Politics, Uncategorized

Boris Johnson, the 43.6% Wonder.

The recent landslide election of Boris Johnson in the UK bears a very strong resemblance to Trump’s election in 2016. For one thing, his margin was provided by traditionally working class Labour voters switching parties much as Trump’s winning of old, white, uneducated – meaning less than a 4 year degree – men gave him the presidency. Similar to Trump losing the popular vote by 3 million and winning the office by only 80,000 votes in three states, the total vote for Johnson’s Tory party was 43.6%, hardly a resounding popular mandate.

In fact the combined vote for Labour and Lib Dems added up to almost exactly the same 43.6%. When you consider the Scots are traditionally leftish, if there were no Scottish National Party, their votes would have made an easy majority for the non conservative side.

Johnson’s big push for Brexit was the determining factor for many otherwise Labour voters. The largely uneducated small-town working-class were big Brexiters. While there are many political divergences between the US and UK, people who vote Democratic in America; the young, minorities, women, urbanites, is reflected in the Brexit vote where the young, London, the other big cities, Scotland and N. Ireland all voted to remain.

In both cases the culprit is voting systems which do not truly express the will of the majority. The US Electoral College is heavily weighted towards the small states. Each state gets one electoral vote for each senator and representative, but Wyoming with less than 600,000 people gets the same two senators, thus the same two electors, as California with 40 million. In the UK it’s more a result of dividing the vote between many parties that allows a winner of only 43.6% of the vote to garner a landslide.

UK voters had the opportunity to set up a more representative system a few years back. One of the conditions the Lib Dems placed on joining a coalition with Conservatives was a vote on proportional representation. Unfortunately both major parties campaigned vigorously against it and it lost. It was Labour’s loss since a coalition of Labour, Lib Dem and SNP would have easily constituted a majority in this election.

One other factor in the Trump/Johnson wins was the weakness of the opposition candidates. Some of the weakness was well deserved in Clinton’s case since she’s not a likable person and her politics was decidedly corporate. But a lot of it wasn’t since the Repubs have been harassing the Clintons from day one. The impeachment of Bill over lying about a blow job was an outgrowth of a special investigator the Repubs set up over a failed real estate development in which the Clinton’s lost $90,000, small potatoes, a nothingburger, simple harassment. In spite of a lot of people despising her she still won the popular vote by a wide margin.

Corbyn has been consistently slandered for his position wanting a fair deal for the Palestinians. All the crap about anti-semitism and sympathizing with terrorists comes directly from his opposition to Israeli apartheid and oppression of the Palestinian people. His unabashedly leftist policies also laid grounds for fearmongering from the right. Still, in a system of proportional representation he would be the PM not Johnson.

Ironically, one of the outcomes of Brexit is likely to be Scotland exiting the UK. The big talking point against independence in the past referendum was that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU. I never understood why the EU would make it hard for Scotland to join on its own. At any rate among other things, that was a part of why it failed.

Now Johnson says he won’t allow another referendum in spite of the landslide victory of the SNP winning 48 out of 59 seats. Regardless it’ll happen one day for sure, Scotland voted very strongly for remain and will be very unhappy leaving. Also voting sentiment shows that it’s likely that N. Ireland will opt to join Ireland, They’ll prefer staying in the EU rather than leaving with the rump UK.

Personally, I think the UK will petition to rejoin the EU after about 5 years. In a second referendum as proposed by Labour, remain would’ve won. But it’ll good to leave and get the demons out, Brits have been complaining about the EU and demanding special privileges from day one.

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Climate change

CO2 is Our Friend

Or so the deniersphere would have us believe. One of their favorite themes is that CO2 is good for plants and the more the better. In fact, if you pump additional CO2 into a closed environment with proper temperature and all, plants will grow bigger and faster.

On the flip side, plants don’t grow well at all in 115 degree – 46C – temperatures as experienced in southern France recently. That temperature is typical of hot low-lying deserts, like Phoenix in summer. A news article about the event included a picture of a farmer looking at her scalded grape vines. A day or two of that will set the plants back, but probably not kill them. However, a week will almost surely destroy the crop absent massive intervention like shading and frequent misting.

Without massive intervention on humanities’ part to reduce and eliminate CO2 production those events are virtually certain to become more common and many crops will no longer be viable where they are now grown. This reminds me of an anecdote about a redwood tree that was planted in Ohio. It did well for 50 years, though it didn’t grow the way it would’ve in its own habitat, but then a severe cold snap hit and killed it. It isn’t the little additional heat that causes the worst problems but the occasional extremes that bring the biggest changes and challenges.

The curious thing is the concept of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere has been accepted science, or at least accepted by most scientists for almost two centuries. In 1824 Joseph Fourier deduced that the atmosphere had to be responsible for regulating temperatures on earth and he described the concept by using a box with a glass lid showing its heat retention properties. His ideas became known as the greenhouse effect. In 1896 Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first quantified the effect that CO2 had on temperature. I recently saw a photocopy of an article in a New Zealand paper from 1911 which spoke of the CO2 problem and concluded with, It may be a problem a few centuries from now.

Climate denial began in earnest in the late seventies when the oil companies came to realize that the science threatened their profits. The best example is Exxon: their own scientists warned the company’s bosses that CO2 produced in the burning of fossil fuels was going to be a problem for the earth. Instead of responding with conscience and the planet in mind they spent millions financing groups designed to sow doubt on the science.

With Reagan in office starting in 1980, the denier movement had government backing. One of Reagan’s first acts was remove Jimmy Carter’s solar water heaters from the White House roof. No stinking hippie solar was going to happen on Reagan’s Morning-in-America White House. Conservative think tanks, many funded by a billion dollars from the Koch brothers, have been at the forefront of the misinformation campaign. They’ve now spent 40 years attacking scientists and the science behind climate change. They did their job well; there’s now a substantial number of people who have their doubts and plenty of deniers who believe with religious fervor that 97% of the world’s meteorologists are falsifying data and generally lying about climate change. This is especially true in our own wacky America. 17% of Americans think it’s a hoax.

We’ve got our work cut out for us.

 

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Climate change, Uncategorized

The Ice Age Cometh

Well, not so fast. A coming ice age is a central denier argument. It’s based on natural phenomena and if not for the massive quantities of greenhouse gases humanity has pumped into the atmosphere, we would be entering a cooling phase. However an actual ice age would require thousands of years to take effect.

Meanwhile what’s happening now is that it’s now been 415 consecutive months that the global temperature has been above the 20th century average and the last 5 years, including 2019 which is certain to be near the top, have been the hottest on record.

CO2 and temp

If you take a look at this graph which tracks temperature and CO2 over the last 350,000 years, three things stand out.

The first is that the two move in tandem, in lockstep, they are inextricably tied together.

When you point that out to a denier, they want to argue about which came first. While it would be interesting to understand the underlying physics, for our purposes that really doesn’t matter. It’s only pertinent that they move together.

The second is that most of those 350,000 years were much colder than today and the warm periods were brief. It’s easy then to postulate that we’re headed for an ice age until you look at the extreme spike in CO2 at the end of the graph. How is it possible after hundreds of thousands of years of tracking very closely that we’d enter a cooling phase alongside skyrocketing CO2? CO2 up, temp down? Makes no sense.

The other thing to note about the spike is that it’s far steeper than the previous spikes, though they look sharp enough, they still involve thousands of years. The reason why the temperature hasn’t matched the rise in CO2 is the effect of the oceans as a heat sink. It takes much longer for water to heat up so there’s an inherent delay before it catches up. Meanwhile we’ve only warmed by 1°C, though this last July, which was the hottest month on record was up an impressive 1.2C, so we’ve essentially already cached a lot more heat for release later. As you can infer from the graph, the current level of 410ppm CO2 corresponds to a least a couple more degrees of warming.

Up to this date, humanity has produced about 2000 gigatons of CO2: if we want to stay below 1.5°C of warming we can only burn another 500 gigatons. In order to do that we have to halve our emissions by 2030 and in order to do that we have to have plans in place in just 18 months.

For the Green New Deal to be effective it has to be on the level of America’s mobilization for the Second World War. A monumental effort, in other words. Since the US produces about a quarter of all greenhouse gases, the GND would have a massive impact, but it also would inspire others to do the same as well as requiring the US and other developed countries dig deep to provide the funding to help the developing world do their part.

Meanwhile producers of fossil fuels are spending monumental amounts of money locating and developing additional sources. And many governments are promoting and building new coal fired power plants. Will the forces of sanity overcome the juggernaut of profit in time? Stay tuned, it won’t take long to find out.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Uncategorized

Power Down

Phnom Penh of late – April 2019 – has been experiencing power outages of 4 to 6 hours a day, which is no way to run an up-and-coming capital city. Here in Kampot they’ve had mercy on us in the town center where we’ve only been getting momentary outages, but out in the sticks – 5 kilometers away – they’re getting the same long blackouts, so it’s nationwide.

Electricity demand in Cambodia has been growing at 20% a year which would be a challenge to keep up with under any circumstances. But not to leave the govt too much slack, that’s been going on some time so not a surprise and something that could’ve/should’ve been prepared for.

There are several basic reasons for the shortage. One is that the govt has been expanding service to larger parts of the country, soon to be 90% coverage. It wasn’t that long ago that only 20% of Cambodia was connected to the grid: there was nothing in the countryside and most small towns had private companies generating power using diesel at very high prices.

As a developing country, Cambo has a high population growth rate and probably more important is economic growth. For more than a decade it has had one of the world’s ten fastest growing economies and one of the first things people do when they have more money is buy air-con which multiplies power use for many people.

There’s also little consciousness of conservation outside of those locals who minimize use out of necessity and a small number of dedicated expats. But concurrently, many expats are oblivious to conservation. Some years ago a friend invited me to a party at his house in the hot season. He was a first time father of a one-year-old at the age of 50 and he wanted the best for his kid. He gave me a tour of his newly purchased house. When he opened the door to the kid’s room I got hit with a blast of really cold air. As a long time master of frugality and conservation, I was aghast. Why do you have the air-con on if the kid’s not in the room? I asked. Just in case she gets cold, he answers. A one-year-old knows the difference? Personally I imagine a drastic change in temperature, say from 97F to 75F – 36C to 24C – might actually give the kid a cold or such and how long anyway does it take to reduce the temp to a tolerable level once the air-con is turned on? Two minutes? Three minutes? A friend here in Kampot does the same, he keeps his bedroom air-conditioned unless it’s actually cool outside. How often do people leave fans on when there’s nobody around? All a waste. Getting people to conserve is far simpler and cheaper than building new power plants.

So far the country has been totally dependent on private financing from abroad and most of that financing is coming from China. Needless to say they love dams. They’ve submerged some of their country’s most scenic spots in their quest for power. Growing as fast as they are – but lately not as fast as Cambodia – they can’t rest, they’ve got to be continually building out their infrastructure. They’re doing everything, coal, nuclear, renewables.

Over reliance on hydropower is a major culprit in the power shortage. I just recently read a news article from last year saying Cambo was now in good shape power wise since the Sesan dam was finished. Well, not so fast. If it doesn’t rain there’s no power. And the time with the least rain is also the time of the hottest temperatures and maximum demand, so it’s folly to place such great emphasis on hydro.

Otherwise hydro is a great way to produce electricity but unfortunately most dams come with a heavy environmental price. The Lower Sesan dam on a major tributary of the Mekong displaced thousands of people and submerged a large area of fertile bottomland. It also significantly reduced the fishery which many people depend on for their sustenance. The loss is calculated to be about 9% of the total Mekong fishery. When a government official was confronted with that fact, he responded saying people will appreciate having access to cheap electricity. While there’s a bit of truth there, nothing compares to being able to fish for your dinner when you’re at the bottom of the income chart.

Let me digress. Starting in the 1930s the first hydropower dams were built across the Columbia River in the US Pacific Northwest. It’s the fourth largest by volume in America. Before the dams between 10 million and 16 million salmon would return to the river to spawn every year. Mature salmon are large fish averaging 30 kilos, so that’s a lot of food. It’s also very tasty fish, one of the best. Today there are about 100,000 who make the journey and most of those are hatchery fish grown in pens and trucked down river past the dams. I saw a news clip made back in the time which showed lots of fish jumping out of the water while the announcer said, Say goodbye to the salmon, progress has come to the Pacific Northwest. Cheap electricity in exchange for almost unlimited salmon for people in the region. Today in that area many dams on smaller rivers are being breached and the water running free again so the salmon can come back in some places.

There are areas where dams can be built the have minimal impacts on the environment. One such, I believe, is the Kamchey dam just a short distance from Kampot. I’ve heard people say it’s an environmental problem but I don’t see it. It’s in the mountains where nobody or at most a handful of people were living. Being in the mountains, it affected no migratory fish. It could even be stocked with fish and be a valuable recreation spot, but so far the Chinese owners haven’t allowed anyone to go up there.

Meanwhile, Laos is has many dams under construction or planning which will play havoc with natural river flow and migration of fish. They want to be the battery of Southeast Asia and will be able to sell a lot of power… but not when water is low, so not really a long term solution for Cambodia. This country needs to put the brakes on coal and damaging hydro and stick with solar. There will always be sun and small solar projects are happening here. Cambodia is currently buying power from all three neighboring countries to try to partially make up for the shortfall. Even Vietnam which is having its own supply problems is sending power this way, though recently they cut us off to preserve the power for themselves.

At any rate this isn’t the first time lack of rainfall has caused power problems in Cambodia and should have been expected. Then again at a demand growth rate of 20%, it’s going to be difficult keeping up under any circumstances.

The other type of power plant that Chinese and others like to build is coal fired. There are now two operating in Sihanoukville with about 600mw total and a big 700mw under construction costing more than a billion dollars which won’t be finished until 2023. Coal has every possible disadvantage. It’s filthy: even using the most advanced technology, it’s still a big polluter. And who believes that the outfits building these coal plants will use the best technology considering how much more expensive it is to burn relatively clean? The problems don’t stop after it’s burned since you then have to do something with the toxic ash.

It’s always been pushed as the lowest cost source of power, but in many cases it’s not even the cheapest anymore. In most parts of America it’s now cheaper to build new solar or wind power than it is to feed an existing coal plant. Coal is going down in the US because it can no longer compete.

All that’s before you consider climate change. Greenhouse gases are still in an upward trend when we need to be drastically curtailing our production to stay below a 1.5 degree increase over historic levels. CO2 is now increasing at a rate of 3ppm per year and is now up to about 410ppm as opposed to 280ppm at the start of the industrial revolution. The last time CO2 was so high was millions of years ago when the temp at that time was 3C higher. A rise to that temperature would leave most of the earth uninhabitable.

And why now spend a billion dollars for a plant which won’t even be finished for four years when you can have the same amount of power in operation using the sun in a matter of months?

Privately financed power plants often include provisions in their contracts that require the state to purchase a certain amount of power even if it’s not needed or used. That would be a nightmare scenario for the national budget should the world decide that no more coal burning can be allowed. Yet China is currently building 60 coal plants around the world in addition to the many under construction domestically.

China correctly states that most greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today came from rich countries and they are still producing much more per capita than China is so why should they sacrifice the economic growth they need to bring their people up the income ladder? True enough, but the country, having the world’s largest economy based on PPP – purchasing power parity – and being the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, has responsibility to the world to clean up its act and to its people to minimize harmful pollution regardless of what anyone else is doing. Unfortunately, environmentalists there are often treated as enemies of the state so the powers will do as they please with little hindrance.

And burning of fossil fuels continues to rise in the US, mostly petroleum to power America’s increasingly larger vehicles… the cost of gas went down, people switched to bigger vehicles. Dystopia anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

while none of that totally exonerates the government

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China, Uncategorized

Hong Kong Rocks

 

It is tremendously heartening to see the turnout in Hong Kong against the government’s proposed extradition treaty with China. Hongkongers are standing up for basic rights against China’s president Xi Jin Ping. He’s the man, nothing like that bill could come about without his pressure. He wants everybody to fall in line, he hates dissent, but what he got was mass disobedience and an embarrassing climb-down.

He was bested by the people of Hong Kong who refused to bow down, they had too much at stake. As a corollary they also brought home to the people of China the force of freedom. The official press called the protesters violent and influenced by foreigners, but only the gullible believe them. This is another case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997. China is still smarting from the humiliation of being forced to lease it to the Brits in 1847 so they could carry on their lucrative opium trade, hated by the Chinese. The lease was up but the UK couldn’t hand it over without some assurance that the colony’s citizens could continue to enjoy the freedoms they had been used to so the one country – two systems regime was established by China to provide that assurance.

And Hongkongers are largely free as witnessed by massive demonstrations. The largest was said to have been 2 million by the protesters. Even the 400,000 estimated by police is a tremendous turnout.

However, Beijing has been slowly tightening the noose, cutting back on their freedoms piece by piece. Like insisting the region’s government could not be fully democratic, that Beijing’s picks had to maintain ultimate power.

One of the biggest reasons for distrusting the Chinese government was the abduction in 2015 of five HK booksellers who had been publishing works critical of Beijing and Xi. One, a Swedish national, was abducted from Pattaya, Thailand. One is still being held, the others were forced to confess their sins against the party.

When Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader tried at the behest of Beijing to push through an extradition bill almost on the sly, it was time for the people to push back. There’s a lot of confusion and/or misunderstanding over the meaning of that bill and extradition in general. I keep hearing that Hong Kong couldn’t send back a criminal suspect because it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with China. Maybe HK a special case, but usually it’s not necessary to have an treaty for that to happen. From my understanding and research there’s no rule says a country can’t extradite because they have no treaty. It’s strictly at the discretion of the sending country.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier with a treaty since it implies an obligation to do so. Even then a requested country can refuse under various conditions. For instance, many countries will not send an individual to a country where they might be subject to the death penalty, torture, an unfair judicial system or other human rights abuses.

Hongkongers are up in arms because they fully understand that China doesn’t follow the rule of law, there it’s rule by law. The judiciary there is an arm of the Communist Party. The party arrests and charges using any flimsy excuse they can come up with and then the courts convict. The head of China’s supreme court proudly announced recently that his court had a 99% conviction rate. With a treaty and a compliant HK government, China could much more easily vacuum up the city’s dissidents and democracy campaigners for their prisons and re-education camps. In China advocating for democracy has gotten people long sentences behind bars.

I’m sure the official Chinese media has tried to downplay and tarnish the demonstrations and undoubtedly a lot of Chinese will believe them since so many have been brainwashed. There are lots of Chinese today who have no awareness of the Tiananmen massacre. But imagine if that happened today, with near ubiquitous smartphones it would be impossible to keep under wraps. That’s what’s happening now and there’s no way for Beijing to hide it.

In the face of such massive demonstrations, chief executive Carrie Lam has backed down and said the bill is dead, but the protesters are not satisfied, they’ve not been mollified, the want to know the bill has been officially withdrawn before they quit their disruptions. They’ve also been emboldened to advocate for full-on one person, one vote democracy. Xi has awakened a monster by trying to limit Hongkongers’ freedom.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

The Invasion

The buzz around town is the Chinese invasion. Hordes are seemingly on their way. The example of Sihanoukville being so starkly and abruptly transformed into a Chinese gambling town with some of the worst kind of sleaziness gambling often brings in tow, does not give one a lot of confidence in the future. Any kind of  social change that comes so quickly is going to be destabilizing and disrupting. But boom towns are irresistible to governments. All that fresh money building grand new edifices is very seductive to the big guys.

Government here can be responsive to the people at times, but since all local offices in Cambodia, with the exception of commune level, are appointed by the ruling party, there’s not much the community can do to protect itself in a political sense; there’s not much influence it can wield, when society goes haywire from skyrocketing rents and there is mass dislocation of current residents and small businesses.

I don’t have any problem per se with Chinese people. I lived there for nearly three years and though they can be brusque and rude at times, I think many of them will blend into the community and enrich it just like all the other groups who come here. That said, the statement above would be true only if gambling doesn’t come to Kampot. Not everything or everybody associated with gambling represents the seamy, seedy side of life, but in so far as the type represented by the example of Sihanoukville is concerned, it’s not desirable, not what we want here. Chinese gangs roaming the streets carrying pipes and such for attacking rivals in Kampot? I don’t think so.

The current rule is that no casinos are allowed within 200 kilometers of Naga World in PP, except for borders and special cases like Bokor. As we know, in Cambodia special cases aren’t that hard to arrange. Rumor has it that a Chinese firm has bought Naga so if the new owner decides the rule isn’t necessary it would go very quickly. About 170 casino licenses have been given out in Sihanoukville. Not all construction has been completed, but some have already closed. The market will be completely saturated when they are all in operation. In any case, most casinos there make a big chunk of their money from online betting. I see little room for another casino town on the Cambo coast, besides the government would be terminally foolish to turn our easy going little town into another gambling Gomorra.

Unfortunately, the government, in its zeal for development at any cost could easily ignore propriety, reason and the ensuing damage and turn Kampot into a little brother of Sihanoukville. One has only to look at what the government has done to Bokor Park and future plans that involve building a city up there larger than Kampot to get an idea of what disasters can unfold.

The current concession covers 16 square kilometers. There’s a tiny bit of justification for the development since there’ve been buildings up there for a long time. Still, casinos and housing developments in a national park? The owner of the concession has grandiose ideas about the mountaintop’s potential. An immense dining hall seating at least 500 people was built within throwing distance of the big waterfall (a travesty in itself) one of the main attractions there, but generally has a only a few diners; my friend and I were the only people there when I was on the mountain about 3 years ago. A friend who went up recently said there were about 20 people dining.

Six hundred square meter single home building lots are being offered for $240,000, that’s $400 per square meter. Seven years after the concession was granted, they’re now just finishing up a few show houses.

A year after the old hotel was restored, there were cracks in some walls, water stains in many places and after a good rain, which happens very often there, water in the hallways. And room rates started at $450 per night.

Now the government proposes setting aside 160 square kilometers to build an entire city up there. Kampot has a population of about 60,000 in much less space, so there’re expecting, planning, hoping to build a good sized city on the plateau. But a city needs a raison d’etre, a reason for existing. Who’s going to live there and what king of employment will be offered? There won’t be any garment factories, that’s for sure. Nobody builds a factory if its only access is with a steep winding mountain road. Will the population be limited to gamblers, retirees and rich people along with the people who serve their needs?

But really, the determining factor will be how many people want to live in a place that has a miserable climate. It took eight visits in all seasons before I got a glimpse of the sea. The plateau gets four and a half meters of rain a year compared to two for Kampot and three and a half for Sihanoukville. Being more than 1000 meters elevation, it’s six to eight degrees Celsius colder than Kampot and it’s impressively stormy at times. I can see the mountain from my front porch. Here in Kampot we get occasional lightening strikes in stormy weather, up on the mountain there’ll be several strikes a minute and it can go on for an hour or more. A resort town with nasty, inclement weather? Sure, there can be some pleasant days up there when it’s blazing hot down here, but that’s during a two or three month period and not every day.

Will people pay $500,000 for a house and lot to come for short periods? I admit there are quite a few monied people around, but to build a city for rich people in Cambodia? With lousy weather and difficult access to the outside world? Some people like cold weather, or prefer it to being hot and sweaty, but not many, especially if it comes with lots of rain. They should be developing trails, campsites and picnic areas, not cities.

Besides, it’s an abomination to build a city in a national park, it’s supposed to be there for everyone to enjoy. Cambodia has a rotten relationship with parks both urban and rural. They’re great with riverside promenades in urban areas, but there’s not a single real park in any city in Cambodia that I know of, though parts of Siem Reap might qualify. A park: trees, meadows, ponds, greenery, peace and quiet. Every city in all the surrounding countries I’ve been in (I’m not sure about Laos) has beautiful parks. Not saying they all have sufficient green space, just that they have something.

Most of the country’s national parks and wildlife refuges have been carved up by plantations. In some cases, hardly anything of ‘park’ remains. In the case of Ream national park, a concession was given to a Chinese development company that includes 40 kilometers of coastline, a park space that belongs to all the people. All that said, it’s not surprising they have plans to defile Bokor.

The Kampot experience has already been degraded by the many bar, restaurant and cruise boats along the town side of the river. In old town they and their customers have completely taken over the riverside and riverside promenade. In many places it’s hard for pedestrians to get through the cars parked there forcing them to walk in the street. As a result, wherever parking happens the paving tiles are displaced and torn up. Ironically, just before the boats were allowed to completely take over riverside park, no parking signs were put up and even largely obeyed for about a week. Now you see guys using lanterns to direct cars to park there. The authorities have the right idea, but no concept of how to enforce it. The only way would be to install bollards, like those on the entrances to the old bridge, that allow bikes but not cars to pass.

The problem is that the built city is not adequate to the task, especially now with the sharp increase in car ownership. There’s little place to put them, the road is narrow, the street space is seriously deficient.

But the people like the scene. Every holiday, especially, the place is packed with locals who’ve come from the capital and all over to hang out in Kampot. Developing countries are marked by weakness in planning and in anticipating growth and development so the boats went from a handful to about twenty in about a year and the overall situation from tolerable to very difficult with traffic getting very bad at times. It’d be better if they were set up on the other side of the river or confined to further down the river from town, neither though would be easy to do. They also hold music events on the river south of town drawing large numbers of people further taxing the street’s capacity.

Then there’s the lights. It’s not just the garishly lit up boats, but trees, lampposts, the old bridge, all festooned with colored lights…tacky, really tacky. You used to be able to sit by the river and enjoy a placid view of the water. Now all you see are boats.

People – Chinese, westerners, locals – keep coming because it still has a good feeling so property and rents continue to rise, though good deals can sometimes be had. The Magic Sponge, an 8 room hotel on guest house street is on the market for $1.3 million, which I estimate comes to about $1000 per square meter. Rule of thumb says that an income property has to be able to generate 1% of it’s cost per month to justify it’s price and that means it would take about 10 years with maintenance factored in to get your money back, before even considering profits. So at $1.3m the Sponge would need to bring in $13,000 per month in net income. If the rooms are priced at $25 and they are all full all the time, that comes to $6000 a month income. There’s also a bar and restaurant to bring in additional income, but really, the only reason anybody would pay that price is if they think somebody else will pay even more later. That’s where we’re at; pure speculation. Nobody’s bought it yet, so maybe it is way out of line and expectations will have to be lowered. We shall see.

 

 

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Uncategorized

Indulgence

In Cambodia we know about indulgence, it’s a place where good times and down-market desires are easy to come by. Where else can you buy a carton of cigarettes for a $1.25? And Cambo brand comes with coupons you can redeem to get extra free ones. Tobacco is the worst example of indulgence because it has no redeeming values, but it’s still instructive regarding government letting people be themselves. International players really want Cambodia to increase tobacco taxes to discourage smoking and in a sense it makes sense, but in addition to cutting back on undesirable habits or desires sin taxes are also designed to penalize the peons. It makes no difference to fat cats if a pack of cigarettes cost $25 as they do in Australia.

As stated previously I believe everyone has a right to their own poison, including tobacco. In the US tobacco use among adults has gone from 70% in the 1960s to less than 20% now. Advertising and promotion of fags was so pervasive back then people like myself started smoking at a very early age, for me it was 12. My parents who smoked would tell me not to, but what kind of moral authority did they have? They were a poor example. The industry worked very hard promoting denial right from the beginning so that some people think we weren’t aware of it’s dangers until more recently, but no, we called them coffin nails back in the fifties when I started. Still, when Camel ads claimed that 9 out of 10 doctors preferred them you got conflicting signals.

By the time tobacco advertising was banned on TV in spite of the industry’s claims that the link between their product and disease wasn’t clear a concerted effort was made to change course, thus the dramatic decline in tobacco use.

That was done through education. The entire society turned against tobacco and to a great extent it worked. The expense makes a difference, but once you’re stuck on them you’ll pay whatever you have to to get your fix and drain your wallet in the process, unless of course you have deep pockets. It’s unfair to those who are addicted and poor, like family people who buy cigs when they should be buying food or other important items. Tobacco taxes probably should be raised some, but very much and the higher cost might do more harm than good in regards to the countryside people who smoke.

I know people who puff away when they’re here, but not when they visit or return home to the west, which says two things. One that they’re not addicted, if they can take them or leave them, they’ll probably not smoke enough or long enough to develop a disease, so while there’s still nothing good about them, irregular smoking won’t cause serious harm. And second, smokers get pleasure or think they get pleasure from them; part of me thinks that’s absurd, but they evidently do satisfy something in the people who do it. Actually I can understand that since I like smoking pot much more than eating it. When I go through my regular bouts of coughing from smoking too much after smoking one thing or another for the last 65 years, I miss the act of smoking; edibles just don’t do it for me. In the end result, I think education is enough to accomplish the goal of minimizing tobacco use.

Alcohol is different. Along with the potentially terrible things is does to us it really does have redeeming values. It eases our mental and physical pains, relaxes our inhibitions and temporarily lets us relieve our frustrations and woes. Needless to say it can get out of hand; you feel so good after a few drinks you can’t help wanting more, but there’s that price to pay. Still it’s great to be in a place where it’s cheap enough to indulge when you want. At a price of one dollar or less in my favorite bars, my maximum four or five beers in one night is easy on a limited pension.

Here in Kampot many of us do our socializing in bars. While hanging out at friend’s places is also cool, bars offer lot more in terms of getting together and not just meeting friends, but potential new friends. With alcohol as a lubricant, it can be very enjoyable. Back in the states I’d be home six nights a week drinking by myself. It would be excruciatingly boring, just like the two nights a week here I force myself to stay home and not drink. In fact the brew is really starting to weigh on me physically, but still, the music, the laughter, the good times are irreplaceable and would be sorely missed if I had to be back there where I couldn’t afford to go out much.

I talked to a Swedish guy not long ago who said people don’t go out much there partly because the penalty for getting stopped driving home with even a small amount of alcohol in your system can be severe. It’s also very expensive to drink, so they stay home: what kind of life is that? Maybe you’re not damaging your body, but that kind of living could be really depressing, especially if you don’t have a lot of friends or romantic possibilities. And maybe it’s more damaging to your body to be unhappy than it is to have a couple beers.

Many studies have shown that people who drink a moderate 2 drinks a day live longer than teetotalers. A more recent study claimed that any alcohol is bad for you, but I don’t buy it, I won’t buy it. People have been imbibing alcoholic drinks for millennia. Besides, if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me: remember, His first miracle was turning water into wine.

When you place high taxes on alcohol you are penalizing the poor for being poor. Even in a rich country like Sweden there are lots of people on low incomes. With difficult lives, they’re the ones that need a drink now and then as much or even more than those who are better off.  It’s true that Scandinavians have had a reputation as hard drinkers and that responsible governments would want to curb those excesses, but those long winter nights are so dark and cold, they can hardly be faulted for needing a bit of cheering up.

If you’re into spirits, here it’s nothing compared what they cost in the west. Imagine a liter bottle of Baileys for $15, I hear it’s $75 in Australia. Or a shot in a pub for $2 or $2.50. Why should a shot of Baileys be reserved for the middle classes and up? What’s so bad about having a bottle to nip on during those boring nights when you are stuck at home? Sin taxes are unfair.

Some people would characterize Cambodia as a place that’s gone too far in serving people’s tendency to indulge their alcohol habits because it’s easy enough to drink yourself to oblivion and a lot of people who have little else to occupy their time do just that. But really, it’s their choice. Sure they should be discouraged from that lifestyle, but let them be, it’s their life.

My favorite substance of indulgence is cannabis. In that case Cambodia is somewhat ambivalent. It’s illegal, same as all the other drugs on the UN’s list of forbidden highs and you can sure get some real time behind bars for selling it, but most times when they bust a peasant farmer, they simply educate him: bad boy, don’t do it again. Meanwhile, lots of pot fields are owned by the police and military. And somehow even though it’s illegal, there are lots of happy pizza restaurants located in prominent places where they’ll sprinkle weed on your pizza for a reasonable extra charge. They seem to have no problem obtaining it and no problem with the police for openly serving it in their eateries.

Cambodians have had a long association with marijuana and it was only after the UN took over to hold elections in 1993 that they forced the country to prohibit it. Before that you could go to a large public market in Phnom Penh and buy a shopping bag of it for a dollar. Subsistence farmers would smoke it when they couldn’t afford tobacco… admittedly it wasn’t very strong then. They’d also flavor their soups with it. Just an ordinary part of life.

Today the quality has improved greatly and it’s readily available. Not just that, but it’s often smoked openly in some bars and restaurants, though the police in Phnom Penh went around the bars quite a few years ago and told everyone to chill it. What bar and restaurant owners in the capital will do today is tell you to smoke out front rather than inside. Police don’t patrol often, hardly ever that I remember, and they’re not looking to bust for a few puffs anyway.

Countries like Canada, Uruguay and Portugal have made recreational use totally legal. Ten US states have also legalized it and many others are preparing to do the same so it makes no sense to continue a regressive anti-pot regime here in Cambodia. The criminalization of pot has always been a political issue since it’s always been clear that it’s essentially a harmless drug. Back in the sixties a US federal task force suggested that laws on it be eased, but Nixon looked at the main users at the time, minorities and the counterculture, and figured he could use harsh drug laws to target those groups he hated.

No-one has ever overdosed on it, that’s impossible. The US National Institute of Health has calculated that you’d need to smoke a ton of it in a short time to OD. Additionally, no death from disease has ever been attributed to it. Well, sure, anything you smoke is going to be an irritant and if you smoke too much your throat will feel it. In my case forcing me to stop for a week or two a few times a year.

Cannabis is a wonder of the plant kingdom: given ideal conditions it’ll grow from a seed to 6 meters, 20 feet, in four months. It makes a fine paper – the Declaration of Independence was written on it. It makes a quality fabric and strong rope. Hemp bricks can be used in construction, oil from the seeds makes a clean biodiesel and it’s a more efficient producer of ethanol than corn. It also can be made into plastic and the seeds are a nutritious food. All in all a magical plant. It should be noted that while hemp has had the THC bred out of it, the plant that produces bud is just as good for producing hemp. It’s all in the way it’s grown. Grow them close together and you get long stalks with few leaves and buds; give the plants lots of room and you get fat ones with lots of bud.

It’s a magical medicine in some cases. Glaucoma is one of the best examples. One conservative country woman’s experience was the impetus for Oregon legalizing medical marijuana in the 80s. She had a serious case of glaucoma and was due for an operation on a Monday morning. She’d heard about weed’s medicinal properties – she lived in a county that was also home to a good number of hippies – and figured she had nothing to lose by trying it. She started smoking on Friday night and kept on all weekend. When she went for a pre-op checkup the doctor looked at her and said she was fine and needed no operation. She contacted her state legislator, a conservative Republican, and he became a strong advocate for the law change. (As a caveat, it doesn’t work in all cases of Glaucoma.) It also works miracles on epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. You can see a video on the net of a man with uncontrollable shakes from Parkinson’s trying pot for the first time; in a very short time he stops shaking.

There are suggestions that Thailand may soon make medical cannabis legal, an important first step in ending the insane drug war in which SE Asia is one of the worst actors. Several countries in the region – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines – execute drug offenders, sometimes for piddling amounts. Fifty grams of heroin in Singapore is a mandatory death sentence. Singapore is the worst: as an example of its ultimate assholishness a young couple returning home from a vacation in Australia was drug tested upon arrival and each received two years in prison for their terrible crimes of smoking pot in a foreign country.

With so many western jurisdictions legalizing recreational pot, maybe it’s time for Cambodia to take the lead in our region in easing up from it’s now quasi-legal status – happy pizza restaurants – to at least decriminalize. A land of indulgence with cheap tobacco, alcohol and pot is one of its best attractions for both expats and travelers. I see no indication that access those pleasures has been a problem.

Well, I must admit indulgence can go too far. It’s easy to drink yourself to death here and it happens with regularity. Add relatively easy access to hard drugs and if you’re bent on ending it all you can OD any time you want. That also happens with regularity, but as I’ve said repeatedly, everybody has a right to their own poison. For sure people need to be educated to the dangers of what they’re doing, but in this case it’s the expat community that should take the initiative to remind people of the sad potential of ending it all for those who don’t necessarily want to die but don’t realize the ultimate dangers.

If you take Portugal’s experience as an example, it’s actually best to make all drugs legal. Since they did that ten years ago, there’s less crime and fewer deaths from ODing. The atmosphere in our region is not ready for such drug laws, but education is much better than repression and incarceration

Cambodia is one of the easiest places to live and enjoy life. Entertainment is one of its strong points. Letting people without a lot of money stay here leaves room for typical musicians and artists, who rarely are flush, to ply their trades. And the country is enriched by their gifts.

It’s time for Cambodia to join the world’s more advanced nations and ease up on drug laws to go along with cheap booze.

We’re here to enjoy life!

 

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