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Greed, and responsibility as a customer
September 12th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Greed, and responsibility as a customer
Indian diary (2)

   India presents income inequality in stark manner. About a fourth of the population is below the (local) poverty line, the middle class is getting richer (but without lifting the poorer 25%), and a few rich people live in mansions that are so disproportionate they make no sense whatsoever to build or to own.
   Like in other places with little understanding of inter-dependence and too strong a focus on "that's mine, why would I share?"  (usually accompanied by the delusion that one "deserved" it in the first place), like in e.g. the US, Indians are culturally pushed to try and get away with as much as they can. This only leads to an increase in income inequality, because the "have"s acquire means (legal defence, accounting tricks, reputation, political influence…) to get away with more than the "have-not"s.
   While anti-corruption laws are in place (Prevention of Corruption Act1988, Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002, Right to Information Act 2005, Central Vigilance Commission Act, Lokayukta Acts of States…), more is to be achieved in practical terms: in 2013, India has ranked 94th out of 177 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. The socio-economically weaker population is most adversely affected by corruption. Corruption is common to evade tax (the bribe costs less than taxes owed) and, again, this affects public services first, i.e. it affects first what might benefit the weaker people (who cannot afford the private route for whatever service they need). The lost opportunity caused by corruption, in terms of investment, growth and jobs for India could be over US$50 billion a year.

   A classic source and means of corruption is a lack of transparency. This again appears mostly in how people might try and get away with as much as they can. Examples abound (hail a rickshaw and see the price easily double if you're not from the town, let alone the state, let alone the country…) , but a dramatic example is real estate.
   It's relatively easy to find adverts for flats and 'villas' to rent in India, but any precise description is next to inexistent: number of bedrooms, suburb, maybe one key characteristic (wooden floor, tiles…), and monthly price, that's it (e.g. "2 BHK, Thiruvanmiyur, Rs25,000"  which might become "Thiruvanmiyur, Fully furnished apartment, 2bhk, 1100 sqft, Two bedrooms, Two toilets with covered car parking, Fully woodwork, Good location and good atmosphere, Price 25,000"  in the rarest of occasions)! So, naturally, give a phone call with a foreign accent and you're sure to be told that the flat is no longer available but that the agent just has received another flat, similar but unfortunately a lot more expensive: there's just not enough information available to put the agent on the spot and state that this is the same flat… Just as naturally, "fully-furnished" flats end up being barely semi-furnished (but with many promises that the rest will be put up once an agreement is signed, of course!)… Agents are quick to mention a fee of one month of rent, no matter the duration for which you'd rent the flat; and 6-months or even 10-months 'deposits' easily appear lost… When adding a one-month fee to rent for 6 months, with a rent per month that magically doubled when one phoned, and a 'deposit' of 6 months at the inflated price, this means the rental cost becomes between 2.33 to 4.33 times what it should have been (based on how much of the deposit will be recovered), with a major up-front… Unsurprisingly, the transaction doesn't happen! One ends up visiting flats that have remained unoccupied for months though, even in growing cities like Chennai with a huge demand for housing: greed ends up hurting the greedy (due to the capital being immobilised without any return)!

   Of course, India isn't the sole country where this happens. People with capital, or the tiniest bit of power, ignorantly try to "get the best out of" others in all countries.
   European countries or the US are not exempt of trying to get away with whatever they can and calling it "fair". They're also often involved as the ones paying bribes to tilt the 'free' market in their direction —while using the copout that they "have to" (in order to do business in corrupt places… because visibly "doing business" trumps all ethics).
   Exploiting the weak while pretending that an opportunity is given to them (to exploit the even-weaker) is often simply called "capitalism"… so, while Europe or the US certainly are  less corrupt than other places, they don't automatically show much deeper understanding of inter-dependence.

   Greed is so ignorant though that it actually frustrates itself: out of seeking the highest margins, shops end up bankrupted or at least having to free shelf-space via 'sales'… Out of seeking the fattest profits, bankers did sink their institutions or at least harmed themselves by increasing the regulatory burden… Out of wanting to "keep up with the Joneses", out of craving huge, flat, HD TVs or smartphones, people end up in debts…

   Greed might allow to exploit the greed of others, e.g. via empty promises or via market distortions, but greed is powerless against non-greed: many Indians could have made a good fee out of servicing me fairly but were so greedy they ended up losing the transaction, they assumed I'd be more clinging to the outcome than I was!
   Cultivating generosity doesn't mean I'll be willingly exploited (wilfully entering dubious trades would be a serious mark of belief in "the ends justify the means"  and "if I can afford it, then it's morally acceptable",  the twin bases of corruption): I'm simply making sure that any money I bring to India will indeed circulate in the economy, reducing the income inequality rather than just filling the coffers of the richest or feeding the flashy lifestyle of unethical ignorant intermediaries. I'll continue tipping the honest rickshaws and eat at small stalls with honest prices, contributing to a causal law that makes their "right livelihood" a source of merit and of well-being! Meanwhile, when most of the real estate market in India seems unethical due to unabashed greed, the ethical life might require of me to remain a wanderer, carrying books around from small rooms to small rooms! "Doing what the situation requires" isn't automatically the most comfortable; taking responsibility for our (customer's) share in perpetuating income inequality, or corruption, or market distortion in favour of those who can over-pay, might make a huge difference though.
   Generosity is not just in giving money to the poor or to charitable causes, it's also in choosing what and how we consume so that the poor gain access to right livelihood and their efforts are fairly rewarded! "Fair trade" labels are not necessarily very truthful, unfortunately, but you're also "on the ground": you can act, yourself, by being mindful of how you shop every day (being mindful that 'affordable' doesn't mean 'ethical')! And, of course, you can act by being mindful of how you do business or fulfil your responsibilities (trying to earn a salary by doing the least possible isn't ethical, even if it's capitalism; realising inter-dependence demands more of you than that!).

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