Thursday, March 26

Can King Bhumibol's Sufficiency teachings save societies from economic suicide?

During 1946-1952, Thailand was recovering from the Second World War causing Thai people to live in difficult conditions. So, the early stage of His Majesty’s development work was focused on urgent problems such as medical, sanitary and social problems. His Majesty saw that if his people were healthy, it will lead to the country’s sustainable development. 
In the second stage, later in 1953, His Majesty began to travel to every region of the country from the north to the south with a great intention to learn about the troubles, hardship and the needs of his people who mostly conducted agricultural activities as a mainstay of living, particularly those living in remote rural areas.
During that time, His Majesty spent over half of each year outside the capital, causing us to follow and frequently spend several days and nights in different parts of the nation. Almost every other day, His Majesty traveled to visit different projects and his people.

The traveling conditions in those days were not as convenient as nowadays especially in remote rural areas with bad road networks. Sometimes the road was incredibly rough and bumpy, and sometimes there were no roads at all so that His Majesty had to walk for hours to reach the destinations.
A Human-Sized Economic Philosophy 

During the years he was spry enough to get around in on foot in the rural regions Bhumibol Adulyadej, ninth monarch of Royal House of Chakri, also called Rama IX, visited every square foot of Thai lands open to him and asked uncounted questions of the people he met with.

I venture his "New Theory" of land and water management to develop from his fact-finding tours was as much a result of his engineering mind and consultations with scientists and engineers as conversations with villagers. But running alongside the technical development challenges, he began to realize that the people he spoke with weren't free because they weren't self-sufficient.  From that point his questions went far beyond discussions about acreage and ponds when he conversed with rural peoples.

The "Sufficiency" philosophy that evolved from this unusual education for a monarch is human-sized. I'd add "to a remarkable degree" but there is no other modern economics philosophy that is actually geared to humans.  King Bhumibol's is the only one in the running for the prize.

Then one day he felt ready to begin a formal teaching mission, and just in time. From In Thailand, A Return to Sufficiency; Shawn W. Crispin, October 5, 2006, Asia Times Online:
The monarch's self-sufficiency-economy concept gained currency in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. In a now-famous 1997 speech, Bhumibol called on the Thai population to scale back its reliance on exports and shift toward a more self-sufficient, localized economic system, where 25% of the economy would be geared toward local production for individual needs.
"A careful step backward must be taken; a return to less sophisticated methods must be made with less advanced instruments," the highly respected monarch said.
Bhumibol's back-to-basics message ran counter to the orthodox prescriptions offered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which called for more, not less, openness to restore economic growth and financial stability. Then, Bhumibol's message presented a direct challenge to the country's traditional pro-globalization stance but resonated deeply with many Thais who had lost their factory jobs and were forced to reintegrate into the lower-earning rural sector.
Some of Thailand's most neo-liberal economic thinkers embraced Bhumibol's philosophy, which they construed broadly to emphasize long-term optimal over short-term maximum production and consumption - as most liberal Western economies are geared.
The King's message helped Thailand weather the economic storms of 1997 without the social unrest seen in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
What Does Sufficient Mean?

But you know how it is when a leader keeps talking common sense. Pretty soon the respectful listeners start asking, 'Could you elaborate on what you mean by the word "is?"

Where this led in Thailand and elsewhere in response to the king's Sufficiency teachings can be intuited from the note Shawn Crispin appended to his report:

1. "A sufficiency economy is not self-sufficiency. It is a philosophy rather than a theory. But the philosophy can be applied to every level of the economy. Households should avoid overspending, businesses should avoid over-expansion and the government should concentrate on protecting national resources." - Pridiyathorn at a forum held by the Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok on Tuesday.
 "Pridiyathorn" being then-Bank of Thailand governor Pridiyathorn Devakula.

Because of Thailand's stringent enforcement of lèse majesté, which roughly translates to, "You're in a lot of trouble if you publicly criticize a reigning monarch," there hasn't been much public criticism in Thailand of Sufficiency. This didn't stop economists from fiddling with King Bhumibol's clear points until they sounded like teachings in a secret order.

The king couldn't resist poking a little fun at the economists who requested clarification on what he meant by "sufficient." I don't have the source document handy for that particular speech of his but while these are my made-up numbers the questions went something like this:

Does sufficiency mean 40 percent sufficiency for the entire country, or 25 percent sufficiency for the individual or 23.5 percent for a village -- or 55 percent for a group of villages?  

For Pete's sake, if the idea is to be self-sufficient one first asks, 'What must I produce that's sufficient to keep myself and my family alive?'

Then taking a real jaunt into higher math, one asks how big one's family is.  And so on like that.  How to check the equations?  At the point you're an able to produce an abundance -- what is above sufficiency, which can be traded, sold locally, exported, etc. 

Now does this mean sufficiency excludes ownership of things like color TVs? No, and neither does it necessarily mean a Back to the Land movement.  If you return to Shawn Crispin's report, King Bhumibol was addressing a situation in the 1990s that had already occurred: job losses in the cities during a severe economic downturn had driven many Thais back to their villages. But he's said that the sufficiency economy isn't only for people who support themselves through farming or live in rural areas. A passage in Tony Cartalucci's 2011 essay points to this:
Of course in Thailand, agricultural self-sufficiency is coupled with technology to enhance efficiency and improve the quality of life. Even in the city, small independent businesses are adopting the latest technology to improve their production, increase their profits, and even out-compete larger corporations. Computer controlled machining equipment can be found in small workshops crammed into old shop-houses, automatic embroidering machines allow a single woman to fulfill orders for name tags on new school uniforms - rather than both businesses sending off orders to factories owned by a handful of wealthy investors. A multitude of examples can be seen walking around any city block in Thailand's capital of Bangkok.
The remarks are a springboard to a discussion of personal digital fabrication including 3D printing, "Fab Labs," and the ideas of MIT professor Dr Neil Gershenfeld. (It was my introduction to Gershenfeld's ideas; that Tony wove these into a discussion of King Bhumibol's Sufficiency philosophy was a tour de force. By putting the two approaches together he amplified an understanding of both, for which I am grateful.)

Self-Sufficiency, A Socialist's Worst Nightmare

Outside Thailand, every time those most heavily invested in keeping up the interdependence of the globalized economic order managed to recover from the trauma of a global financial crisis, they took to sharply criticizing the king's teachings on Sufficiency, or dismissed them as too vague to be workable policy guidance. (This majority opinion finally prompted Wikipedia to re-title its article on the teachings, "Localism in Thailand.") [2018 update: the article is now titled "Sufficiency Economy"] 

Without taking a poll I'll venture the latter camp of critics, at least the kind that hang out at global financial institutions such as the IMF and Bank for International Settlements, have no trouble understanding the teachings, But they would view Sufficiency as a grave threat to the interdependence of national economies that keeps the present era of globalization humming along.

The thinking goes this way: It won't do if a nation can survive gracefully for an extended period with only very limited involvement in the economic world order.  Other nations would start getting the same idea, and pretty soon they'd start going their separate ways. This would lead to anarchy. This would lead to world war. Then we're all headed to hell in a hand basket.  

However, to keep the world hanging together requires socialist government in one form or another at national levels because as Tony Cartalucci shrewdly pointed out in his explanation of King Bhumibol's teachings (The Globalists' Worst Nightmare; July 2011), self-sufficiency isn't socialism.

Without the dependence that socialism fosters in national populations, it's hard for central banks and governments they serve to manage the market mechanisms that grease the wheels of global economic interdependence.

The catch: for national socialist government to work well, it must foster centralization of the populations it administers to. By the turn of the century this had created a waking nightmare from which no escape seems possible, as governments the world over sleepwalk to the edge of a precipice.


The chasm was clearly in sight by the time residents of a Texas border town blocked busloads of children that had illegally come across the U.S. border from Mexico. The residents said, truthfully, that they didn't have the capacity to deal with the influx.

Many of the children weren't Mexican. Mexico's government, overwhelmed by huge numbers of illegal immigrants from countries deeper in the Americas, was accelerating its old tactic of passing along the problem to U.S. border patrol.

Yet the children sent across the U.S. border by their relatives weren't so much immigrants as refugees -- fleeing a severe drought that had hit a wide swath of Central America and also drug gangs that had taken over the "hollowed out countryside," as I think Nils Gilman called it in his discussion about deviant globalization.

It's becoming the same in many parts of the world. After emptying countrysides into cities that swelled far beyond their infrastructure capacities, governments don't have the manpower to police the vast deserted spaces left behind. International crime syndicates and terrorist gangs moved into the vacuum, terrorizing the rural peoples still left.

Arvind Kejriwal had seen the situation with his own eyes in rural India when he worked as an engineer for Tata. The Maoist Naxalites had established a reign of terror in the countryside but it was a government, of sorts, the only force around that approximated a governing entity.

The answer he came up with was a proposal in the book Swaraj  (English PDF) to restore real decision-making power to India's villages, which the British Raj had co-opted and post-Independence Indian administrations had turned into Potemkin examples of self-governance.

Self-rule is not the whole solution, however. It's really hard to stand up for the right of self-rule when one doesn't have enough to eat and a politician arrives in the village with a truckload of free rice.  

I'll add that this point is so self-evident it's gotten lost in the shuffle of current political debates in the United States. But it's putting the cart before the horse to say the U.S. Constitution defends America's freedoms. There would have been no Constitution, no revolution, if colonial American insurgents had been unable to feed themselves without help from the British Crown.

Self sufficiency is foundational to freedom.  

By the way if American readers think the situation Arvind noted in India doesn't apply to the USA, you haven't learned about the devastation caused by drug gangs who moved into America's national parks and forests to raise marijuana on a large scale. They expanded to every rural region where they knew law enforcement was too small to keep up with them. By 2012 they'd moved into California's Central Valley farming belt in large numbers, touching off crime waves that underfunded and undermanned local authorities were helpless to staunch.

On the heels of the gangsters, land grabbers have showed up in several countries. These include big foreign agribusiness concerns that bribe revenue-starved local governments into displacing rural peoples from land that can be farmed. The grabbers are rich enough to bribe the local military or hire an army of mercenaries to shoo away the gangsters.  Yet the foreigners are themselves desperate, scouring the world for regions that still have enough water left to support large scale agriculture to feed water-stressed populations in their home countries.

But where do all those displaced rural people go?  Why into cities, which aren't capable of supporting them.  


Where is this Round Robin of disasters headed?  I think to the disintegration of a mirage.

In his essay Tony Cartalucci singles out the global "elite" as the chief villain.  But it wasn't the global elite that persuaded millions of Americans it was perfectly sane to live far above their means and neither was it socialists. It was blue collar "company stores" that allowed purchases on paycheck credit and later, during America's post-WW2 salad days, white collar employers that could afford to pay fat pensions.

From there it was a hop and skip to Americans buying into the fallacy that a salaried individual could act like a corporation to finance debt. This led to the biggest mirage in modern times: that the United States is a consumer society. Excuse me; the United States of America is a debtor society.

Economists tell China's government that it must stimulate domestic consumption of manufactured products to survive a downturn in its export model -- be more like the American consumer economy.

What the economists don't say is that to keep buying more and more, Chinese must go into debt and not only stay in debt but also keep increasing their debt.

What else they don't say is that debt-fueled buying skyrockets the number of products made for sale -- and that making the products gulps water and other vital natural resources at a faster and faster rate. So it's not increasing affluence, per se, which is the biggest problem regarding sustainability. It's faux affluence, debt affluence, that's the real killer.         

The economists also don't say that if people believe they can accumulate through debt far and above what is sufficient for their well being, they are destroying their wealth -- whatever abundance they produce -- and ultimately their lives.


Rama IX was a product of a Swiss high school education and a graduate of the University of Lausanne. He was also humble enough to ask his subjects to teach him and listen carefully when they spoke.  They repaid his respect by giving him an education no amount of money can buy. From this evolved teachings grounded in the bedrock of a common-sense wisdom humanity accumulated over millenniums.


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