Jeremy Boo

irregular, longwinded pieces

Distributing wealth and tiresome Facebook fables

Every once in a while, a cutesy photograph or a vacuous anecdote makes its round on Facebook, and I usually pay no heed. This time however, not only is the subject of my ire an ugly photograph and a vacuous anecdote, it is also almost always accompanied by exclamations of divine epiphany. Worse, weeks later, people are still sharing it. With Amens appended.

The story goes along the lines of:

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan”.. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A…. (substituting grades for dollars – something closer to home and more readily understood by all).

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.

The second test average was a D! No one was happy.
When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.

As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. Could not be any simpler than that. (Please pass this on) These are possibly the 5 best sentences you’ll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:

1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!
5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

Can you think of a reason for not sharing this?
Neither could I.

A most superficial reading of the passage would reveal it as the nonsense it really is because the author obviously does not know the difference between socialism and communism. Communism, as evinced by this little anecdote and the collapse of the Soviet Union, is in present circumstances clearly untenable. In a Communist state, citizens are trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma; when rewards are equal, the invisible hand guides citizens to maximise their own interests and attempt to free-ride on others. In the end, nobody works and the system falls apart. On the other hand, some level of socialism exists in most countries. National healthcare, public education, public infrastructure, military defence, and national pension schemes are all products of socialism.

This foolish error is merely distraction, however.

What caught my attention are five numbered points at the end of the note:

1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!
5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

They sound almost like truisms. Surely, no one can disagree with them.

Yes, one can.

Let me offer some reworded alternatives, even if I do not entirely agree:

1. No policy, even communist ones, intends to legislate the poor into prosperity.
2. There are many who received what is gained through the exploitation of others.
3. The government must take what is gained through exploitation and return it to those exploited.
4. There is nothing morally wrong with dividing wealth, and there is nothing inherently desirable in multiplying wealth.
5. When a small group of people get the idea they can multiply their wealth by increasing the exploitation of the weaker majority and when the weaker majority have decided they will no longer tolerate their continual exploitation, that is the beginning of the end of any state.

To be clear, these are not arguments against the original five points. I had hoped that these reworded statements can offer a glimpse of an alternative perspective.

There are two main arguments embedded in the original five points, and in the arguments lie implicit premises.

The first argument (points 1 & 4):

  1. The poor benefits from higher aggregate wealth.
  2. Redistribution of wealth decreases aggregate wealth.
  3. Hence, redistribution of wealth is wrong.

The question we should be asking is: Should aggregate wealth still increase if its increase is gained by, say, the suppression of wages of the poorest, and if the increase only serves to widen the income gap? Simply, (3) cannot hold true if (1) does not.

The second argument (points 2 & 3):

  1. All we gain from our work is the result of our work.
  2. We deserve all we gain from our work because we pay the full costs of our efforts.
  3. Hence, what we have earned cannot and should not be taken away from us.

Again, we see that (3) cannot be a logical conclusion when we understand that (1) and (2) are not necessarily true. Many times, our efforts for our own benefit impose hidden costs on others, whether deliberate or otherwise. Economists call these hidden costs negative externalities. It was speculation in the commodities market, not the lack of food, that caused the prices of food to soar1.

Which brings me to point 5.

In this respect, unbridled capitalism is very similar to the Communism of our little Facebook anecdote. When unchecked negative externalities destroy the market, Adam Smith’s invisible hand would lead people to continually maximise their interest even if it is to the detriment of the entire group in the long term.

If we know certain negative externalities2 exist, then we must correct it, not perpetuate the errors of status quo. Economists suggest imposing a quota or a tax proportionate to the cost of the externality. Some see the tax as a form of wealth redistribution.

But however it is seen, not correcting negative externalities is simply bad economics, and the ‘capitalist’ system, like its Soviet counterpart, will too eventually fail.

 

Footnotes:
1. More about food speculation:
GuardianFood speculation: ‘People die from hunger while banks make a killing on food’
TIMEBetting on hunger: Is financial speculation to blame for high food prices?
Foreign PolicyHow Goldman Sachs created the food crisis
2. The difficulty then is determining what exactly are negative externalities. Can the exploitation of low-wage, uneducated workers be considered one? What about the malaise of vast income inequality? The reduction of everything to transactions? This uncertainty is contentious and it ought to remain so; it is only through reasoned discussions we understand better the flaws of our thoughts and systems.

Our loss of wisdom

 

Mr Barry Schwartz on economics and morality:

‘Moral skill is chipped away by an over reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives we are engaging in a war on wisdom…

We need incentives. People have to make a living, but incessant reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity; in two senses of that word. It causes people who engage in that activity to lose morale, and it causes the activity itself to lose morality…

Barack Obama said, before he was inaugurated, “We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right.” And when professions are demoralized, everyone in them becomes dependent on and addicted to incentives, and they stop asking is it right?”‘

Indeed, too many times, we do not ask: is it right?

Mr Schwartz’s talk raises many questions. Take carbon emission trading for instance.

It is promising in theory. Economists believe that all decisions come with some form of trade off and justly so; it is impossible to seek current levels of comfort and efficiency yet leave our environment entirely untarnished. We can only try, continually, to minimise our burden on the environment, and when firms have to pay for carbon permits an amount that compensates for the burden imposed on the environment, they are compelled to reduce their carbon footprint.

But what are the consequences of substituting moral obligation with financial disincentive? When everything is reduced to transactions, how differently will people treat the people and things around them?

In Predictably Irrational, Mr Dan Ariely related how a day care centre in Israel imposed a fine to discourage parents from picking up their children late. Unexpectedly, incidents of late-coming increased. Economists explain this phenomenon as the accidental creation of new markets; by fining parents who come late, the centre had replaced moral obligation in the form of guilt with a financial disincentive and inadvertently extended their service beyond office hours. Consequently, parents who were willing to pay the fine for more personal/work time felt entitled to come late.

In Singapore, the government attempts to modify behaviour with economic policies, from fines for littering to cash for procreation (only those with at least middle-class pedigree, please1).

Without discussing the issue of ethics at this moment, can this possibly be a reason why so many Singaporeans, regardless of socioeconomic stratum, have such a repugnant sense of entitlement?

 

Footnotes:

1. Dr John Hui Keem Peng, in a letter to The Straits Times: ‘I once came across a patient who saw me for complaints arising from complications of an abortion she underwent a week earlier. During the consultation process, it became clear to me that she was hurting not just physically, but also emotionally. She told me that this was not her first abortion, but her third. As she fought back tears, she explained that she “had to” go through with the procedure as she was on the Home Ownership Plus Education (Hope) Scheme. The scheme provides financial and material benefits to young, low-income families that choose not to have more than two children. Once they have more than two children, they are no longer eligible for the benefits.’

The ethics of photographing grief

On the front page of The New Paper was a searing photograph of a mother who lost her two sons to the car accident. The grief, the howl, the emotional breakdown in her red-yellow McDonalds uniform was explicit. It was no doubt good photojournalism. But it turned a moment of grief into a caricature of a freak show, and the mother, into a medium of emotional catharsis not dissimilar to tragic Korean dramas.

I asked on Facebook: Did the photographer ask her for her permission or at least speak to her to know her as a person? Or is she just a subject of a powerful, compelling photograph; another tick in the achievements-accomplished list?

A viewer shared it with Mr Tay Kay Chin, a part-time lecturer at  Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, and a former Photo Editor of The Straits Times, who then wrote a note about photographing grief on his personal Facebook wall.

Mr Tay may or may not be responding to my Facebook status as his note does not directly address my questions. It does, however, reveal an insight into the workflow and culture of news publications in Singapore.

What I had wanted to put across was how the photographer seem to have capitalised a person’s tragedy for personal and professional gain; in this context, the technical strength of the photograph is more unfortunate than redeeming. This is why I asked if the photographer had bothered to speak with the mother and to know the mother as person, or is she mere means to another fantastic, career-advancing, ego-boosting photograph?

Of course, like Mr Tay, I am not privy to the photographer’s thoughts and actions. He might have actually spoken to the mother (even though initial reports mentioned neither her relationship nor her name). On hindsight, I should have written to the photographer to clarify.

But it is now too late.

*

In the later part of his note, Mr Tay raised several points:

  1. Photographers are expected to do their jobs well. That includes taking the best possible photographs.
  2. Few dare to state their opinion on whether to publish the photographs. Many prefer to leave this decision to their editors.
  3. The photographer who took the particular photograph can choose not to.
  4. But (2) and (3) carry with them the risk of career damage.
  5. To prevent (4), news organisations should have a clear code of ethics about such issues.
  6. Photographs of graphic scenes can be useful.
  7. If he was the mother, he would probably be upset.
  8. He does not think the photograph would help the family heal but it might move the hearts of many.

Mr Tay believes that the photographer did not do the wrong thing simply because the photographer is merely carrying out his job. (He did not say if he believed that the photographer did the right thing.) But giving your best for your job does not necessarily mean that you are doing the right thing or even not doing the wrong thing. Surely, the Nazi soldiers in concentration camps who did their best could not be said to have done either.

A false dichotomy was also presented: Either take the photograph/do your job well or lose your job. It cannot be denied that unless one does one’s job well, one is at risk of losing it. How shall we define ‘well’ then? Could the photographer have taken another photograph that is as powerful, less intrusive, but consequently more difficult to achieve? Even if he had no other option, this still does not justify not attempting to know the subject as a person. To be clear, I am not necessarily against the publishing of the photograph. My questions were: Did the photographer get to know Madam Suliani Ang when he took that photograph? When he took that photograph, were his feelings that of accomplishment as a photojournalist or were his intentions that of a sincere attempt to convey the gravity of the accident? Even if he had both good and egoistic intentions, which one of them was stronger? If the egoistic intention was stronger, then the photographer had simply capitalised on Madam Ang’s grief for personal gain. If his primary intentions were indeed to convey the gravity of the accident, then is there a better, less intrusive way to convey it? If there is not, then the publishing of the photograph may be justified.

This matter about the photographer’s intent brings me to my next point: the weighing of harms.

Mr Tay alluded to this when he said that graphic photographs can serve useful purposes too. I do not disagree. Mr James Nachtwey, a photojournalist I deeply respect, has taken countless of war photographs, many of them graphic. From my meagre experience as a photojournalist and a journalist, I have too documented immense emotional trauma and profound moments of grief.

Therein lies an important distinction: do the benefits of a published photograph outweigh the harm it causes? I am fortunate to have avoided confronting this question so far as my subjects have expressly given permission to publish their pictures and accounts; my subjects have in this sense either agreed that the benefit of publishing their experiences outweigh any possible harm or they were prepared to accept any possible harm.

In many other circumstances, procuring permission is either not necessary or not possible. There might even be circumstances that permit the publishing of photographs against the wishes of the subject. War photography, for instance, do not lend much freedom to its subjects, soldiers and civilians, to refuse. The publicity of the cruelty, the senselessness, the torture, the bloodshed, the needless grief so that war might be brought to a sooner end can justify such intrusion.

Returning to the photograph of Madam Ang, what purpose does this photograph serve? Mr Tay has said that if he were Madam Ang, he would probably feel upset about the photograph. Does the benefit of this photograph outweigh the additional grief it might cause to Madam Ang? Is the moving of many hearts sufficient justification for the photograph?

If it is not, then surely the photograph should have never been published.

 

Postscript: What stood out most, for me, in Mr Tay’s note was how media organisations in Singapore do not seem to have a code of ethics regarding the documentation (at least, visually) of grief. He also described how most photographers, justifiably or otherwise, struggle to state their opinion on whether their own work should be published. I find both instances utterly astonishing.

Further Reading: What it feels like to be photographed in a moment of grief

Digital photography and four days more

I have been trying (note this operative word since I hardly had the time to) to practise with a Canon 5d Mark II because I never felt comfortable with DSLRs. There are too many configurations, too many options. They are too bulky.

When I made photographs in the past, it was always with a manual SLR, either a Canon AE-1 or Nikon FE2:

Admittedly, I do not have the passion of a photographer. I see myself first a writer, then a photojournalist. I shoot photographs to illustrate my stories. I shoot photographs to compose an alternative photo essay that runs alongside my stories. Photography is a tool I use to tell stories, a necessary evil.

I do not like shooting pictures for fun or for art. I winced when I had to shoot bloody water lilies in Botanic Gardens at 6 am, because my photography teacher in secondary school said it was good practice, and I still do. So I dragged myself to Botanic Gardens a few weeks ago to shoot bloody water lilies.

The camera, I feel, is an obtrusion. And certainly, more than a few photojournalists have said that it acts as a shield, a shield that protects them from the brutality of whatever they are photographing.

And I am not comfortable with that. In order for me to write well, I need to be completely absorbed in my subject, lost in the moment, breathing in the emotions so deep in till my mind suspends reality. Likewise, to make acceptable photographs, I need to achieve that level of focus so that I forget about the nerves that inescapably comes with photography.

In contrast, reporting for writing feels like an anaesthetist’s hypodermic needle. You slip in and you slip out, unnoticed.

You angst in private only when you begin to write.

The letter that stood out

I am grateful for the numerous letters I have received over the past few days, especially those from people who said that they are inspired to do something to help somebody anywhere. Your thoughts affirm my work and I thank you.

Among all these letters of well-wishes and congratulations, one letter stood out.

It was written by a young Filipino residing in Singapore and she was angry.

Why did you write such a negative story, she asked. Don’t you know it would affect our tourism? What have you done to improve their lives? What solutions do you recommend?

In her letter lies an implicit thread of thought that I have worsened the situation with my story, that I have exploited the story for my means.

I doubt her position would waver even if she reads my original submission and my entry about why I chose to write that story because they do not address her questions.

Neither do I hold any delusions that she is alone in her thoughts and feelings. I am therefore writing this publicly in hope that those feeling the same may understand some of my thoughts when I wrote that story.

Negativity

I do not write the happiest things. However, I was not given the indulgence of choice when I went to Manila.

Was I to write about the opulent shopping malls in Greenbelt, where washroom attendants wait conscientiously outside your toilet cubicle so that they can clean it immediately when you leave?

Indeed, what is superficially impressive will only serve to widen the dichotomy I witnessed during my short stay.

Was I to write about the success stories of Filipinos making it big on the world stage through Youtube? Perhaps, but I did not have the opportunity to meet such a person and I am not predisposed to mindless fawning.

I can only write what I saw and I saw people trying to live the best they can, impeded sometimes by their circumstances, beliefs, and government.

It is through their actions that they reveal a quality of tenacity and audacious hope that some can only attempt to muster and admire from afar.

Gold is tried by fire, brave men by adversity.

This is how I do my subjects in Manila justice.

Tourism

It is fallacious to believe that my article, or even a series of articles of such nature, will affect tourism. It is likelier for episodes such as the Manila Bus Hostage incident to affect tourism.

Poverty does not drive people away. Poverty attracts people—and this can sometimes be a problem.

For one to consider the implications on tourism betrays the paradigm with which one views the world.

Tourism is the arena of the rich. Only the rich, who can afford to sow these seeds, reaps the profits of tourism. The poor gets poorer.

And this is why they are unconcerned with tourism.

Not one Filipino I met spoke about tourism. Not one Filipino told me what I was doing will hurt tourism.

What have you done to improve their lives? What do you recommend?

I do not know. I do not have grand illusions that my article have made their world a better place. In their eyes, my article is probably inconsequential.

But my job is not to be a social worker or a policy maker or a politician or a philanthropist.

I did what I do best in, and my job as a journalist is to observe and to write.

I write so that people know that such things exist. I write so that I may inspire people to effect change with their own strengths.

I write because it is worse not doing anything.

A Question

Now that I have shared my thoughts, I ask you—anyone who is wondering why I am hurting your country’s image with my writings—what have you done?

If you cannot answer that question satisfactorily, I urge you to gather this anger in you and direct it to something useful, productive, and beneficial.

This is, after all, the very reason I wrote my story.

Why I wrote a story about slums in Manila

My introduction in today’s spread was shortened, perhaps for brevity or house style.

This was what I wrote:

When Jeremy Boo, 22, led a journalism trip to the Philippines as part of his Mass Communication course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the first thing that struck him was the rigid dichotomy between the rich and the poor—just outside his hotel window in Makati, the country’s Central Business District, the poor and homeless linger opposite Starbucks and beside a strip club.

“People who were there but not there. People who spoke but were not heard, people who existed but were not seen. Invisible men are what Filipinos are in the heart of this country,” wrote Filipino writer Conrado De Quiros about the poor in his book, Tongues On Fire.

It was then he knew that he wanted to write a story about poverty but it was too difficult to explore this dichotomy with the little time he had.

Incidentally, the helper of a local photojournalist, whom was facilitating a journalism session, has a sister who worked in Singapore as a maid. Jeremy seized this opportunity to better understand the Filipino people to find out what are some of their aspirations, their fears, and their motivations. And why are they still trapped in the quandary of poverty? Where is home, when you have spent years working overseas? Where is home, when you live your life moving from street to bridge?

It was difficult to find these answers even as he stayed in slums for three days. Often, he found that these answers sometimes lurk in the subtlest things: a twitch of an eye when memories about family are recalled; that pharmacies sell syringes but not condoms; how drink and fun takes precedence over food; the way youth frequently describe their peers as chismos; the helplessness people feel as their homes are infested by the equally desperate, are demolished by the government, are razed to the ground by electrical fires and, in one instance, buried under an avalanche of sodden, burning garbage.

Poverty is not as simple as it seems. And he wanted people to know this.

Writing this story was nearly as difficult. With only three days to work, he had to quickly gain the trust of the Filipinos.

“Are you Korean? Japanese?” they would inevitably ask.

“No, Singaporean.” “Oh.”

It is a reply that is short but eloquent. Many Filipinos he met perceived Singaporeans to be brash, proud, and arrogant.

He managed to speak to them only after much listening, patience, and sensitivity. It was fortunate that the few locals who trusted him acted as interpreters when they needed to and took care in introducing him to their friends and neighbours.

Still, there was a harrowing experience when loitering strangers repeatedly uncocked and cocked a rifle, which he cannot determine whether it is real, outside the house of a person he was interviewing. He was led out through a different route in the end.

About a year after he returned from the Philippines, Mr Robin Yee, the lecturer who supervised him during the trip, read online about the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Young Reporter Competition and urged him to participate.

Despite being hesitant in the beginning, he took part in the competition because he wanted people to know about what he had seen and heard in the Philippines. Also more persuasive was the opportunity to continue telling stories about people, as ICRC will fly five winners to an area of armed conflict—Georgia, Lebanon, Liberia, Senegal, or the Philippines—on a reportage trip.

By winning this competition, he will travel to Georgia, where simmering tensions boiled over in the 2008 South Ossetia War, in February next year. He expects that the stories he encounters this time will be more challenging as the problems that the Georgians face are more hidden, and hence more difficult to illustrate, than problems like poverty; the problems of displacement and missing family members, for instance.

And even as he attempts to find an undergraduate course that satisfies his curiosities, he intends to work or volunteer, even if it is for a stint, in the frontline of a humanitarian organisation. This way, he will be able to truly empathise and witness the tales he have heard of blood shed and lives torn asunder.

Otherwise his stories will only be, as George Orwell has so clearly expressed in his essay Inside The Whale, “written by a person to whom murder 
is at most a word.”

The Straits Times Saturday Special Report

My story was published in the The Straits Times Saturday Special Report today, with the introduction realigned and certain sections repurposed.

It’s my first time being published in The Straits Times (and with such a lengthy story too), so it was interesting to see the workflows and editing layers in SPH. As I had complete control over my publication when I was editor, I was unaccustomed to the fact that some of these processes, e.g. sub-editing, take place independent of the section editor.

I am a little nervous because I would not personally use certain adjectives or phrases to describe my subjects. They are not unfair or untrue; it’s just not my writing style. Of course, I did think about the implications if this article was more narrative in nature; if every adjective used had an imagery objective, if each punctuation was selected for its participation in repetition and rhythm, if the flow of the story determines the message.

But this story is not a narrative feature so I accept that these changes are the few necessary trade-offs of getting your message published in a mainstream newspaper.

In case you’re interested, you may read my original submission to the ICRC here.

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