By: Suhail Bindra
Please read Part 1 and Part 3. Part 2 and 4 are incredibly boring so only read them if you wish to yawn.
It was not the brainiest idea to go SCUBA diving in rough waters on Sunday morning. My father forbade it. The tide was high. The winds were fierce. The sea was troubled. It had eaten something that did not agree with it. While the sea gestated, burped, and digested its infected meal, I was in excellent shape. Having led a group of several young men in 5 am land trainings for the past few days, I discovered that every part of my body was stiff as I rose from my bed at 4:45. I was thirsty. I had a glass of water.
With my thirst unquenched, I set off with the boys to exercise in the coolness of the morning. Don’t misunderstand me. I invited the girls to join us. They would always politely refuse, usually citing some sort of feminine discomfort. I refrained from making further inquiries. The sun rose. In a plank, the mud happily accepted a drop of sweat that fell from between my forehead and scalp. It was a whore, for it accepted anything that happened to land on it. The temperature rose. The sea beckoned.
Paseo Del Mar was halfway between the town of Jagna and our village, Tubod Mar. Through my first world lens; it was an excuse for a dive resort. I envisioned, at minimum, air-conditioning, top-notch service, and a luxurious interior design. Would that not attract wealthier customers and increase revenue? But I had changed. I grinned as a millennial does when he learns that a particular establishment offers complimentary Wi-Fi. It was something to be thankful for. But I would have to Netflix the next episode of Gossip Girl later, since our dive instructor had just entered the foyer.
He was tall for Filipino standards and it was obvious he had befriended the sun. He appeared to have a strong frame when one looked at his shoulders, but he hid his central body strength via a sizeable gut, though he wasn’t obese in the American sense. The nearest McDonalds was in Tagbilaran, a little over 65.7 kilometers away. I found his playful & childish mannerisms cute. With over 10 years of experience as a dive master, he had recently obtained his dive instructor certification. With his feet a little further apart than necessary and his hands on his hips, Jason beamed at us. He saw potential. His wife would be happy with the handsome commission he would bring home in a white paper envelope that evening. His boss, an Italian that should have retired long ago, slept shirtless on an armchair inside.
Johnny shared the troubled feelings of the sea as our heads bobbed in the choppy waters, our BCD’s inflated to the max. He had been excited at the resort, but now anxiety enveloped him. Second thoughts were not far away from his mind as we were moments away from our descent. He swallowed another pint of seawater. This was his first dive. Overwhelmed, queasy and expectant, he felt everything a virgin does before sexual intercourse. He was wet and uncomfortable. I was unwilling to ditch the dive. Jason’s words did nothing to allay his concerns, but I spoke to him softly and talked him into the descent. I was convincing, as usual. This was not my first time. I just hoped everything would go as planned as I entered a new world.
Ironically it was not Johnny who ended up getting hurt, it was I. Seawater gushed into my middle ear as I attempted the valsalva maneuver. I pinched my nose and blew gently to equalize the pressure in my ears. My eustachian tubes were obstinate. I had lost my power of persuasion. I blew harder and suffered the consequences. A middle ear infection.
Overnight, I acquired the prudence of an old man. I shivered in the 35-degree heat. An untrained nurse had inserted a needle into my ear and she would not remove it for the next 120 hours until I had taken a full course of antibiotics, a kilogram of analgesics, and a few liters of anti-bacterial eardrops. My prudence was short-lived, for as my wounds healed, I regained the brazen recklessness & foolishness that often accompanies youth. My injury gave me time to reflect. At least Johnny had enjoyed himself.
We must pause the story here. My professor, Beau, wants me to write about my experience working in a developing country. He will judge my writing abilities. Would it not be an interesting social experiment if students were allowed to give themselves grades based on their own self-assessment? Would that not be more accurate and representative of the real world, where every individual acts in his own self-interest? No, it would not. A student’s self interest prompts him to work hard so that others will judge him favorably. Allowing him the power to give himself grades would create a perverse incentive and a distortion in the market of university degrees.
The patrons frequenting a restaurant judge the skill of the chef. A Supreme Court predominantly comprised of white males will judge the actions of the alleged black offender, and the cop that fatally shot him. I will judge Jason’s performance to decide whether or not to dive under his instruction again. The truth is that others will always judge us. But we must stop and ask ourselves: do we care? The chef cares for his patrons. The offender cares for the judgment of the Lord Justices, though not freely, for he is at their mercy. Jason cares for me, since I bring his commission, and with it the white paper envelope that would bring a smile to his wife’s face. I care about my grades, for I too will bring a white paper envelope containing my university transcripts to my parents. I hope that they will smile.
We all act in our self-interest to influence others, and we act to influence others in our self-interest. Why does a man exercise at 5 am? Sex. In fact, why does a man ever do anything? Sex. Money, status and cars. It’s all about the sex. And sex is about self-interest, of planting one’s seed, of furthering one’s genetic lineage, and more importantly, about pleasure as Jeremy Bentham understood it. There are only two things that are not about sex. The first is masturbation, which is about a lack of sex. And the second is rape, which is about power.
But when can solely acting in one’s self-interest be problematic? I only have the energy to discuss three scenarios.
Firstly, we don’t always know what is in our self-interest. We think we know, but we can’t always be sure. I went diving and I got hurt. The purpose was to enjoy the beautiful corals in the sea. I was a blind man underwater and the currents ensured that. If only I’d listened to the prudent advice of my actual old man. I hurt myself due to my recklessness & foolishness, thinking I was acting in my own interest. In the same stride, markets require a certain level of regulation. A measure of paternalism on the part of government is necessary to ensure socially optimal outcomes. But this must be done with care for the liberty of man, as John Stuart Mill understood it, should not be infringed or should be minimally infringed only if necessary. Cass Sunstein’s theory of libertarian paternalism strikes a good balance between government intervention and free markets.
Secondly, acting solely in one’s self-interest can hurt others. Fortunately, Johnny was not hurt during his first dive. But my desire to proceed with the dive in face of his discomfort could have hurt him. If he got hurt, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. On another note, I could commit a tort or a criminal wrong to benefit my family or myself. Acting outside the law is clearly not what Adam Smith intended to encourage with his theory in “A Wealth of Nations”. But the aforementioned is uncontroversial. What is controversial is when one acts within the law pursuant to one’s self-interest, but still hurts another AND the result is not socially optimal. An ingenious taxi driver organized his affairs such that a thinly capitalized company owned every taxi in his fleet. When faced with a tortious action in negligence, the concept of ‘respondent superior’ applied, which loosely translates to ‘let the master answer’. He evaded personal liability, the thinly capitalized company was declared bankrupt, and the victim went without remedy. Is there any justice in the outcome? Is the outcome, though not just, economically optimal? I think not.
Thirdly, there are limited resources on the planet, which can lead us to hurt others if we relentlessly pursue our self-interest. Does not the demand and supply curve extend infinitely to the corners of the page? Is that not inconsistent with the reality of our existence? Classic economic theory fails to recognize that our planet and our environment limit the quantity we can demand and supply. Just like financial markets, life is a zero-sum game at the theoretical point of resource exhaustion. When all the resources on the earth are tapped, one’s gain is another’s loss. Take the example of a deserted island with a limited number of fish in the sea and two fishermen. One man’s catch represents another man’s loss. His relative wealth means the other’s relative poverty. I am not advocating for egalitarianism. But just ask yourself, wouldn’t life be a great deal better if the two fishermen helped each other rather than competed? If there were unlimited fish, each fisherman acting in his self-interest would lead to a socially optimal outcome since the total number of fish caught would be greater. But the reality is that fish are limited and overfishing is a problem. Economists refer to this as ‘the tragedy of the commons’. If we view all property as collectively shared by the human race, limited, non-excludable and rivalrous, self-interest really isn’t a good thing.
Foung was a broken man. A strong broad shouldered Mauritian, his muscular back arched over the orange table, his face buried in his hands. I could tell from a distance that he was clenching his jaw. He wore a tank top as always, which revealed his large shoulders. His thighs were sizeable, but nothing compared to his upper body. If you walked with him in silence, you could hear his left knee click. His hair would always stick up, almost as if it were afraid of his scalp. It would only touch his scalp when coerced to, if it was sunny and he chose to wear a cap. A head taller than most of his colleagues, he was hard to miss. With my curiosity exceeding my concern, I approached to see what ailment distressed him.
He had hurt his wrist playing basketball with the village boys. We were both injured soldiers. His voice was a mere whisper, a far cry from the aggressive booming voice I had become accustomed to while watching him play. I did not witness his injury, but I shared his pain. The waitress asked if I would like to order anything, but I politely refused. We were at the Garden Café, run by the International Deaf Education Association. It was one of the few venues in Jagna that offered air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and less objectionable sanitary conditions. Foung settled the bill at the counter. As we exited, I hailed a tricycle and we were on our way.
The public hospital was just opposite the Church. The x-ray technician didn’t show up to work, at least that was what I was told. We were out as quickly as we were in, riding another tricycle to a private hospital where we would be served swiftly, but also pay top peso. I ensured that Foung got an x-ray, and my fears were soon confirmed. A hairline fracture. He would be in a cast for a few weeks. It was my turn.
Dr. Lim was an old man, thin, and fragility would soon be upon him. He had a knowing look, as if nothing I could possibly say would surprise him. He had been seeing patients for over 20 years. A rich man in Jagna, his house was air-conditioned and his servants well fed. He drove a 2007 Toyota Land Cruiser that was parked in the driveway. He owned the entire hospital and paid all the nursing staff. He was the boss. Everyone in Jagna knew him. He walked with a barely noticeable limp, or was it the swagger of a successful man? To keep things interesting, he would ask about my background and interject frequently with his own experiences. It was more of a one-way conversation where I was subjected to his endless tales and permitted to speak only intermittently, when absolutely necessary. Every uninteresting symptom I described had a corresponding remedy. My ailments did not arouse Dr. Lim’s curiosity. There comes a time where a man has seen almost everything there is to see. Boredom haunted his office. Yet another middle ear infection from a reckless foreigner who went SCUBA diving. A thousand pesos poorer, I was dismissed.
Sleep evaded me that night. I had a shooting pain in my right ear. My eardrum was a nut that a wild squirrel was chewing on; I could feel its teeth sink in every few minutes, sending a shooting pain to the core of my brain. I popped a 400-milligram Panadol into my mouth and washed it down with some chilled iced tea. Think happy thoughts I told myself. I was also concerned about Beau, who was fingered by a man on the basketball court. I mean, someone stabbed him in the eye while he was guarding them. Everything in Jagna went down on the basketball court.
I was slowly divorced from my pain as the Panadol took effect and soon happy memories greeted me. I was in central London, living in university accommodation; 5 minutes walk away from Russell Square station. I chose to live in an intercollegiate hall, so I mingled with students from King’s College London, Queen Mary, the London School of Economics, and from my university, University College London. I had somehow found myself befriending students from UCL’s School of Pharmacy. I was at ease, my grades didn’t count while on exchange, and I was very popular.
Nidhi, a short, slender, ethnically Indian, French speaking Mauritian, had bought tickets for me to attend their school’s yacht party that night. She came down from her room to hand them to me. She was young, a first year, and chirped like a bird whenever she spoke. Gossip was never far from her ears, for she was often the one at the center of it all. She was a social princess; the first year girls would often rally around her, hoping to join her clique. Her circle was just one of many that I ran in while at UCL. She was kind and always complimented me on my cooking when she visited my studio, amongst other things. The group was set to meet in the lobby to leave for the pier. We would all dress to impress.
She was always the last one to arrive in the lobby, purposefully fashionably late. Wearing an elegant black dress, maroon Jimmy Choo heels, and a white fur coat, she was beautiful. I could feel the eyes in the room on her; everyone’s conversation slowed for a moment. I was wearing a grey checked suit, tailored in Hong Kong, made from Italian Loro Piana wool, looking elegant. I had a white dress shirt, Shanghai Tang cufflinks with red stars embezzled on them, a velvet bow tie from Jack Wills, and a silk maroon pocket square that I had taken over an hour to fold. I had recently had my hair cut, a close shave, and I could see my reflection in my polished black leather shoes. With our arms locked, we set off for London Bridge, where the yacht would pick us up alongside the River Thames.
I sometimes think to myself, how did I end up here? Was it because of my grandfather who studied his engineering books under a street lamp? Or was it my father who slaved away to become a doctor? Was there a God that chose to bless my family to the exclusion of others? That would not be a God I would like to believe in. I think the answer is education. My family prospered because my grandfather became an engineer, my father a doctor, and I hope to become a lawyer someday if I have what it takes. We have been exceptionally blessed and a story like ours would often be cited for the proposition that everyone can be well off, if only they put their head down and worked harder. This is a falsehood that needs to be dispelled.
On Saturday we had hired two Jeepneys to take our group to Chocolate Hills, a series of beautiful mounds that could be observed from a height. We sat sideways facing each other while the driver impatiently overtook slower traffic ahead of us. He neglected to use the indicators if the Jeepney had any, pressed the horn persistently as if it would grant him a wish, and braked suddenly when he realized his next overtaking conquest may have been too ambitious. We stopped halfway through the journey at a zoo that charged 30 pesos per head for entry.
I found it hard to enjoy the zoo in the face of the pain of the animals. A monkey was chained to a horizontal bamboo pole and taunted for the entertainment of the guests. Its days of swinging in the trees with its family and roaming freely were over. A large bird, of a species that I don’t remember, was in a cage far too small for its size. It would never again soar at a high altitude, hunt, or be reunited with its partner. A snake was woken so that a Korean tourist could hold it and take a photograph she would later post on Facebook. The state of affairs was despicable.
Are we not also caged? Be it not iron bars that limit our physical movement, but are we not limited by our circumstances as well? A suckling pig eats only as well as its mother. A meal is only as good as its ingredients. A building is only as strong as the timber used to construct it. A child prospers or perishes from his circumstances. We are all a product of circumstance. Every child is beautiful, is intelligent, and can have a bright future. The child starts tabula rasa, and society writes on that blank slate from the moment of birth. A kindled fire burns fervently. A fire that is neglected, forgotten, and starved will soon be reduced to ashes. The future is in the Filipino children. This thought is neither novel nor profound, but it is an inescapable truth.