Food for thought

January 29th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

As mentioned in the last post, the amount Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa plan to raise from bankers – HK$55 billion – to fund their restructuring is more than the amount – HK$50 billion – that the Hong Kong government has proposed to set aside to help the old and needy.

Now comes more news that offers food for thought: Apple is sitting on US$178 billion of cash, which has been estimated as enough for running the UK’s National Health Service. One SCMP columnist is of the opinion that it doesn’t matter how big the wealth gap is because the poor are getting less poor as the world develops. How does this work? Think about all the iWatches that are about to hit Apple stores – are they really necessary? How much of Earth’s resources go into making them? How much are the workers paid for making them?

OK, so the workers make more in the sub-contractor’s factory than they would toiling on their farms in the countryside. But what if the countryside hasn’t been spoiled by open-cut mines or pollution from manufacturing concerns? What if farmers are taught to farm sustainably and only surplus labour go to factories to make essential goods?

Oxfam recently showed up at the rich men’s club in Davos to present a world inequality report, prompting another SCMP columnist to criticise them for taking up advocacy work and not sticking to charity work. To some extent I actually agree with Philip Bowring’s stance because all non-governmental organisations, in order to get heard over issues that affect humanity and this planet, are usually able to do so only after allowing themselves to be co-opted by corporations keen to burnish their image.

But does it mean inequality isn’t a problem? Is there a problem when the rich use their clout to bully governments into cutting tax so they can hoard more while governments have to be tight-fisted with social welfare items made necessary by the multitudes who can’t make enough however hard they work? Inequality, as the authors of the book The Spirit Level have pointed out, impacts on health, lifespan and our general sense of well-being. Here in Hong Kong we seem relatively healthy and long-lived, but the healthcare system is creaking at the seams and people aren’t at all happy. Then again, to the government, only economic growth matters, right?

Oh to be a rentier

January 16th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

Can I make a confession? I aspire to be a rentier. After all, isn’t that what the government’s encouraging us all to do?

Think about it: the government’s warning of the burden of setting aside HK$50 billion to help “the elderly and needy”, whereas Hong Kong’s Superman can just click his fingers and banks will fall over each other to loan him the HK$55 billion he wants to make him even wealthier by restructuring his conglomerates. And how did he get so fabulously rich? By being a rentier, of course, making clever use of capital instruments and property transactions.

Despite the recent talk of measures to help young people become entrepreneurs, it’s obvious that the best way to survive in Hong Kong is to become unproductive members of society, deriving income, not from hard work, but from playing the stock market and buying property. After all, whether these young entrepreneurs will succeed or fail will depend on the extent to which they can shoulder high rent.

That’s how a former clerical worker I know made her decision on being forced to take early retirement. With limited opportunities for older workers and not wishing to claim CSSA, start a loss-making business or sell cardboard to make ends meet, she gathered the little savings she had and took a gamble in the stock market. She’s lost it all a couple of times, but overall she’s managed to make enough to cover her daily expenses.

Alas, for those without the stomach for that kind of risk or who may not be so fortunate, the search for decent work continues. What is ‘decent work’? Well, how ’bout cold-calling; cold-callers have the protection of the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development no less. Or various jobs to help the rich get richer… like organising a mega loan for two huge conglomerates; which, by the way, pays nicely too.

But truly, nothing beats being a rentier. When there is little meaningful work that gives us a sense of purpose and is spiritually rewarding, all we can do is try to join the rentier class in order to do things that are meaningful to us but which doesn’t pay, like growing vegetables or doing voluntary work. Of course, there is no shortage of those who simply want to be rentiers so they can play mahjong all day. Hence the overseas property advertisements on every other page of the newspaper and the stock market surges. No, Hong Kongers are not planning to emigrate en masse (though many are contemplating it given the political climate); they just want to own an overseas property because of the assumption that the only way to go for London property, for instance, is up. And despite dire economic fundamentals around the world, the local stock market is doing well because, well, what do you do when you can make more subscribing to IPOs and quickly selling for a profit, than working nine to nine doing your boss’s bidding?

The crunch

January 8th, 2015 atam Posted in General | 1 Comment »

The sweet, sad smell of pine tells me that another Christmas is over. The pine needles are everywhere, in the lift lobby, all over the building entrance, driveway and pavement as the trees from which they came are discarded.

So that people can get into “the festive spirit” for two weeks of every year, enormous amounts of land and water are devoted to growing Christmas trees that are then shipped out around the world and transported to homes and shopping malls, burning fuel that is best left unused. And while there are families who can afford thousands of dollars to get their Christmas trees from some temperate land to sub-tropical Hong Kong, there are others who are shivering under flyovers and pushing carts of discarded paper and cardboard boxes on the street even though they’re 70 or even 80 years old.

Inequality has reached truly unsustainable levels and is set to get worse. A survey no doubt commissioned to help banks make lots of money out of “high net worth individuals” has shown that, in Hong Kong, the number of those with total assets worth more than US$30 million is 20 times more concentrated than the global average. Another survey showed that a typical young couple in the city would have to save for 14.4 years to get enough for a downpayment for a home at today’s prices. Hence all the bright ideas for helping young people set up their businesses, get on the housing ladder, etc, while dancing around the issue of wealth accumulation by landlords and developers who will make sure many of these entrepreneurs will fail while others will have to lose a good chunk of their hard-earned income, not to tax – which would, in a place with better governance, benefit society – but rent and expensive homes.

Older people who criticise young people for not getting on with it like they did in their day don’t understand the crunch confronting today’s working generation: the widening inequality resulting from the neoliberal agenda that is made a hundred times worse by the information revolution. The industrial revolution drove blue-collar workers out of factories, but at least better education opportunities meant their offsprings could find white-collar jobs that paid decent wages. Today, better education means, for many, student loans but not very bright prospects of decent jobs. Mark Zuckerberg’s making billions agglomerating the private data of Facebook users, but how much are many of the same Facebook users making? Jeff Bezos is also making billions from the online order giant Amazon, but how much are his warehouse workers making? For every young millionaire who makes it designing computer games, how many young people are getting by selling mobile phone plans?

The rising tide is not floating all boats; it’s only floating super-yachts that hire people to work as servants on board.

The good news and the bad news…

December 13th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Peak oil | No Comments »

Amazing: just when you think the oil price can only go up, it’s taken a tumble to a level not seen for quite a few years.

The good news of course is that cheap oil will make a few things cheaper, although Hong Kong motorists have cause to moan that cheaper supplies have not translated into cheaper prices at the pumps. The bad news, for anyone who’d read a blog such as this one, is that there is much less incentive for governments and businesses to invest in renewable technology.

The economic case is gone, they’d say. When oil is expensive it’s easy for them to portray themselves as climate-aware greenies; now oil is cheap it’s just as easy for them to say they’re giving people the cheapest option available. Never mind that fossil fuels need to be phased out, whatever the price. If global warming is factored into the oil price, it’d be several times more expensive than what it is today.

But now, while the oil lasts, people will become even more addicted to the age of oil than ever before, and when both conventional and unconventional oil becomes prohibitively expensive because what’s left is so hard to extract, expect riots and protests everywhere.


October 27th, 2014 atam Posted in Earth, Food, General | No Comments »

Hey Halloween is here and you’d better be scared: the pumpkin harvest has been bad in a variety of places and farmers have warned of a shortage.

What’s really scary though is the thought of all the water and energy that go into producing a crop of pumpkins just so people can play Halloween. According to reports, of the ten million pumpkins grown in the UK each year, only 5% is consumed as food; the rest are carved into pumpkin lanterns. Separate reports said that the soil in the UK is so degraded that there are only 100 harvests left.

Once upon a time economic activity had a social function. Cars were manufactured to transport people and goods. Washing machines were made to free people from domestic drudgery. Now most economic activities exist purely to generate a profit. Environmentally harmful activities are justified by the provision of dubious employment; take, for example, Halloween. What exactly do people do with all the silly costumes and decorations once the partying’s over? Do those who dress up as zombies and the like to entertain party-goers get a decent wage around the year?

When Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner called for tighter regulations of cold calling, the response of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau was that this could affect the jobs of those employed to make cold calls. So jobs are jobs, eh, regardless of their nature. Amoral governments want people to produce bigger families so there are more young people to maintain clearly unsustainable economic growth. More young people, more party-goers come Halloween, right?

Who’s occupying what?

October 8th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, General | 1 Comment »

It has been noted that Occupy Central is different from the larger Occupy movement, which is anti-capitalist or anti-inequality, since Occupy Central is about universal suffrage, but look deeper and similarities will reveal themselves.

If you look at the recent meeting held by Chinese president Xi Jinping with Hong Kong ‘leaders’, you’d notice that those present all belong to the top 1% of Hong Kong in terms of income; nobody from the other 99% was there. When there is advice on the city’s sentiments from only the top 1%, it’s little wonder that its people are misrepresented.

The Occupy Central protesters are not alone in their frustration; all over the world, governments are pursuing agendas that protect those in power and those with vested interests. They may claim to support any clamour for democracy, equality and justice, but their actions, in their own cities/countries and abroad, typically demonstrate hypocrisy and expediency that suit their own purposes and not the needs of the suffering masses.

Note that the tycoon who was pictured seated right next to the Chinese president is also the one who’s now building flats with all of 196 square feet of space – for people, apparently. Note also that Russia got away with annexing the Crimea from Ukraine because Germany depends on Russia for its gas and the UK depends on Russian oligarchs to prop up its London property market, which has priced out virtually every local not in the top 10%. It’s a vicious cycle: Hong Kongers priced out of their own property market have turned their attentions to London too; flats and houses are no longer for living in, but are just another form of investment. Note also how, on the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq, people are dying from an onslaught because the Turkish government wants to weaken its Kurdish opponents rather than save lives.

There is a nice irony in the cancellation of a climate change symposium “due to the sustained disruptions in the city”. Eh? You’d think that a climate change symposium that was to take place at a venue accessible only on foot would be the least likely to be affected by the Occupy Central blockade of vehicular traffic. Not so. Delegates were supposed to be accommodated at a hotel a short walk away from the venue, which means that, once deposited from the airport, they could easily reach the venue without any problem. Those who’d intended to attend, if they really understand the issue, would be expected to take the train and then walk – no surface road transport is really necessary – but then this being Hong Kong, the concern must be that their chauffeur-driven cars would be stuck in traffic on the way.

The Occupy protesters were drenched by a couple of amber rain episodes. It’s been observed that this past rainy season has been unusually dry, despite the serious downpours when it did rain. The people of Hong Kong could do with more information about climate change, but it’s not to be, because fossil-fuel-driven vehicles are occupying the road bumper-to-bumper. The people of Hong Kong could do with a fairer society too, except that those occupying corner offices don’t want them to.

Meat is not murder

July 28th, 2014 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Food | No Comments »

Animal rights activists have it so wrong. In an increasingly urbanised world where the only animals people see in the concrete jungle are dogs in prams, where people spend all day shooting birds and killing avatars on their smartphones, compassion is in seriously short supply.

However, if you tell them meat is suicide, well, then everything changes. Just look at the number of people at MacDonald’s over the weekend. For years animal rights activists have protested against cruel methods used to raise factory chickens supplied to another fast food chain but hardly made a dent in the chain’s bottom line. Now people just have to think about all the expired meat they’ve put in themselves to realise that, eek, this is not exactly healthy is it?

The next challenge is to get them to finally realise that meat is not unhealthy only when it’s passed its expiry date; it’s unhealthy, full stop. Think about all the antibiotics and polluted feed that go into the animals. If people find the idea of drinking “reclaimed water” disgusting, even though the water has undergone treatment to get rid of all bacteria and pollutants, how come they find it OK to eat meat that’s processed in dubious conditions, from animals that are raised in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions?

Manpower shortage

July 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General | 1 Comment »

A window fell off a high floor of a residential building across the road from me a few days ago, landing smack on the driveway/main entrance.

Fortunately, it happened close to midnight and no one or car was passing through. Had it happened around midday, the consequence could be horrible.

Hasn’t the government kept reminding people to maintain their windows properly through posters and informercials? Indeed. This building, in fact, underwent a mandatory window inspection only a few months ago. Someone living on a lower floor told me that the inspector who checked her windows “advised” her to remove the strings she’d been using to secure a rickety joint with rubber band instead. I’m sure that’s cheaper than fixing the joint. And for sure whoever did the inspection has long collected his pay and moved on to other buildings issued with the government’s inspection orders.

What a great idea for employment generation, these inspection schemes. Some years ago there was unemployment in the construction industry. After much agitating, the government finally said, oh all right, we’ll launch ten mega projects, all the railway lines we’ve been talking about for the past ten years, plus minor works like building inspections. And all of a sudden, there aren’t enough people to make sure the infrastructure projects are implemented on schedule and there’s such demand that those in the trade can’t do their job properly.

MTR probe

July 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General | No Comments »

Guess what: one of the international experts asked to investigate the delay to the Express Rail Link is none other than Bent Flyvbjerg, the author of Megaprojects and Risks. I wonder if he’d hand out copies of the book to the government officials he’d meet.

Energy from waste and wasted opportunity

July 4th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General | No Comments »

There is a consultation on Hong Kong’s future energy mix and there is much debate over the the government’s proposed plan to build a huge incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau.

Are the two things related? Often when poor policies are formulated people complain that the various government bureaus/departments don’t talk to each other, but in this case both the energy consultation and the incinerator proposal are under the purview of the same bureau. Yet, somehow, boxed-in thinking rules the day and there appears to be no attempt to find more cost-effective solutions to the problems of energy supply and waste.

In the debate over Hong Kong’s future energy supply, the issue is dominated by whether or not some of the future supply should be obtained from the mainland grid or generated locally using natural gas. Renewal energy is mentioned but not given much weight. Now Hong Kong is unlucky when it comes to the prevailing forms of renewable energy. The sun doesn’t always shine and photovoltaic panels can’t generate much when stuck on the roof of high rises. And there isn’t always much wind either.

But what Hong Kong does have is plenty of waste. The Zero Carbon Building – designed by the Secretary for the Environment no less, when he was an architect – already uses biodiesel from waste cooking oil to generate power. As for the municipal waste that can’t be recycled and which the government is proposing to incinerate, well, why are we paying lots of money to build a huge facility that will generate even more carbon emissions, if not from the plant itself, then from the process of reclaiming the land for it and using the trucks and barges to transport the waste to the remote location for incineration?

The management consultant, qualified electrical engineer and columnist Tom Yam has long argued against the project’s huge cost to the taxpayer. What he hasn’t highlighted, however, is the opportunity for distributed energy generation that urban planners elsewhere expect to be part of the future of resilient cities. Build small incinerators throughout Hong Kong. Let them take the waste generated nearby, incinerate it and generate some electricity for the area in the process. If it’s possible to locate refuse collection points/transfer stations in all the districts throughout Hong Kong, why not small incinerators that will not be quite so costly to build?