Markets and distribution

One of the things we learnt early on in economics is that allocative efficiency which the perfect competitive market seem to move towards is efficient in terms of maximising social welfare even if distributionally it is skewed. In other words, by using the ability to pay as the final arbiter for who gets the goods and services, the society moves towards high levels of efficiency about what gets produced and who gets what goods/services without questioning whether things are really ‘fair’ or if in the first place, the ability to pay is properly distributed.

This is a problem that we seem to ignore because it is convenient to think we are already in the best of worlds. The idea of Pareto optimal is powerful – that you stop moving things around as long as you cannot make someone better off without having to make someone worse off even if the one who is slightly worse off is not much more worse than the amount of betterment you can create in another. That comparison isn’t objectively possible anyways.

But by sweeping it under the carpet, economics close itself off to a lot of interesting philosophical debate that really matters and tries to consign itself to an amoral science. Yet championing for markets is not exactly amoral, it is taking the stance that the market approach is morally superior and already deferring to the market in the work of economic justice. Michael Sandel writes and lectures extensively on this and as we ponder over how we marketize various things from infrastructure to healthcare, we can go back to consider those ideas.

Market values

When you try to sell your house, you take reference off the market price. You determine essentially the ‘market value’ of your house and then try to sell your house for that price. When you do eventually meet an interested serious buyer who makes an offer, you then haggle until you agree upon a price. This price is of course somewhat anchored by the market value you seem to have developed but then it would likely be different, complicated by the specific situation you and the buyer is in.

Do you value your own home based on that market value? Does it matter that your neighbour bought his house at a certain price? What is the basis of that price? Ultimately, while we can deconstruct these prices into locality, the quality of the build and other attribute, it is still a bit of a mystery. Is the value of something based on our subjective eyes and preferences, or is it intrinsic to the thing itself?

When we pay an artist to perform for 1 hour; is it the performance that is worth the money or the time spent by the artist? Do we allow the market to value us or do we value ourselves? Which market are we talking about anyways?

Unintentional greenwashing

In this whole green wave there’s lots of hype and one of the dangers that corporates put themselves is being cast as greenwashers. The challenge is that some corporates might just be doing it unintentionally, without having realised the hypocrisy surrounding their brandishing of green credentials because they did not realise how much harm their business activities have been bringing to the environment.

The initial audit of the business is important from the ESG perspective but it doesn’t stop at just reporting because if the initial audit is all it takes to establish green claims and then allow businesses to carry on, it would have been a waste of opportunity. Corporate leaders need to recognise that subjecting themselves to these audits and scrutiny should not earn them any kudos. So they should not be patting themselves on the back if those reporting metric turns out stellar. Rather, they should be thinking about what approach they have taken to their businesses that enabled that.

And then they should be considering if there are blindspots or areas of their businesses where the right philosophy hasn’t been applied. The hypocrisy can often stem from the fact that executives are too busy gaming the reporting metrics as opposed to genuinely thinking through business processes and activities. That can still be unintentional but they can start making sure that their activities to gear the company towards green can be more intentional.

Superconnections in organisations

Organisations work in silos and we often talk about breaking silos because it is a real problem. What is interesting is how silos form naturally and what keeps them functioning and feeds the way human behaves. The truth is that majority of people connect well only with a handful of people around them. It’s all they need to survive and even thrive. Organisations are set up for people to do their best work each day rather than over a long time horizon, and rightly so. Silos are natural tendency and efforts to resist them will be inefficient in short term.

The real solution to breaking silos is having superconnectors, being able to identify them in organisations and bring them into roles that allows them to help arbitrate across silos. They ought to be put in charge of coordination problems and given the authority to enable those connections. These people could also take the form of external consultants who have no stakes within the organisation.

Mathematically, clustering is just a natural population, psychological phenomena amongst people. Yet with just a handful of “super nodes” that connects across clusters, the other nodes within clusters can be quickly brought together and average degrees of separation reduced dramatically and really quickly.

Organisations need to recognise the role of these superconnectors that enable silos to continue working alongside in ways that are productive and non-duplicative. They allow everyone to remain efficient even as they ensure that the organisation overall operates strategically in the right direction.

Con-sulting II

The role of language in business varies from culture to culture. And as the economy goes through greater prosperity, marketing takes hold at generating more interest and demand, even for goods we don’t fundamentally “need”.

Just recently, while in a bookstore section where they sell little gifts and trinkets, my wife mentioned to me “the thing I love about bookstores is this section where they sell such beautiful things”. To which I responded “that’s exactly what I dislike because they have such nice little things that makes you feel like buying them but they are completely useless!”

We had spoken perhaps too loudly because the lady beside us let out a huge laughter and said, “Spoken like a true man!” We all had a big laugh together and I proceeded to the books section. Where I picked up The Big Con.

Part of modern capitalism is marketing and it can have the same effect as what Mariana Mazzucato is describing about big consulting firms “hollowing” out governments, creating dependencies and weakening the public sector capabilities. Modern consumerism “hollows” each of our lives out by getting us to focus on our ability to earn the most money, purchase or outsource everything else, stifling our abilities to seek and generate the very happyness we are pursuing that the economy tries to sell us.

The very thesis of Mariana can be generalised further into the other product and services markets. The question maybe is about restricting our purist economic thinking to only certain domains and not others.

Coffee stories

When I was doing my masters in New York, I was drinking about five cups of coffee a day. On occasion, it could be five cups of double shot. I had this coffee subcription app that allowed me to order unlimited normal brews at $45/mth and those specialty coffees at $85/mth from a base of nice cafes around New York city.

I came from a coffee drinking culture in Singapore. I’d order my Kopi C each morning with breakfast and in those days, these drinks were less than $1.50 (USD) a cup, unlike the >$5 barista coffees in New York city. But strangely, I consumed more coffee than I ever did in Singapore because of the business model.

Business models are interesting and in some ways, they hack our demand curves, taste and preferences by targeting aspects of our preferences that the economists were not able to incorporate into broad demand analyses. And there are entrepreneurs, marketters who thrive on coming up with such hacks.

The issue about hacks and short term profits is that they accomplish little worthwhile in the longer term. And there are far too many short term studies in the social sciences that gives us a lot of “scientific results” which may be spurious correlations or short term correlations which do not persists. We need to engage our talents is more long term thinking and challenge them to deal with the longer term problems of our economy and societies.

Small firm

The small firm is the original basic unit of analysis of business in economics. It is one who is more or less a price taker, trying to somewhat differentiate themselves but having a pretty short cost curve and goes up somewhat quickly. These firms are supposed to proliferate in the market, not grow. In fact, typically in economics, there isn’t really a real motivation for growth in firms other than technical or management progress that changes the cost curve such that the minimum efficient scale changes.

Now on to the real world; there are plenty of small firms, differentiated and there are interesting markets that support them. There are those places culturally oriented towards “local, independent, small” type of firms. And therefore these firms proliferate. It is not because of market competition that they spread but rather the diversity of preferences.

Where preferences somewhat tend towards a kind of homogeneity, small firms tend not to have an edge; it is scaling difficulties that keep firms small. Likewise, it is scaling difficulties that lead to proliferation of firms. The new entrant can typically be a small firm and it needs to determine what is the minimum efficient scale and rapidly work on the areas that can shift its minimum efficient scale more and more towards higher quantities of goods and services.

Time for millennials to get out of the boomers story and write their own

Rice Media’s Ivan takes on what he calls The Boomer’s Mentality on ‘Hard Work’ in Singapore was a refreshing characterisation of the workplace issues faced by the millennials of this island state. I previously wrote about how the boomers taking ‘motivation’ for granted is a big problem for the younger ones. And I shared mostly about the factors that were driving the kind of narrative that we have for our lives and future in Singapore; the fact that our forefathers were driven by a vision of the future that consisted of lifestyle-deltas they could aspire towards but for Singaporeans today, to coax them into adopting that sort of aspiration would almost be demeaning to them. A new sense of purpose must be imbued in them — and it’s not longer about winning the race to be the top <fill in the blank> hub.

And while we did top the Smart City ranking for the second year running, it’s not about chasing league tables. We need to remind ourselves that indicators are by products that are correlated with desired outcomes but not outcomes we are gunning in and of themselves. Our forefathers did not set out to outrank other cities in ‘Smart City ranking’ — they had simple goals of improve water supply, sanitation, access to electricity, greater convenience in banking, access to government services, payments and so on. The question is, what are our simple goals now? What should the millennials aspire to, for their nation if not for themselves? How are we going to improve over the great achievements that our forefathers have scored for us and the successive generations?

I think we are running into what Clayton Christensen calls the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’ if we are joining big firms, following our forefathers’ models of management and “innovation”, and walking the proven path. In fact, our newer generation of leaders are faced with this challenge. If we have the pressure of being mocked for taking actions that are not ‘needle-moving’, then we risk forgoing potentially disruptive actions with significant impacts that have yet to to be ‘proven’. And this, is where I think millennials will start to play an increasingly important role.

Our role is not to inherit the burden of a legacy or be benchmarked against our forefathers in our level of ‘hunger’ or ‘hard-working-ness’. In fact, I once saw Angela Duckworth post this quote when she was promoting a particular episode of ‘No Stupid questions’:

“Are you working hard to achieve your goals or are you working hard to avoid failure?”

Angela Duckworth (here)

Boom. Mind-blown. The latter point does describe me sometimes in my workplace! And that reveals to me that finding the right motivation and the right sense of purpose is so important. As each successive generation inherits the legacy of the previous, wildly-successful generation, a bit of their ‘working hard’ inevitably become just a matter of trying ‘not to be <fill in this blank>’ rather than ‘to be something’. Because we may have perfectly managed to capture their systems, processes and all manner of operating procedures but their intents, purpose, motivations are often lost with them. We need to find our own versions, and we have to craft our own story.

For me, it means being more selective about the purposes by which you devote your mental and physical resources and talents; and no longer subscribing to the traditional views of what constitutes merit. Perhaps we need to start creating our own industries domestically that creates the kinds of jobs that we want rather than to wait out for the government to draw the MNC investments, or for their direction on what is the next big thing. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the initial product we built is not global or doesn’t scale. How many decades did it take before Laksa was packaged and exported as a product and enjoyed by the west? Did it diminish the economic opportunity or our ability to capture its value? Get informed of our greater economic challenges, and opportunities and craft our lives around it so that we contribute to the narrative of our future rather than being just a passive recipients of circumstances.

The sense of ‘entitlement’ is sometimes a manifestation of high standards millennials have come to expect of others — turn it into a positive by applying that to oneself and to learn to be able to serve others with the standards you expect of others. Use your creativity, exposure to huge amounts of connections in the online world and digital-savviness to create and participate in new things. And I think our narrative is about dethroning the mindset of an ever-growing economic pie, or the anxiety associated with lack of economic growth. Our narrative should be about creating a more helpful, united society that shares with one another, that learnt to shed the neoclassical economic burden, to be a better version of Singaporeans than our forefathers have been, having forged ahead largely for themselves and their family in mind. Now we want to have more of our community in mind, more of even our environment and nature in mind.

We also want to rethink the role of the government; after all, they have actually accomplished quite a fair bit of what they’ve been trying to do by way of improving the livelihoods of general populace. Maybe they can shed some bureaucracy and release more talents into the economy to invigorate it with greater entrepreneurism? Beyond risk-sharing and incentivising entrepreneurship, maybe there’s some rewriting of the social compact where the extreme inequality generated by risks in the marketplace is being mitigated by risk-sharing across cohorts of entrepreneurs? This could be just about successful entrepreneurs hiring the ones who may not have done so well (a la Andrew Yang).

I think more importantly, we want to confess the failings of meritocracy even as we trumpet its successes. And we want to be more conscious as a generation to deal with the negative consequences of ‘meritocracy’ especially the psychological ones. As we de-stigmatise psychological and mental issues, we also want to recognise that building up mental strength of the society overall is as important as building up the physical fitness of the populace.

So let us build not just a smart city of the future; but one that is secure, and confident, not about chasing league tables, KPIs, or GDP, but about genuine well-being of our people. Walk the unproven path, because we need to disrupt ourselves to move on to our next S-curve as a society.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back.

What did you expect my motivation to be?

What motivates you at your job? What gets you out of bed every weekday and makes you pounce on the challenges in the workplace, gets you to talk to people who may be unpleasant and gives you strength to overcome late nights? What are you working for?

I’m thinking of asking these questions to my bosses the next time I meet them 1–1; or at least just to pick their brains on this question because it is not so often that as staff, we get to that level of what really makes the boss tick. It is mostly inferred through actions, but getting an explicit answer may help to get them thinking. The reason is that for most of the millennials today, we are sometimes disgruntled by perhaps our bosses’ expectations that we’ll be naturally motivated to do the work that we are supposed to do.

To be fair, I started writing this article a bit longer ago than when Delane Lim put up his Facebook post. Beyond the foreign-local debate, I think there’s something about the narrative for young Singaporeans that have changed quite a bit. And this is important in determining motivation; I’d also criticise how much that expectation of motivation from younger generations of Singaporeans is really self-defeating. I will probably write a little bit more on the narrative that younger generations of Singaporeans live through in the future but this will likely be my seminal piece about it.

Having gone from Third World to First within two generations, we have had for a really long time, this great sense of optimism about the future and being able to obtain the fruits of our labour. Frankly, our forefathers who were in their twenties and thirties during the time when our nation got its independence, life wasn’t expected to transform radically, nor necessarily better. They didn’t live in a wretched existence, and, of course, there was some degree of inequality; but the society was not only much more equal, other kinds of differences (speaking different languages, or dialects, being in different clans, or being of different races) were more stark than differences between classes. Because people tasted some fruits of their labour, even if it was just a bit of it, in the form of more materials, more comfortable living, more convenient lives, there was clear motivation in trying to achieve the lifestyle deltas.

Consumer credit was scarce, which meant that the only way to access the lifestyle deltas was to work hard, and hence there’s that ‘hunger’ to move forward, and to forge ahead. Collectively as a society, the government, our institution had a good sense of the investments needed: in terms of education, in terms of infrastructure. The wage improvements were substantial when you move from A Level to a Diploma, not to mention a Degree — in the days when only less than 5% of the working population actually had degrees. The narrative was that working hard, being hungry pays off for real. The improvements in terms of social systems that provided housing, retirement savings, education for one’s children and so on, provides the predictability that takes off some of the salarymen’s stress and allow them to concentrate on climbing that corporate ladder, bring the dough home and please their families.

That narrative maintained its clout for two generations, and it was natural because the kind of improvements was somewhat similar and consistent. Of course, the second generation inherited some kind of social hierarchy from the first generation but then in an industrialising economy, low-skills are still important and the wage gap wasn’t as significant at a time when the labour force of populous economies of India and China was released to compete in the global economy. Then when the third generation came in, there was increasing pressure from global competition but Singapore occupied a good position in the skills ladder of the world at that time and would also have one of the best-educated workforce, as had been planned by the government right from the start. But optimism may have shrunk as we knew that we inevitably have to move towards a genuine knowledge-based economy. Yet our management philosophy and social structures were still largely industrial; it was critical that this generation started changing their thinking about motivations of workers and the future of work, but they didn’t because they might have felt like they held up their side of the bargain with the preceding generation so things should not be any different with the succeeding ones. In any case, they continue to enjoy rises in living standards, buoyed by wider availability of credit and various schemes to keep pockets of cost of living under control.

Alas, the narrative for millennials took a sharp change as the lifestyle deltas were no longer that apparent through ‘hunger’. One thing for sure is that consumer credit means now you’re not working for something you don’t yet have so that you’ll find yourself with the day when you enjoy the sweet fruits of your labour. You are probably working for something whose sweetness has long worn off while the bitterness of its instalments or interest payments still kept you working. It makes for a completely different dynamic and narrative about life.

Just think about the motivation of a 30-year-old man in the 1970s who just got his first public rental flat with a young family. He knows he has to keep up the rental payments so there’s shelter for his family and he works hard, also trying to set aside funds for the future education of the child, and even maybe eventually to buy over the rental flat from the government one day. The ratio of House prices to the Annual Median Gross Household Income was definitely much lower than as well.

Today, if you turned 30 and just bought a resale flat in a more upscale area to move in with your spouse; chances are that you were able to avoid only on the basis of double income, and you’re paying your mortgage through CPF, which you don’t see much of but you realised you’ll need to hold on to your job to keep the payments going. You might not have kids yet and you could quite easily afford good food and other luxuries through our globalised economy and e-commerce. You are already living the life! What kind of lifestyle delta are you expecting by working hard at your job? In fact, the additional hours you put in is decreasing the quality of your life, you’d reason. And you like job stability, because life is good now — it is acceptable to say the least, with little prospect of improvement. After all, what are you trying to afford with more money?

And so yes, what the boomers expect as motivation from the millennials? It will have to go beyond the material; the sense of purpose cannot be assumed — it can only be imbued.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be.

Are we all working for the right rewards?

In this year, one of the things I’m going to focus on working for the right rewards.

In 2021, I stepped out of my comfort zone, becoming more conscious about the most critical question facing millennials living in a world that the boomers have built: “Do I stand and watch the show saying ‘this is not my idea’, or do I go out there and create the future that I want to see?” I could play the game that the boomers created and continue perpetuating a culture I find myself in — it would be immensely rewarding in the traditional sense — there is proven sources of prestige, of some financial rewards, and pat on the back by those well-established within the system.

On the other hand, I could also start changing the culture, changing the game, and work for the reward of a better future for my generation when we are older, for a better world that I would want my kids to live in (if I ever have kids). Our forefathers scrimped and saved for a better future, not so much for themselves but with the view that Singapore can be a better place for the people who comes after them. Leaving our country and the world in a better state than when we first arrived was something that was worthwhile to them. But is it still worthwhile to us? Are we just caught up with trying to amass a fortune to enjoy?

We need to start getting people to work for the right rewards. Often we care too much about just the immediate outcomes and we think that it doesn’t matter as long as we structure the sticks and carrots to nudge those people to the right behaviours. We might find marginal returns diminishing as we offer more rewards. And over time, we might be damaging the culture. Children who get paid reading loses the chance to learn to read for the pleasure and love of reading. In Israel, when a fine was introduced at a child care for parents who were late to pick up their children, the number of late parents increased because the fine became psychologically construed as a payment for the extra service from the childcare.

Using monetary or other rewards for steps recorded in trackers encourage gaming of the system. It can change behaviours towards the desirable for a while, or immediately backfire. But in any case, it is unlikely to change anything in the long term. It might even distort the previous cultural incentive structure in place that was working. Let’s stop using temporary fixes. Rather, we want to think more fundamentally about what is important to us and learn to tell the right stories around that. When we are armed with the right stories, the strong sense of purpose, our behaviours are stickier and we have more conviction. No simple incentive elsewhere would turn us in a different direction.

If we want to curb car ownership in Singapore and really become a car-lite society, we need to start making car ownership something shameful, unattractive in terms of status roles. Country leaders should stop owning cars but take public transport instead. Alternatively, there can be chartered services to bring them around. We have to start emphasizing the additional carbon footprint of car owners or households with cars. We have to start changing the cityscape to make it inconvenient for car owners. Reduce parking spaces while curbing parking fees, making it uneconomical for building owners to put parking lots. The story around cars needs to become that of selfishness and lack of social responsibility.

Instead of asking ourselves about sticks and carrots, and rushing to a solution, we have to decide what is the problem and if it’s worthwhile (our time, attention, and intention, not just our money) looking at it. And then we need to examine closely what is the current story or the status quo around it. The right rewards would come from social elements, greater human connection, impact on the lives of others. So let’s try to create a culture that allows us to progress as a society, and not to encourage gaming of the system, or cause people to turn against one another — all for the wrong rewards.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. An older version of this article was originally published at on January 2, 2021.