IOU

Money, Love, Health.

Money + Love + Health = Happiness?

I’m not sure, but like the old joke about a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, I’d call it a good start. For some of us, any of those three would equal happiness, for others not even all three would do. People are strange, and we can’t put our own happiness into perspective, or draw any confort from how much better off we are than others: the images of deprived kids in Africa, a disabled teenager in Iowa, or a group in a retirement home in Prague are just a detachment from our reality. Not us. Not us now.

Even within our own lives, priorities shift over the years. Money first, which brings independence, love next, which doesn’t, and finally health, which consigns us to dependence and makes it plain that the other two were irrelevant. This doesn’t mean when one of the three is dominant the others don’t pop up. In the US, in Western Europe, we perceive this as a sequence. In other parts of the world, it’s three strikes, you’re always out. No money, ever; love, when it happens – like every other place; health, fingers crossed. The Chinese migrant living in a hovel, with a bunch of other guys, working in a plastics production plant for a pittance, knows none of the three. And there are millions doing that right now, breathing that toxic waste, while you relax and read this.

Amnesty International released a report today on health care in North Korea, highlighting the performance of medical acts without anesthetic, including various types of surgery. Amputation was one of them. The history of medicine is full of such examples, centuries ago through lack of knowledge, more recently through lack of means. My godfather, who died some years ago, grew up in a small village in northeast Portugal, with nothing to his name. He became a well-known physicist, spending a couple of months a year at MIT; the suffering in his childhood must have been terrible – among other things he had his tonsils removed without anesthetic, using the age-old substitute of strong alcohol and raw courage.

I called this post IOU, because I thought the focus should be on money, on debt, and on their historical significance, but words take you where they will. The Portuguese saying is: “as palavras são como as cerejas“. Words are like cherries. You eat a cherry, reach for another, so it goes. The guy who developed one of the first cellphone networks in Portugal apparently made the pricing decisions personally based on his local knowledge of how people communicated. How much people talk and in what context differs greatly from country to country. A perceptive man. I suppose if you did that in Finland there would be no charge for the call, given the legendary reserve of the natives. A debt of silence.  

Debt seems to be the word of the year. But if you suffer a heartbreak, or a serious health upset,  your only use for money is in making the other two right again. Of course some people solve the love issue by drinking themselves to death, which takes care of all three.

Two centuries ago, if such a strange animal as a rating agency demoted your country, first of all no one would take it seriously, since sovereign nations were atmospheres above corporations, and second an invading army would shut down the rogue and hang the rogues.

The agencies themselves are always blameless, as are generally the analysts who swing stock at the stroke of a pen. These are the groups, together with reputable accounting firms, that escaped unscathed from the tragic economic colapse of 2008. And from fiddling the Greek accounts. And Enron. And more. We don’t understand the meanders of financial globalization, and neither do those who make a living from predicting.

 Debt is a mystery to me. Practically every country is running a high budget deficit to GDP ratio,  and government debt is rampant. Countries with roughly identical debt to GDP such as Canada, Germany, and Portugal do very differently in economic terms. What about the extremes of the list? Zimbabwe is the worst. Mozambique is the best! The two share a common border, the two are desperately poor. Japan is second to Zimbabwe. Tunisia, USA, and El Salvador are neighbours.

What does any of this tell us about the relative economic success of these nations? No idea. IMF? More like WTF! Is this ratio a good indicator of  success? Quality of life? No way.

Two other things perplex me tonight.

First, who owes mones to whom. The banks are just out of huge debt, all the countries are in huge debt. Surely they can’t be in debt to the banks. Who holds the IOU? Is it China? Is it the Cayman Islands? Whoever it is, we don’t hear them shouting for their money back.

The second is the way in which all this will be solved, in the money-love-health cycle which will keep us all revolving until the next thing-that-grips-everyone surfaces. The World Cup is over, Catalunya won though some people think it was Spain (the Catalans are keeping very quiet about it all), and we’re back to deficits. All Europe has a plan, everyone is cutting costs. Spending will decrease. The economy will chill. All the countries at the same time, nothing will move. When all the fish stop swimming, all the nets will be empty.

The move from theory to practice is much harder in practice than in theory.

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