Saturday, March 21, 2009

Show Me the Money

Economies worldwide took another nosedive last week and currently seem to have been, as the old saying goes, "Flopped lower than whale shit". I doubt much will change in terms of our political and economic systems on the back of all this however. Wages in the West have been falling in real terms for the average working person for the last 30 years whilst banking heads still have the chutzpah to award themselves multimillion dollar bonuses, despite several previous crashes of our seemingly inherently unstable market system. Your average Joe has had to increasingly borrow the difference to make up the shortfall in his shrinking pay packet and put his trust in the smoke and mirrors of, in Bush-speak, the unreality based community of the world’s bumptious bankers. It's a rum do all right.

Okay, well that's the developed world, fine. Forget average Joe for a moment though and consider average Jamal, your run-of-the-mill, salt of the earth Indonesian chap (or chapess I should stress). For Jamal, every year seems like crisis year for he has rarely ever had much of a pot to micturate in.

According to the Central Statistics Agency, in 2008, 34.96 million people were living in poverty in Indonesia even though GDP had reached the highest level in the nation's history. I rather suspect that figure of 34.96 million to be a trifle on the low side and, of course, GDP is a very poor way of measuring the health of a country as it takes absolutely no account of how that money is (or in Indonesia's case isn't) distributed.

No, forget the bureaucrats in their ivory towers at the Central Statistics Agency. If you want to learn about how relative power is distributed in a strict patriarchal family you don't ask the father, you asked the mother. With this rule of thumb in mind, I thought I'd take a brief look at an average Jamal's monthly income and expenditure this week.

Now, our average Jamal (not his real name) is actually someone I know. He works a normal 9-to-5 daily shift in an office from Monday to Friday and gets paid a whopping Rp.1,800,000 or thereabouts for his pains. How average this makes him could be the subject of fierce debate, certainly there are plenty worse off than our man but let's stay with my amateur accounting for a while.

Okay, well let's look at monthly travel expenses first. Jamal gets two buses to the office every day at Rp.2500 per fare. So that's Rp.10,000 a day times 20 working days, give or take, leaving us with Rp.1,600,000 to play with. Now Mr J. stays in a cheap boarding house or kost , one of the ones consisting of chipboard partitioned rooms, the occupants of which can hear their immediate neighbors farting and moaning all night long. For this dubious privilege he plays the princely sum of Rp.800,000 per month. Leaving us bringing home bacon to the tune of Rp.800,000 (actually we should probably change the bacon metaphor to baso just to avoid any offence). Now let's take another Rp.150,000 off for mobile phone credits (a conservative estimate by my reckoning),Rp.50,000 for toiletries and birth control devices (providing our man is getting any of course) and Rp.100,000 for clothes.

Okay, so we're down to our last Rp.500,000. Now Mr J. also sends Rp.200,000 home every month to his even more breadline family in Java and spends around another Rp.200,000 on entertainment. Hmmm. We're down to Rp.100,000 already and alas, Mr. Jamal usually tries to save around this amount every month as a contribution towards his annual Lebaran trip home .

Okay good. We seem to be in a state of fiscal balance... no... hang on a moment. I've missed something out haven't I? Ah yes, food. A bit of a luxury on this salary I feel. In fact many is the time that I've wondered whether people such as Jamal that are able to photosynthesize on the sly, unable as I am to work out how they make ends meet.

And so April 9th brings an election to Indonesia. Who should a Young, ambitious, nutritionally challenged citizens such as Jamal vote for? It's hard to say isn't it? They don't seem to be a lot of class conscious agendas, mass movements of working people or party manifestoes kicking about the place. There isn't even a Green party that might be able to advise Mr J. on more advanced photosynthesis techniques.

Poor show indeed. Oh well. Are those consumption mad, elite fat cats in their BMWs any happier do you think? Perhaps not. Who is the richer: a man who has the most or the man who wants for the least? I sometimes like to take comfort in the ideas of that most inveterately miserable of all philosophers, Mr. Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, material and physical desires are a terrible thing. Our earthly desires are largely never satisfied, which is true for about 99% of us most of the time. However, the lucky 1% has it even worse, for their desires are satiated and in that satiation, Schopenhauer says, lies almost immediate and total boredom. And on that cheery note, I’ll take my leave for another week.