Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pork Licensing and Bacon-Eaters

This week I am learning a lot about agricultural economics in Cambodia. We’re trying to get a study off the ground that will look at finance and other bottlenecks to the value-chain for foodstuffs. And this story is rich. It seems there’s a guy on the Cambodia-side of the Vietnam border who’s in a very lucky spot. He holds the only license on import and export of pork. An ag-expert explained the details to us on a marker-board in our meeting room. With his monopoly licensing rights, this guy collects 200 riel per kilogram of pig. Pigs weigh about 80 kilos each, and 2500 pigs are crossing the border on an average day, so the guy sits there raking in about US$3.5 million a year without doing anything. He is the king-pig, and so he gets all the bacon. I laughed so hard I snorted …oops.
You see, I have become a little sensitive about the fat on the bacon, because it’s not so clear to me who should be shaking his finger and who is licking his lips. If I am sitting with officials, sipping coffee in meeting rooms and keeping a conversation going, and if I am not making a difference—either because I am not capable to make a difference or because they are managing me into a corner—then am I not too extracting rents from this crazy place? Maybe they don’t want me to touch the entrenched order of things, and so they are leading me and others down dead-end paths. Or maybe I am keeping up appearances?
Today another meeting and back-scratching. This time a high-ranking finance official visited our office in a simple short-sleeved shirt. No rings, no driver, or fancy gadgets. He told us he had just come from prayer at the temple. Then our own consultant, a large, bilious, fat-necked Turk, held the guy’s elbow and grabbed his shoulder. These two go way back—way, way back! Their reunion left us all a-tingle. We watched from the side-lines the two sitting knee-to-knee, and the patting, the beaming. You’re a guru! I learned from the best!  I looked modestly at my blackberry.
Where are we here? I’m not sure where this is going.

Sometimes I think back to what I said about the allegory of the cave. We stood in a cave in Kampot, and village kids said, ‘That over there is an eagle’ and Ernest nodded obediently, ‘Yes, that must be an eagle.’ It can be pretty hard to put my finger on what I’m looking at around here. Does having a safe under your desk mean you’re corrupt? Or maybe you just pay your employees with cash? Another guy on our team is married to a Khmer lady. He said she did a favor for a friend last weekend on a motorbike trip to Mondulkiri. The friend asked her to carry a rice sack to bring someone there. When she returned after making the delivery, his wife asked the friend what was in the sack. Two million dollars. Then maybe the moto-driver with the break-down doesn’t seem quite so hard-up to me anymore.
A few weeks ago I stopped in my tracks on my walk to work. All the time I pass Khmer people pushing large carts of cans and bottles, squeaking a hand-held horn to draw attention, and collecting recyclables for re-sale. I was walking an arc around a smelly cart parked along the roadway. Then it caught my eye--inside the cart a baby, covered in grime and apparently completely alone, was screaming. I stood there for a while, afraid to move toward the grimy screamer, and afraid to move away. What was I supposed to do? As if in answer to my question, a smelly woman, head wrapped in greasy cloth, approached angrily and shooed me away from her cart. These two were a street-cleaning team, I guess.
What I mean to say is, it’s anybody’s guess what you’re looking at.
Sometimes when he’s not caught up in homework, Ernest and I have drifting philosophical conversations. He is carefully probing the unknowns of adulthood (When is it going to start? How will I know?), and I am hazarding generalizations about things I’m not sure of, but which he might believe. We were walking around Kampot thinking about the kids I under-paid at the cave when Ernest asked me why there’s such a big difference between rich people and poor people in this country. We had already shared ideas about roadways, rural electricity, and schools (he had a ADB-ILO pamphlet on prevention of child labor on his bedside table). So I ventured a simplification of trickle-down economics. ‘Think of money like sand, Ernest.’ OK, mom. ‘Different kinds of countries have all kinds of buckets for moving the sand around. Some countries pick it up like a sieve and it runs out of tiny holes all over the place. Other countries are more like a funnel with only a few holes that channel the sand in a few big piles.’ He seemed satisfied with that explanation, although I offered no particular reason for countries having funnels and sieves.
Looking back on it, I’m not sure that any country, or any person, is operating like a sieve. I think my indignant Canadian guest believed that there ought to be sieves, or that she could uncover the buckets of accumulated rents and shake out the contents fairly. But this is sandbox economics, and I wonder if even Ernie believes it.
When S&P put US treasuries on negative watch on April 18th, cynics jeered, pundits jumped to defend America’s reserve-currency status, and the Assistant Treasury Secretary essentially said ‘You can’t downgrade us, because we’re the US’. Bloggers and editorialists pinned the blame for America’s excesses on everything from Wall Street bailouts to over-extended shoppers to pill-popping healthcare gluttons to early-retiring baby boomers. A new moniker caught my eye, that seems to replace the irrational exuberance which described all of us in the last decade. We are a people of inordinate privilege.
We are inordinately privileged, because we thumb our noses at S&P while using other peoples’ money to over-eat, over-buy, retire early and then over-prescribe. We are inordinately privileged because we out-live our savings (by a decade? by more?) and then live off the under-consumption of Chinese households, who by the way are scape-goated for every seemingly unfair transaction. Where is fairness anymore? Maybe Ernest and the angry Canadian woman can help to set things straight.

I think I figured out why the priest at World Vision cut me off at confession. Even for believers in original sin, this starts to ramble. Enough. Suffice is to say things aren’t fair. We’re sinners. What my counterpart wads up in his safe at the end of the day may well be less than the entitlements I’m collecting from day to day. Or maybe it’s more, but there are things I can change and things I can’t.
To get to the crux of my problem, I realized that I too am sitting on a pork license. What I can do at least while one hand is in the bacon is try to make some good with the other hand.