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13.1.12

The Pied Piper

Soros targeting Indonesia?

 I attended the American Chamber of Commerce here in Jakarta last night.  It was notable for the sheer number of bankers and lawyers running around and it highlighted the vast quantities of money sloshing into Asia right now.

As the west goes into serious decline economically, funds and individuals are desperately redeploying their money anywhere that looks like it can return even a minor profit.

The Indonesian economy is ripe for the picking.  Since the fall of Soeharto, it's been limping along trying to find its bearings.  It is growing exponentially lately.  Just in the four years I've been here, I watched it go from room temperature to full boil.  People hardly know what to do with all the new-found wealth and attention literally flooding the country.

Most of the new money is focused on commodities and manufacturing.  Indonesia has a vast unskilled/low-skilled workforce that commands embarrassingly little money.  A great number of folks here live on $5 to $10 a day.  So many want to join in the fun, but they have minimal education and few marketable skills.  In other words, they are easy prey for ruthless industrialists who find them disposable resources.

Its rather sickening to see how western corporations behave outside their home territories.  They are like voracious predators who swoop in, pick the carcass to the bone and vanish again, leaving the locals spinning in a daze trying to figure out what just happened.

Indonesia is not an isolated case.  This has been the modus operandi of carnivorous capitalism for centuries.  Indonesia has been a target of colonialism for at least a millennium, with the Chinese, Europeans and finally the Americans all having a turn.  Granted the Americans had a real scam going, whereby the convinced everyone that they were there to save the patient as they pulled the plug.

Granted, Indonesians aren't without blame.  In culture here has little concept of 'tomorrow' and 'saving.'  Everyone is out to get all theirs upfront, to hell with the future.  As a consequence, little or nothing gets done without some outside imposed structure.

Here in Jakarta, there are mini monuments to this attitude all over parts of the city.  Back in 2000, they started on a monorail project for the city.  It got as far as building a few pylons before it went broke from folks taking their profit up front.  A year later, the project was revived with new investment.  A few more pylons were built, then the same thing happened.  Now there are dozens of these concrete and steel pylons rusting away.

It's a study in contrasts living here.  Indonesians are some of the most prejudiced people I've ever met.  This group hates that group, and they aren't the least bit afraid to tell you.  The Batak look down on the Javanese who look down on the Ambonese, and everyone looks down on the Papuans.  It's amazing that anything gets done, really.

But the thing that is rather ominous is that as Indonesia's prosperity grows, so does its reliance on the outside world.  It wasn't long ago that the country was a new exporter of oil and rice, but now they import both.  In both cases, its a cultural problem.  When folks have enough for today, they don't worry about tomorrow.  As a consequence, there was no investment in finding more oil, since there was so much of it back in the 80s.  The same with rice.  It was pouring out of every cabinet, so why worry about future growth and needs?

In many ways, Indonesia is a microcosm of the West.  Though the scale and details vary, the overall effect is much the same.

America began shipping its manufacturing overseas back in the 70s.  Back then it was the Japanese, but later the Chinese.  Folks saw the profits swell and everyone grew fat off the windfall.  No one gave a thought for tomorrow, because times were so good back then.  Remember the 80s?  The Reagan era, when business was unleashed and everything turned to a garage sale mentality, as folks sold off anything of value.

Hollywood got in on the act with movies like "The Secret of My Success," and "Wall Street."  It was all corporate raiders and M&A and knights of various colors.  Everyone discovered that they could get all theirs upfront and retire at 40, living the high life in their McMansions.

But money never lasts forever.  Carelessness and taxes and lack of thrift eventually eat out the largest nest egg.  Sure they retired at 40 in the their massive houses and made the cover of Forbes as they captained their yachts.  They had been conned by the allure of instant wealth, but hadn't learned the secret of maintaining it.

Along came inflation and rising energy prices.  They wanted to re-enter the workforce, but found it quite a bit tougher at 55 and 60.  Younger folks had come along and weren't just going to give up their jobs to let the aging wunderkinds back in.  The nest egg shrank and there was no investment in tomorrow.

A long time ago, there were all these ideas about making a fortune and using it to help the Earth.  The 60s kids had all these ideas about greening this and welfare that.  No one thought about what that would do 50 years down the line.  They could achieve things that no one else in history had been able to achieve, and they were going to do it in their own lifetimes.

After they had that little pile of money in front of them, though, things changed.  Gosh, who would notice if we just lived it up for a while?  I'll just take mine off the top here and then I can help the world from my position of comfort and privilege.  We'll just put in these laws and regulations about eco-this and touchy-feely that, and everything will be hunky-dory!

And it was, for a couple of decades.  The thing is, when the dance ends the piper always comes over to collect his fee.  You were having such a great time at the party, you forgot to set aside a few bucks for this eventuality.  Now you're in a particularly embarrassing moment.  It's at this point a lot of folks start throwing blame around.  Then comes the begging and pleading.  Then the sob tales.  All the while, the piper is standing there unmoved and unmoving.

So here we are, folks.  Money is sloshing around the planet trying to find quick profits rather than going into future dividends.  All the desperate early retirees who thought they were going to do what no man has ever achieved, are now scrambling to build up just one more nest egg.

What they are finding is that there are no nests, much less eggs to put in them.  It's all been hacked up and sold off to fund yesterday's party, and the piper not looking the least bit amused.

The way I figure it, everyone gets one pie in life.  The conventional wisdom was that you divvy it up and have a little taste here and there, then when the time came, you could have a nice big slice with a little whipped cream, too.  Along came the ME generation.  They figured that they could eat the whole damn thing up front, and then get another pie later on.  Well, there ain't no more pie, and last I checked, the whipped cream supply is running pretty darned low, too.  The solution was to eat the kids' pies, because they were young and could find another pie later, right?

Well, all the pie for the next 10 generations has been eaten...by us.  We had our desert, now we have to figure out how to put some back for the next round, but that's not happening.  Instead, folks are still looking for more pie.  We're all now and this is the time we should be enjoying our pie, why can't we have more?  After all, it's our right to have pie!  We deserve pie!  Our parents had pie at this age!

Yes, but they saved theirs until they had time to enjoy it.  We gobbled ours down before dinner, and there's nothing left now.  We've eaten the kids' pies and the neighbors pies and when the folks down the lane weren't looking, we ate their too.  So now it's all gone and we've got a massive sugar rush and we are scrambling to find a new supply.

We had so many rationalizations.  We had so many high ideals and lofty goals.  We were going to change the world, and when you think about it, we did.  Just not quite the way we were planning.

Anger.  Denial.  Depression.  Bargaining.  Acceptance.

Dr. Kuebler-Ross.  Remember that great scene from "All That Jazz?"  So where are you on that scale?  From what I see, we're still a long way from acceptance.  Seems we're quickly entering the depression phase.  We may be slipping into the bargaining part, but very slowly.  Once we get to acceptance, we might be able to find some solutions.  The question is, will we live long enough to get to that point, or will we get stuck here?

If everyone suddenly sold off all the ridiculous trappings of false wealth and started living on $5 to $10 a day, like a lot of Indonesians do, there might be some hope.  But I don't see that happening any time soon.  Everyone wants their pie and to eat it too.  From everything I've ever learned, it doesn't work like that.

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