Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why I wont be a 'Happier' Billionaire

You may be thinking that I am a billionaire already and not very happy about that. No, that is not true. I am yet to become a millionaire let alone a billionaire. But every one is telling me that money does not buy happiness. The happiness research reveals that gross happiness income for a US family is 50K per year. Below 50K, you are unhappy and above that you are happy but no less happy than some one makes millions. So why bother making lot of money or at least that is my tortured logic on money matters.

But still, there must be some thing that the rich people love about money. What could be that?It is definitely not happiness because I have seen rich people cry in live TV. But sure, Larry King will talk to them for a full hour on live TV when they get in trouble. But then family friend Barbara Walters will say every thing about Paris Hilton getting into jail for violating the probation is "beneath me". Wealth does not seem to help the rich much in this country except that they can hire Johnny Cochran to say 'If the glove does not fit, you must acquit'. I am neither planning to drive drunk on the opposite direction of the freeway nor planning to write a book 'If I did it'!

So what is it then? Is it the charm of flying a Cessna? But that cant be much fun since I never enjoyed a ride in a much larger Boeing. I hate the plane toilets. But there are some benefits of flying your own jet. You don't have to take off your shoes at the security. Plus you don't need to cram the quart size zip lock bag with 3 oz shaving cream and gels.

It must be the exotic tropical islands the billionaires own. But then can you live in an island just by yourself? I thought it is pretty tough to be in a cast away island just talking to a valley ball all day all week all month all year! May be one could bring their friends and family to the island but then the whole point is to live exclusively in tropical islands.

Another possibility is that I could pay my way into space in a Russian rocket. I never had the courage to take one of the magic mountain rides yet fearing the zero gravity falls. Why would I then spend my millions to be crammed in a space that is perhaps narrower than the statue of liberty crown. I wont.

So my options are really limited. Oh I almost forgot that I could run for New York Mayor office using my own money. Then I realized that being an Indian national I cant even run for city council. I could run for higher office in India but there is no precedent in Indian history of a billionaire premier or a president. Having a degree from Oxford or London School of Economics is a much surer path to power than making lot of money.

The only option left is to give away money like Bill and Buffet. But that just reinforce what I have been hearing all along from happiness experts. Money does not buy happiness. In fact, they had to give away the the billions to be truly happy.

My first pay check, first car and first home; all gave me lot of happiness until I got to used to it soon. So getting the first million dollar will also pass just like any other material firsts. My best recollection of happiest moments had nothing to do with money. When my short story got published in a children's section of a magazine, when I scored then highest ever score for my school among the 1000+ students in the state exams, my cousin who came with me to check the admission list to IIT shouting to me, 'I see your name in the list!', weekend get aways to Sarojini Nagar market, first time I kissed my wife (of course after we got married; you stupid!) and first time I saw my son's face in ultra sound; these memories last a lifetime.

So the consensus is that I will not be a happier billionaire than what I am today. Yes, I can use couple of millions to buy a condo overlooking the pacific coast. I really don't enjoy the inland heat waves in summer. But by the time I have a million, a bottle of coke will cost $1,000 thanks to the sky rocketing price of corn syrup. All the corn in the world by then would go into to making flex fuels. Along with that, bulging US treasury debt and gap in social security would drive the inflation and tax rates to unimaginable heights that I would be lucky of I could buy 10 GOOG with my million!

The Bet - Anton Chechov's short story on Million Dollar Bet

This Ethanol madness must stop

We are a nation that can be easily swayed in one way by Oreilly Factor at 8:00 PM and in exact opposite direction by John Stewart at 11:00 PM. In some instances we take longer to change our mind. We believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded Iraq. But not any more. We believed organic food was better few years ago. Now local food is the fashion. We believed that driving solo in Hummer is the coolest thing to do. Then it changed to alien looking European sized hybrids. Now the madness is ethanol fuel E85. Some people call it flip flop but some call it brilliant Harvard material course correction.

We all believe the infallibility of our belief when we believe in some thing. Then we go to war, line up at whole foods, hang out at farmers market to get local food, buy Lexus hybrids and send the corn harvest straight into ethanol refineries instead of Kellogg. At this point in time, we decided to take side with 800 million people who own automobiles against 2 billion low income people, many of whom already spend more than half their income on food.

Engel's law (for Ernst Engel, a 19th century statistician) states that as you get rich, you spend proportionately less to eat. So for the rich folks in the the US, 10% of the total expenditure goes towards buying food where as people in Thailand spends 29% for food. If you go to a village in Etawah district in Northern India, that percentage might shoot up beyond 50%. So sky rocketing prices for food grain is not really our problem. Our problem is to reduce the cost of automobile ownership against the billions of people who survive on US food aid. Good people like Bono and Angelina will continue to fight the raw hunger prevailing among the poorest of poor of the world. We no longer will have surplus corn to send to distressed part of the world. Soon we will see bumper stickers in Los Angeles that reads 'I skipped cereal to buy ethanol' or 'I would rather not eat Tortilla'.

I have no shame in admitting that I was bread on US food aid in the late seventies. Star and stripe paper bags full of corn, soy and wheat distributed in elementary schools. Big cans of Corn oil to make the lunch meal. Not that we were starving like other unfortunate kids in other parts of the country, but I went to a rural village where there were still some kids who would have dropped out of school lacking free meal. By later seventies, we were beginning to be self sufficient in food and no longer needed US food aid as much as it needed in the fifties.

But poverty and malnutrition is still an evil among mankind. We are reminded of that only when Angelina adopt a girl from Africa or Bono appears on the cover of TIME. Rest of the time, we are busy crushing corn and soy into something that we can use to fill up our dream machines. Alas, E85 days ahead of us!

Two necessities, fuel and food, create spiral of rising prices

My previous post on Organic and Local food

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Granite box and Bamboo Ceiling

If you thought sky is the limit, you were not born in an Asian home. For “those Asians”, we have granite box and bamboo ceiling for our dreams. Heavy and non-abrasive walls of granite and light but sturdy bamboo canopy for the roof; abode for our dreams. We looked at the moon through the bamboo ceiling, never thought of going there. We took pride in our ancient mathematics that formed the basis for the astronauts to compute their path to the moon. We took pride in inventing zero without which the computer revolution would not have been possible. We, for long, tried to take solace in the fact that most of the modern scientific and technological advances in the modern times had a Vedic past. Be it Atoms, be it medicine and surgery, be it mathematics and astronomy or be it the concept of flying an aircraft. We banked heavily on the foundations laid by our forefathers without really being successful in advancing them. We were boxed in a granite cage; each stone telling glorious stories dating back thousands of years.

If you are an Indian kid, lot of time and energy is spent to make sure that you think inside the box. Lot of work is done to train the kid to win spelling bee even before they are potty trained. They all get a “doctor’s kit” toy to entice them of the joy of becoming a doctor. They solve math puzzles with such an ease and joy which adults can’t derive playing Grand Theft Auto. At age 3 they all learn to count and add! By age 5, their report card will say ‘extra ordinary in math and science and average in verbal and social skills’. Even when the parent does not try to raise the kid the “Indian Way”, this will happen. I don’t know if it’s in the genes or gene mutated to accommodate the box.

But they all have bamboo lattice through which they look at the skies and starts. They all grow up to get higher degrees in Science, Engineering or Medicine. The handful will end up making Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan) against their parent’s wishes to become neurosurgeons. But most actually become neurosurgeons and some get to practice on live TV (Dr Sanjay Gupta). When a newly wed couple walks into a car dealership, the sales person asks them with an air of sarcasm, ‘you guys don’t test drive before owning, do you?’ For which most of us will nod our head east west and north south in a classical Indian nod of the head.

I grew up in India, before India opened up to the world; we were told that we could become a high ranking officer within the prestigious and highly competitive Indian Administrative Services (IAS), if studied hard. Nobody told us that we could become politicians whom the IAS officers worked for with subordination and expected servitude. We were not told to become leaders but were told to work for the leaders. That was the time when an Indian woman lost an Olympic medal by thousandth of a second. Nobody told us to become an Olympian. Other options presented to us were doctors and engineers. Everything else was considered the options for the failed ones. Nobody dared to dream to be different. The cost of being different was very steep for middle class boys and girls. If they failed, they not only failed themselves but also the family. It doesn’t matter whether we did not dream to become Abraham Lincoln or Beatles or the dreams faded within the granite walls we were boxed in. I can’t blame my parents for telling me what I had to become. They wanted me to be an IAS officer. I could also become a doctor or engineer, in that order and anything else would be deemed “failure”. I did not even think of any other goal in life. I worked hard to fulfill my parents’ dream of their son bringing monthly salary that exceeded manifold to theirs. I finally became an engineer, their third preference, and when I brought home my first month wage, it far exceeded their combined monthly wage after working 30 years for the government. They declared me “successful”. My siblings were not that lucky. They started working for the government almost at the same level as my parents at retirement. They were just short of declared “failure”. I declared victory and felt very happy to be successful not realizing the world of success waiting outside of the box. But I never saw them, never bothered to see them. It was not my world.

If you grew up in the US to an India parent, you may have similar stories to share. Replace “IAS” with “Neurosurgeon” or “Engineer” with “IV League”. Your dreams were assigned to you. You did not pick your dreams. Except if you are Night Shyamalan or Russel Peterson and few others. I can’t blame the parents. Their generation saw famine and starvation. They saw poverty and death. They saw people with college degrees pulling themselves out of the misery and hopelessness that prevailed all around them. They believed that education is the only way to succeed. Because an entire generation of doctors and engineers and other professionals pulled off break from conditions ranging from middle class agonies to abject poverty. That became the gold standard for them. They did not grow up seeing school drop outs starting up tech revolutions and becoming millionaires and billionaires in the process. They did not grow up seeing million dollar endorsements to players. They saw people working hard to make it big, not working smart. Plus all the hard work guaranteed to take them somewhere ahead and nothing else guaranteed that.

So they ran dry clean machines and gas stations 24 x 7. They did more surgery than they would want. They worked very hard and paid their kids school bills. Asian kids did not have to work at burger joints or car wash. Their parents made sure that they paid the college bills in time. That does not help much with the boxed kids. While white kids work at Star bucks and Whole foods, they are learning the most invaluable lesson that no IV League can offer. Social skills to seamlessly fit into the society! Some of the kids get frustrated so hard that they end up shooting other helpless kids locked up inside the class rooms. A bloody reminder that isolation can never be a pleasant thing whatever may be the reasons for the isolation.

I am not being an ungrateful kid to my parents. They did what they thought the best for their kids. Their economic condition influenced their parenting style in a big way. Now that our generation is financially on a better footing than our parents, we have an opportunity to raise our kids outside of the granite box. Their survival will not be threatened if they failed to become a singer or football player or a movie maker. But then, there are no set rules for parenting. It all depends on the kid. I am sure the Hilton's did not raise Paris Hilton to go to jail for driving drunk on the opposite direction in a freeway.

Sophomore's film suggests cultural differences impede Asians' success