Monday, December 9

It occurred to me that while in India I was seeing the economics of humanity at work, a billion-odd people all engaged in splitting units of value down to their smallest possible components � an economical atom-smasher.

In Australia there�s a sort of base level of value below which most of us are not prepared to undertake any labour. For us, it�s pretty high; for me, I don�t get out of bed for less than USD20 an hour� well, USD15 then, but not a penny less. Intuition suggests that it�s the way this base value varies from culture to culture that is behind one of the common racist fears � that the immigrant worker will do the same work for less pay.

Maybe there�s some truth in that fear, there�s usually a grain of it in anything based on faith. In India, it was clear that everyone has a much lower bottom-line to work from. There�s a vast gulf between the wealthy and the poor, of course, but it�s mostly the poor you get to see at work, and in India, you see so very many of them. Commuting workers who�ll cram themselves into a train so tight they can barely breath, and they�ll do that six days a week for the rest of their working lives to feed, clothe and educate their family, and be left with little else. Taxi drivers who�ll drive you for an hour for less than five dollars; restaurant waiters who�ll treat you like a Sultan for the chance of a two dollar tip; right down to women trying to get a few rupees for a handful of dry and drooping flowers; and, of course, the beggars. Beggars who approach your car at busy intersections, pawing at the windscreen with hands but without fingers, trying to engage you in conversation even though they must know you don�t speak a word and couldn�t hear them anyway through the window that you are never going to unwind.

I saw beggars tapping at car windows for hours each day for all of a week, and never once saw anyone even wind down a window, much less hand anything over. I wonder how long the average beggar has to make pitiful faces in car windows before he or she gets even one rupee�s worth of value for that work?

Beggars are proof that you can split a unit of value again and again, infinitesimally smaller than my own base unit of value, down to something so small that it buys only just enough to sustain the body long enough for disease and misadventure to cut life short anyway. An electron of value, a proton of poverty, and still millions will subscribe to beggary, whether by caste or circumstance, religion or brutality.

I saw two little boys crouched on the kerb of a dusty semi-sealed highway near midnight as we drove past, and in the snapshot glimpse I had of them, they were excavating some of the dirt and rock from the side of the road and emptying it into a little battered steel pail. Perhaps they were collecting material to make home-made bricks to sell to shanty-dwellers or to shore up the walls of their own shelter. Perhaps they had grander schemes that I could never guess at. But for whatever reason, it was commerce that they were engaged in � even little Indian boys don�t dig road dirt at that time of night and risk a bumper in the face for the fun of it.

The benefit of splitting value down to its most basic elements is that it can be shared amongst many more people. There�s no way the Australian economy could support a billion people on the base unit of value that most of us would expect for our labour. But in India you can see the beneficial effect of it every day � shops with more staff than customers, bars where you can�t seem to get another drink in less than ten minutes even though there appear to be four bartenders all participating in the opening and the pouring and the making of your change. And, for no good reason that I could think of, a multi-stage customs and security process for airline passengers departing the country that could only be designed to employ as many people as possible.

First a security gate and x-ray machine to screen your check-in luggage post-September 11, which I was all in favour of. Then, the usual check-in desk, only with two people for every task normally undertaken by one. OK, I can work with that. Then, the metal detector for your carry-ons and yourself, at which point even in Sydney airport I�m usually wishing I didn�t wear a belt at all and cursing the metal lugs protecting my shoe leather from my shoelaces. But at least everybody gets to pass my shoes around once I�ve been asked to take them off, checking for boobytraps and incendiary devices and no doubt remarking that my size 12 � shoes might make a fine fishing boat. It�s a living.

But then as you are cleared by the customs officer who has industriously stamped your passport, visa, ticket and boarding pass, you experience Indian employment innovation at its very pinnacle � a detour to a second desk where someone checks that your documents have all been sufficiently stamped, followed by someone who checks that you still have your boarding pass, followed by an airline worker who tears off some of your boarding pass, followed by an official who checks that you still have the other part of your boarding pass, followed by a guard who stops you because none of the luggage tags on your carry-on luggage bear the necessary stamps (why not? Surely I didn�t miss anybody back there), followed by an escorted detour to a man who stamps your luggage tags, who probably should have been back at the x-ray machine stamping tags, because at least then he could have justified his stamping as a means of certifying that your bags had cleared the x-ray. Finally to be delivered safely to the arms of the departure gate staff a full hour later, two women who, as I recall, simply ran my boarding pass thru a scanner and sent me down the tunnel pretty much like they do in airports everywhere. As I got half-way down the airbridge I was gripped by the near-irresistible urge to run back up to them to demand that they made me wait while they called in an out-of-work friend or two to stamp both my hands, just in case I lost my way between the door and my seat. A modern bureaucratic interpretation of the kind of hennaed designs you can get drawn on your hands in the markets. It�s a living too.

I stopped myself just in time, even though it probably would have attracted the attention of a mob of guards and soldiers, thereby teasing the yarn of my disembarkation value out a few more feet, providing clothing and shelter and a little rice for them and the judge, the court clerks, the jailor and his henchman (I assume he�d have at least one henchman, probably more).

None of the Indian passengers seemed to mind terribly much; neither did my Indian workmates mind what was obviously a typical wait for a drink at the bar, or processing of the credit card at the shop. Which suggests that it�s normal, not a scam set-up for visiting foreigners as my sleep-deprived, paranoid, hot and frustrated inner voice began to shriek at one point. Perhaps the size of the minimum unit of value in the equation is in inverse proportion to the time required for the exchange of that value from one party to the party of the opposite part. More plainly, the more people you can squeeze into a transaction, the slower it takes place.

It certainly seems to hold true for some of the more modern transactions, such as when an ATM dispenses cash in seconds, when it has almost instantly verified the identity of both you and the card, checking to see your bank�s computers agree you have sufficient funds in your account, asks them to deduct the necessary sum, flips a bit that leaves you one ATM transaction over your maximum number of monthly transactions, incurring a fee that would feed a Mumbai family of beggars for a week. High value transaction, very brief moment of work, and I�m essentially serving myself, at a buck fifty a time.

Now you fill your own petrol tank at the service station because self-service seems faster somehow, as if waiting for the attendant to walk out to your pump takes forever, as if a half-smile and a moment of patter takes an eternity more. Plus you can jam the nozzle in and squeeze the trigger as fast as you like, leave it flowing at maximum speed until the last possible second, even, perhaps risking a little splash of petrol on your paintwork, because you�re in such a hurry. Not employing pump attendants saves the petrol station owner quite a bit of money, and customers who serve themselves do so more quickly, meaning more tanks filled and more cash in the till. So does the benefit get passed on to the consumer? Does petrol get cheaper as a result?

Err, no. Saving all this time costs you money. Petrol�s never been more expensive, and when you stood in line at the bank to ask the teller for a withdrawal back when there weren�t ATMs, the bank didn�t charge you a cent for the transaction. So my equation holds true in both directions � make the transaction more expensive and it takes less time to conclude. Be prepared to wait a while for your goods or services and you might be able to get it done for a few hundred rupees.

Or be prepared to fend off beggars for days until you can�t stand it anymore, delaying the conclusion of the transaction until you�re about to step into the air-conditioning of airport taxi, stuffing your last handful of rupees into the hands of the last beggar who drags at you, and you�ve just elevated the value of that pitiful sum of money beyond anything you or I could ever imagine. It was certainly the last thing that particular beggar expected - even across the cultural divide I could read the surprise in his face.

Anyway, that�s the sort of thinking you can do when waiting in transit in Singapore for your delayed flight home to start boarding. I hope somebody somewhere is getting maximum value out of it.

Tuesday, December 3

In Mumbai all this week for work. What can I say about Mumbai that hasn't been said already? It's pretty much exactly as second-world as you'd expect! I'm glad I went to Guangzhou already, as Mumbai has all the same problems but on a smaller scale from what i've seen so far (not much) but it's much less of an eye-opener because i've seen worse. Of course, the worst real estate is nearest the airport, and here the shanties and shacks come right up to the concrete runway apron, and the smell of rotting vegetation and smog starts creeping in before you even get off the plane. Our driver for the week(!) Laurence, met us at the airport in his little white Hyundai. He's got aircon, which is great, not because it's super-hot, not as hot as singapore, but because the air is thick with crud. I tried to get my bag off Laurence but he's very insistent and quite quick for a little fella, even with both our bags.

Plane landed about midnight local time. Every light on the way to the hotel from the airport was surrounded by a little halo of smoggyness, not helped any by the low-wattage lighting they seem to use everywhere. The hotel is out on the end of a peninsula, as far as i can tell, surrounded by some half-hearted attempts at high-rise apartments, most look like they've been half-built for the last 50 years. every now and again a near-derelict old european house from the turn of the century that you'd pay a million dollars for in Sydney, just like a fancy Woolahra mansion only rotting to bits and half-occupied, half-falling over. lots of narrow windy little streets on the way here, with dogs, chickens, people, etc on the road even at midnight but no cows yet. I think there must be a lot of cows who wander off the end of the half-finished freeway overpass a few blocks away - beware, falling cows! And there's a lovely shipping container terminal just next to that. But with the lack of urban planning, the smog, the ruins and the lighting, it was quite an interesting ride. Got the camera with me so look forward to some piccies. The hotel is pretty generic but pretty nice, certainly 5 star, though they arent quite able to get rid of the rotten cabbage smell.

Got to sleep about 2am but woke up several times to wee and then from 6am Sydney time onwards woke up pretty much every hour, especially since the front desk were kind enough to give me not just my 8am wakeup call but also an extra complimentary 6am wakeup call. Ah well, got some work done, did some gym for an hour, and i'm going to meet Goche for breakfast now, then Laurence is taking us to work. I could get the hang of this limo thing ;-) This morning an amazing sunrise thru the smog and palm trees, with lots of weird looking raven kinda birds and a few very vulturish vultures wheeling around, probably scavenging for cabbage.

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