The Luxury of Thinking About Tomorrow

One of my goals for this trip was to do a better job of “living in the moment”. Prior to leaving, I was increasingly unable to enjoy what I was doing because I tended to obsess about what needed to be done at work, home, and for others. Spending time in Indonesia has shown me that there are potential pitfalls to the other end of that “living in the moment” continuum. While there, I saw numerous examples of Indonesian’s living their lives like they had no tomorrow.

We’ve now been in SE Asia for two months and have seen some crazy examples of moto-scooter/bike driving, but nothing compared to the stuff we saw while in Indonesia. In addition to the hundreds of crazy passes at ridiculous speeds on hairpin roads, there were sometimes up to 6 people riding on one little scooter and guys carrying stacks of 2×4’s with one arm while driving with the other at over 60 mph. My favorite scenes were the guys carrying bamboo stalks (sometimes just one, but often times multiple) measuring lengths of over 30 feet while driving the scooter, resembling a modern day jousting scene with nature’s lance. I never saw an accident, but did see many close calls and saw many a people (mostly foreigners) with severe road rash injuries hobbling around town. Lastly, I observed hundreds of abandoned flip flops (the most commonly used foot covering in Indonesia) along the roads. It made me wonder if these were somehow used like roadside memorials to commemorate where accidents and/or deaths occurred.

So all of this has got me thinking about the luxury of being able to think about tomorrow. My social and economic justice colleagues are going to give me a big “duh” on this post, but Indonesia has really brought home to me how difficult it is for people living in poverty to think beyond the day they are currently living. Income, but more importantly “access” to capital (and debt) provide the ability to think and plan for the future. With that ability to think about tomorrow, one can begin to align steps that are going to improve their and their offspring’s opportunities down the road. It’s an incredibly simplistic fundamental of the world, but its impact is profound.

I broke a surfboard while in Indonesia. I did, but in my defense… I really didn’t. Here’s what happened: Max and I had been surfing at a beginner beach on beginner surfboards. For those who don’t know, there are the cool, balsa wood – composite little boards that good surfers are able to use and then there are the larger, primarily foam poly-wrapped boards that are given to beginners to use. Over the course of a day, I had graduated from a larger foam board to a smaller foam board and headed out to the surf. In no more than 5 minutes, I began to paddle for a wave when the front third of the board snapped back whacking me in the face. I walked it in and brought the issue to the attention of the board rental proprietor. The owner exchanged the board for me, but not before mumbling something about it costing more than 3.5 million Rupiahs (about $300) to replace it. I didn’t say anything as I assumed it was something he saw regularly and returned out to the water with the replaced board. Not before getting 100 meters out did I realize that the replaced board had some “play” in the front section and sure enough, the foam under the poly wrap was broken. It then occurred to me that the first board must have had the same issue and I hadn’t noticed when I took it out. Essentially I had officially broken a board that was already 95% broken before I used it.

I returned the second board and shared my analysis as to how the first board had broken. The owner saw that I was trying to weasel out of any accountability for the broken board and I grasped that he fully intended for me to cover the cost of purchasing a new board. The arguing began. I acknowledged that I was indeed the “final straw” that broke the camel’s back, but shouldn’t have to pay for a brand new board. The arguing continued….for well over an hour. Against what I felt was fair, I agreed to pay 1 million Rupiahs (about $80) and would agree to continue to rent from this guy while we were in Indonesia. He wouldn’t accept anything less than 3 million Rupiahs. Throughout the arguing, I had hinted that perhaps we should just let the local authorities iron it out….of course because I thought I was in the right….and travel-centric and/or euro-centric justice (privilege) would prevail. They quickly had shown concern with this 3rd party arbitrator approach so I thought I held the ace in my pocket.

The arguing and negotiating had run its course. We had both drawn lines in the sand (we actually did…to illustrate how far we were from an agreed settlement line) and we were at a standstill. I craftily thought it was my time to use my ace and to push for what I thought was going to be my win move in the negotiation. I gathered my stuff, started walking, and stated that we should just go down the road to the Indonesian equivalent of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry cop shop. To my surprise, they called my bluff and before I knew what happened we all headed for our scooters.

We arrived at the police station and the station’s Barney Fife heard both sides of the argument (well, he heard theirs as they had the local language to their benefit) and “ruled” that I needed to fork over 2 million Rupiahs. Like many spiteful Americans who feels they’ve been wronged, I told the proprietor that I was going to make sure to post my unfair treatment via negative post(s) online. I felt like I had lost. C’est la vie.

After I cooled off and realized there are clearly far more important things to fret about in life, I began to analyze the whole incident. Here’s the deal….the need for the money was as or even more important than the already broken board. Through the arguing, I realized the proprietor just needed cash. His rationale for me paying 3 million Rupiah was because it was their down season, he had people to pay, and that it wasn’t a lot of money for someone from the United States. He never intended to use the money I would pay him to go out and replace the board that was broken. He needed to take an immediate short-term financial gain over the long-term benefit of retaining me as a customer, risk of bad business reviews, and inability to reinvest in his business. I get it and think we’ve all had to make short-term, short-sighted decisions when immediate cash was the driver, but also think that most of us look back on those moments knowing we wish we could have done it differently.

After this little episode, I began to use a more critical eye to why stuff (infrastructure, people, business decisions, etc.) was the way it was in Indonesia and the reasons became pretty clear when I used this access to capital/debt lens. I also became much more accepting (a better team player) of the role tourists and foreigners served in this symbiotic game that needs to play out daily in Indonesia. There seemed to be a local and a tourist price for most things. Locals expect and need foreigners to step up and pay significantly more than the cost of producing a good or service. This supports the local residents in lieu of having social support, infrastructure investments, and other income for a community. Essentially, it feels like the lack of a public policy has forced the hands of the local residents to go it alone using any and every tool at their disposal to get by on a daily basis.

While traveling through Europe, I got a much better appreciation of the depth of their cultures and communities. Most countries in Europe have an incredibly long memory and rich history. Things there didn’t happen overnight and change is measured in generations and seemed very purposeful. I felt Europeans took the long view on just about everything: Energy, infrastructure, housing, employment, family, and the environment. They seemed to always be thinking about generations to come.

The United States is a neophyte in comparison. In the United States, we have a short history and unfortunately also take a much shorter view of the future. We build structures with a life expectancy of 20 years, tend to upgrade to new cars frequently, and seem to be prone to make decisions that will yield immediate short-term rewards even if it is detrimental in the long-term. Indonesia is even younger country than the United States. While Indonesia began to push for its independence from the Dutch in the early 1900’s, it wasn’t until after World War II that it actual became its own nation. Indonesians have lived there for a long time, but it’s really been a short period of time that they’ve been able to call their own shots. I believe this phenomenon also adds to the short-term, immediate benefit thinking held by the country and its people.

I don’t think we need to follow this development formula and it can be done better. We just spent a couple days in Singapore and it feels like even though they are a very young city-nation, they have been purposeful about setting policies and priorities with a long-term vision for their country and people (hoping to write a future blog on their interesting housing policies).

One of the areas where this short-term thinking is going to screw the Indonesia and its people is in land and business ownership. While we were only there for three weeks, it became quickly evident that development is happening quickly. The island of Bali is already developed and there were significant development pressures playing out on the island of Lombak. Prices are still relatively inexpensive and foreign investment is moving in quickly to develop and start businesses. The local residents are being left behind due to seeing (and/or acting on) the bigger picture and the necessity to focus on daily needs. I heard many stories of locals who passed up opportunities to purchase real estate (residential, commercial, land) and now are being displaced. Across the world, we see displacement playing out, but I wholeheartedly believe that part of the displacement issue is due to the inability for low-wealth people and nations to have the luxury to think beyond many of the immediate needs of tomorrow. I’m not necessarily a big government advocate, but am in support of policies that place a high priority on the impact for ALL people for future generations. I struggle with having respect for government, business, or individuals who put their immediate needs above the future benefit…especially when they have the luxury of thinking otherwise.

It’s been fascinating to think about this long-term vs. short-term mentality as new policy and funding priority proclamations are made almost daily stateside. Each one leaves me asking myself what is the end-game and how does this benefit the U.S. and its’ citizens today, but more importantly what it means for tomorrow the distant future. Over recent years, I think we have missed many opportunities to be more proactive on forward-thinking education, housing, and social investments and policies. It does feel like we were starting to round the corner on beginning to think long-term about energy and the environment, but those policies and investments are quickly being turned back to short-term thinking. Whether it Indonesia, the United States, or any situation, we tend to all lose out long-term when short-sighted decisions are made for the sake of an immediate win.

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