Review of Phongpaichit and Baker’s Unequal Thailand

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Phongpaichit, Pasuk and Chris Baker (eds.), Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.67-8.

Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power
Edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016
ISBN: 9789814722001
XV + 186 pp.

Inequality has become one of the more urgent issues gripping the attention of the people of the world, especially since it became evident that the Crisis of Austerity was being used b representatives of the 1% to extract even more money from the 99%. Thomas Piketty’s epic Capital in the Twenty First Century (2014) demonstrated that intensifying capitalism strengthened control of money among the rich and the super-rich and prevented social mobility taking place. The importance of social mobility for maintaining a healthy and progressive governance system has been evident since the creation of the imperial examination system in the Han dynasty of China more than two thousand years ago (Min & Xiumen, 2010). In The Spirit Level, Pickett and Wilkinson (2010) show beyond reasonable doubt that those countries most unequal fare the worst in a wide range of societal indictors, ranging from educational outcomes to teenage pregnancies to crime rates. The best way to make any society happier and more stable overall is to reduce inequality and the best way to do that involves a combination of empowering the poor with shining a light on the possessions and lifestyles of the rich. The release of the Panama Papers, leaked from the legal firm Mossack Fonseca, very quickly showed how those who benefited from tax avoidance by using shell companies offshore tax havens could be brought to account when their activities came to light (e.g. Henley, 2016; MacAskill et al., 2016).

All in all, then, this would seem to be a splendid time to publish a collection of papers based on original empirical research into inequality in Thailand. After all, as a country that has undergone rapid economic development, urbanization and industrialization, Thailand has begun to embrace all aspects of capitalist development, for good or ill. Further, the country continues to suffer the drawbacks of Thai feudalism and the absolute blanket on any form of political dissent or even questioning maintained by the current junta. Such a book would investigate the roles and influence of powerful institutions set so implacably against progress such as the military, judiciary and network monarchy. It would question the role of the media and media ownership as an additional tool used as an intellectual state apparatus in promoting the concept of so-called Thainess (i.e. obedience, obsequiousness to power and unwillingness to question authority). Innovative attempts to identify the relationship between economic and social capital would have been welcome. However, unfortunately, this opportunity has rather been missed somewhere along the line of production, since too many of the papers veer towards the superficial and to lack firm supervisory guidance. The project was funded jointly by the Thailand Research Fund, the Bureau of Higher Education and Chulalongkorn University as part of the Distinguished Professor Scheme. It is certainly a good thing that only Thai academics were selected for this project, that they seem to have been well-funded and their papers extensively edited and supported for this book by near-legendary editors Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. The problem nevertheless remains that too many of the papers (and some from the original project have been omitted altogether) are just not quite up to the required level.

Some papers do make a positive contribution. For example, Duangmanee Laovakul’s “Concentration of Land and Other Wealth in Thailand” is based on ground-breaking research among the newly digitized records of the Land Department. This research indicates that the ownership of land and other assets is even more highly concentrated than the ownership of income. It is shown that 10% of all landowners own more than 60% of total land. Unfortunately, no useful implications or policy recommendations are derived from this research.

Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichoka have an interesting paper in “Elite Networking through Special Executive Courses,” which itemizes the presence and nature of such courses and identifies those who have participated in them. It is made clear that course-organizers take steps to ensure that network opportunities are maximized at these times and it is very evident that senior-junior relationships are established which are of considerable importance and value to both sides in future careers. The authors conclude that this ‘personal cronyism’ perpetuates elite power by promoting good relations and avoiding conflict among the elite and accepted new entrants, thereby preventing unwanted outsiders entering and “As a result power over the economy, politics and resources is more concentrated and circumscribed within a small elite.”
As a research paper, the outstanding chapter is provided by Chaiyon Praditisil and Chainarong Khrueanuan, who are able to draw upon many years of inquiry to inform their “Inequalities of Local Power and Profit: The Changing Structure of Provincial Power.” This is a fascinating account of how Chao Por networks have developed in provincial Thailand, how they have developed over time and reacted against the threat of outsiders moving in to their territory. It is shown that such networks have diminished in value over time as various elements of globalization have meant that power and resources are generated more from without than within. The conclusion drawn is that “The inequities in power and economic opportunity at the provincial level will diminish significantly only when advances in the rule of law and democratic decentralization make single faction dominance no longer possible.”

Of course, this being Thailand, we wait for the inevitable paper explaining how it is all really the fault of Thaksin and the uppity residents of Isan. Here it comes in the form of a contribution from Ukrist Pathmanand, whose work I have seen elsewhere and thought reasonably sensible. Since I have worked at Shinawatra University for a number of years, it is probably better if I do not comment on this paper for fear of being thought biased. After this, the book peters out with a fairly shambolic look at taxation and possible reforms to the tax system. The editors have done their best to try to remedy the shortcomings exhibited by the authors overall by trying to create an inclusive framework on inequality in the introductory chapter but this is only partly successful. Despite being published in Singapore, the text occasionally veers into American spelling and the index needs attention. Overall, the text is notable more for its omissions than from that which it does include.

References

Henley, Jon, “Iceland PM Steps aside after Protests over Panama Papers Revelations,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/iceland-prime-minister-resigns-over-panama-papers-revelations.

MacAskill, Ewen, Rowena Mason, David Pegg and Holly Watt, “David Cameron Left Dangerously Exposed by Panama Papers Fallout,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/05/david-cameron-left-dangerously-exposed-by-panama-papers-fallout.

Min, Han and Yang Xiuwen, “Educational Assessment in China: Lessons from History and Future Prospects,” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol.8, No.1 (2001), pp.5-10.

Pickett, Kate and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).

Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

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