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December 18, 2004

Thailand- plus a little Cambodia

Well, after a week of travel, sun and awe before ruined temples, I have a few minutes to write a few random impressions of southest Asia.

Being in urban centers in Thailand is inherently deceptive, since most of the country's population -- unlike many developing nations -- is still in rural areas. That said, Bangkok feels surprisingly like New York City-- a city of comparable population -- if a lot poorer around the edges. But it is dominated in many sections by similar corporate logos tagged to skyscrapers across the horizon, and its streets are a similar crowded mess of cars and taxis-- albeit with the addition of "tuk-tuks", the cart-like vehicles pulled by motor scooters. The proportion of people living hand-to-mouth through informal jobs, street peddling and such is obviously larger than in the US. But then, those kinds of jobs are growing distressingly. Forget Manhattan-- Thailand is an extreme version of the poorer sections of Queens and Brooklyn.

Thailand has been being commercialized for decades but it's representative of the globalization trend around the world-- and yes, I had my Tom Friedman moment watching monks talking on cell phones. We are in an integrated world and solutions have to extend to all the peoples of the world-- from labor standards to environmental policies. I focus most of my political work day-to-day on domestic US economic policies, but that's because of a conviction that unless we build a constituency for justice in the US, it will be impossible globally. But we need to continue raising the global issues in any domestic discussion.

I'll return to this when I get home, but take the social security debate.

How ridiculous is it to talk about projections 70 years into the future, while not even discussing likely demographic and even geopolitical changes? If NAFTA or the WTO advances significantly, won't we need a social security system that incorporates retirement planning globally? Since the big worry on social security is the fear that we'll have too few workers to pay taxes for the retired, I've suggested in the past that immigration into the US will expand the workforce more than enough to take care of them. But if we want more radical thinking, what about working towards incorporating the world into a global social security system? It won't happen overnight, but despite the alarums of the rightwing, we have decades to expand the system. Since the workers in places like Thailand already are part of the US economy, shouldn't they have the same help on labor standards and retirement security?

One heart-breaking part of Thailand is the runaway development with little environmental controls. This can't even be justified as a short-term cost for economic growth, since some of it is destroying the tourist areas where the country is trying to grow economically. The beach areas are developed to the point of destruction; one Thai newspaper published an article this past week noting that the only beach areas left in decent shape are in the far south where ethnic conflict scares away tourists. "Violence is our only form of environmental protection," noted the newspaper.

We made a quick trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, where the Angkor Wat temple complex sprawls across miles of land-- a wonder of the world that is not to be missed if you are in the region. But if Thailand is recognizably part of the global economy, Cambodia is still fourth world, devastated by insane civil war, with new luxury tourist hotels squatting amidst begging children, breaking your heart as they desperately try to sell you a postcard, a coke or basically anything. You get a sense of a lottery economy where swarms of peddlers hope for the tourist hit, maybe only a couple of times a day, amidst waiting and desperately hoping to survive.

But with a country where something like half of the children are under fifteen years of age, we might see the best place on earth to invest for the future of the global economy and a reconfigured global social security system. Improve the education of those street children in Cambodia and they'll produce orders of magnitudes more wealth for themselves and the globe in thirty and forty years.

If we are going to divert a few trillion dollars from social security, diverting the money to education and health care for the poorest children of the world if far more likely to guarantee the wealth we need for our retirement in the future than the measly returns of the stock market. If I compare the gains from investing in the next Enron versus investing in the energetic but desperate six year old girls I saw in the streets of Siem Reap, there is no contest in which would be a more valuable investment forty years from now.

Posted by Nathan at December 18, 2004 07:28 PM