Friday, April 03, 2009
What do I mean by historical suggestion? Well, within the past two Millenia many mighty kingdoms arose and flourished for a while. They often seemed unstoppable, but --against all odds-- they mysteriously and seemingly inexplicably declined, sometimes precipitously. To name a few:
Sumar and Akkad: the rise of the Semites. They ran a great empire under Sargon of Akkad in 2350 BCE and then the Amorite nomads shredded them to pieces after 2100 BCE.
Anceint Babylon: Under Hammurabi, things looked awfully rosy but that didn't last long.
Assyrians: the first relatively modern empire-building machine. After 911 BCE they resurfaced after several centuries in decline and ran over the entire Ancient Near East, nearly all of known civilization sans Egypt. But they couldn't hold. By 612 BCE it was all over and the Persians took control of the helm.
Persia and Media: they reigned briefly until the Greeks finally got their act together and defeated the mighty Persian Empire in what could be compared to the later Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid empire, as recounted in the Jewish prayer book: many were defeated by few, defiled ones by clean ones, wicked by the righteous, the mighty by the feeble.
The Greeks under Alexander the Great reached the pinnacle of power in 330 BCE but the empire didn't survive him. It was torn asunder by unscrupulous generals immediately following his death.
The Romans gradually rose to the top and by 160 BCE had superseded the Greeks and the famous "Pax Romana" commenced. Incredibly, the Germanic "barbarians" --who had hitherto been utterly absent from the world civilization map-- gradually infiltrated the Roman Empire and it finally dismantled the Empire in the fifth century.
More recently (after the Renaissance) there's been a succession of Great Powers, as follows:
Spain and Portugal ruled the seas and took a leading role in the early colonial system until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Power then shifted to the English, after gradually nibbling away at the Spanish colonies. This established the English language as the international lingua franca. Finally in the 20th century, the English offshoot "United States of America" emerged as the undisputed superpower after world war II. The US demonstrated its goodwill and generosity to the teetering European nations in the Marshall plan and has been the greatest power ever since.
...but for how long? As you can see, it will likely not last for too much longer. The same problems that have plagued all these other kingdoms, empires and republics of the past, are likely to confront the US just as well.
It is sometimes difficult to ascertain exactly what is the single contributing cause to the downfall of a Great Power. It is mostly a combination of many factors that are mysteriously intertwined and come cascading down one after the other once the first domino is tripped.
In my analysis, there's one overarching character that fits the profile of all those great powers. It's arrogance; it's a sense of entitlement; it's ostentatious extravagance, inefficiency and wastefulness.
Most strikingly, moreover, it's not up to these powers to make a conscious decision effecting the aforementioned characteristics. Prosperity seems to inevitably breed eventual failure; there are no two ways about it. And this is a frightening, sobering realization akin to the experience of death. Every living person knows that no matter how healthy they live, their bodies will eventually fail and perish.
Ever since the 80's there's been a trend of wasteful living patterns in the United States (and to a lesser degree, in other Western countries) while the Chinese are doing just the opposite: exercising thrift and working really hard to "prove themselves". Finally, their efforts are starting to bear fruits and the tables have turned. They are now exporting more than importing and we owe them money instead of them owing us. We, as a nation, are sinking deeper and deeper in debt while we never cease to entertain the notion of taking the short-cut to wealth by playing the stock market, lotteries and games of chance, accumulating credit card debt and taking on "zero percent down" mortgages. We seem to think that the world can somehow run on autopilot and all our needs can be met without us performing any real, productive work.
Take the stock market, for example. For years, people have become accustomed to the idea that investing in the "right" company at the right time will yield tremendous, self-sustaining wealth. And so an entire industry sprung up where folks are paid the highest salaries (including bonuses) in our economy in hopes that they can prove themselves more prescient than others and generate paper wealth from thin air, where others fail. It's a competition: who can extract the most money of this lazy-money system before this hollow Ponzi Tower --with nothing but air in it-- comes crumbling down?
Instead of emphasizing responsibility it's about freebies. The ads are flooding TV sets, as we speak about all those products available to try out "at no cost to you". "call for a free estimate", call for a free brochure", "if you are not completely satisfied, just send it back to us and get a %100 refund, no questions asked", "the scooter store: if medicare denies your claim, we will give the scooter absolutely free... so what have you got to lose"? Again and again, products are being marketed deceptively, so as to downplay their true price. Has anyone paused and given thought to the fact that the scooter is actually paid for by the customer's very own taxes or insurance premiums? Is anyone even thinking whether they need the scooter. The ad encourages TV watchers to acquire the scooter for "free" and so there's no need to think about whether one really needs it. Hell, it's free, who cares? Additionally, it should be noted, the price of the scooter ad is completely unjustified. The ad appears in prime-time on demographically unsuitable channels. I'm 30 and I'm not even remotely considering a scooter and neither does 95% of other viewers. The scooter store must be ripping off our federal government with those claims so egregiously that Uncle Sam pays not just for the useless scooter but also for the ten-thousand dollar ad every time it airs. Product after product and service after service are being marketed in this manner. All this will come back to haunt us and will ultimately be our undoing.
Litigation is another prominent area of waste. How many times have you seen the ad inviting folks to file medical malpractice lawsuits. The majority of those suits are unfounded or highly exaggerated. Yet, the idiot judge thinks: I'm gonna be a hero and stand up for the little guy who was "grievously injured by the willful neglect" of the wealthy doctor. What the judge is really doing is punishing all health care consumers by the resulting skyrocketing insurance premiums, to the point that we are on track to be spending one-quarter of our GDP on health care within a decade or so. It's outrageous! someone put a stop to his, please! This is why, I cannot afford insurance or health care. This same process duplicates itself within the auto industry because judges are overzealous in awarding damages to those filing frivolous or fraudulent liability insurance claims.
In the meantime, the MTA in New York loves wasting money and then seeking help from the city and state. If it were a private property, they would have undoubtedly been the wealthiest corporation on the east coast. They are still running on essentially the same infrastructure that was built 100 years ago. The only real upgrades they've done over the century is to the cars. But that is not essential and could easily pay itself off and show a profit in a 20-year car lifetime, from the millions (maybe billions) of riders using it. The MTA should not be a labor-intensive entity, given the two-man crew operating a several-thousand-people filled train during rush hours. Instead, it's all dominated by unionized waste and renovation projects that take forever and run over-budget though deliberate mismanagement by contractors so as to extract the maximum from an agency that simply doesn't give a shit about taxpayer and fare-payers money. City bus dispatchers have decided, apparently, that the best way to waste their resources is to dispatch four consecutive B68 buses, none of them on schedule, and then not send out any for the next 40 minutes. Then, of course, the rider complains and they go to the state and say "see, I told you, not enough funding!". Several weeks ago I watched a contractor installing buffer posts at the Port Authority bus terminal at 42nd Street. They are working at night (more pay...) even though the work area is closed off during the day just as well. One $38-per-hour-plus-benefits union-guy operates a clumsy little tractor to dig out that bit of dirt in the hole that can probably be done manually. The other 5 guys are watching. One has shovel in hand "just in case it's needed", one is probably a foreman, one inspector makes sure everything is done right and another makes sure that the first does his job. Common denominator: they're all raking in thousands for doing nothing while other workers in the city who actually do something for a living are struggling with unlivably low wages in the range of 7-10 per hour, no benefits.
This kind of intentional-waste culture is unheard-of in the Orient. And as long as our inefficiency and inequality continues, we will be sliding down the slippery slope into a socioeconomic abyss. What's even more dreadful and unnerving is that there's nothing we, as a society can do about it. I know that no one of political power or will to tackle these issues will be reading this blog entry or anyone else's that addresses this most-vexing and pervasive problem. My prediction is gloomy in the highest. We may be able to retard our regression, but I don't see any way out. American culture is decaying from within and will, likely within a century, implode from within -- just as the mighty Roman Empire was brought down: from the lack of true patriotism on the part of its citizens. Germanic tribes were increasingly filling the ranks of mercenary Roman armies enabling the Romans to be free "to enjoy the Pax Romana". One day they woke up and realized that they no longer lived in a Roman civilization but in a fractured, uncivilized Germanic one.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Does it say "fuck" on that right canister, or am I imagining things. Maybe the guy produing the label had a bad day and was stamping the label with what was on his mind? Any other explanation? See for yourself! The canister is still standing there in lower manhattan. What are these things for anyway?
Take a look at this stitched picture!
Within a few yards in lower Manhattan, you run across so many different banks, it makes your head spin! From left to right:
- TD Bank
- Bank of America
- Emigrant Savings Bank
The problem with all this is that these banks do not offer the consumer any unique product or service not already offered by their competitors. Their raison d'etre (purpose of existence) is solely to take business away from the neighbor next door -- self-enrichment. This is precisely the Wall Street culture that has brought on the current financial crisis, as articulated by President Obama in his recently numerous speeches on the matter.
For too long these banks have thrived on cut-throat competition, not on providing a meaningful service to the consumer. Each tries to convince the consumer that they're offering the highest interest-rate, the most savings, "free checking" with "no hidden fees". Consumers love it -- they love being told "switch to us and save a bundle". What they don't realize is that every "saving" comes at a cost and the overall package they're getting with the bank they're considering switching to is probably no better than their current one. What's worse is that by countenancing this wasteful competition between the banks, they're not saving but costing themselves money in the long run.
Look at all those banks lined up in this stretch of super expensive real estate and tell me it wouldn't be far more effective and cost-efficient to build a single large bank on the premises instead? Consumers would get much better service, they'd be so much less confused about banking practices (so that they can apply their mental resources where it's really needed -- in energy and education) and, did I mention, they'd save a ton of money! The superbank won't be wasting billions of dollars on cut-throat deceptive advertising as they currently do and the savings will ultimately be passed on to consumers in the form of lower banking fees and interest rates.
What do you think?