By W.A Wijewardena –
Value of sparsity over verbosity
Hilmy Cader, Strategy Master, has chosen sparsity of words over verbosity in communicating his wisdom in his Strategic Reflections, a collection of 100 word short essays he had run in his regular column in Daily FT for many years. This is an effective style of communication which he has used following the example set by many erudite masters in communicating their wisdom.
Poverty of words
It is not easy to present one’s wisdom in a few words as many students writing assignments with word limits would know. The challenge faced by such a person is twofold. First, he has to use the least number of words to communicate his ideas. Second, while observing the first, he has to make himself understood by his readers. These are in fact two conflicting goals. That is because the more you become abridged in your presentation, the less you can convey your views to readers.
In this endeavour, you are handicapped by the poverty of words in communicating your wisdom and the inability of your readers to grasp the precise meaning you wish to communicate. Hence, to make the ordinary folk understand such abridged language, other erudite people have to write detailed commentaries explaining what the original writer would have meant.
In many instances, such commentaries, instead of enlightening the reader, contribute to mislead him. It is therefore a challenge faced by any writer to select the appropriate word as well as the appropriate number to make him easily understood by his readers.
The absence of thinking people
Hilmy Cader has met this challenge successfully by presenting his wisdom abridged. Why did he write strategic reflections? In an interview with Daily FT and reproduced in his Reflections, he has revealed that his objective has been to emphasise on the need for ‘thinking’ before acting (page 176).
Says Cader: “Despite all the advances in technology (supposed to improve the quality of our life), corporate executives are busier than ever, caught in an activity syndrome, with very limited thinking time. I wanted this column to make business leaders sit back and reflect on the strategic aspects that impact their life and work.”
He then admits the limitation which is given to him when he has to write his wisdom in 100 words. He says that when one has unlimited space, he could use the rich English language to ramble on and keep filling space. But when that opportunity is not available, to get a key message across, one has to discipline one’s thinking and articulation process.
That key message, according to Cader, has been to challenge the existing wisdom because if one is desirous of progress, one should necessarily ask the ‘hard question’. But the sad situation in Sri Lanka is that many prefer not ask that hard question because they fear to ‘upset anyone or anything’.
Since Cader has not given solutions to the hard questions he has raised, he has expected the readers to think and come up with solutions. His aim has been to push that trigger button of thinking which remains hidden and dormant in everyone.
Sri Lanka’s photocopying machine people are a national tragedy
Sri Lanka’s national tragedy today is that people have no time to sit back and think. From morning till they go to bed late in the night, they are constantly on the move. Thus, they have become photocopying machines which just produce exact replicas of documents fed to them. Those replicas may have many important facts, but the photocopying machines get nothing out of them.
People who act like photocopying machines are capable of reproducing what another person would have stated. But they are not in a position to take them into their system and come out with their own position on them logically, rationally or consistently.
Cader calls this the adverse repercussion of the ailment which he calls ‘activity syndrome’. People are eternally engaged in an activity, but that activity does not produce anything worthwhile. As a result, those who suffer from activity syndrome end up as ‘shallows’ if one borrows a term from the American Journalist Nicholas Carr who has analysed the sad state of the generation addicted to internet.
Students are also photocopying machines
It is not only the corporate executives who suffer from activity syndrome as Cader has observed. This syndrome is pretty much present among students who will one day become corporate executives.
Students who face fierce competition in examinations are encouraged by parents to spend their whole time in extra tuition classes. Tuition masters train them how to get high marks at examinations which is the only criterion of assessing one’s capability today. Thus, students expect tuition masters to think on their behalf and come up with answers to the questions that may be raised at the examinations.
Student numbers in tuition classes are beyond the safe limits and therefore there is no individual-centred teaching. Hence, even the lecture notes are prepared by tuition masters and made available to students. As such, students do not have to make any effort on their part to get high marks. All they have to do is to memorise the lecture notes and answer the question papers at examinations. Therefore, there is no need for them to sit back, think and reflect on anything. They have been converted to shallows.
University students rely on disposable print-outs
When these students move to higher learning institutions like universities, they carry that burdensome bag on them and expect universities to play the role of tuition masters. In this connection, two shortcomings in the university system too have contributed to producing shallows.
The first is that numbers admitted are too high compared to resources available and therefore there is no facility to offer student centred learning at universities. Any individual student is an unknown and anonymous species in the vast ocean of student population there. There are no sufficient tutors to break the students into small groups and develop them as individuals of worth. Hence, at the universities, the student development is not inclusive meaning that not all students are developed equally. Instead, it becomes exclusive where only a few high calibre students get opportunity to develop themselves.
The other factor is that students have to complete a large number of courses to earn the required credits for graduation. To earn the required credits, in each semester, they have to do at least six courses in a four year special degree program. When they are engaged in such a study marathon, they just become photocopying machines copying knowledge from a source document to a print-out. The print-out is discarded immediately after the examination. At the end, it is another group of shallows that are being produced and released to the job market. Students simply do not have time to sit back and reflect.
Hence, the proliferation of society with people who do not think or are incapable of thinking is a national tragedy. It is not necessarily an ailment observable among corporate executives as noted by Cader.
Cader’s wisdom in Strategic Reflections has been arranged under eight main topics from Economic Reflections to Personal Effectiveness. What is of relevance to his readers is how he has asked the hard question relating to each compelling them to sit back and think. The following is an examination of some of the important economic wisdoms he has imparted in his Reflections.
The forgotten economic-accountability
Gross Domestic Product or GDP is a puzzle for many laymen. What does growth in GDP actually mean? Growth in the proper sense for a layman is nothing but an improvement in his personal well being. But growth in GDP is an increase in the size of the cake and not how much each person who has worked for that cake would get out of it. This part, known as the distribution of GDP, is hidden and not revealed to people.
Thus, Cader asks the hard question. Isn’t it time for coming up with a new economic-accountability? Here, what has been abridged into ‘economic-accountability’ can be expanded into a long thesis covering economic policy governance, inclusive growth, balanced regional growth and also sustainable economic growth. So, lots of fodder has been presented by Cader for his readers to sit back, think and reflect if only they wish to do so.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison
The hard reality in nature is one man’s meat is another man’s poison. When translated to economics, what it means is that a production line benefitting the producer can deliver vastly divergent results to society at large. Some people in society too would benefit from it revealing a ‘win-win’ situation. But for many others, it would be a curse meaning a ‘win’ for the producer but a ‘lose’ for them. As long as there is a demand for the win product, it would be produced with no regard for what harm it would deliver to many others who are simply guinea pigs for testing its potent and power.
Cader draws an example to illustrate this seeming paradox from the global weapons industry. The moral side of the weapons industry is that they serve for protection: personal protection from violent users or national protection from invaders. Hence, there is a demand for weapons and there should naturally be a supply of same. But there is an immoral side of the use of weapons too.
Accordingly, the morality of the weapons will reverse if they are in the hands of the wrong parties. Thus, the very same protective weapon could be used by someone to inflict violence on an innocent victim. Similarly, they could be used by nations bent on invading their unsuspecting neighbours. Thus, the demand for weapons would multiply from both sides creating a ‘win’ situation for the producers who have invested in the technology of manufacturing ever more powerful weapons. It is the advanced countries which have this technology and therefore weapons industry is a prosperity deliverer to them.
Cader now asks the hard question. Does it bring prosperity to the world as a whole? For the weapons industry to thrive and prosper, there should be enough ‘excitement’ throughout the globe. Then, it must lead to what is now known as ‘immoral hazard’, as distinct from the conventional moral hazard, where producers of weapons would create continuing conflicts in the world so that they could sell more weapons. Thus, a seemingly moral industry now becomes an immoral industry. This paradox makes the wish which everyone has to live ‘happily ever after’, according to Cader, a mere dream requiring a quick wake up call.
Bubbles created through increased money assets
The creation of bubble economies has been one of the dangerous economic maladies experienced throughout the globe in the recent past. The bubble has taken place in the individual economic units as well as in the national economies. What is the root cause of bubbles? Cader has identified several contributory factors which one could list in two main categories: The push factors and the pull factors. The push factors push up the individuals, corporations and national economies from below to artificially high levels.
According to Cader, the tendency of people today to live beyond their means exacerbated by greed that blinds their view is an important push factor. The blind greed leads to their believing in the value of money and monetary assets over and above real assets. Thus, money assets increase in multiple terms of real assets creating bubbles in the process. The pull factors pull individuals, corporations and national economies up from above.
The main contributor in this context has been the irrational and illogical confidence which people place in themselves, corporations and national economies. The confidence is built through media blitz which needs ‘excitement’ for its survival. Cader calls this confidence a ‘curse’ because it is only a small hiccup which is necessary to destroy it and in the process to cause the bubble to burst.
Corporations and politicians manipulate confidence to their advantage and thus speed up the bursting of the bubble. They are basically driven by three viruses which Cader calls GEM: Greed, Ego and Materialism. Instead, suggests Cader, individuals, corporations and national economies should be driven by their concern for increasing real value addition to the economies concerned. In essence, what Cader says is that creating money bubbles which many central banks do illogically does not bring in prosperity. Instead, it is the creation of real wealth that would do the job.
Inequality not to be tolerated
Cader has looked at critically the way capitalism is practised today. The Arab Spring, according to him, was launched by young people who had been marginalised by the prevailing economic systems in those countries. There had been a few who had benefited out of economic advancement, while the majority of the youth had been denied opportunities to improve their well being. This has been noticeable in the subsequent Wall Street occupation in USA.
The growing inequality driving the youth out of the economic system has led to economic disorder in the major economies in the world. It also has created opportunities for speculators to make millions of money by just one stroke of pen, while hard workers like teachers or nurses are paid peanuts by way of remuneration. Cader says that the toleration of such inequality leads to globe-wide financial and economic epidemic that cannot be eradicated easily.
Hence, a revisit to free market economy system and capitalism is a must if one is interested in saving the globe from the oncoming economic catastrophe. But Cader says that revisit should not be a U-turn to socialism. According to him, it could be a new brand of governance that would discipline the untamed capitalism driven by mere animal spirit. He suggests that it can be called ‘People-ism’ meaning that people at large are the masters of society and not a few select group of politicians or corporate mandarins.
Sit back and think
Cader’s reflections indeed prompt the right type of readers to sit back, think and reflect. It would certainly lead to the creation of a creative generation in the country.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com.