Good & useless

Yairs, yairs, gentle readers, well spotted. I refer to the apparent howler yesterday, on the tail of my seventh paragraph, which read, “I only fired people for being useless.” It was to be taken more in the tone of spiritual confession, than in that of professional pride. But since not one of you has read the (unpublished) memoir of my years before reception in Holy Church — The Half Life: Fifty Years of Sin and Error — you may have missed the context. I was young then.

Much retrospective confusion attends my editorship of Business in Thailand (and allied publications, 1978–80), a literary journal posing as a glossy business magazine in order to reap subscriptions and advertisements. I look back on the adventure mostly with regret. It was a time when I sincerely believed in “economic growth,” to alleviate material poverty. I was a maven for “development economics.” I thought capitalism could fix the Third World; and indeed it fixed, everywhere it was tried; but not in the way I expected. It destroyed much good worth conserving. It did not replace with better.

Thailand was an odd place to be advocating wealth. “There is rice in the fields and fish in the streams,” according to an old Siamese proverb; on which the gloss might be, “except during monsoon, when there is fish in the fields and rice in the streams.” It is one of those countries richly blessed by nature, where nothing short of socialism could ever bring about starvation.

How could I miss what was plain before me (as it had been from childhood, when my father also worked there): that here was a country at ease. Any more wealth would be redundant. The generals were already driving in Mercedes, and all the major roads were paved. They had imposed a corrupt pseudo-democracy; but the people adored their gracious King. Except those schooled in modern Western values, they were kindly, generous, and content. Ask any of them what was wrong with their country and they might say, “Too hot.” Otherwise, they couldn’t think of anything.

When I left for the last time, Bangkok, “the Venice of the East,” was already a hell-hole of progress. The klongs (canals) were being filled for expressways; skyscrapers were beginning to ascend; the air was such that one had to smoke, in order to avail of a filter. A few more decades have passed, of what became a playground for whores and tourists. From what I can see through Google-goggling, nothing has been added that is not vile.

God save the King (Rama IX), God save the people. And God save me, as I reflect on my own tiny role in this dystopic transformation.

But to the point, I remember the three people I did actually fire from the publishing enterprise in which I was complicit. All useless, for the purposes of the enterprise, but at least two of them more perfectly “useless men.” To understand this term as I presently use it, gentle reader must consult a previous Idlepost (here). I now take it for high praise.

I remember today the aptly-named Dr Tin Aye, elderly Burmese exile, who seemed to know everything that could be known about the geology of his native (and adjoining) land. Compassionate, benevolent, courteous Tin Aye; obsolete child of the Raj; appointed as our mining correspondent. Though educated in English, he could write nothing that was not incomprehensibly dated. Nor, as he casually admitted, could he understand any innovation in mining that had occurred since the Second World War; let alone, “development economics.” Yet he was a fund of intriguing oral tales from the lore of mining before that time.

The day I sacked him, he smiled, thanked me for the term of his employment, peacefully cleared his desk and made off. He never cashed the severance cheque I’d had cut for him. It was only because I brutishly insisted, that he’d taken this document at all. He said he hadn’t earned it; that he ought to be refunding his salary instead.

I can still close my eyes, and see him shuffling away: carrying his unravelling school bag, and some tattered map rolls under his arms; his left foot conspicuously dragging. From the little I could guess, perhaps a Catholic saint, known only to Christ and a few aging children. No use to “the modern world”; today his doctors might prescribe euthanasia.

A beautiful man, whom I fired, on my own initiative without instruction. But my boss congratulated me, when he heard what I had done. He said we have to be ruthless, “to protect the bottom line.”

“Why?” I thought, even at that moment. What fanatic puritanism could limit the purpose of a business to that, alone?

The business was flourishing. We had a hundred reasonably productive employees. We could easily carry a dozen lowly-paid more, who added to the charm and character of the place. And who reminded all young that tomorrow will come, as today we must respect our elders. And who sat as quiet guardians of order. Let all know, too, that they are working for a company that does not abandon its people to bureaucracy and chance; that does not throw human beings away.

I saw the old guy limping off; but in a dream of judgement I might turn with him, and look back upon the young executive jackass, drest in silk tie and “a little brief authority.”