From Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un: How the Hardliners Prevailed: On the Political History of North Korea (2007 – 2020) – Thomas Schafer

From Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un: How the Hardliners Prevailed: On the Political  History of North Korea (2007 - 2020): Schäfer, Thomas: 9798728194378: Books

Thomas Schäfer had the unenviable task of serving as the German Ambassador to North Korea for eight years. His tenure was in two spells, initially from 2007 to 2010 and finally between 2013 to 2018. In his recent book, “From Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un”, Schäfer traces the political trajectory taken by a country known more for its volatility, unpredictability and its leaders’ eccentricities than for mellower economic and socio-political policies. Schäfer begins his book with a thoughtful yet helpless dedication that encapsulates the involuntary plight of the North Korean populace: “For the people of North Korea. They should have a better life.” The nation of North Korea is pickled in Xenophobia and is given over in its entirety to the “Juche” doctrine. For the uninitiated, this doctrine is a relic straight out of the realms of absurdity. As Schäfer reveals, “The consequence of this absurd doctrine is regular warnings against “cultural poisoning” and “spiritual pollution” by foreign countries, the influence of “decadent” and “reactionary” ideologies, and the supposedly corrupting effect of foreign aid and investment. All this is accompanied by the systematic isolation of the population from all foreigners and everything foreign to hide the stark contradiction between state propaganda and North Korea’s backwardness compared to the neighboring countries.”

Despite the shenanigans of such a suffocating regime, Germany did its best to establish lasting and fruitful diplomatic relationships. With the assistance of a few members of the European Union, Germany aimed at moderating the obdurate Korean rule via a policy of “critical engagement.” This policy represented a sincere effort to convince the North Korean politicians about the advantages of international cooperation and the benefits that accrue from according respect for the rule of law. Towards this end, Germany also engaged in a multitude of social, civic and cultural projects. From conceiving “humanitarian aid projects in agriculture, forestry, and the environment, rendering invaluable advice on economic reforms, special economic zones, investment, tourism, and education, to engaging in cultural activities such as the sending of German language teachers, medical training, scholarships, film events, collaborations in the field of music, and support in the restoration of old temples”, Germany adopted a policy of constructive collaboration with North Korea.

However as Schäfer chillingly illustrates, all such efforts amounted to very little as a bunch of absolute hardliners took over the country in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s serious illness (he suffered a stroke) in 2008 and his consequent demise in 2011. As Schäfer  informs his readers, North Korea has always found itself uncomfortably situated between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one side of the chasm, there exist the moderates, who even though, unwittingly forced to toe the party line, are in favour of market based reforms and the limited opening up of the economy. On the other end of the continuum function the rabid hardliners. Placing unrelenting emphasis on economic self-sufficiency and protectionism they are against every bit of international cooperation on matters economic, social and political. The revival of the “Chollima Movement”, a work campaign that had been the North Korean equivalent of China’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s, under the claims that North Korea was a “socialist fairyland” right on the threshold of the “ideal society” bears ample testimony to the hardliner’s bent of mind and an utter lack of vision.

Kim Jong Il himself was a bundle of contradictions. Even though an acolyte of dynastic rule and a devout follower of the xenophobic tradition, he was at the same time not averse to welcoming international economic aid and collaboration. This was reflected in the “Six-Party Talks” that concluded on 19th September 2005 between North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the US. The outcome of such a multilateral dialogue was, inter alia, North Korea committing itself to denuclearization. It was a totally different matter altogether that in the very next year (9 October 2006), Pyongyang proceeded to conduct its first nuclear test. But in September 2007, Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in exchange for humanitarian and economic aid, and also to submit a list of all nuclear facilities and programs, and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to review them on the ground.

However, the ascendancy to power of the rotund and corpulent Kim Jong Un was accompanied by a sudden and spectacular stiffening of reformist attitudes. The years 2009 and 2010 witnessed a troika of deadly incidents on the disputed sea border in the Yellow Sea, all the results of unprovoked aggression by North Korea. “In November 2009, a South Korean warship responded to North Korean shelling and severely damaged the attacking ship. In March 2010, the South Korean frigate “Cheonan” was sunk. Forty-six sailors died. In November 2010, the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong was the target of a North Korean artillery attack. It was the first time since the end of the Korean War that North Korean artillery shelled South Korean territory. Several people were killed, including civilians.”

But is Kim Jong Un actually the baby faced assassin presiding over a regime of sheer terror? Schäfer feels that there are other insidious forces at work, a devious collectorate in whose hands Kim Jong Un is only a pawn. This theory is also vindicated by the proclamations of Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il. Nam, in a piece published in the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun, ostensibly alleged that his younger half-brother Kim Jong Un was not the true ruler, but merely a “symbol” used by the ruling elite to secure their power. Schäfer also postulates that the very fact that pictures of a corpulent and tired Kim Jong Un are circulated to the public alternating with those of dominating postures are a chilling indication of the fact that nobody is indispensable. This vice like grip of the hardliners might also have been the reason for the crumbling of rare talks between North Korea and United States when Kim and Donald Trump met twice, once in Singapore and again in Hanoi, Vietnam. North Korea’s obstinate demands of reduced US-South Korea military exercises and removal of all sanctions imposed by the international community put paid to any hopes of a meaningful discourse. The militaristic Government has also shut down the Kaesong Industrial Zone, an inter-Korea industrial workplace in addition to closing the tourist zone in the Diamond Mountains. These were two projects in which Kim Jong Il was personally interested. The very fact that Kim Jong Un was forced go against the wishes of his own father’s ‘pet projects’ in spite of his family being glorified as belonging to a divine lineage speaks volumes about the murky power struggles characterizing the North Korean ruling elite. Two almost vaudevillian murders also added grist to the rumour mill.

Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and Head of State Security was considered to be one of the voices advocating a limited opening up of the economy. “In December of 2013, Jang Song Thaek himself fell victim to a purge. “He was charged with a variety of crimes and publicly executed. By 2015, the number of purged senior officials had steadily increased, according to South Korean findings.” A similar fate befell Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam who was killed by a chemical substance at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Paraphrasing Schäfer, “I once asked a well-informed South Korean if he believed it was Kim Jong Un who had had his brother killed. When the South Korean denied it, I asked him, “Who then?” He reflected and then said, “Well, the system.””

Trapped in between this dangerous power struggle is a population that has no voice, is subject to extraordinary repression and is fed with a constant dose of powerful indoctrination. The degree and strength of such propaganda is so psychologically debilitating that people lose all capability of distinguishing truth from fiction. Schäfer makes us realise how fortunate most of us are as children of both beneficent geographies and benevolent governments/democracies. The North Korean citizens “live in constant fear and submission. Even members of the ruling elite do not lead a self-determined life but must repay privileges with special loyalty. As a result, they are often—voluntarily or not—perpetrators and victims at the same time.” Ridiculous regulations usurp into areas such as traders’ gender and age, the opening hours, the product range, and the trading currency. Traders are also forced to be clad in special clothing. Women are forbidden to ride bicycles. Even Providence is not spared from the vicissitudes of the Orwellian propaganda machinery. At a service that Schäfer attended the sermon went like this: “God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are a unity, just as our people form one. If we want the true peace of God, we must unite North and South Korea. That is why we have recently tested a sea-based missile, for which South Korea has criticized us, even though we are doing so to serve peace. … The powers of evil, US and South Korea, are currently preparing a nuclear war of aggression. But with the help of God, we will fend off every attack and, in his name and with his blessing, we will initiate the Great Holy War to unify the fatherland, liberate the entire peninsula, and carry peace to the south. Kim Jong Un will lead us.” A collection bag was then passed around. The foreigners donated; the members of the “congregation” sitting behind them pretended to do so, all using the same, apparently rehearsed hand movements.” Constantly subject to surveillance, the North Koreans are absolutely prohibited from maintaining contacts with foreigners, except where it is absolutely necessary, such as diplomatic interlocutions.

So, is there redemption in sight for the repressed North Koreans. Unfortunately not in the short run, confesses Schäfer. A Confucian society in which life experience and age are given a higher significance than in Western countries, North Korea is also “a callous society in which lies, and deceit are the order of the day and in which many people have become cynical.” Advocating the international community to initiate measures such as opening up of liaison officers and encouraging student cultural exchanges, Schäfer also goads the world to take the human rights issue with North Korea in all earnestness and seriousness. “Even when sanctions are lifted, foreign companies wanting to deal with North Korea should take into account that they will be getting involved with an unjust system. This holds true for trade, investment, and the employment of North Koreans abroad. Foreign employers—whether embassies, non-governmental organizations, or foreign companies —cannot choose their employees; they are assigned to them. All employers must pay the wages to a government agency, which only passes on a small part of it to the employees. North Korea is renting out its largely disenfranchised citizens. Even if such employees earn above-average wages, foreign employers are faced with the question of whether they want to become accomplices in a morally questionable process—regardless of the possible damage to their brands’ image.”

At the end of the day, there is only so much that the international community can do to bring about a munificent change in an oppressive regime. For a collective set that is more obsessed about enhancing nuclear power than embellishing the living standards of its populace, only a miracle is capable of providing the magical impetus that leads to a revolutionary transformation. In the general interest of the helpless and hapless North Korean populace, we can only hope and wish that such a miracle occurs sooner rather than later.


Billions of twinkling stars adorning the tranquil night

Harbouring secrets beyond the grasp of human might and sight

Looking down poignantly on an earth full of vanity and pride

A Planet so full of itself that even Mother Nature wishes to hide

A Confederacy of Dunces that places its pitiful breed front and centre

Engaging in petty and trivial causes that creates in humanity a deadly splinter

The magnificent galaxy watches on with a mixture of pain and despair

As Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot loses all sense of matters fair.

wk 213 galaxy

(Word Count: 92)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #213

Institutions that Shaped Modern India: Supreme Court – Ashok Panda

Institutions That Shaped Modern India: Supreme Court: Panda, Ashok:  9789390547043: Books

The doyen of the Indian Constitution Dr. B.R.Ambedkar is venerated for his immortal quote on the efficacy of any Constitution. Ambedkar in an exhibition of oratorial brilliance said, ““However good a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad. However, bad a Constitution may be, if those implementing it are good, it will prove to be good”. The Supreme Court of India, as the apex arbiter of justice and the guardian of the principles of equality and liberty has, since its inception striven to ensure that the tenets of the Constitution are being permeated in a manner that facilitates the greater good of the Indian populace. Senior Advocate Ashok Panda in a quasi-biography of sorts of the Supreme Court, traces in a compelling manner the staid birth and the accelerated evolution of this premier legal institution in the world’s biggest democracy.

Ashok Panda begins in an engaging manner by outlining the origins of Indian judiciary and demonstrates how the current contours of the legal jurisprudence was shaped by the British common law. The First Law Commission established in 1833 and headed by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, constituted the edifice for a systematic codification of important statutes like Code of Civil Procedure, Indian Penal Code, and Code of Criminal Procedure. Statutes which still continue to function in a form materially undisturbed from their original context and content. Subsequent to the birthing of the Indian Constitution in 1950, the country and its judiciary faced the imminent challenges of making the transition from colonial domination to self-rule. Article 136 of the newly framed Constitution granted overarching powers to the Supreme Court, “in the form of a discretionary grant of special leave, to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order, in any cause or matter, passed or made by any court or tribunal in the territory of India.” However as, Panda elucidates in an articulate fashion the judiciary found its powers scuttled and wings clipped by a power hungry executive on more than one occasion.

Enraged by the verdict of the Supreme Court in the case of State of West Bengal vs Mrs. Bela Banerjee (AIR 1954 SC 170), wherein the Court ruled in favour of respondents by interpreting the provisions of Article 31 of the Indian Constitution as standing for the provision of compensation representing a ‘fair equivalent value’ to the landowners whose lands have been compulsorily acquired, the Government began a process of systematically diluting the power of the Supreme Court by a combination of both legislative amendments and judicial ‘supersessions.’ The Supreme Court by this time in a landmark decision in the Golaknath case had more or less stitched up the shape and structure of a fair and equitable compensation in the case of all forced land acquisitions. A head-strong Indira Gandhi abrogated the ruling in the Golaknath decision by passing “the infamous Constitution (24th Amendment) Act, 1971, wherein Article 13(4) was added, and Article 368 was amended to expressly provide that Parliament would have power to amend any provision of the Constitution.”

Panda also spends quality time in dissecting what arguably has to be the most famous, if not the most influential Supreme Court judgment in the annals of India judicial history – The Kesavananda Bharati case. This was the case that conceptualised the “Basic Structure Doctrine” in the context of amendments to be made to the Constitution. A whopping 13-judge Bench was set up by the Supreme Court, the biggest to date, and Judges heard the case over the course of 68 working days. Eleven separate judgments were delivered by The Bench and a majority judgment of seven judges was deftly and assiduously together by then Chief Justice of India S M Sikri. The Basic Structure doctrine itself was penned by Justice H R Khanna. The touchstone of the verdict was that, no ruling could deprive any individual of the fundamental rights accorded by the Constitution by way of any amendment. However, Parliament had vast powers to amend the Constitution, except for those tenets that were inherent and intrinsic to the Constitution.

The repercussions of the eviscerating Kesavananda Bharti judgment was almost immediate. A rapacious Government engaged in a slew of actions bordering on the ludicrous.  “Justice A.N. Ray was appointed the Chief Justice of India in supersession of three Supreme Court judges holding seniority over him, Justices J.M. Shelat, A.N. Grover and K.S. Hegde. The supersession in the apex judiciary was resorted to by the executive of the day just to assert its supremacy over the other wings of the state. The supersession was perceived to be punitive for the senior judges having delivered judgments against the executive wing of the state.” Incidentally as Panda informs his readers, Justice Ray was the lone dissenting voice in the Bank Nationalization Case wherein the Supreme Court by a majority of 10:1 struck down the Bank Nationalization Acts incurring the wrath of the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. “In the Rajya Sabha, Mr C.K. Daphtary, former Attorney General for India, then a nominated Member of Parliament, quipped: ‘The boy who wrote the best essay got the first prize.’”

Panda also illustrates how the Supreme Court has been at the forefront of upholding the principles of gender equality, equal employment opportunities and advancing the cause of the underprivileged. The power medium of Public Interest Litigations (“PIL”) although having a chequered history has elevated the Supreme Court to a pedestal of respect and unbiased neutrality. In the case of PUCL vs Union of India(2004) 12 SCC 104, acting upon a PIL filed by PUCL a Non-Governmental Organisation, the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure and anguish over the fatalities induced by starvation and castigated the failure of the Food Security and Supply Chain mechanism in delivering the rations to the ultimate beneficiary—the starving people. “The Supreme Court, through this PIL, laid down that the ‘right to food’ is a basic human right and thus, a fundamental right, guaranteed under the Constitution. In continuation to this, the Court directed for the implementation of the government’s poverty alleviation schemes and also appointed a commission to monitor the compliance of the orders in a time-bound manner.”

Till the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the comprehensive and elaborate guidelines and directives issued by the Apex Court in the case of Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997) SC 3011 to accord protection to women and ensure their dignity in the workplace stood the test of time for almost two decades. These directives were popularly known as the Vishaka Guidelines.

Similarly in the Disability Rights Group case, the Supreme Court directed all higher educational institutions to reserve not less than five percent seats for persons with disabilities. In keeping with the changing times and also with a view to enhancing transparency within the judiciary and to make the courts more accessible, the Supreme Court in Swapnil Tripathi v. Supreme Court of India allowed live-streaming of courtroom proceedings.

Shayara Bano v. Union of India is also a stirring example where the Supreme Court placed pragmatism and practicality over religious compulsions when it held that the practice of ‘Triple Talaq’ was unconstitutional. This judgment came as a refreshing relief to many Muslim women who otherwise were at the mercy of being divorced by their spouses by taking recourse to the reductionist means of uttering the Arabic word for divorce ‘talaq’ thrice. However Panda expresses his reservations on certain aspects of the judgment rendered by the Honourable Apex Court. He claims that the Court took the easy way out and that “the bench mainly considered whether or not triple talaq was an essential part of Islam instead of focusing on women empowerment. It would have been preferable if the Court had firmly acknowledged that Article 25 of the Constitution expressly provided that any practice that is inconsistent with fundamental rights is liable to be struck down, irrespective of, whether or not, it is an essential religious practice.”

As Panda demonstrates, the Supreme Court is not averse to prosecuting its own fraternity in the case of proven misdemeanours and misdeeds. In the year 2019, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi allowed the CBI to file an FIR against Justice S.N. Shukla, a sitting judge of the Allahabad High Court, who was being investigated for allegedly indulging in corruption and favouring a private medical college in a case arising out of an MBBS admission scam.

“Supreme Court” is a welcome and refreshing read for all those who are curious to know the stature, position and functions of the highest judicial authority in India.

The Kobalt Dossier: Eric Van Lustbader

The Kobalt Dossier | Eric Van Lustbader | Macmillan

While Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook might have moved away from the credo of ‘moving fast and breaking things’, characters in Eric Van Lustbader’ s latest edge of the seat thriller seem to possess no such inhibitions. Solely operating under the philosophy of ‘move fast, break bones and rip throats’, a deadly mix of downright dangerous human beings ranging from the bold to the barbarian combine to dish out a veritable feast for the afficionados of the genre of thrillers.

Evan Ryder, a field agent for a black-ops arm of the Department of Defense is taking a much deserved break in the islands of Sumatra after an exacting and deadly operation, when the world around her threatens to collapse with sudden intensity. She is forced to cut short her vacation after learning that her niece Wendy and nephew Michael have been abducted from the United States. There is absolutely no clue about the abductors since they seem to have disappeared like an evening mist. But not before neatly decapitating, the children’s father and stuffing a message inside his mouth. Evan realises with a sense of utter dread that this method of cold blooded killing is the calling card of a psychotic group calling itself Omega. Putting even the dastardly eugenics of Nazism to utter shame, Omega is a cult that is convinced that there is a need for a ‘global purge’ if mankind has to revert to the values and ideals propagated by Christianity. Ana, the demented head of Omega thinks herself as the contemporary Noah within whose Ark only the true believers would need to assemble while the rest ought to be put to the sword – literally.

In addition to contending with Omega, Evan also faces a new and extraordinarily dangerous predicament in the form of ‘Kobalt’ a ruthless and merciless cold blooded murderer under the employ of an ultra-secretive Russian intelligence arm. Deep within the bowels of the agency known as SVR of the FSB, there exists a Directorate termed ‘52123’. Embodying mythical hues and mystical colours, 52123 is a black hole even for a predominant part of the formidable Russian intelligence. Known only as ‘Zaslon’, the members of this outfit operate like the shadows of the night. Different from the spetsnaz, which is akin to the American Special Forces, Zaslon operatives are employed to execute ‘high-stealth’ operations.

As Evan and her longtime partner-in-crime, Benjamin Butler go about the arduous and deadly task of rescuing the kidnapped children, insurmountable obstacles manifest with a frequency that is discomfiting. The mission puts every single skill and technique gleaned and perfected by the duo over their professional career to the ultimate test. Every ally can be a suspect and a foe may yet turn out to be an unexpected, albeit welcome ally.

“The Kobalt Dossier” takes the reader on a roller coaster ride across continents. Beginning with a prosaic series of events that unfurl in South Dakota, the adventures of Evan Ryder and Kobalt pick up steam on the shady streets of Moscow, gather momentum in the teeming and throbbing markets of Istanbul, picking up vital pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in the verdant settings of Koln in Germany before finally culminating in a cataclysmic crescendo in the high mountains of Carpathia in Romania. As Benjamin Butler aptly reminisces in one of the passages in the book, the Carpathian mountains constitute the abode and haven of Dracula.

A one sitting read, as is the case with all the exciting novels emanating from the Lustbader stable, “The Kobalt Dossier” makes for a rousing read. Evan Ryder fans would not be one bit disappointed with their protagonist’s exploits and endeavours. What adds an extra element of ‘variety’ to the thriller is a dose of psychological mix. In addition to flexing her muscles, Evan is also required to bring the mental and psychical side of A game to the fore as her adversary is a master manipulator of the human mind. The passages involving this psychological interplay and subterfuge make for some extremely thought provoking reading.

(The Kobalt Dossier by Eric Van Lustbader is published by Macmillan-Tor/Forge Books and will be released on the 1st of June 2021).

Ikigai and Kaizen: The Art of a Fulfilled Life – Ichiro Sato ikigai

Ichiro Sato provides a very interesting, insightful, and concise primer on the concepts of “Ikigai” and “Kaizen” and also articulates how everyone of us can exploit these concepts in our daily lives to attain a great degree of fulfilment and calm. Deriving inspiration from his nonagenarian grandparents who imbued Ikigai every day of their lives, Sato urges his readers to follow the example set by the couple. Professor John Creighton Campbell of Tokyo University and the University of Michigan once famously proclaimed that Japanese were the healthiest segment of the world population. This concept was reinforced by a famous study conducted by the researcher from National Geographic, Dan Buettner. In a study on centenarians, termed “The Blue Zones“, Buettner found out that a holistic living amongst people in the region of Okinawa in Japan made them one of the rarest group of centenarians on Earth. A combination of Ikigai and Kaizen aided the Okinawans greatly in extending their health and elongating their life.

Sato informs his readers that the word “Ikigai” is the confluence of two words “Iki” which means “to live” and “gai” or “kai” which denotes “reason for being alive.” Ikigai is basically the reason why we get out of bed each morning. It defines the sense of our very purpose and existence. Ikigai can range from the prosaic to the uncomplicated. Enjoying watching the sunrise, taking the dog out for a walk, or even composing a poem even though no one reads them can suffuse a sense of Ikigai in a person. Sato states that this sense of Ikigai can be further bolstered by a combination of physical and mental exercises to be practiced on a regular basis. For example, Sato urges his readers to follow the simple Japanese principle of “Hara Hachi Bu”, a phrase which in its extreme simplicity just means “stop eating when you feel eighty percent full.” In order to regularise the habit of Hara Hachi Bu one can make conscious changes to one’s dietary habits. Eating slowly, reducing the size of serving plates and glasses, and concentrating on eating alone without allowing concentration to hover on and around electronic gadgets and tools are some of the practices that one can imbibe.

A proper practice of Ikigai is rooted in its five essential and elemental pillars, namely: small beginning; releasing oneself; sustainability and harmony; seeking joy in little things; and being in the present moment. A classic example of living in the present moment, seeking joy in little things and releasing oneself is epitomised by one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs and the oldest three Michelin-star chef, the ninety three year old Jiro Ono. This master considers Sushi as his Ikigai. In fact his one desire is to shed his mortal coils while preparing Sushi.

Sato proposes that the technique of Ikigai be bolstered by sustained and constant physical activities. Lest one be misled, physical activity does not mean subjecting oneself to a bruising regimen in the gym and coming out with six pack abdomens and bazooka biceps. The physical activities proposed by Sato are in fact mild, moderate, and hardly taxing, with the exception of certain vigorous forms of Yoga perhaps.  Since the quintessential objective of physical exercises is to invest movement in and to the body on a sustained basis, exercises such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Radio Taiso (a set of exercises that derives its title after a series of instructions received in Japan via radio during the Second World War), Qigong (exercises to regulate and control the art of breathing), are all invaluable as one goes about the concept of Ikigai.

The second part of Sato’s book deals with the concept of Kaizen. Developed by Masaaki Imai, a Japanese management consultant and organisational theorist, the term Kaizen is a confluence of two words, ‘Kai’ (change) and ‘Zen’ (good). Hence in its literal sense, Kaizen represents a ‘change for the better.’  Every student of management and an intrepid consumer of management literature would be quick to associate the concept of Kaizen with the “Toyota Way“.  By weeding out waste in the production process, the automobile giant revolutionised the manufacturing industry. Cocking a snook at the concept of ‘breakthrough innovation’, Kaizen brought about changes in an incremental, simple but steady fashion in a patient and persevering manner. Kaizen was eliminating ‘Muda’ (waste), ‘Mura’ (unevenness) and ‘Muri’ (overburden).

Similar to the Toyota Way, Sato insists that we can also imbibe the tenets and principles of Kaizen in our daily life. A continuous, unbroken, and uncompromising improvement of just 1 percent every passing day would ultimately ensure that we fulfil our goals and realise our dreams so long as they are reasonable and rational. One can also pay attention to the concept of the ‘5S’ approach devised by Hiroyuki Hirano. The 5S concept comprises of: Seiri: Meaning ‘sorting’, it stands for removal of all unnecessary items; Seiton: Systematic Arrangement that facilitates most effective and efficient recovery; Seiso: Shining or cleanliness. Items, equipment, and workstations to be kept tidy and neat at all times; Seitketsu: There needs to be ushered in a standardization in both workplaces and practices, and Shitsuke: Sustainability. Once the preceding 4S’s have been implemented that practice ought to be transformed into a self-sustaining habit and there ought to be no looking back.

Sato’s book induces a definite element of curiosity and interest in the reader to assimilate more about the concepts of Ikigai and Kaizen. I personally was more attracted to the section dealing with the former than the latter. While the Kaizen concepts, even after their extrapolation to the individual, still somehow retained an ‘industrial’ hue and ‘manufacturing’ colour, the principles pertaining to Ikigai piqued more than just an element of academic interest and general curiosity. All of eighty eight pages, “Ikigai and Kaizen: The Art of a Fulfilled Life” is a very absorbing and assimilating read that facilitates the opening of many promising portals that would lead to the inculcation of habits that are long lasting, ideal, healthy, holistic and perfectly desirable.

How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better In a Chaotic World – Dambisa Moyo

How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better in a Chaotic World eBook: Moyo,  Dambisa: Kindle Store

Zambian economist and bestselling author Dambisa Moyo, in her latest book, “How Boards Work”, lays out a concise ‘manifesto’ for an expedient and optimal discharge of responsibilities by Corporate Boards in an age characterised by tumultuous change and turbulent uncertainties. Unfettered movement of capital, and seamless globalization require Boards to make ‘win-lose’ strategic decisions, effectively and swiftly. The environment amidst which such decisions are required to be made is characterised by limited knowledge and significant unpredictability. This framework within which Boards execute their functions is called Knightian uncertainty after the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. While risks may be measured and managed, uncertainty is unquantifiable and thus much harder to mitigate.

Every Board, says Moyo, is bound by the duties of care and loyalty. At the nub of the principle of duty of care lies the concept that “directors must be sufficiently informed before making a decision and that board members may reasonably rely on information, opinions, and reports provided by officers of the company or outside experts.” The companion to the duty of care is the notion of the duty of loyalty. The latter “requires board members to act in good faith and in a manner that they reasonably believe is in the best interest of the company and its stockholders.”

However, the contemporaneous global situation is fraught with risks that pose significant challenges to the Board in complying with their beholden duties. Moyo identifies five such key risks that need to be factored in by every Board within their parameters of decision making: “the risk of a more siloed and protectionist world, massive changes in the investment landscape, new technological developments, the global war for talent, and, ultimately, short-termism itself.” To highlight the risk of operating in a protectionist or a ‘de-globalised’ planet, Moyo gives a very innovative example of a phenomenon called “splinternet”. A veritable threat to the currently sprawling and inextricably linked global supply chains, splinternet refers to an exacerbated fragmentation of the internet having competing platforms that are both China and US led. This technological disintegration possesses the unenviable potential to “dramatically disrupt global supply chains by eliminating centralized procurement and thereby raising costs and reducing the efficiency gained from shared global services. Furthermore, a balkanized internet promises to increase the complexity of companies’ operations and erode their ability to respond quickly to market forces. In such a world, companies will need to choose between the US and China camps or bear the costs of operating in two adversarial technological worlds, each with its own regulatory and operating standards.”

Moyo also argues for more diversity in terms of recruitment, gender equity and cultural diversity in the composition of a Board. The pressure exerted by key stakeholders such as institutional and passive investors as well as activist investors have led to companies lending more focus on societal interests such as Environment, Social and Corporate Governance. For example, in the year 2018 investing behemoth BlackRock, in tandem with other asset managers like Vanguard and Schroders, called on companies to commit themselves to a harmonised set of metrics for resolving societal and workforce issues. “The signatories to this agreement, which became known as the Embankment Project for Inclusive Capitalism, together control more than $30 trillion. Collectively, they agreed to push companies to disclose hard-to-quantify measures such as staffing, governance, and innovation, as well as societal and environmental impacts.”

Another area of contention which Moyo addresses head on relates to executive compensation. The gulf between employee/worker and executive compensation has been insidiously widening, and on a sustained basis. Inflation-adjusted CEO pay has grown 940 percent since 1978, while typical worker compensation has risen only 12 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay rose from 33 to 1 in 1980, to a peak of 376 in 2000, before lowering slightly to 276 in 2015. Moyo argues for “malus and claw back” clauses to be incorporated in executive pay contracts that would enable Boards to reclaim a portion of executive compensation in the event a company suffers on account of gross negligence or unscrupulous behaviour of any of its executives. The Chief executive of the UK housebuilder Persimmon, Jeff Fairburn faced flak in November 2018, for having pocketed a £110 million bonus. Even though the perquisite was whittled down subsequently, the public outcry persisted, and the media also castigated the company for granting such obscene bonuses.

The presence (or the lack of it) of women on corporate boards is also addressed in an insightful manner by Moyo. She reveals her own singularly unique and undesirable experience in this matter. During a shareholder’s meeting a vociferous person pointing at Moyo queried as to what exactly she was doing on the Board and what were her credentials. Incidentally, she happened to be the only woman on the Board. To his credit, the Chairman referred the questioner to the relevant extracts from the Annual Report of the company that had a complete and extensive profile of Moyo and her professional and academic achievements. As Moyo informs her readers, studies have revealed that a  gender-diverse board enhances not just the quantity of earnings, but also the quality. “In a 2016 study, Putting Gender Diversity to Work: Better Fundamentals, Less Volatility, investment-banking firm Morgan Stanley found that companies with high gender diversity display lower ROE volatility—and thus higher long-term earnings quality—over a three-year time period, relative to companies with low gender diversity.”

However, for me personally the most relevant takeaway from the book relates to the challenges a Board faces in addressing issues of social importance such as obesity, general health, and wellbeing. In fact a public private partnership to combat pernicious health issues have taken shape across geographies. For instance, several cities in the US such as Boulder, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle, have imposed a sugar or soda tax for combating obesity. From a corporation perspective, Coca-Cola has broadened its portfolio offering to include less sugary drinks. Where public policy has lagged behind, such as in addressing climate change concerns about meat production, corporates have taken the initiative to create vegan, nonmeat, and plant-based options. “Even where governments may be lagging on broad-based environmental policies, companies are imposing green initiatives to address climate concerns in their business models. Getting rid of single-use plastics, such as straws in fast-food chains, is one very targeted intervention in this drive.”

Moyo herself is on the Board of many large and reputed blue chip companies and that experience is writ large in the tenets found in her book. She was on the Board of SABMiller when the iconic beer manufacturer was taken over by Anheuser-Busch InBev in one of the largest mergers in the beer industry (the deal was valued at $100 billion). Similarly she was also responsible in steering Barrick Gold Corporation, a mining company that produces gold and copper with 16 operating sites in 13 countries, through some tough times when gold prices plunged precariously. Moyo is also a non-executive director of the oil major Chevron.

“How Boards Work” is a very useful and engaging read for all those who are interested in understanding how corporates tide over the seemingly insurmountable hurdles birthed by a VUCA world.


Reveling in inequities and basking in vainglorious pride

The world is a divided kingdom with nowhere to hide

As lives are lost in despicable acts of wanton ignorance and intransigence

Power and politics are altars at which is sacrificed common sense

Hoping against hope for a resplendent, optimistic and new beginning

Where solidarity and reciprocity represent the new in thing.

wk 209 wanton

(Word Count: 60)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #209

The Economics of Small Things – Sudipta Sarangi

Economics of Small Things by Sudipta Sarangi

Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle coined the term ‘dismal science’ to describe the discipline of economics. It is popularly understood that the inspiration behind such a coinage was Thomas Malthus’ (an economist) dystopian prediction about a surging population always outpacing the production of food grains, and thereby resigning humanity to a perpetual cycle of poverty and adversity. However, Sudipta Sarangi, Department Head and Professor of Economics at Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), in his engaging book, “The Economics of Small Things” demonstrates that the field of economics need not be dismal in either its literal, symbolic, or figurative sense. By illustrating the application of economics to everyday life, Sarangi juxtaposes wicked wit and wonderful wisdom to instill in his reader a curiosity and inclination towards the subject.

Choosing the most quotidian and mundane of repetitive activities that we all engage in on a routine basis, Sarangi explains popular principles of economics which informs our behaviour without our own knowledge. For example, have you ever wondered as to why your driver obstinately refuses to heed your advice to strap on his seat belt, but bows his head and mouths a silent prayer as your car passes by every roadside temple? Sarangi employs the technique of Game Theory (conceptualized and popularized by giants in the field such as John Nash, Eric Maskin, Roger Myerson, and Reinhard Selten)  to explain this paradoxical behaviour when it comes to road safety. There are three players who are involved in the game: the devout driver, the God whose blessings the driver unfailingly invokes, and the seat belt itself. Now the driver has four options at his behest: i) wear the seat belt and not pray; ii)pray, but do not strap the seat belt on; iii) do both; and iv) do neither. The second player, who is God can choose to either keep the driver safe or imperil him. Finally the creation of Swedish mechanical engineer, Nil Ivar Bohlin’s, the unassuming but vitally important seat belt. Every day the driver completes his chores on time, his faith in Providence keeps exponentially increasing, and the poor seat belt is relegated to the confines of neglect. But if only the seat belt would have been included in the Pantheon of Divinity, things would be mightily different!

Similarly why is it that all the best things manufactured in a country are designated for exports and thus consumption in another country. Why is the Alphonso variety of mangoes – considered to be the “king of mangoes” in India the only variety of mangoes from India to be stocked by outlets abroad? Enter the third law of demand initially propounded by Armen Alchian and William R. Allen. This law elucidates that sellers of mangoes would want to high quality mangoes to the US, since a kilogram of high quality mangoes works out to be the equivalent of just a few additional kilograms of low-quality equivalent mangoes.

In explaining the principle of “complementarity”, Sarangi cites the example of a trans-Scandinavian robbery. An intrepid gang of thieves in Sweden stole “designer shoes from store windows”, even though the stores only displayed “shoes meant for the left foot”. It actually turned out that the method indeed had a madness when another team belonging to the same gang was in parallel pilfering shoes meant for the right foot  from stores in neighbouring Denmark, which exhibited only shoes meant for the right foot. The robbers who were pillaging from both Sweden and Denmark before assembling pairs and selling them in the grey market were informed by the classic notion of “complementary goods”. This same concept informs the complementarity existing between “different sectors of the economy” such as “the rail, steel and coal industries”. These sectors “feed off each other”. Hence If investment in either of these sectors lags behind, “it will pull the other sectors down and the economy may experience losses”. Investing in just one or two of these sectors can “lead to wasteful expenditure, like spending money on jam but not buying the necessary amount of bread to roll it on”.

A very important and common concept in the domain of economics borders on the perils of asymmetric information. Asymmetric information refers to a state where, “both parties are not fully informed about each other.”  Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus used an ingenious but perfectly practicable technique to resolve this issue. In his micro credit financing model that involved the establishment of Bangladesh’s biggest micro financing facility, the Grameen Bank, Yunus insisted that lenders form groups of five to borrow money. It was purely in the interest of the borrower to identify and evaluate four other solvent borrowers. This exercise put a virtual end to the insidious problem of moral hazard as well. The borrower had an uncompromising incentive to ensure that his or her (most of the borrowers were enterprising but underprivileged women) compatriots keep remitting their instalments on time.

Even Mahatma Gandhi makes a fascinating appearance in Sarangi’s absorbing book. Sarangi brings the attention of his reader to an old essay by Gandhi, where he bemoans on the sheer inadequacy of the Railways in providing even a semblance of comfort to passengers being conveyed by the Third Class. But Sarangi, seeking corroboration from French civil engineer, Jules Dupuit, argues that Bapu got it wrong – for once! Driven by the logic and policies of price discrimination, cold and rational economic logic works in a tangentially different mode that is the prerogative of moral outlook. This is exactly the weapon assiduously and at times, brazenly used by manufacturers to make some people pay more for the same product.

A personal favourite of mine from the book is the imaginatively titled concept of the “Cobra Effect”. Coined by German economist Horst Siebert, the Cobra Effect postulates that a perverse incentive constitutes one that embeds an unintended result that is contrary to the intentions of its designers. For example, “apparently, worried about the number of cobras in Delhi, the British colonial government had started offering a bounty to anyone who turned in a dead cobra. The story goes that in response to this, some smart people started farming cobras. As a result, the government finally had to kill the programme.”

“The Economics of Small Things” is a riveting read that makes even the most arcane of topics seem absolutely fun filled yet instructive.