Sunday, 29 August 2010

A short story about the price of trust

Till some time ago I thought the price of mistrust was much higher, but the moment I had to pay the price of trust I changed my mind.

Karol (name deliberately changed) joined my class almost exactly ten years ago, when we were beginning our first year at middle school (gimnazjum). I don’t even remember if he sat behind the same desk I sat, or was it me who joined him in. As a rather sociable person he quite easily found his way around us (we’d been together as a class for six years on then), though I can’t say he would get along with everyone for the next three years of middle school. Soon by dint of sitting next to each other we became good mates, though I could never say we had ever been friends. We were just good classmates, spent some time after school together, but surely weren’t friends for good and bad times.

Karol soon became the best student in our class and later even in the whole school. Teachers deemed him to be impeccably well-mannered and he soon also became an exemplary pupil. In fact as we all knew he was not just extraordinarily clever. He was a typical “smarty pants” – no one else would get away with getting a bad grade when being unprepared for a lesson, no one else would wriggle out of being punished for cheating during a class test. For some reason he had a charm which worked on all teachers, but my classmates and I weren’t impressed with his continuous wheeling and dealing.

Karol somehow also had an inclination for trying to outfox everyone around, but not everyone could discern it. Many people, including my parents warned me against him, I treated those advice seriously, but they didn’t dissuade me from helping him putting into practice some of his stillborn ideas. Fortunately, it never ended up badly for me, so actually I could have gone unharmed out of this friendship… Within those three years there were many conflicts within our class, but even despite falling in love with the same girl (who eventually chose him) somehow we didn’t fall out, all tribulations didn’t tear us apart.

As I dropped in on his house quite often, I met his parents and older brother, Adam (name also changed), who incidentally attended the same high school as I did, so we had an opportunity to get to know each other better. Although born to the same parents they were totally different – Adam was a paragon of virtues, Karol kept trying to outwit the whole world around.

With time we my friends from middle school fell in with new companies from high schools, old friendships began to break off. Karol and I met usually met in a bus, since we both commuted to high schools to Warsaw. From time to time we called each other, sent text messages, wished happy birthday or merry Christmas. We hadn’t been keeping in with each other since the beginning of our studies in 2006. Occasionally I met his brother in a bus and when I asked him about Karol, I’d usually hear his inclination for wheeling and dealing had only intensified (to Adam’s discontent).

Karol turned to me a few times in 2008 and 2009. Every time he had a great deal to strike but he was hard up for cash and asked me to lend him some few hundred and later even few thousand zlotys. Every time he claimed he had an opportunity to earn thirty to fifty per cent or so and promised to share profits with me, but never revealed what the gooses that laid golden eggs were. As an economist I know such opportunities generally don’t happen in the real world and each time his loan requests were rejected by me.

On 31 May 2010 a text message from him hit me out of the blue. That time he didn’t write about any profitable (read: shady) business to be done, he said we was in an urgent need of money (2,500 PLN) because he had to pay a bill (lie( of a student organisation he was in charge of (lie). The organisation was about to have its expenses reimbursed within a week plus he was about to get his salary within a few days as well. What he described were just some liquidity problems he temporarily had. He managed to earn my trust by offering to meet quickly and sign a loan agreement that would secure the repayment. On that day I was in the middle of exam period and didn’t wish to bother to meet him to sign a stupid piece of paper.

At the beginning I lied to him I had all my money in stocks and investment funds and it would take me three days to turn the assets to cash, but later on I gave in. I transferred to him 1,000 PLN since I realised this was a quite risky move and of course we didn’t meet up to put any signatures. I know very well why I did it, actually despite myself. Just before it all happened I had painfully experienced a blatant example of mistrust and I told myself the relationships between people could not be founded on mistrust, hence my half-baked decision.

Karol offered to return all money four days later in cash. He offered to come to my house, but as it was the day after Corpus Christi downpour I was busy tidying up my garden I asked him to transfer the money to me next Monday. The other reason was that my parents still don’t know about the sunk money – I somehow don’t fancy hearing the “Haven’t I told you” phrase…

On Sunday he asked me to lend him another 500 PLN, I refused. The money I had lent him didn’t appear next Monday, moreover, Karol stopped answering his phone and writing back to my text messages. Soon his voice mailbox got jammed and I realised things must have gone pretty nasty. I got in touch with his brother who promised to tell him to call me, his mother couldn’t tell me where I could find him. Karol’s behaviour became more and more mysterious.

I had a few phone calls with Adam in June, which consisted in reading between the lines. In early July we finally talked openly. Adam politely asked if I had given his brother any money and if Karol hadn’t given it back to me, I politely confirmed to find out I was a bit out of luck. Karol would behave strangely for the last four years, he moved out from home in 2009. For the last two years his family had been paying his debts until they ran out of cash. They decided not to run up their own debts to repay Karol’s obligations, so all debtors who turned to them were simply rebuffed. Karol managed to ruin financially his quite well-off family. From what I could infer from what Adam had told me, I estimate his all debts could total to around 100,000 PLN. Staggering? During the open conversation in early July Adam told me Karol had assured them he had found a job and promised to give his family a half of his salary. Till now (I called Adam yesterday) they haven’t received a single zloty from Karol. He tritely explained it away by telling his employer hadn’t paid him yet. Adam and his parents still remember about my ten stoovers and still openly declare they will transfer it back to me as soon as Karol gives them the money. I don’t hold out much hopes for getting the money back, but given the very good stance of Karol’s family, there’s still a glimmer of hope. I’ll treat this thousand as a windfall if it ever comes back to me.

Never mind the money now. One thousand more won’t make me much happier, one thousand less won’t make me much sadder (but wiser?).

How come? He used to be the best student in the whole school, everyone spoke highly about him, he was held in high esteem by everyone. Everyone said he would be really successful in the future. My teachers from middle school would never believe in the story above.

And the roles reversed. Seven years ago his family was much better-off than mine. Karol had brand-name clothes and footwear, would go on holiday abroad two years in a year, had all electronic gadgets. At the same time I had clothes from normal shops or from a supermarket, I within those three years I was abroad once for a week and spent two third of my holidays at home and didn’t have all newest consumer electronics devices – my parents were scrimping and saving to buy their dreamt-up house. Today my family’s and mine financial standing is satisfying, his family is flat broke and he ended up as a downright cheater.

I wonder what Karol feels now. I’d be surely conscience-stricken having done something so awful. I wonder how it feels to borrow money with an intention not to give it back. When I talked about it with Scatts two months ago he said in the UK he would never make a down payment for a house without securing it properly, which is normal in Poland. In the UK, in turn, he would lend someone a few hundred pound right away, in Poland he wouldn’t hope to get the money back. Cross-cultural differences?

And how did Karol manage to get into such debts? Stock market? Not that easy. Gambling? Possible. Leveraged risky deals is for me the most probable explanation. If you borrow a lot to increase your profits and it doesn’t work out you’re left with huge debts. That probably dragged Karol (and his family I feel sorry for) down.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Some tie the knot, others clam up.

Yesterday I attended one of best friend’s wedding ceremony. Michał turned out to be the first of my close friends to decide to get married so early. I don’t know what prompted their decision, I didn’t dare to ask openly, but to dispel your suppositions I can tell his new wife isn’t up the stump spout; nor even they plan to have children within next five years. But for some reason they surely wanted to have their relationship formalised. Meanwhile I couldn’t attend another wedding which was held in Tomaszów Mazowiecki (ca. 150 kilometres south-west of Warsaw) just an hour later. Another friend and her boyfriend also tied the knot.

The wedding was kind of sad – number of people in a church (Bazylika Archikatedralna im. Św. Jana Chrzciciela in Warsaw Old Town) reached around 60, including around 20 of my age. I didn’t meet any acquaintance from school. I feel sorry for the newlyweds – as far as I’m concerned they had invited much more people and most of them didn’t bother to show up. How come? Will it happen to me one day? Will my friends cut me dead? Will they choose to lie on a beach, go for a weekend or stay at home and stare at the box instead of keeping me company on one of most important days of my life?

I handed them a gift, wished all the best in the new leaf they were turning over and headed back home. Michał and his new wife settled on not throwing a wedding reception and money not lashed out for one-night extravaganza they spent on refurbishing a flat Michał’s wife inherited after her late grandparents. Not luxurious and located on Bródno, but their own, they don’t have to take out a mortgage, which is a really great advantage. Here I go along with their decision, but many guests could have thought there was no point in going to the church if the newlyweds didn’t provide any blow-out and disco.

For the second consecutive day I passed by the cross outside presidential palace. Still thousands of tourists from Poland and abroad hang around there and a few grannies still pray to the cross and involuntarily are photographed by the tourists.

As the title goes some of my peers quite traditionally set up families, but most of us have other priorities in life. We cherish independence, carefree life, career, money, living it up, flexibility, self-development, etc. But isn’t it all about taking a path of least resistance? Isn’t it easier to live on one’s own? You don’t have to mind your second half’s feelings? But is it happier? I know some people are destined to be lonesome and feel best when no one’s around, company of other people winds them up and simply can’t get along with anyone in a relationship, but is it normal? Human being is a social creature, hence I suppose it naturally needs to socialise with fellow social creatures.

I recently had a great opportunity to observe how the pick of my generation behave. I have no idea how discernible my eye that time was, but I strongly and sadly feel we seem to a broken generation. We have no problems making friends, co-operating and communicating with one another, we can absolutely normally have fun. When necessary we are professional and career-minded, when not we have other priorities, but there’s one disturbing trait we have in common. We are all hidden in our own shells. Always smile on the face, always the awe-inspiring look that exudes self-confidence and courage. People who meet us are always amazed at how well we know what we want from life, how clear our visions our are, how eager to move ahead we are.

But who knows about our problems? Who knows when something’s eating us? Who knows when we feel helpless, disillusioned? Who knows when we’re keeping a bold face (cause that’s what we’ve been taught) while deep inside we’re falling apart? For sure at least ninety per cent of us are not callous robots but ordinary humans who hold back their feelings and carry on, even if each and every cell and tissue deep in our chests is aching. Why? Is it a matter of the new culture I wrote about a week ago?

I have one close friend whom I can tell everything and who can confide in me and reckon for understanding and honesty. I have a few close friends with whom I can talk about some personal issues, but not very intimate, those are people I can rely on in slightly difficult situations, but if push came to a shove I’d be wary of turning to them for help. I have many friends with whom I talk about what are not problems – the fact I bought some stocks and their price dropped is not a problem (unless I invested all my savings in one security and the price really tumbled). And I meet tens of people with whom I just have small talks and do businesses. Our co-operation is based on mutual indifference – meeting up and going separate ways. I don’t think it’s bad, if we wanted to take care of everyone’s quandaries we’d soon go crazy, but… have you ever thought about it in such a way?

I heard several times opinions modern, young career-focused single women are unapproachable and I can’t find any argument to give lie to that (widespread?) opinion. What do we think we stand for by doing so? Have some of us built a glass wall aroudn them? Are we proving our toughness or are we desperately trying to conceal our fragility? What is it going to lead my generation up to? Are we a broken generation? Who the hell can break through the shell?

Strange are these days for me. I’m not down in the dumps but I feel a kind of anxiety, for many months or even years I haven’t felt that insecure. Plus for four days in a row I drank. On Wednesday and Friday socially, on Thursday and yesterday without any company, just to bring the “proper” frame of mind. From today on I’m going to give it up as this certainly shouldn’t become a habit. Does something need to be rearranged? Am I at a crossroads? No matter what happens I’ll be carrying on, as I’ve been doing for years. But when will I run out of strength?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Entrapped by the freedom

This is one of few postings that really fits the title of the blog. Prompted by Adthelad I finally found three hours to watch “The Trap” – a documentary by Adam Curtis, broadcast by BBC in March 2007. Instead of reviewing the film, I’ll have a try on commenting on most of the concepts outlined in it. Sorry for a bit chaotic post, high temperature combined with high air humidity is not conducive to writing, believe me…

1. Is the freedom we experience true or is it just an illusion?

2. Human nature – the authors of the documentary quote many theories, according to which humans are self-serving, dishonest, pursue their own advantages at the expense of others. It seems that a goal of an average man is to outwit his fellow man. No matter how true that notion is, the question which is still hard to answer is whether those bad traits are inborn or are they shaped over the course of upbringing? Some research carried out both in developed societies and in pristine communes prove the heart of human selfishness and cruelty lies in our genes. If those behavioural patterns are instinctive and all attempts to root them out are doomed to fail, the rational conclusion is to learn to get on with them and to harness them to make our lives easier. The answer according to some thinkers is to design a society based on natural leanings – if humans pursue their own interests, the most efficient system is such giving room for unleashing our obscure instincts and behaving rationally, on the basis of cool calculations. In such an environment, clever creatures surely are aware that their fellow men will try to outwit them, what results in social interaction based on mistrust and suspicions. Other people are your rivals, life becomes a race, the goal is to hit your enemy before he hits you…

3. Game theory – maybe this concept does not answer one of basic questions – whether people are good or bad by nature, but rather puts emphasis on readiness to cooperate. As some scientists point out, all our moves have to be in line with strategising – anticipating what other people will do or think. Game theory was put into practice on a large scale during the cold war and actually it founded the moves of both enemies on fear – but is fear bad? In finance – yes, in life – just take a look… Social and legal sanctions prevent us from committing crimes, not our conscience – the authors argue. So is it true that we don’t kill one another, don’t steal goods from one another mostly because punishments hold us back from doing it?

4. Politics – post-WW2 notions of the state stressed the importance of strong administration which would protect people from blows dealt by the invisible hand of free market (which, as said in the third episode of the film, doesn’t exist). A lean state can’t cope with all problems and control everything so an overgrown bureaucratic apparatus has to be created. With time, bureaucracy becomes an independent structure which pursues its own advantages and no longer focuses on helping people. Instead, a maze of procedures, regulations, laws, documents begins to hinder actions taken by the humans. In economics, some individuals get discouraged and have no more patience for striving for anything, what translates into lower economic growth rates. The way to overcome that tendency was introducing mechanisms which would make use of the dark side of human nature – so if state officials are indeed self-serving, their stance ought to pay off!

5. Performance targets – was a crucial tool harnessed to achieve the goal described above. Unfortunately, the creators of that solution probably failed to predict wicked humans would always find was to circumvent the rules of the system. Bank salespeople were walking around cemeteries and taking down names of the deceased to sell them credit cards. Hospital managers removed the wheels from wheelchairs to cut down on the number of patients on wheelchairs. In communism there were plans, przodownicy pracy and some other absurdities, figures in the plans were deliberately lowered to exceed it, now the race towards efficiency makes workers focus on the targets. The pressure to reach inflated goals creates temptation to tamper with figures. Thank God my job is assessed on the basis of quality, not quantity. A system of targets was meant to encourage individuals and teams to compete (like on constructions sites of socialism), in turn the outcome was often opposite as in the case of school rankings – rich children go to better schools, clever, but poor go to worse one and so the gap is growing!

6. Having touched upon the schooling, the film raises also the issue of social mobility, limited in the culture of freedom. Here what comes to mind is a question about the role of government in fighting inequality. In my view, governments should target inequality and keep it on optimum level, that is not so big that it hampers development (the poor stand no chance of social advancement, so there is no incentive to even try) and not so low that there is no incentive for striving any goals. On optimum level, the state offers opportunities for those who are too poor to receive proper education but have potential to grow and then leaves them alone as grown-ups. A sustainable development is in long-term impossible with high inequalities – those disadvantaged will sooner or later vote for populists who will point at the guilty of their misery and the effects of toppling the old system will be piteous.

7. Maths and numbers generally have become a new deity for the advocates of the new system. But think if everything can be measured and calculated – quality, satisfaction, happiness, freedom? Can we use complex mathematical models to describe economy? Would they prove useful on stock markets where prices are driven by decisions of millions of investors, which in turn are driven by thousands of more or less rational premises? My take on the issue is that psychological phenomena generally are very hard to measure and sometimes bringing in numbers might bring more harm than good.

8. Who the hell has the right to adjudicate what is normal and what not? Human character and psyche are too complex to be described with numbers and even if someone does so, it would mean unification – the same model for all people, when people are so different. Who wants to kill humanity by killing diversity, when beauty of mankind consists in diversity. Who created a culture of happiness, ideal traits, perfect people, etc? The pursuit of the ideal pushes millions of people into mental disorders every year. Young, ambitious, creative, flexible, clever, slim, brave, dynamic, enthusiastic, open-minded, sun-tanned, well-travelled, well-dressed, go on for hours… There is an image of ideal woman / man, but when the pursuit of ideals contributes to our development and when it leads up to obsessions? If you don’t fit in, should you feel worse off? Are those who want to break away from the rigid codes of happiness labelled mad?

9. And finally, let’s ask what the freedom actually is. There is a distinction between positive and negative liberties. The former is identified with leftist concept of freedom, the latter with the rightist. This has not been mentioned in the film, but notice that right-wing and left-wing politicians define freedom in different ways. Lefts will say you’re free to have an abortion, rights will tell you should be free from tax burdens… The most absurd thing is that freedom can be imposed – as no one can be forced to be happy, no one can be forced to be free. Freedom is not built in to many cultures and people have been getting on with it for centuries, as in Muslim societies, now somebody wants to step in and say he knows better. Attempts of imposition of freedom ended up with violence and cruelty. I also think military interventions were not launched to liberate suppressed nations but for other ends. And end justifies the means…

WARNING - The passage above is quite obnoxious.

Imagine dear reader you and I sit in a bar, sip beer, but you’re despondent, have some problems and can’t really enjoy the meeting. Your face shows sadness, but I want you to have fun because it’s good for you. You can’t overcome the sadness so I shout at you and tell you I want to see a f**king smile on your f**king face. When you don’t smile I grow impatient and beat you to a pulp and finally you smile, out of pure fear that in the next bout of anger I may break your limbs, crunch your ribs, scoop out your eyes. Is what is written above normal?

So what the word ‘freedom’ means? For me – RESPONSIBILITY, readiness to be bear consequences of my deeds and decisions, not the right to do whatever I want and not pursuit of my happiness. And the role of a government is to protect me, but not from myself, but from other self-serving people.

Many threads are deliberately unfinished just to trigger a discussion.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

On crosses, rants, presidents and would-be presidents

But before I dwell on the current issues my apologies to Adthelad. Regrettably, I did not find time to watch “The Trap” so understandably I cannot review it today. When will it happen? Hmmm… Pending…

I had a second busy week at work, but everything seems to indicate the pressure is going to ease up a bit in the coming days so maybe three evenings will be enough to watch three parts of the documentary, jot down some key points and remarks and then put it together and share on the blog with the readers.

From the beginning of the year weather has had many swings and has surprised Poles many times. This week’s stars were storms and downpours: one on Tuesday, another yesterday. If meteorologists are right, today we should expect a repetition of yesterday’s show. I have guests today, so there might be a bit of a problem, or a necessity to put them up overnight.

This week has been extremely hot in the politics. On Tuesday Poland witnessed an attempt to move the cross from outside the presidential palace. The operation was scheduled for that day, as an agreement between the scouts (who had put up the cross), the Church (cross is a religious symbol) and the presidential office (it is their premise) has been reached. Predictably, unrelenting defenders of the cross (excellent rant by fellow blogger Scatts, I fully back him) blocked the whole operation, the state gave in and the cross is still left outside the palace and a group of weirdoes are still guarding it. Many leftist and liberal commentators hailed the Tuesday events as the failure of Polish state. I partly agree, for the following reasons:

1. Poland is theoretically a secular state so this symbol should not be present in a public space, in front of one the most important official edifices, but on the other hand it is no longer a religious symbol, it is a purely political symbol. The cranks who scuffled with the police on Tuesday called priests “communist secret service agents in disguise” and named scouts “Bolsheviks”, as befits truly religious Catholics. They pray during their sentry, but I wonder to whom – I do not think to God, this is the shrine to late president Kaczynski, I suppose. The cross is a political symbol (and no mistake?).

2. Why can a group of people appropriate a public place and a cross they didn’t even put up. In most countries such an illegal assembly outside a public building (unless there’s a reason for it, as it was during the mourning in April) would be gently scattered to four winds. Here, as the defenders of the cross point out with unhidden satisfaction, the System was totally HELPLESS. The System was overcome, the anarchy is victorious. But it is not the fact that this cross is still there that fills me with dread. I don’t care if there is a cross, two crosses, one thousand crosses and how many PiS-lovers chain themselves to them. There is a Polish proverb which goes roughly: “Let them bite your finger and they’ll eat your whole arm”. I am afraid once the state has succumbed to their claims, they will be impudently eager to break other laws.

3. And there is a reason why I am content the cross is still there. Bearing in mind how dogged its defenders are, the operation of moving it to a nearby church would end up with a bloodshed and those injured would be made martyrs. And sorry to say that, I would not swallow it. I heard double Dutch about martyrs who died in a plane crash (or rather were murdered by the System) and I would surely lose my temper if heard about a PiS-believer wounded or, Heaven forbid, killed by the functionaries of the System.

BTW – look at how Moscow looks today – the fog over the capital of Russia is the best evidence to support the hypothesis that Russians can create fog and they did it in Smolensk on 10 April ;)

I fully understand why Mr Komorowski is reluctant to move into the presidential palace. I would also feel uneasy if outside my house picketed a group of people who would call me a traitor or find me an illegitimate president.

PO once again proved to be too timorous to get to grips with some contentious issues. Two months ago I thought PO was in line with my moderate social views. SLD with its ostentatious anti-clericalism was too leftist for me. Today, if the only criterion for voting for a party were social views and I did not give a damn about the economy, I would vote for SLD…

A propos economy. What do you make of the plans of VAT hike? Am I one of the minority who think it is necessary and justified. In my perception of economic policy a balanced budget and low public debt are more likely to guarantee sustainable economic growth than low taxes which generate deficits. I have never been optimistic about moves of PiS-led government which cut taxes and other burdens when the economy was booming. Such moves are apposite when economy is in the doldrums to stimulate it, not when the growth is running at 5 or 6 per cent per year. It was like adding fuel to the fire and it contributed to current budget setbacks. Everyone knows Polish social security system is ailing, but is it a reason to cut its revenues (sickness benefit contribution) without cutting down on expenses? The same about taxes – taxation rates went down and at the same time government spending was boosted. What do I make – the objective of the government should be to generate budget surplus, through both raising taxes and retrenchments. Low level of public debt means government is unlikely to increase taxes and this certainty creates a really friendly environment for businesses. The move made by PiS in 2006 was very short-sighted and those who benefited from it surely were not the voters of the party.

Breaking news – Mr Kaczynski’s statement on the Mr Komorowski’s swearing-in ceremony.

For those who do not know yet, Mr Kaczynski was absent at that ceremony. One version is that he had to pick up his mother from a hospital (I wonder if he used a private car for it and paid for it from his own purse) and surely fortuitously arranged for the day when the ceremony was scheduled to be held, the other is, as deputy Mariusz Błaszczak had said, that Mr Kaczynski’s absence was obvious in the light of how critical PO politicians were about his brother. Hang on, is it not normal in democracy to be critical about someone else’s rule?

Now some quotes from Mr Kaczynski’s today’s appearance.

1. To zaprzysiężenie było wynikiem śmierci mojego brata i i moich bliskich (That swearing-in was an implication of my brother’s and my relatives’ deaths)
Rebuttal: If you had become a president it would also have been because of their deaths. If your brother was alive he would run for presidency, not you!

2. Sądzę, iż w dużej mierze został on wybrany prezydentem przez nieporozumienie, bo jestem przekonany, że bardzo wiele osób, które na niego głosowały zapateryzmu w Polsce nie chce (I think it was a considerable misunderstaning that Mr Komorowski was elected a president, I am convinced many of his voters do not want Zapatero-like policies in Poland).
Rebuttal: Mr Komorowski is too timid to take steps characteristic for leftist social agendas, but he was elected because many leftist voters put a cross against him to choose the lesser of two evils. As far as I can see around, most Poles want the cross to be removed from outside the palace, but they do their bits and do not protest, those who want the cross to stay there make the noise. It would have been a misunderstanding if you had been elected a president. Mr Komorowski did not lie about his Catholicism and has not used religion to wage a war against “enemies” (you love that word, do not you, it is one of your favourites). You told stories to Poles about your change and returned to the rhetoric of aggression after the lost election. If you had won, you would have done the same, it is natural for you. The result of recent election many Poles put stock in your change. Soon, when they realise you are just a mendacious man with lust for power, the support for your lousy party drops. And after all rows over the cross the one who gains will be SLD.

Over. Just a month ago I did not bear any grudge against PiS, its voters and acolytes, today I would hold back from declaring that. I think I lost my temper.