Bill Me Later

Bill Me Later, one of eBay’s fastest-growing businesses, offers credit to online shoppers, letting them pay a few months after purchases. Now, from a business point of view this is a fairly exciting update. The service will not only help eBay grow its sales, it will also help Pay-Pal evolve from a mere transactional service to a financial product. Though valid credit-risk issues exist. [Source]

But from a social perspective, it is a development which invokes two very different emotions within me. Firstly, I find it dull because it is nothing new; It is simply another way of offering credit to a hyper-consumerist society. Secondly, and for the same reason, I find it utterly disgusting; It gives us one more reason to consume beyond our economic and ecological limits.

India, traditionally, has not been a country where consumption is appreciated. Our religions, and ideologies, demand self control and discipline in the use of not just tangible material goods, but also intangibles like emotions and senses. Most of us, while growing up, observed our parents making the most of their money, running the household as efficiently as they could, yet spending adequately for important stuff like education or health, and still ending up with a handful of saving at the end of the month.

Why is it then, that despite such an upbringing, this generation, collectively, not only exhausts its entire income in the very first week of the month, but also has virtually zero savings. The situation would look normal, if our lifestyles were mundane. But on the contrary, we dabble in luxury; Everything about us (clothes, gadgets, entertainment, etc.) is branded and expensive. The reason why we do it can be explored upon. But, I want to focus on facilities and social artifacts like Bill Me Later which make it easier and “cooler” to spend more than we should.

The exhibit of desire!! Isn’t it weird that, unlike our parents, we never actually have a list of all the stuff we need when we leave our homes for shopping. We saunter into air-conditioned malls, pick a cart and walk like zombies along the aisles lined with stuff on both sides, filling our carts with not just things we need, but with also a lot of stuff we do not require. Even small shopkeepers have started opening up their display areas to invite customers in, enabling them to pick what they need. And here lies the first problem; The exhibition of stuff appeals to a mysteriously instinctual and very strong urge in human beings to hoard. It makes you believe in needs that you never knew even existed. Retailers are rapidly replicating this experience online, luring us by offering economically unviable rebates (Flipkart, we know what you are doing.). The ease of selection, payment & delivery makes it a better experience, and hence a larger threat.

The death of cash!! Now that you have filled your enormous carts upto the brim, it is time to pay. But you do not need a stash of currency, you just need to swipe your card [and in very near future, may be just tap your smartphone]. The absence of actual currency notes from our transactions numbs our sense of judgement regarding the amount of money we are spending. The use of credit cards worsens the situation as it makes our ability to shop agnostic to our liquidity, making debt an increasingly acceptable option.

The lure of approval!! Annie Leonard’s story of stuff [Link] is probably the best demonstration of the way the businesses use planned and perceived obsolescence to promote more consumption. But are we less responsible? Don’t we try to project ourselves through our snazzy gadgets to hide our imperfections and idiosyncrasies, substituting faster processors for slower wits and sharper displays for blunt manners. Do I really need to buy this thing? Can I find an alternate? Can I borrow it from someone? These are valid questions and we should ask them more frequently. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you should.

I am not advocating that buying groceries from small local stores, paying in cash, abandoning credit cards and justifying gadget purchases will magically rid us of our economic troubles. I am assuring that these steps point to a direction that leads to a debt and regret free future.

गहराई के सजग अँधेरे

रोमांच हज़ार सीसी की बाइक में नहीं, उस समझ में है कि कैसे इंजन में हर पल हो रहे हज़ारो विस्फोट गाड़ी कि रफ़्तार में बदल जाते है।

नशा व्हिस्की के जाम में नहीं, उस जुनून में है जिसमे खोकर इंसान सिर्फ किसी एक चाहत के लिए अपना पूरा जीवन कुरबान कर देता है।

मौज फेसबुक, ट्विटर या आइ-फ़ोन में नहीं, उन व्यक्तित्व, उन संवादों, उन कल्पनाओं में है, जो दुनिया को बदल देने की ताकत रखते हैं।

स्वाद पकवान में नहीं, भूखे तन में है। नींद बिस्तर में नहीं, थके टूटे बदन में है। सौंदर्य (या बदसूरती) और कहीं नहीं, खुद तेरे ही मन में है।

जीवन को सतह पर ढूंढना आधुनिकता नहीं सिर्फ फैशन-परस्ती और बेवकूफी है। गहराई के सजग अँधेरे में ही उजाले की लौ जलती है।

Russian Economy and the Indian Kids of the 80s

Crude might have showed just a slight decline (thanks to a slowing economy), but leaders at IMF and World Bank are already losing sleep over the petroleum dependent economy of Russia. It seems, for a fall of every one dollar in the price of oil, the Russian government loses around 1.65 billion dollar in oil-related taxes over the course of a year. Though, the cash reserves Russia has amassed [$185 billion] should help it sustain through a 2009 like $60-per-barrel period for two years.

Witnessing the events in and around Russia in the last decade, one can’t help but recall Friedman‘s first law of petropolitics. He states, and I quote, “Price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states. The higher the average global crude oil price rises, the more free speech, free press, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and independent political parties are eroded. And these negative trends are reinforced by the fact that the higher the price goes, the less petrolist leaders are sensitive to what the world thinks or says about them”.

This could easily be seen in Putin’s dealings with dissidence, both internal and external, in the recent past. But what really represents and helps understand the economic decisions of Russia’s leadership is the phenomenon of Dutch Disease or the more generic Resource Curse, in simple words, the tendency of an entity to mis-manage its finances and underperform when there is an abundance of resources. Russia saw a surge in its oil output in the early 2000’s, attributed to privatization and import of technology. A simultaneous increase in the oil demand, and thereby prices, globally, helped Russia in revitalizing its economy. But it failed to take a leaf from the world’s collective history and became increasingly dependent on Oil.

Now, Russia’s fate will be decided by its political will and social conscience. They might understand the importance of diversifying their windfall, or ignore the history lessons and delay reforms until it’s too late. But, the fact that the learning applies equally well to not just other countries, but organizations, people and even processes, should not be lost on any one of us. Scarcity not only promotes judicious use of resources, it also encourages creative ideas for increasing efficiency. Abundance, on the other hand, leads to mis-use and deters growth. This does not imply that abundance is bad; It implies that abundance of any resource comes with an inherent tendency of it being mismanaged and undervalued. Be it the abundance of time, as on a long break between two exams, or money, or even friends (Am kidding!! :D), on a personal level, the effects of “too much” can be easily seen.

I believe Indians (and Asians in general) who were born in the 80’s to middle or higher class parents, can actually look at their entire lives and blame the abundance they witnessed in the upbringing they received, from their parents in specific and the society in general, for a chronic sense of impatience, dissatisfaction and lack of confidence. There was no struggle for basics at home, or vacancies and facilities in public schools. There were plenty colleges where they could graduate when they needed to, and a booming IT, ITeS industry ready to employ them by the time they graduated. A generation which was served everything on a platter not only lost the art of evaluation but also the ability to persevere and face adversity with poise. This I think should be called the “Curse of the Blessed”.

We meek shall inherit the Earth (and the debt)

Question: My reaction on WikiLeaks.

[If you are a man of few words refer answer 2.]

Answer 1: I revel, to an orgasmic level. But I am ashamed to express my happiness (and my gratitude to it’s source) because the world ignores what’s obvious (generally) and true (specifically). These leaks provide proofs for acts of hypocrisy, injustice, terrorism and abhorrent crimes committed by governments and corporations around the world which we are already aware of subconsciously. Just think, is it possible for so much of bullshit to go around unchecked, without the approval of authorities? The truth is, we have been conditioned to mind our own business to such an extent that we howl and cry only when the atrocities of the ruling class affect us directly. And even then, meek as we are, we disguise it under a pretence of perseverance and go on with our petty day to day agendas as if getting mad at something is such a bad thing.

I’ll Quote Voltaire here,

It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.
We know the truth. We look it in the eye daily. We breath it day in and day out. And we still don’t react. Our government executes plunder and mass murder in the name of development and we play pawn to their game, assuming that their claim can’t be untrue. The questions we should ask is how much of that development gets percolated to those who need it and are the proclaimed beneficiaries. Ministers indulge in multi-million dollar scams while we focus our attention on seedy reality shows (which, by the way, are converting a common man somewhere into a fundamentalist with a plan for retributive justice). Every election just changes the face of incessant terror and rhetoric, which they propound to justify their incapacity at governance. The intentions and methodologies and hidden manifestos remain same.
If you look at it carefully returning to cave looks like a solid option for a better living. For:
  1. Education sucks. I laugh when I compare what children are taught and what skills they require in the real world.
  2. Healthcare.. oh wait, I should just call it Health Business and close my case.
  3. Consumer goods are at all time high prices. The rich can’t afford pulses!! When did that happen? True, it’s an open market. Demand and supply decide if the prices go up or down. Well, who decides the base prices?
  4. The havoc wrought on our environment as a direct result of the support greedy corporations have from our policy makers.
  5. The economic inequality that our policies foster. (The truth is they’ll eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor)
  6. The social instability and distrust that our politicians are willing to fuel for their immediate benefit.

Answer 2: Bro, let’s find a fertile patch and go off the grid.

The Earth Hour :: Does it make sense?

Had I flicked my light switches off tonight for an hour I would have done my share our commitment towards our planet. I chose not to.

The growing rate of consumption all over the world (of not just energy but also resources) is a concern we all need to address. Indian cities like Mumbai and Delhi have population ranging up to 20 million. These two cities put together are more populous than Canada or Spain. Their energy consumption has grown by roughly 10% consistently since years. And as expected from Indian governance and planning the generation capacity has been more or less flat.

The recent power plant projects (which will be commissioned at least a year or two from now, and are all either Coal fired or Gas fired) will be absorbed by our never ending internal growth potential, besides adding to the growing pollution. But shutting shop is not the solution. We cannot and should not put a cap on our growth just because we appear to be caught in a “energy crunch – harmful emissions” cycle.

The problem we are facing is not as easy as it looks, or rather is made up to look. The complexity and gravity of the situation can be understood by the fact that the solutions which can be implemented to effectively counter this hydra headed monster are available and very much feasible since decades (Solar, Geo-thermal, Wind, Fuel-Cell, etc.). This explains that our world is inherently drawn towards its doom. And this inheritance is an unexplainable result of the way economics and politics are intertwined.

I see people cringe every time Petrol and Diesel prices go up. What they do not understand (and are never told in those switch-your-lights-off-for-an-hour-today websites) is the colossal effect such small changes have on our planet. The reason why the already available solutions were never implemented is Economics. And ironically if we ever get serious and implement these solutions the reason for sure shall be Economics.

Let’s see what happens when petrol and diesel prices go up… The sector hit directly is transportation, which means movement via rail, road and air becomes costlier, which further puts pressure on industries, because they depend heavily on movement of goods. This may also affect your utility if it is dependent on fuels like Coal and Gas for power generation, which means costlier electricity. It also affects service companies like ITs and ITes (think Server Farms and Air Conditioning and Office lights). Thus a rupee more for Petrol or Diesel could mean higher operational costs for everyone around. And nothing else in this world (not even this world’s doom itself) has more power to stimulate and bring about change than Money. Only when it hurts corporate balance sheets and common man’s budget is when Government Policies will change for the good.

There is no harm in creating a general awareness about the current situation. Masses should be involved if such a drastic problem has to be dealt with. But the way this has been propagated since few years is creating more problem than it is solving. It is not the message of doom anymore but a nice topic for dining-table-debates. And as Thomas L. Friedman says we are just having a “Green Party”. And this Earth Hour Gig is just another bash thrown to celebrate our Greenness, our commitment to the cause of saving mother earth. You just have to pose “Green” (Take a look at the “Green” site of one of our Indian power companies below). So much discussion and so little effort (just a flick of your light switch) are hurting the cause by belittling its gravity. I do not question the intention of the move; I doubt the understanding and sincerity of the followers.

The "Green" Us
The “Green” Us

The best thing you can do today is keep your lights switch on all night, just to prove that you are not partying any more. It is the question of our existence and is definitely not a distant condition. This is not something our kids will be facing alone; we’ll be by their side when the D-day comes.