Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Occupy Vancouver?

I am currently in Vancouver attending a conference. The weather is nice and the city is very beautiful. It is very nicely landscaped and there's a lot of greenery all over the city. It reminds me a lot of Boston.

It is interesting that my hotel is situated right next to the Occupy Vancouver protests.

As I was mulling over what I should be blogging about this week, I thought that maybe I should take a break from typical exhortations about how to scale websites and why security is important and talk about something higher-level.

I was once asked by an ex-CS3216 "what is the meaning of life?" Perhaps it might be helpful to reflect on this question with the current Occupy protests that are happening not only in Vancouver, but all over the world (except perhaps Singapore, where it failed miserably), and reflect on what is really going on.

First, there's the TV coverage on the protesters. It is not very hard to understand why people are unhappy and taking to the streets.

One protester said that all she wanted was a job and a future. She does not know how she is going to make enough money to pay for her study loans and bring up her two children. The unemployment rate in Vancouver is about 7% at the moment.

Wandering around the city, it is not obvious that things are quite so bad because there are lots of "Hiring" signs all over the place. I met this owner of a boutique and he was complaining about how the taxes and laws are making it very hard for the businesses.

Hiring is very difficult and there are local laws that prohibit the hiring of foreigners if employers are not able to "prove" that the job cannot be done by a local. The owner however complains that the locals are lazy and not willing to work hard. He said that the young go to college and do fluffy degrees like psychology and expect a high paying job.

Doesn't this all sound familiar? Classic tussle between labour and capitalists. Who is right?

Does it matter?

The sad truth is that the world today is that it's structurally broken. How exactly do the protesters think that protesting will change their lot? Many claim that their Governments are not listening. The implication, obviously, that if someone listened, someone will be able to change their lot?

Is that true? Sometimes, it is important for us to re-examine our assumptions.

I have thought very hard about the shit hole that the world is currently in. The future is really very bleak. I do not believe for a moment that the Europeans can figure out how to get out of their current mess. America is very screwed and I really don't think that their lots will improve in the short to medium term.

Singapore is actually holding out remarkably well in the midst of this insanity, but it is a question how long we can continue to hold out before also getting sucked into the mess.

I see the current situation as a deadly combination of three factors, that, together, cause what I call a spiral of death: (i) expectations; (ii) politics; and (iii) rising costs of living.

There are many things to learn in life, some of which are found in unexpected places. One of principles I learnt while doing HR for the Singapore Legal Service many years ago is called the "Principle of Equal Misery". The general idea is very simple: people are not unhappy necessarily because of how much they have, but how much they don't have, relative to others.

Critics of the Singapore Government have often cited the increasing the Gini coefficient as evidence that Singapore is doing it wrong and people are "suffering" because of the rising income inequality. The Singapore Government has always pushed back by citing growth figures and how our numbers show that our people are very much better off than folks from most places in the world. Who is right?

Obviously, I support the Government's position and I don't think that the Gini coefficient matters. I think that what matters is whether lives are improved in absolute terms. However, it hardly matters what I believe, because I represent what is known as the "rational" camp, which I suspect is in the minority.

Lots of people are unhappy because sometimes (most times?) life is not just about reason and I can illustrate this with an example.

Every now and then I go jogging to try to keep fit and as a valiant attempt to pass my annual IPPT test, and as I jog, I would inadvertently pass these big houses. When this happens, one question often pops up, "Why are these people staying in such big houses while I stay in a HDB flat? Are all these people smarter and more capable than me?"

Perhaps I might be arrogant, but I suspect that the answer is no. It is not unlikely that I am smarter, faster, more articulate and more hardworking that quite a few of the folks who own these big houses.

If so, then should I be staying in one of these houses instead of my dinky little HDB flat? :-) However, the reality is that if I stayed in my current job as a prof, I would never be able to afford such a house (at least not on a prof's salary without striking lottery or something :-)).

The obvious answer is then, obviously, to quit my job and to find a higher-paying job or start a company or something.... but this is where I stop myself, "Wait, why do I want to stay in such a house anyway?" Sure, it might be cool to stay in a big house, but am I really unhappy with where I'm staying now? As it turns out, no. So *why* am I thinking about buying a bigger house to begin with?

Life's complicated and what I have done with this example is to illustrate the issue of envy. Sometimes we might get lulled into thinking we need something we don't actually need just because someone else has it. Most people also have an inflated sense of their self-worth and think that they are better than others. When others have something that we don't and we don't think that they are better than us, we think we deserve it too. :-) That's the problem with the Gini coefficient.

The trouble with politics in the modern world is that we don't have enough benevolent and wise dictators and democracy is a failed system. The problem with democracy is that politicians need to be popular to get elected and to do so, they need to do what people want -- and the trouble is people often don't want what is good for them. Look at Steve Jobs, did he every trust the people to know what's good for them?

But this is the reality we live in and unfortunately I don't have any bright ideas for a system of Government that works better than a democracy, so we learn to live with what we get.

The biggest problem that we have in Singapore is the problem of success. It is my view that lots of people are unhappy because they are always comparing themselves to folks more successful than themselves and they have unreasonable expectations.

They expect to do better than their parents. They expect good jobs with high pay. They expect to own their own homes simply because their parents could afford to do so and they expect their kids to go to college.

To be fair, it is not entirely unreasonable to want progress and for their kids to do well. Why is that unreasonable?

This is where the original "unreasonable" needs some qualification. By unreasonable, I don't mean that it is unreasonable for people to have these expectations, just that it is unreasonable for the system to be able to fulfill these expectations.

For example, Singaporeans want their kids to go to college. They believe that the college degree is a ticket to a better life. It is partially true. The degree is a pre-requisite for many jobs. But what people fail to realise is that why college degrees and higher paying jobs are correlated, it does not necessarily mean that there is causality.

The trouble with the generally working class Singapore is that most people still don't understand that employers don't pay for degrees. They pay to get the job done. The degree is only useful as a signal for them to hire fresh graduates. Students with good grades are either (i) smart; or (ii) hardworking; or BOTH, and these are helpful traits in workers.

But how many people do we think can win elections by telling people straight in the eye, "you really shouldn't waste time getting a degree, you're not as good as 50% of the other people". There are always exceptions and late bloomers who get a degree late in life and do very well.

As more and more people get degrees become PMETs and expect higher paying jobs, we have to ask ourselves what the structure of our economy is going to look like. If we don't want to let more foreigners in, then who are going to serve in the restaurants and man the stores in the shopping malls?

The recent policy to increase university intake by another 1,000 is a disaster waiting to happen. I am not convinced that it will make our people happier in the long run. The trouble is that telling people to quit whining about not getting into university and to be content with their lot in life is not effective way to win elections. That's where politics fails.

I really do think that a very very important aspect of successful governance for the next 2 decades is to get people to wake up their idea and to be grateful that they have a roof over their heads and that they are not starving. People should really go to India and see how some of the folks there are living. WHY do Singaporeans deserve better and to be able to retire and not wash dishes at the hawker centers when they grow old? Many Singaporeans, probably because of their hard work and/or good fortunate will live relatively comfortably till the reach their graves, but does that mean that EVERYONE deserves the same?

This brings us to the last problem and that's the cost of living and this problem is *REAL*. There's some truth in that Singapore has already done pretty well compared to many other major cities in the world, but I really don't think we did well enough.

The biggest problem is property. Property is not a "normal" good, or the sort that is easily described by the supply-demand curves in Economics 101. The demand is obviously somewhat inelastic because everyone needs a room over his/her head. Prices are however completely out of whack.

Does it make any sense? From the fact that there are very few people on the streets, we know that there is enough accommodation to give everyone a shelter. The problem is that the high property prices feeds into the high rental costs and also high mortgage payments that feeds the increasing costs of living. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the young are impatient and do have understand financial planning and credit.

Personally, I don't think much of property. People just need a place to stay. A property sitting idle and not doing much shouldn't be allowed to generate extra-normal returns. When people are allowed to make a lot of money without creating value, we are creating a moral hazard for society. So it is with Wall Street.

Obviously, I think that the right thing is for the Government to exercise its policy tools to drastically bring down the property prices. Many people will probably agree, except that they probably don't understand that such a move would be v bloody all round and be political suicide. This further underlines the problem with politics. Sometimes what is beneficial for the greater good simply cannot be done because people need to get elected. >.<

So what's the moral of this *really long* story? :-) That is something I hope that the students will think about. Perhaps post some comments and we can discuss.


  1. that the world, esp singapore, is heading towards self destruction as I told you the other day =p

  2. A few word typo that made me think for a while to understand some of your statements =p

    Anyway, I like this part:
    ~The obvious answer is then obviously to quit my job and to find a higher-paying job or start a company or something.... but this is where I stop myself, "wait, why do I want to stay in such a house anyway?" Sure, it might be cool to stay in a big house, but am I really unhappy with where I'm staying now? As it turns out, no. So *why* am I thinking about buying a bigger house to begin with?~

    Sometimes, as the effort's going, people just forgot their ultimate motivation of doing whatever they are doing now, and eventually they will just be doing as what their environment told them to do. That's why I think it's good for us to reconsider our goals by reflecting each day. =)

  3. "Arms race". That sums it all up.

    It's said that hell is other people. Aren't expectations just a quiet instinct calling out for us to compete? 'Kiasu' should be in our genes; if 'kiasi' is a survival mechanism, 'kiasu' is a reproductive success drive (I like to call it the Live Long and Prosper mechanisms).

    Why do you want a bigger house? To show off status. To attract a better mate (probably you've already optimized that part). To show off status for your kids so they can attract better mates. To impress people, etc, etc.

    Reading lots of pop economist books can get you very cynical. Outliers and Nudge particularly.

    I deal with some addictions (call them obsessions) myself. I lurk on forums and sometimes come across posts about how to cope. There's a general consensus (or delusion, or mass hysteria) that "if it doesn't interfere with your functioning as a normal human being, if it doesn't take you away from work and taxes, it's acceptable and you don't have to worry about it". Quite sure the path of no return lies along that train of thought, but envy - why not? If it drives you, why not?

    The system being inefficient bears no relevance to people's desires; they either play the system or game it to get ahead. Hence rent-collecting (and in v v basic econs we learn that rent-collecting properties > all other sources).

    They say that hell is other people. So is life, and life doesn't seem so peachy after all.

    You experience envy. You cope with contentment and self satisfaction. Is this a conscience choice not to fight and get involved and stress yourself or a coping/denial mechanism? (take no offense; it's just the way I think).

    P.S. Evidently...employees do hire by degrees. According to some alumni who work public sector.

    P.P.S. HR for the SLS?! What the-? From CompSci/QuantFin?

  4. Evidently...employees do hire by degrees. According to some alumni who work public sector.

    You mean employers. Yes. Reason is v simple. Got lots of people applying for the job.

    When you have a choice between a pretty and poor or an ugly but rich girl, life is hard. If you can find one who is both pretty and rich, take it. :-)

    Basically, folks who are mediocre compete on degrees. They have little else to go by.

  5. Thank you for your post prof. As i read it, i recalled the daily reflections and thinking that i have deep inside my heart and many of your points that you present are what i had thought through. And these points are still disturbing me. While thinking deeper and deeper and seeking answering to many many questions such as "what is the meaning of life" and "why do we deserve to be in the current state of life when someone somewhere in the globe is starving", I begin to see no light. I begin to become more depressed in life. It reached a certain point of thinking that i am convinced that subconsciously, i am a mad man as perceived by my conscious self.

    Doesn't this all sound familiar? Classic tussle between labour and capitalists. Who is right?

    Is that true? Sometimes, it is important for us to re-examine our assumptions.

    There is really no answers to all these as with there is no right and wrong. I attended weekly church lessons and daily preaching as young as 13 as i was from St. Andrew's. And later on i went to daily preaching by catholics as i was from catholic high school. I am still not convinced by the answers they gave me about all the answers in life. Then i went on to pursue weekly buddhism class and i am still unconvinced. The sad truth is that religions are trying to present to us a concrete answers to every situation we faced in life. The absolute answers are presented in such a way that there is no argument and there is always another set of answers for any rebuttals if we believe in GOD,KARMA, RE-CARNATION. So in the end, i just believe in everything i see before i end up in IMH.

    The general idea is very simple: people are not unhappy necessarily because of how much they have, but how much they don't have, relative to others.

    This is so true. So a few more idea are born from this general idea such as 人不为己天诛地灭. I like to believe that all of us are born selfish and greedy. When we are born, we want to protect what we have and also continue to be gaining more and more wealth. The more common wealth is money as we can see more people are willing to do anything for money. While there is another group of people mostly religious people who believe the wealth lies in helping others and passing knowledge around. So in the end, people are TRULY i mean really really happy when they have a lot of "wealth" in which they believe in. So the problem with the unhappy people are still because they do not which wealth they are after or they are not contented with the wealth they have depending on the degree of greediness and selfishness.

  6. The trouble with the generally working class Singapore is that most people still don't understand that employers don't pay for degrees. They pay to get the job done.

    I totally agreed with this. This is proven almost close to 100% from the case studies i have seen in my life and in this era. My father side relatives almost all degree holders or to be degree holders yet they end up working for others and get normal pay. While my mother side relatives all of them have no qualification of even PSLE, and they end up being very successful in life measured by wealth as compared to my father side. Also there are a few living examples in CS3216 in case you have not noticed like for example ryan( if i remembered rightly), the guy who came pitch to us about MEDF1. He is not using his degree at all to get paid so well. I sort of estimate his pay to be around 10k. And so far in my life, i had never come across anyone who use a degree within my time(don't say our fathers or uncle, the degree in their time is rare please) and without any connections to become successful in terms of wealth. Prove me wrong as i am convinced the cases are rare. So often, especially recently, i keep telling people, if you know that you want to get rich in terms of money in life, please risk leaving the university and start a business now. Because time is limited. By the time, i come out of university, i will be 25/26 and by then the market is so saturated that the chances might be lower for any business and we might run out of creativity and innovation for the business due to the failed educational culture to stem creativity in university. However, if you know you like to gain more knowledge and it is an achievement to get a degree(rarity: common), then stay in schools. To me, educations are for people who do not know what they want in life(myself included).

    Personally, I don't think much of property. People just need a place to stay.

    We just need food, water and shelter to live.

    So what's the moral of this *really long* story? :-)

    We are powerless as a individual human being. If there is a group of people, we might change something. If the group are bigger, we can change more. If earthlings can be truly united(the day alien came invading earth), we can change the world, and make it a better place. And there is an application that is currently being created called BETTERME (currently To change the world, it starts with an individual. =)

    Thanks for reading. Xp

  7. There is an issue of qualification inflation, the older generation think that having a degree of any sort will bring about a good job, and pass on that belief to their children. Who then expect good jobs to come out of graduation, but times change, the degree is now the starting point, everyone has got it, and when the job offers on the market fail the expectation level of graduating students, they complain.

  8. Hmm...drastically bring down the property prices will kill a lot of wallets leh. Oh and a lot of retirement money too.

  9. On the topic of Occupy Vancouver, I can’t help but think that at this point in time is when it either dies or takes off, but that’s really just my opinion. Although I did find a post worth sharing not too long ago, so if you’re into a bit more info/opinion, here’s an article I can recommend (linkage if you’re interested in a peek: Cheers!