Monthly Archives: April 2013

A call for moral courage among artists

Salman Rushdie for New York Times | 27 Apr 2013

WE find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures. A man in a cowboy hat vaults a fence to help Boston bomb victims while others flee the scene: we salute his bravery, as we do that of servicemen returning from the battlefront, or men and women struggling to overcome debilitating illnesses or injuries.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Police officers carried off an Occupy D.C. demonstrator in Washington, October 2011.

It’s harder for us to see politicians, with the exception of Nelson Mandela and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as courageous these days. Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One man’s hero (Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro) is another’s villain. We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave. When political leaders do take courageous steps — as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, then president, did in Libya by intervening militarily to support the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — there are as many who doubt as approve. Political courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.

Even more strangely, we have become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.

It was not always so. The writers and intellectuals who opposed Communism, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and the rest, were widely esteemed for their stand. The poet Osip Mandelstam was much admired for his “Stalin Epigram” of 1933, in which he described the fearsome leader in fearless terms — “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip” — not least because the poem led to his arrest and eventual death in a Soviet labor camp.

As recently as 1989, the image of a man carrying two shopping bags and defying the tanks of Tiananmen Square became, almost at once, a global symbol of courage. Continue reading

Will taxing the rich more really help the poor?

Rachel Chang, Straits Times, 6 April 2013

THIS year’s Budget announced an intention to spend more on the poor – but also to collect more from the rich.

In raising “wealth” taxes on those buying investment properties and conspicuous consumption items such as luxury cars, while in turn promising more social spending, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam seemed to some to be playing Robin Hood – which has drawn a polarised reaction.

While some hailed it as fair redistribution, others worried that it marked the start of a chipping away of Singapore’s capitalistic, competitive environment.

In any case, the latest “wealth tax” hikes are more symbolic than revenue-generating, because they bring in measly amounts compared to the broad-based taxes like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) or income tax, say experts and observers.

The tax hike for investment properties will bring in $72 million more a year, while that for luxury cars is about $150 million. This is a fraction of the $6.9 billion collected in income tax last year, says Ms Jill Lim, tax partner at Deloitte Singapore.

Ernst & Young transaction tax partner Russell Aubrey notes: “It’s really more of a social measure about equality than a revenue measure.”

But to further tax the rich to fund social spending in the years to come might be a political and economic battle that the Government may not have the stomach for.  Continue reading

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Artificial diamonds – a dilution of social distinction?

Back story: As 3-D printing gets increasingly scaled up industrially, IP law might well be fighting a losing battle. The foreseeable future is not one of just cultured diamonds aplenty but also imitation Lamborghinis a dime a dozen.

When cultured diamonds – produced in a chamber that replicates the extreme temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s interior which enable natural diamonds to be formed – become increasingly common, the latter’s distinctiveness may become diluted by the former. — PHOTO: REUTERS

A COMPANY called Algordanza Singapore claims to be able to make “memorial diamonds” for the bereaved, using the carbon found in the ashes of a loved one.

These sparklers are “cultured” in a chamber that replicates the extreme temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s interior which enable natural diamonds to be formed. Under such conditions, the ashes’ carbon can be turned into a flawless diamond, which is also a form of pure carbon.

Of course, any other source of carbon can be used to culture these artificial diamonds as well.

“Cultured diamonds” are different from “simulant diamonds”. The latter includes cubic zirconia, an artificial crystal made of a natural material called baddeleyite.

Zirconia looks like mined diamond to the naked eye but does not have its atomic structure, chemical composition or physical properties. The expert eye can discern zirconia from diamond.

By contrast, a cultured diamond has exactly the same atomic structure, chemical composition and physical properties as those of a mined diamond. Thus, even an experienced diamantaire may not be able to tell them apart.

In truth, diamonds abound in nature but their prices are set by a global cartel led by De Beers, the firm that has dominated the world’s diamond market since it was founded 130 years ago.

Since cultured diamonds cannot be told apart from natural ones with the naked eye, the latter’s distinctiveness may become diluted by the former. To fight this, the natural diamond industry issues certificates of authenticity.

Lately, however, it has also begun resorting to intellectual property (IP) law as well. In 2004, for the first time, De Beers began distinguishing its diamonds with a laser-inscribed trademark.

It is in this sense that some experts argue IP law may be doing the work of what are called sumptuary laws.

These were legislation that was actually passed by lawmakers in ancient times across cultures, to govern the consumption of high-value goods and fashions in order to limit them to certain social classes.

According to author Alan Hunt’s Governance Of The Consuming Passions: A History Of Sumptuary Law (1996), England passed a law in 1463 so that shoes of important persons may extend beyond the toes by no more than two inches (5cm). In 1514, Venice appointed a fashion police outfit called Provveditori sopra le Pompe, which sought to enforce its sumptuary laws. Ancient China and early 17th-century Edo Japan had similar laws too.

The distinctiveness of high-status, luxury items and fashions was what enabled the members of the upper classes to signal their similarities to one another and also their differences from those of the lower classes. That is, there was a system of social distinction based on consumption patterns. Continue reading

Why China won’t Rule

Robert Skidelsky, Published on May 22, 2012

LONDON – Is China poised to become the world’s next superpower? This question is increasingly asked as China’s economic growth surges ahead at more than 8 per cent a year, while the developed world remains mired in recession or near-recession. China is already the world’s second largest economy, and will be the largest in 2017. And its military spending is racing ahead of its GDP growth.

The question is reasonable enough if we don’t give it an American twist. To the American mind, there can be only one superpower, so China’s rise will automatically be at the expense of the United States. Indeed, for many in the US, China represents an existential challenge.

This is way over the top. In fact, the existence of a single superpower is highly abnormal, and was brought about only by the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The normal situation is one of coexistence, sometimes peaceful sometimes warlike, between several great powers.

For example, Great Britain, whose place the US is often said to have taken, was never a ‘superpower’ in the American sense. Despite its far-flung empire and naval supremacy, nineteenth-century Britain could never have won a war against France, Germany, or Russia without allies. Britain was, rather, a world power – one of many historical empires distinguished from lesser powers by the geographic scope of their influence and interests.

The sensible question, then, is not whether China will replace the US, but whether it will start to acquire some of the attributes of a world power, particularly a sense of responsibility for global order.

Even posed in this more modest way, the question does not admit of a clear answer. The first problem is China’s economy, so dynamic on the surface, but so rickety underneath. Continue reading

The Middle Class Goes Global

Published on Feb 24, 2012

PARIS – In the twentieth century, the American dream of a middle-class life inspired the world. Now, in the twenty-first, we are moving at high speed toward a world based on a new geography of growth, with millions of people in the east and the south moving out of extreme poverty to become potentially powerful middle-class consumers. Whether the dreams of this new global middle-class are realised or turn into a nightmare depends on several factors.

In today’s shifting world, with GDP in roughly 80 developing economies rising at twice the rate of per capita growth in the OECD, the club of the world’s richest countries, middle-class citizens paradoxically complain and protest regardless of whether fortunes improve or decline. Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan minister of trade and industry, even warns of a possible ’emerging global war of the middle-classes.’

While anger over pay cuts and unemployment make sense, it is harder to understand the current protests in fast-growing countries like Thailand and Chile, where standards of living are improving. What is going on?

High growth in Asian and southern countries has meant greater export earnings and rents from natural resources. Unfortunately, this blessing can turn into a curse. In China, former Communist leader Deng Xiaoping’s vision – ‘let some people get rich first’ – has led to impressive economic growth and poverty reduction; but it has also undermined the self-proclaimed ‘harmonious society,’ as recent protests and labor conflicts indicate.

Indeed, it is telling that, in the spring of 2011, Beijing’s municipal authorities banned all outdoor luxury-goods advertisements on the grounds that they might contribute to a ‘politically unhealthy environment.’

Rising inequality, lack of civic participation, political apathy, and a dearth of good jobs, particularly for the young, comprise the Achilles heel of emerging-market countries’ current development model. A Gallup poll on subjective well-being in Tunisia and Thailand shows that, while income levels and social conditions in both countries improved between 2006 and 2010, life satisfaction dropped.

Homi Kharas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, defines today’s global middle class as households with daily expenditures of US$10-100 per person (at purchasing power parity). This represents approximately two billion people, split almost evenly between developed and emerging economies. In its Perspectives on Global Development 2012 – Social Cohesion in a Shifting World, the OECD forecasts that, by 2030, the global middle class could total 4.9 billion. Of these, 3.2-3.9 billion will probably live in emerging economies, representing 65-80 per cent of the global population.

These people will demand more and better services, a fairer division of growth’s benefits, and more responsive political institutions. The current wave of protests could be just the beginning of this trend.

So, what should be done? Continue reading

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