How Do We Square the Differences?

I saw both of these things in Saigon last week. The first picture is the interior of a Maybach 62S. Nice car I thought. I had never seen or heard of a Maybach but it looked so over the top I had to look it up. I discovered that it is a luxury car built in Germany with a base sticker price of $423,500. The price is double that in Vietnam because of the import tax. Two well dressed older women got in the back seat and drove away. Easy come, easy go.

I took the other picture just outside my office. I had watched this guy for a week or so before figuring out that this was his home. I couldn’t reconcile the two things in my mind – the absolute luxury of the Maybach and the almost unbearable poverty and hardship of the sleeping man’s situation.

We talk a lot about income inequality in the US these days. In fact, Occupy Wall Street has spent a lot of time drawing attention to it, but when you see it in a developing country it’s obscene. The recent scandal in China is drawing attention to it as well. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” I wonder how Marx would react to the abuses of state socialism if he could see the situation in Vietnam and China today?

Vietnam and China are changing, and with the economic boom comes the creation of wealth and the “need” to display it. Earlier this month I attended a party to celebrate the launch of the 2012 Porsche 911. It was all glitz and formal dress, champagne and a sea of beautiful models. My friend, Kaci, is the marketing director for Porsche and her targets are the newly rich Vietnamese. She told me it would be crazy for a foreigner to buy a Porsche in Vietnam. The price is double what it is in the developed world. There is only one reason to buy a Porsche or a Maybach in Vietnam – to show everyone that you’re successful and have the money to buy one. If it’s crazy for a foreigner to buy one it is equally crazy for a Vietnamese. There is nowhere in Saigon and probably nowhere in Vietnam where the Porsche could get out of second or third gear. The traffic moves at a snail’s pace, rarely more than 20 miles an hour. But, Porsche expects to have reasonable success in Vietnam this year. I’m sure they’re right.

I’d like to think that the Golden Rule is alive and well in emerging economies, but Wall Street is still fouling it’s own nest and Congress, in the richest county in the world, can’t agree to the proposition that we can afford to provide health care for all of our citizens. If we can’t set an example then how can we expect the rest of the world to do the right thing?

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