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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: February 2012

Jungle Book

Rainforest is a crate of contraband shoplifted straight from God's private garden. An amazing green splash on the wall of this planet. Although - now that I think of it - enmazing would probably be a better word for this tangle of vibrant, unquenchable, responsive and constantly bubbling biomass. Its twisted and intertwined labyrinth is an eternal tribute to turbulence sculpted out from a heap of breathing and growing vegetation.

They say that capitalism is like a jungle, but I am not so sure about that. With stronger and stronger doses of fiscal and monetary intervention all over the world, it does not look that way. Our markets are increasingly dependent on artificial injections of liquidity by central banks in the same way that drug addicts become dependent on their pushers. And that does not sound like the kind of capitalism Adam Smith dreamed about. The crony corporatism that seems to flourish around the globe these days is farther from jungle than most think. You don't create the natural growth of the rainforest by an edict of government.

Earlier this month I hiked through Costa Rican native forest and I thought about that analogy. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't buy it. Not even with a Groupon discount. Jungle has a completely different modus operandi than our global economy.

You never see any entity propping up dead trees and preventing the new saplings from assuming their place in the Sun. You don't see groups of bushes forming multinational cartels and attempting to suffocate other species. There is no governing authority here that would try to pick winners and losers in the competition of life. Plants do not use their living power to redistribute the natural flow of air and water. Trees do not speculate with their leaves. And no one is pouring insane amounts of nutrients into one place hoping to spur local biological expansion.

In plain English: jungle is not greedy. Jungle lives and lets live.

tt

Financial Democracy

The other day I learned that almost half of the members of our Congress are millionaires. How is that for a representative democracy? Let's think about it - how would millionaires even know what the life of an average citizen feels like? How it hurts when you get laid off and have little chance of finding a new job. Or how hard it is to choose between heating gas and vegetables for dinner. Sometimes it seems that millionaires occupy some far away place in a Galaxy which is totally unlike ours. One where you don't have to explain to your kids that they can't quite have the gadgets that would make them peer compatible at school. One where you don't have to work two jobs to just make ends meet.

Nothing against the members of the upper class, I am sure they would turn many noble heads in the court of Louis XIV, but how is it that they think they can represent us in the highest legislative body of this democratic country?

Now this is not to say that our overpaid public servants are lazy or generally incompetent. On the contrary. They can be quite a lodge of eager beavers. You see - having to decide what to do with other people's money is a grueling chore which involves lots of baby kissing, ribbon cutting, pork packaging and, most of all, socializing with almighty lobbyists whose concern for a common man is legendary. And if you think all this is trivial, try bloviating for fifteen minutes non stop in front of the mirror in bathroom - it is not as easy as you might think. And that's not all. After an exhausting day in the office, many of them have to change into an evening suit and show their teeth at various corporate functions, clinking expensive wine glasses and delivering that powerful executive stare usually associated with an undercover Vice President of the Northern Hemisphere. Really, let's give them some credit - I mean how many of you can prevaricate while processing a mouthful of Maine lobster salad? But despite their impressive qualifications, something still bugs me about this whole idea of representation.

As is widely known, we have two congressional chambers and both are based on geography. That makes sense because different states and different regions have different needs and we want them all included in the national debate. That is the principle of democracy. But how about different wealth layers of the society? They surely have divergent needs as well. Shouldn't we make sure that no income level feels left out of our collective decision making?

So here is an idea. Why don't we keep one chamber - say the House - as is i.e. based on geographical districts. But when we choose senators let's not look at their domiciles, but rather at their personal balance sheets. Then we'll end up with a completely different political composition. We may have one or two senators representing billionaires, we'll have a couple of them representing millionaires, there will undoubtedly be a bunch of them representing people with solid six digit salaries and there will be a few representing folks with less solid six digit salaries. But, and that's the most beautiful part, a significant part of them will speak for the interests of the middle class and poor people, preferably with the first hand knowledge of the problems involved. That is what I would call a truly representative democracy.

Then our system of checks and balances would cover everybody - even those whose checks and balances are on the slightly bouncier side.

Manuel Antonio

There is a definite magic to the beach. The soothing sound of breaking waves, the soft surface of the dunes, the steady rhythm of the tap dancing Sun, the tropical lilt of the breeze humming "the Girl of Ipanema" through the palm leaves, the marines of salty droplets facing the army of rootless grains of sand. The beach is the ultimate frontier of the fundamental tug of war between The Great Empire of Land and the Everlasting Kingdom of Sea.

But underneath all that lies something even more primordial. Our fascination with the unknown. Two thirds of our planet are covered with water and we still have only a limited idea of what lies beneath. The beach is where that fascination becomes a contact sport. As we tiptoe the water line, we are circling that unseen world like ancient armies sizing up their foes; or like a kid walking around a new car and peeking into its windows trying to figure out how it works. When we send our gaze across the waves, we really dispatch our humble emissaries to the Sultan of the Deep.

Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica. A pair of secluded beaches with a sizable patch of original Central American rainforest that creates a mesmerizing tropical backdrop: the green lanterns of overhanging trees swaying gently in the wind and offering their branches to migrating troupes of howler monkeys. Playa Manuel Antonio is the place where the jungle of the ocean meets the sea of the rainforest for a late afternoon tango. Two mystic elements staring in each other's eyes. The blue waters on the one side and the green foliage on the other.

tt

Results and Results

Recently I noticed a disturbing parallel between our economy and our education. Both appear to be more and more focused on superficial short term results while neglecting less measurable long term objectives.

At schools a definite emphasis is placed on successful test passing which is slowly turning our educational institutions into conveyor belt prep farms. Students pass through a series of mindless drills that may prepare them well for the all important multiple choice questions but they do little to help them synthesize facts into a coherent body of knowledge. There is little time to learn how to put things into proper perspective and context or how to acquire analytical skills useful in real life - which does not usually come at us in the form of a multiple choice questionnaire. Sure, the kids can mechanically memorize reams of facts and test acing strategies, but they fail hopelessly where imagination and problem solving practice are needed.

In the world of economy, the situation is similar. The quarterly ritual of the Earning Season has put too much pressure on management to produce better than expected nominal results. Focusing on the bottom line leads to the same short sighted optics as viewing students performance through the prism of test passing. It may impose certain organizational discipline, but fails to accommodate less tangible effects, such as preserving environment, supporting future innovation, helping local communities and producing goods and services that have long term benefits. Not to mention the fact that our obsession with immediate profits is conducive to creating accounting and outright fraudulent behavior.

I think than our drive for purely quantitative performance criteria has been pushed a little bit too far. We need to find a system which will reward thinking rather than mechanical test wrestling. And one which will reward overall social utility rather than balance sheet gymnastics.

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