and avoiding risky initiatives for fear of failure.

For fear’s sake, I would probably defer my decision to get a new TV. You see, there remains an enduring history to the old gal (that’s what I call my TV). Her capacity to blur the images, fuzz them no end, she does so very well too, turning them into wispy threads of blurred lines. And though it is hardly a clear image, at least it’s one that still allows me to fill in the blanks as to how I wish to see the world – from time to time, I tell myself, there is no greater insulator to fear than to simply stop seeing the world for what it really is, and that for lack of anything resembling a rhyme or reason, that’s perhaps how I deal with the great divide.

(By Harphoon / Steamboy / Scholarman  The brotherhood Press – Econs/Socio EP990382B 2007)

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6 Responses to “The Great Divide – Hopes and Fears in a Brave New World.”

  1. montburan said

    harphyboy,

    That’s more like it. I agree fear is slowly taking hold of all of us in Singapore. Very astute observation.

    However what I cannot figure out is why I fear so much although I have never been ever retrenched bfr – I guess you are correct in mentioning, it is a sort of mental condition like space monkeys used to go through during the early days in NASA – see a green light, press button A, if they get it wrong a short, sharp, shock to remind them, get it right! Or else, so after a while life revolves around making the right decisions in the shadow of fear. I dont know how to describe that kind of life other than to say, it reminds me a bit of Russian Roulette, you never know till you have pulled the trigger and even if you manage to live through it, there is still the uncertainty of the next round.

    Its a shitty way to live harpyboy (dont you agree?), I havent been able to put my finger on it till I read this post. Its certainly made things clearer and I see the world in a completely different light. I have a deep feeling it was written from the heart, perhaps you really observed a loved one going through the process of curling up only to hide in one corner. Its sad, but I feel much better and more confident now because knowing is half the battle fought and won.

    Thank you and do keep it up.

  2. pindi said

    Shalom,

    Since 9/11 the world has changed alot. You are right in mentioning, fear is very much a part of modern life these days and it’s lousy for business, but having said that, you offer no long term solutions. 🙂

  3. liberated said

    We fear because we are afraid to lose. If we could let go, we will fear no more.

  4. LF said

    Liberated

    Agree. We hold on to tight to this world and especially planet Singapore where we worship mammon and materialism above all others.

    It’s not easy to learn to let go when our lives are filled with the insatiable cycle of endless collections of trinkets which will be left to rot when our corpse does so.

    The matrix wants us to think that THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE except the world THEY have created.

    Long live the Matrix.

  5. Harphoon said

    Hi Pindi,

    You r right, I should have provided a solution – I guess one way to look at it, is to ascribe a cost to our fears – by this, I mean what does the sum of our fears amount to in real terms – I once spoke to darkness abt this and he simply said, in the truest sense badly laid homogeneous tiles posed more of a risk than the threat of terrorism – when I asked why, he said, wealth was created by people and Adam Smith was wrong when he referenced resources of a nation as the basis of wealth creation – he went on to mention, ideas emerge from people and the fear factor has paralyzed the world economy by stemming the flow of talent and this was indeed regrettable.

    I guess if we are to move forward, we need to really calculate the cost of how fear retards us instead of empowering us – in response to montburan question whether I derived this from a personal experience – Yes, I have an uncle who once mentioned to me, he wanted to wing it as an entrepreneur, but every year, he defers his plans and when I asked him why, he just says the time isn’t right.

    As Demming once said, we need to drive out fear from our society – I just feel when we fear, we lose a bit of ourselves, we even die a bit and live even less of a life– just as everyone has a right to live in a democracy, all of us have a right to live outside the shadow of fear – if we do not claim this right, then we are as much to blame for our bondage as those who lament that we do not have rights.

    We need to claim this right – the right to live the good life!

  6. Steamboy said

    I want to dedicate this darkness wherever he is

    It was his favourite and we all miss him dearly. He was so gentle, I dont know how he became so hard and ruthless, I hate those ppl who made him so.

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