Addressing Income Inequality

Given the recent interest in income inequality around the web, I thought I would string together a few articles and research I’ve encountered to come up with my own little theory. Note that you may reach different conclusion(s) from the ideas or from your own findings – and I would love to hear them! Let’s keep this conversation going.

First, I’ll try to summarize a few relevant articles:

  1. Paul Graham’s essay Economic Inequality – The shot heard around the world. Posits that economic inequality partially stems from variations in productivity between people. The theory here is that many people are motivated by money, and there is a lot of money to be made in creating new wealth through startups. (Particularly true with technology startups.) Hence, we shouldn’t discourage economic inequality because that would be discouraging startups – which is tantamount to preventing technological progress.
  2. Give Some to Get Some – an episode of the excellent Exponent podcast where Ben Thompson and James Allworth react to Paul Graham’s article – noting that there are truths in it but also some obvious oversights and leaps of logic. The nugget here is that creating new wealth happens in two phases. First, technological progress (perhaps via startups) creates wealth for a few while they create efficiencies in how the world works – simplifying transportation, reducing the need for manual labor, etc. Then, the rest of the people in the world need to take advantage of those efficiencies to do more with their own lives – E.g. the hour that used to be spent washing clothes by hand is now spent developing a new drug that cures cancer, etc. The “pie” grows only when the impact of the original technological progress improves the lives of all people.
  3. Why Generation Y is unhappy – A great illustrated guide to what true happiness is based on. The formula is simple: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. If you have simple needs and don’t think you need to be exceptional at everything all the time, you will be happier.
  4. Income Inequality Makes Whole Countries Less Happy – an HBR article with data that shows that as more income is concentrated in the hands of a few, the more likely people report lower levels of life satisfaction. One theory here is that the bigger the range of incomes in a society, the more that people feel it’s impossible to “succeed” by getting into that coveted 1% bracket.

There are so many more articles and research written up about this topic (just doing a search for “income inequality” will show you it’s a global concern) but I feel there is a simple lesson with just the ones mentioned above.

Here it goes:

  • Humans are predisposed to making technological progress. It’s how we evolved, after all.
  • Technological progress benefits few people at first. As in the case of startups, it propels some into the class of the nouveau riche.
  • Economic inequality spikes. On the one hand, this is not a bad thing, as the new technology often enriches people’s lives and (more importantly) leads to efficiencies in the world that enable others to increase their own productivity and hence grow the whole pie. This is why overall GDP of nations increase as they modernize.
  • Unfortunately, the rate at which those get fabulously wealthy from new technology is much faster than the rate at which the rest of the population can take advantage of the new efficiencies to increase their own personal wealth. Thus, the inequality tends to grow larger over time.
  • As the inequality grows, its negative effects start to show. People (especially “Generation Y”, or those with similar culture) see those at the top of the distribution and wonder why their own situations are not developing as quickly. This leads to unmet expectations and ultimately lower life satisfaction measured in countries with this phenomenon – in other words, where there is fast technological progress that triggers this whole cycle.

In summary: As long as people develop technology to improve people’s lives, overall lives will get worse by default. Said another way by my colleague @JK: “Life is hard; suck it up.”

That’s not to say we can’t improve this situation. Looking at the chain of events in the cycle, we could put measures in place to:

  • Stop or discourage technological progress
  • Add handicaps to people so they cannot accumulate wealth so quickly
  • Accelerate the adoption of technology so everyone can realize the improved efficiencies faster
  • Discourage the setting of unrealistic expectations so people become happier with their realities

Those are not necessarily all good ideas… So I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what they would want to do about this (if anything).

One solution – we could all become Buddhist monks. By living outside of traditional societies, none of these issues affect them. And the ones over in Chiang Mai seem pretty happy all the time. 😉

Charms in Chiang Mai

I was fortunate to have had the chance to stop by Chiang Mai over the New Year’s holiday (because everything is so close together in Southeast Asia!) and thought I would count it as a continuation of a trip I took in 2012 that included stops in Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. In the same style as those previous write-ups, here I present some of the best memories in the form of superlatives.

Best night bazaar: Anusarn Market – not too crowded and a huge variety of goods to haggle over

Most crowded night market: The Saturday night market on Wua Lai

Best local dish: Khao soi, best had at Sila-Aat

Best vantage point for a sunset: Doi Suthep, on the marble lookout deck

Best temple for a nighttime meditation with monks: Wat Srisuphan

Funniest temple story: The story of Tan Pra Maha Kajjana


Most impressive gardens: Royal Park Rajapruek

Most disgusting yet environmentally responsible showcase: Elephant Poopoopaper Park – it’s exactly what you think it is!

Most surprisingly majestic animals: Elephants, raised humanely at Baanchang Elephant Park

Chiang Mai is no doubt the cultural capital of Thailand, just as Bangkok is its economic capital and Phuket is its resort capital. There are temples on almost every block and the locals are clearly very proud of their traditions and heritage. (You can see it with every interaction – for example, most people will always pass money or goods with two hands and a bow.)

The city is small enough to cross on foot, but big enough that there are still traffic jams at rush hours. The atmosphere and the attention to detail in so many public areas make you feel like the citizens really take care of the place. The only major flaw is the transportation system, where you need to basically haggle for every ride you take in a songthaew or tuk-tuk and there are no public buses or trains. Fortunately, costs are still low and you can get a ride pretty much anywhere for less than US$4.

It all makes for a great holiday, but it seems that several thousand expats felt so comfortable here that they decided to stay here long-term. It was honestly quite surprising to see so many of them hanging around restaurants and coffee shops – but after a few days, I understood the draw and why Chiang Mai ranks so highly for digital nomads. I highly recommend working remotely there!

The unofficial guide to Vinaphone, mobile carrier in Vietnam

If you do a quick search on the Internet, you can probably find some guides on mobile plans in Vietnam – but they’re probably out of date or incredibly confusing to follow. Now that I’ve been stationed in Vietnam for a while, I thought I would contribute a bit to the body of knowledge and share my experiences on Vinaphone, my carrier of choice.

Why Vinaphone

If you plan to travel into the rural parts of Vietnam, Viettel is actually a better choice – it’s the network run by the military and they have good coverage out there. Otherwise, the two better-known carriers in cities are Mobifone and Vinaphone. I find that too many people recommend Mobifone so it has gotten quite congested and slow. Hence, I switched to Vinaphone and have been pretty satisfied with my data speeds ever since.

Getting Started

First, you need to get yourself an unlocked phone and a SIM card. The phone is best brought on your own, but many stores sell cheap unlocked phones all over the place. (Maybe stolen? Who knows!)

You can buy a SIM card from an official store (there’s probably one here) but you’ll need to bring a passport so they can tie your identity with the card. If you don’t want to do that, you can ask around touristy districts (like District 1 in Saigon) and many street vendors will be happy to sell you one without any ID. (Maybe stolen? Who knows!)

Expect to pay around 100,000₫ for a SIM card with no credit.

Checking your balance

Whether you’re travelling for a short time or even staying long-term, it’s easiest to just go with the prepaid plans. This means you keep a balance on your SIM card and use it for purchasing short term plans with set amounts of data and calling. I’m going to assume you don’t really care about calling or texting these days, so I’ll just walk through how to subscribe to data.

You can check the amount of money you have by going to your phone’s dialer and making a “call” to *101# – this triggers a “check balance” action and you should see something like this on your screen:

Vinaphone - checking your funds

Most of those numbers don’t actually matter – for data, you just care about the first value in VND (₫). In the screenshot above, it is 71076 VND.

Review the data plans

You can find details about Vinaphone’s current plans here, but it’s incomprehensible so I’ll describe what the deal is.

Data plans on Vinaphone
Data plans on Vinaphone

There are three kinds of plans here (A, B, and C on Vinaphone’s table). “A” is just pay-as-you-go data, 75₫ per 50 kilobytes. That’s a terrible deal and you will easily burn through your money if you stay on that plan — which is the default and what you will be reset to when any other plans expire.

“B” plans are set amounts of data with hard caps – this means that when you use up all the data, you are charged per 50 kilobytes again. These plans can only end badly, so I don’t recommend them.

“C” plans are set amounts of data with soft caps – this means that after you use up all your data, you just get throttled to 2G speeds until the end of a set term (one month). This is effectively unlimited data – I’m not sure why anyone would choose any other type of plan! If only US carriers were this generous…

The last section “D” refers to how you purchase additional ‘data packs’ once you exhaust your high-speed data supply. Keep those handy for when you run out or get throttled.

Once you identify the plan you want, note the code (for example, “MAX100” is my plan of choice) and the amount of money required to subscribe (100,000₫ for “MAX100”).

Adding credit

You can add credit using scratch cards, which are set amounts of value that you purchase and literally scratch to reveal a 14-digit code to redeem. Most convenience stores sell them.

Example of a scratch card with monetary value
Example of a scratch card with monetary value

To redeem the code, you go to your phone’s dialer and punch in *100*(14 digits)# where “(14 digits)” is the code you revealed by scratching.

After receiving a success message, go back to your dialer and enter *101# again to verify your new balance.

Sometimes, there will be promotional days where you get a bonus for refilling (only on that day). You’ll get notifications about these promotions in the form of texts:

Vinaphone - getting a promo

If you apply a scratch card on the day mentioned, you may see some increases in your other balances — which, by the way, I believe are used for calling and texting.

Subscribing to a plan

You need to know the SMS codes to enable data and subscribe to one of the data plans mentioned above – otherwise, you’ll be stuck with nothing or the default pay-as-you-go plan.

Open up your text messaging app and start a conversation with “888”. Send the following commands:

  1. GPRS ON — this enables data
  2. DK XXXXXX — subscribe to the plan “XXXXXX” or add data to an existing plan
  3. DATA — to check your data balance

    Vinaphone - Subscribing to a plan

After you apply the changes, you might need to restart your phone (or disable/enable Airplane Mode) to have it register correctly with the network.

Stopping spam

After you subscribe to a plan, you might start receiving a lot of random text messages in Vietnamese. If you translate these, you’ll find they are mostly spam – often identified with a “(QC)” at the beginning of the message. To stop these, text “HUY” to the number you received the spam from.

That’s it! Hopefully you should be all set to use maps and social media during your trip. Have fun, but take your eyes off your phone once in a while. 😉