Monday, November 14, 2011

Why Asia Isn’t Occupying

THERE was a time, not too long ago, when street turmoil ruled Asia: Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines etc. There may be a number of far in between civil disturbances lately—but certainly, not in the magnitude of Occupy Wall Street’s ruckus and its loud ripples all over the US and Europe.
     Why is that? It’s because Asians are less frustrated with its financial well-being compared with its Western neighbors. While the US and Europe sink in economic quicksand and shudder in mass protests, most of Asia remains relatively unscathed… As early as 1994, I observed that the East has already prepared good, and smartly.
     (And, mind you, I am not talking about China, which started their ascent to capitalist firmaments in the 80s… Beijing pretty much acts on its own—in utter disregard of its regional neighbors, but that’s not my object of discussion at this juncture.)
     The four Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—spelled out economic policies that ignored the neo-liberal ideas by the US (that serve the greater interest of huge banking systems). Instead, they pushed for workforce education, technology advancement, and import substitution. These days, all four nations have developed into high-income economies, and have become world-leading financial centers…

IT should be recalled that Asia, at least for a time, wobbled in currency crisis that sent South Korea reeling when its stock market crash in 1997—although Singapore and Taiwan were relatively unshaken… Hong Kong came under intense speculative attacks—but then HK is China, so how could you beat Beijing? The crisis didn’t last long—all four economies rebounded strongly (as well as Southeast Asian neighbors like Thailand and Malaysia). South Korea has managed to triple its per capita GDP in dollar terms since 1997.
     Then there was the initiative of the Tiger Cub economies: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. These nations pursued an export-driven model of economic development, focused on developing goods for export to highly-industrialized nations. Domestic consumption of foreign products was discouraged through government policies such as high tariffs. Then, education was singled out as a means of improving productivity… Like South Korea and Taiwan, most Tiger Cub nations are now doing great in manufacturing information technology.
     And why is it most call centers are in the Philippines? And why even my two kids are training/teaching Koreans to speak conversational English? Asians didn’t have to travel to the US to study English, they could learn right next door, and less expensive at that.
    The West recognized progress in Asia, hence—they brought their business there to the detriment of their own people. How could giant financial institutions lose or resist the temptation of amassing more money from very low wages—plus the benefit of employing a relatively “obedient” workforce and highly-educated, at that? Profit. Gargantuan profit—none else.

IN a related discussion, Europe’s leaders—notably, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy—recently negotiated with banks to rescue its ailing economy. Sadly, most of these remedies are band-aid solutions that only benefit giant financial institutions more.
     And what do you know, the European Union also plans to borrow money from China—and private lenders (which are essentially, banks), instead of putting up more of its own money. What has happened to Greece’s vaunted shipping industry? Vietnam’s resins trade has soared up in the last two decades, coming from the ruins of war…
     Global power has tilted, indeed. China is the scary one--esp. when time comes (knock on wood) when it finally seized control of the oil-rich South China Sea/Spratlys etc. Meantime, Asia/China holds the West by the neck because of our consumerist mindset and over-dependence to oil-driven technology. They got the factories and the microbytes/workforce that build our e-baubles and computers.
     The West may have controlled the oil in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait--and now Iraq and Libya--but who process those crude oil and petroleum products before we, in the west, can use them? Asians, or workers beyond America and Europe.
     As an aside... Macau, which is (again) essentially China, has collared most of casino investments out of Las Vegas and Reno. The Chinese has the West all figured out: they even know how to lure "sin city" out of the desert...

MOREOVER, the US dollar and Euro keep on competing/investing in the classic brinkmanship style, but these are obviously not working. Wells Fargo et al are so greedy they want everything of the world (WF is trying to buy a huge chunk of Swiss giant, UBS, as well), giant firms bring factories out of the mainland—in expense of their own people.
     Now, the people are out in the streets. Compared with Asia… maybe 20 or 30 years ago, social unrest was ripping Asia apart—but now, they just work, get paid, enjoy their electronic gizmos, and be splurging tourists in the US and Europe (the Chinese, for example, have spent billions in the US in the last 5 years by just being tourists).
     Years ago, export of workforce (called “overseas Filipino workers) saved the Philippines’ economy; now, it’s the importation of work (via call centers and export processing zone contracts from Taiwan, China, and South Korea) that saves the country’s economy…
     This is a lesson to Washington: while thinkers and wizards at the Oval Office were busy head-butting with Iran and Venezuela and North Korea etc, Asia was silently focusing on what should be prioritized, internally: It’s own economic standing and how to utilize their own people serve those plans and policies.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A CASE in re ALABAMA’s H.B. 56: “What if I am a Small American Farmer?”

WHAT if I am a small American farmer? I may have inherited my apple orchard and potato farm, as well as my current Mexican farm-helps, from my dad or grandparents. The Garcias from Juarez, Mexico have been working for the Smiths of Somewhereville, Alabama for 50 years now…
     I am paying $4 an hour—plus free rent and some food—to my Mexican workers and they seem to be fine with the arrangement. My wife, who’s an accountant, pre-calculated that if I pay my workers $8 an hour, I won’t be able to spend or invest more on other farm implements and expenses, including internet marketing. I am always scared that the giant retail store, or stores that seem to be all over these days, will easily gobble my business up.  
     And because I only pay $4 an hour to my amigos and amigas, I am able to lower my apple’s cost that I haul off to the farmers’ market with Luis, my able helper, each weekend. We also drive cross-state to Georgia and elsewhere to deliver some more of my produce. Definitely, my apple is less expensive than what these huge retail stores are selling. With that, I am able to keep my business… I can “compete.”
    Now, my Mexicans/$4-hr workers are gone. They are scared and furious. But then, I can’t miss Luis and the Garcias although I love Luz’s burritos and enchiladas. I have a business and farm to run.
     Most Americans want jobs, like my college buddy and golfing partner, Dantley Cooper, who just lost his job as supervisor in a frisbee plant next town because his job—and the plant—have been shipped to Guangzhou province in China. Darn, he’s been there since graduation—like, 30 years! Hell, I don’t think Coop is cool with $8 an hour though.
     But my other neighbors is fine with it, of course… $8/hr at least, and 40hr workweek. To be able to pay their salaries, I need to cut down on operational expenses, as well. Besides that, my $8/hr workforce only wants to work 40 hours: I won’t be able to meet my week’s and month’s delivery quotas. My current American workers may oblige to $4/hr but, that’d be insane—that money isn’t going to pay their bills, mortgage, car loan, college loan, health insurance, and other credit card acquisitions (computers, cellphones etc). They may get some orchard/farm job but only for a time until they get “real” employment…
     Meantime, my fear has evolved into paranoia. As a small farmer, how’d I be able to keep my business? The store space that I am renting has also jacked up lease cost because it has been bought by a real estate owner who also runs a bank in town. Also, I need to raise the price of my apples to at least recoup the extra $4 than I am paying my current American workers. And I also need to pay my own bills.
     Holy mackerel! A longtime customer exclaimed, “What? Your apple costs $5 now?!? What’s wrong with you, Junior? The apple that my wife bought is only $2! But, hell, it’s imported from Taiwan!” Lordy, I am losing business! I heard, my stall may be taken in by someone who just moved in from Florida, who pays better. I heard he also put up a cafĂ© beside his store, and has some unemployed kids providing free music. Hell, my son even plays music in there…
     Listen, last week, a dude on Brooks Bros suit, approached me and offered to buy my farm (that I inherited from dad and his ancestors). Tough! My son and daughter are about to enter college… My son said he’ll go to war so he could continue college. Hell, no! I am also behind my mortgage payment on my 7-room house. I only wanted a better life for my kids, you know… life that I didn’t experience growing up.
     Another lady who looks like Dolly Parton, sans the big hair but equally huge breasts, talked to me about simply marketing or distributing apples imported from China. She certainly doesn’t look like Chinese to me yet she seemed more concerned with China than Alabama… Kidding aside though, her deal seems doable. If I cut her a deal, I don’t need to go out there under the sun and cold and supervise my farm anymore… And I won’t be able to hire workers—Mexicans or Americans anymore—and worry about accounting and taxes and stuff. I will also have some front-office help from a calling center in Manila and Hongkong. My wife and daughter don’t have to do that: they have all the time in the world to Facebook and Tweet, whatever.
     Meanwhile, I sit down and contemplate: Do I need my Mexican farm-helps back, really? Or should I just do away with my farm, sit in front of my iMac, text buddies who left their family behind—like Coop—who’s now working in China, advising Chinese workers how to make awesome Frisbees.
     I don’t know. I gotta get going though… The wife wants me to buy her some new shirt at Target. I just hope that it’s not made in China. Ah, I miss Luis—he should be driving me to the mall, my back starts to ache and my insurance says it doesn’t pay for bad back that emanated from working a farm with Mexican workers.
     Hell, I’m just kidding.

--Pasckie Pascua
Just a dude--not Chinese, Mexican, or Alabaman--just a dude like you and him…