The end is nigh, but getting there depends where you start from
We are a very kindly and tolerant outfit. I believe somewhere in the early records of this journal there is a mention of Joseph Stalin (or was it Mr Blair?) which is willing to credit him with a certain measure of good intentions in some business which unfortunately had a dire outcome for almost everyone else. But I had thought we always knew where we were with our Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems; emollient casuistry, and some kind words where possible for the deserving poor, but fundamentally a firm defence of those who understand what is needed for the rational management of a vibrant and growing economy – what we might call the Economist mode. So it was a bit of a shaker when he sent in this little curiosity. In my view, Berthold has left it rather late to turn into some sort of a social commentator, and, to be blunt, a bit of a lefty. We allow him his effusion on this occasion, but shall be keeping a sharp watch on him hereafter.
When faced with ugly shapes looming bulkily on the economic graphs portending imminent disaster a common refrain sung soothingly by investment advisors, bankers, and others in the GHOPM business (Getting Hold of Other People’s Money) has throughout history been ‘Ah, but it’s different this time!’.
They had better hope that the lyric turns out to be equally untrue today. Usually the last notes of the last renderings have been cut short by the first rumblings of the crash about to overwhelm the customers whom those rhapsodes were advising. There were always some experts who thought they could safely leave it till the last moment before heading to the executive lift, to set off for the well prepared safe haven from which in fact only one in two would return, with not many of those returning in the pomp to which they had been accustomed. (Those, however, are the ones you will have read about in the media.) But cool-headed analysis suggests that now we really are facing a major change in the economic climate. Add together the converging geophysical disasters both natural and humanly contrived, wars between and within states, terrorism, the population curve surging upward while technical developments increasingly find people unnecessary, the blind rush to extract more and more resources where less and less remains, and at the same time continuing and extending reliance on those same resources; add all those together and as each threatening crisis hoists itself up on the shoulders of the ones that are already trampling on the livelihoods, and indeed the lives, of the poor (and, these days, the formerly middle class) you should reflect that human history knows epochal cycles larger and in proportional terms more devastating than mere ‘business cycles’ of a few years or so. As these megacycles come towards their end they have a graphic shape dramatically different from anything like the sinusoidal curves in the economics textbooks. Look at things on the same scale as that adopted by Arnold Toynbee, and you will see that even after generations – even in some cases after millennia – of success and economic growth, human societies end in failure, and nearly always failure accompanied by the sound of galloping hooves as four horsemen come on the scene.
An editorial note: Berthold is distressed at hearing his name mispronounced. Modern education, being a thing of shreds (ill-fitting) and patches (artificial fabric), joined together by irregularly shaped lacunae, has left many people unable to pronounce their own name correctly. Berthold has asked me to include the advice to learners that the first part of his family name is properly pronounced ‘Fanshaw’.
An extract from another e-mail from the Mad Doc, which we offer in case it may be a useful warning to any readers considering holiday plans.
Before the great Asian crash of 1997, one of the delights of Thailand, if you could find a car to hire, was driving between cities, so long as you remembered to fill up with gasoline wherever you found it being sold. Road surfaces were remarkably good, which was largely because there was almost no traffic to show how badly the tarmac was laid You could drive literally a hundred miles and meet maybe just seven or eight other motorised vehicles. The only things to watch out for were sharp bends, which might be concealing a slow-moving buffalo cart in the middle of the road, or very occasionally an elephant. In the city the only real problem was again the sharp bends but this time because the few drivers around operated on the principle (still widely observed today) that if they couldn’t see something coming, then it wasn’t there. The 1997 crash changed all that. The IMF ably following the instructions of the US made the country safe for multinational exploitation, as a condition of providing financial assistance. This was followed by the prime ministerial reign of a canny operator, who from being a humble police colonel quickly became one of the richest men in southeast Asia, following modern commercial principles and helping his compatriots to feel rich either by selling their assets or by borrowing money. (Britain seems to have been rather a slow learner, but under the Tories has been going at it hammer and tongs for some years now.) One result was that most males in the country hocked themselves to the eyeballs, or else sold off parts of the family farm, and bought first a motorcycle and then a pick-up truck, and rushed out onto the public roads, with most of them learning to drive over the next two or three years. Consequently in a city like Chiangmai there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of cars, vans, pick-ups, SUVs, trucks and trucks-with-trailers. There are five or six major double carriageway routes from out in the country into Chiangmai, and seven days a week each of them has three or four kilometres of traffic jam creeping slowly along in three and a half lanes (ie three and a half lanes’ worth of vehicles on three lanes of road, on each side) from 7.30 am much of the day to 6 pm. This has two paradoxical results. First it has slightly reduced the number of serious accidents, an economic activity in which the country far outdoes the notorious French, because it greatly reduces traffic speed. Second, it has produced an even more phenomenal increase, from almost zero, in the number of cyclists, since you have a good chance of evading the worst traffic blockages entirely, by taking little alleyways or other walkable shortcuts, and generally can actually be faster (as well as finding somewhere to park at the other end) if you use a bike so long as you survive the journey. At any red lights now you see not merely motorcyclists (traditionally insane in this country) but also the engineless amateurs inserting their lives into non-existent gaps between the ranks of vehicles, as they edge their way to the front of the pack before – maybe – the light goes green. The effect on the previously staid and sedentary Thai middle-class is uncertain but could be dramatic.
Another result is that we now lead the world except for China in rates of several kinds of air pollution if measurements are made within half a kilometre of a road. These days, as viewed from the Hangdong Road dawn is seen to be a heavy smoker, her hands not rosy-fingered but yellow-brown. And to all these chemicals we have to add the alien organisms pouring into the Thai atmosphere with the Chinese tourists bringing bacteria hitherto unknown except in remote regions of Inner Mongolia or Yunnan, and the westerners (Russian, American, Australian) similarly bearing viruses developed and nourished in far flung corners of the domains they have stolen from the indigenous inhabitants (viruses which evidently in some cases affect mental or at least political function). We need more and fiercer air pollution to kill all these pests, provided of course that all local inhabitants can be either equipped with truly effective filters and masks, or else genetically modified.
Dr Malory Philipp von Hollenberg
Observation of the week (from Monty Skew, our political correspondent)
A civilised country (and a civilised union of allegedly independent nations) would support economic development in the interests of improving education, not education so as to support economic development.