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Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 70

  • Written by Dana
  • December 6th, 2004
  • 10 min read


Thai Thoughts & Anecdotes 70


MYSTERY MONEY

Dana: I just don't get it.
Barmate: Get what?

Dana: I just don't understand it.
Barmate: Understand what?

Dana: I don't understand where the money comes from.
Barmate: What money?

Dana: Thailand's money!
Barmate: What the bloody hell are you talking about Yank?

Dana: I mean I know that the Thais are successful enough at growing rice that they can export it. But I mean just to pay for all the concrete pours in the inner city of Bangkok elevated highways and ramps you'd have to have shore to shore rice barges on the Chao Phraya river twenty four hours a day every day of the year. I don't see that many rice barges. And I know that the Thais are so successful at breeding chickens that they are exporting chickens–but how many chickens would have to be exported at what percentage profit and at what total amount of baht per chicken to pay for the national health system? I just don't get. Think I am being silly or argumentatively obtuse? OK, the next time you are tooling down the Friendship Highway behind an old truck loaded up with chickens–I dare you to think of it as big business. Stuck behind that old slow truck with a bunch of smelly feather flying chickens you might be having a lot of thoughts–but I doubt if any of them will be about big business. So where does all the money come from to run this country? The encyclopedia talks breezily about tin and lignite and iron ore and manganese and zinc but you never ever see any evidence of this. The Indians and the Pakistanis have skilled computer professionals working overseas and sending money back to the mother country. The Thais do not have a similar highly skilled work force that they can export, unless you count the bargirls working in Singapore and Hong Kong and Japan and Taiwan. Some countries have militarily strategic metals or excess steel production or gold and silver. Not Thailand. Chilies and Tapioca and bolts of Jim Thompson silk and packets of spice and rubber and fruits and vegetables and flowers and bamboo are simply do not seem enough to pay for the rich wives and the spoiled youth. Some countries like Bermuda have learned to efficiently mine tourism. Thailand hasn't learned how to do this yet. Thailand smiles at me but when it comes to money it's all predation and flea market thinking and abuse. Tourism as a one product generator of revenue works in Bermuda but it was only taken seriously after they tried and failed at numerous other things. For some reason no one wants to make money by being nice to strangers. They'd rather have the dignity of digging coal or growing potatoes. Bermuda now has a high standard of living for its citizens but they have to teach each generation the concept of customer service and smiling and the value of the repeat customer. Apparently, being nice to other members of our own species is counter intuitive. So tourism may not be the ace up Thailand's economic sleeve. Thailand is still a long way from understanding the value of the repeat customer. Thais do not regard stealing from foreigners as crimes but as opportunities! And in Bermuda there were no problems with racism and face. Asia is more complicated. So what is Thailand to do? Beats me. Some small third world countries like Costa Rica and Uganda are now using eco-tourism as an income generator. But this type of thinking requires governmental and citizen long term thinking to be successful. Thais are not long term thinkers. If they hadn't been embarrassed by other nations and cognizant of India's and Madagascar's problems they would never have stopped denuding their forests. Most of the wildlife has been wiped out and the national parks are full of trash and private enterprise. Eco-tourism is not going to be in Thailand's short term economic future. OK, so where does the money come from now to run this country? Beats me! It's a real puzzler. OK, I get it. I'm not a complete economic rube–it must be cumulative. That's it. Lots of little amounts of money all thrown into the national GNP basket gets the countries bills paid. Really? Well, I'm not so sure. If you take a hundred pennies and add them up you still only get a dollar. Teak furniture and sneaker manufacture is just not enough. Where is the big stuff? The oil and the gas and the steel and the big manufacturing contracts and international deal making and money lending products? The Japanese moved onto the Chinese mainland in the 30's because as long term thinkers they realized they needed more resources. This caused a few problems but at least they were thinking ahead. Where is Thailand's economic future? Hell, I can't even figure out where Thailand's economic present is. How do they pay the bills now? The Skytrain is currently running at a loss. The subway will be a loss for years (decades). And both need to be expanded to be viable mass transit systems. So the government is faced with the social need to expand money losing economic infrastructure. The schools run at a loss. The national health system runs at a loss. Etc. Etc.

Where does the money come from to run this little third world country? Is the government just issuing worthless government backed notes? Beats me! So why should I care anyway? Well, I'd like to see the Thais win. I'd like them to earn a future where their beaches are clean and their drinking water is safe and their international word was their bond and their municipal trash was picked up and their environment was loved by its citizens and their children were educated. This is only possible in countries that can do two things: generate revenue and balance the books. And generating revenue is a lot more important than balancing the books–that has been proved by the profligate but practical ways of the State and Federal governments in the United States. If you can generate enough money you can be sloppy and stupid and corrupt and get away with it. But how are the Thais going to do that? Beats me? Heck, I can't figure out what pays for all of the fancy cars and rich kids and jewelried wives now. OK, I know. There is no middle class. There are just the rich people that perplex me and then the big bottom of the social economic pyramid who have only a pair of flip flops next to the bed. Even so, how much money can you skim off a string of noodle shops or steal from airline landing permit fees? One of the western world's 20th century mythic memories that has hardly faded in the States is the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the domestic and international economic depression that followed. Nobody would wish this on anyone especially in our now globally incestuous market economy. But sloppy loan practices and poor banking oversight and no national accountability that spans the current governmental office holders and bogus credit extended to ignorant credit card holders is a toboggan ride that is only going one way–down hill. I would like so much to be wrong about this. I would like so much to find that there is something intelligent and forward thinking and economically alert and enormously clever going on in Thailand that I am just not aware of. I've got my fingers crossed. Nobody likes to see a car crash. But in the meantime–it's a mystery. I just can't figure out where the money comes from to run the country.

And if Bangkok the capital is an economic head scratcher, the rest of the country is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. As soon as you leave Bangkok the rest of the country is poor, desperately poor, or no-hope poor. People have no money! Which means they have no extra discretionary funds, no savings, no ability to get loans to start businesses ,no ability to obtain or pay off mortgages, no knowledge of credit or personal finance, and no way to acquire assets. Hell, Thailand is so poor that it can not support the three marks of civilization; tax collection, trash collection, and social welfare. All civilizations are judged and scored by their ability to collect taxes, pick up the trash, and provide lives of dignity for the indigent and the helpless and the needy. Ancient civilizations could do this. Thailand can't. Thailand can't afford to do any of these very basic nation building activities.

Much that is modern has to be imported. Most manufacturing is light contract manufacturing that provides jobs but does little to improve peoples lives. It takes a lot of rice barges and apparel contracts to pay for the fancy cars and the fancy ladies and the oil and gas infrastructure to support them. So where does the money come from to run this country? If Thailand is paying for these 21st century accoutrements of civilization by printing non gold backed or non hard asset backed or non international banking community respect backed money eventually the economy will fall. And Thailand will not be able to get World Bank bailouts because it has few hard convertible assets and little world banking expertise or respect.

So when I come to Thailand twice a year the whole vacation experience is even more out of the context of my life than normal because there is something science fictiony to me about the economy. Coming into Bangkok at night always seems a little spooky and fake to me because I can't credit the modern city skyline that I see with any modern financial reality. It just further underscores and right at the start of my vacation the unreality of the whole Thailand experience. As if he whole country was really some kind of clever fraud–a giant amusement park successfully selling itself as a country. During the daytime when I am using the Skytrain (the trip from the Nana station to Saphan Taksin on the river is the best example of this) I sometimes wonder if I am not involved in some giant train set. As the skytrain whizzes modernly by the buildings I wonder if there are actually any people in them. And if there are people in them I wonder what they are doing. If they are doing something modern and internationally competitive and complex and narrowly focused in a business sort of way, I wonder where they learned to do that thing. Because Thailand does not have a modern educational system. Other countries and capitals and cultures have demanding and competitive western value based educational systems that act as farm teams supplying needed modern workers to a modern work force. Thailand does not have this. So I am reduced to imagining that the buildings are empty. False fronts in an amusement park country that has no obvious source of income.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not really criticizing Thailand. I am just mystified. I love every rai of Thailand. And I love every Thai. I just don't understand how they do it. How they generate the revenue to pay the bills. The only conclusion I can reach is that there must be a lot of super smart Thais who are gifted at economics. I hope so.

Stickman's thoughts:

Talk about mean spirited. In a country with around 65 million people, there are a lot of industries that you know little about. You have touched on some but failed to mention many tens of thousands of others. Thailand might not be the economic powerhouse that your homeland is, but the future economically for Thailand is, in my admittedly not so learned opinion, pretty good.