Unemployment – the secret revealed

(…in continuation of the post titled “Death of unemployment” published on 18th November, available on https://darkofficehumour.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/death-of-unemployment/)

The next day, the President reached the Prime Minister’s office a good thirty minutes ahead of schedule, such was his curiosity to know the answers. He was pacing up and down the venue waiting for the Prime Minister (PM) to arrive.

The PM tottered in at the appointed time. Wise beyond his age, ninety-three at that time, a pre-condition for assuming public office in the country, he took one look at the President and smiled. He knew what was bubbling beneath the surface. He had been there before.

“It is a cultural thing”, the PM said, after the usual pleasantries had been concluded, with a faraway look in his eyes, and, without waiting to see the reaction, added, “and it has taken us centuries, nay millennia, to evolve to the present state of being.”

The President blinked and rubbed his eyes, as if he was seeing an apparition. Who was this man? He was already answering the question that he, the President, had not even asked.

“I have to thank my countrymen for what we are today. Not just today’s countrymen, but all those who have been their forebears as well, as they have played an equally important part in our development. We are an ancient civilisation. We know how to respect our ancestors and our elders, except when they become old and dependent on us.”

The PM was speaking very softly. The President drew his chair close. Soundlessly. So as not to disturb the reverie the PM seemed to be in.

“Some people laugh when we talk about our ancient civilisation and culture” the PM said, seemingly with some rancour, “but we do not take offence; we know that they do not know what they do not know.”

The President could sense that he was in the presence of greatness. It was going to be a momentous occasion for him and his countrymen. Brutus’ lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar were playing inside his head:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

He dared not interrupt. He could sense that he was the “we” in “On such a full sea are we now afloat”.

“Tell me”, the PM asked, “in the place you come from, sorry I am not good at remembering names, do people form a queue when faced with a counter which they need service from?”

The President was, by now, in a daze, listening to the soft voice of the PM. He did not respond.

“Do people form a queue when faced with a counter which they need service from?”, the PM repeated, in a slightly louder tone.

“Huh, what, what did you say?” is all he could say.

“Do people form a queue when faced with a counter which they need service from?”, the PM repeated, patiently, even indulgently, if one could be permitted the luxury of being indulgent with the President of the most powerful nation.

The President was now alert. He thought for a bit and said “of course” in a business-like tone.

The PM smiled. That was the answer he had expected. He continued, “in all your travels around the world, other than our country, have you ever seen cars travelling the “wrong way” on a clearly marked one-way street, and honking loudly so that cars coming the right way can get out of the way?”

The President thought for a while. “No” he said after a few moments.

The PM smiled. That was the answer he had expected. He continued, “in your country, if you make a request for which you are given an assurance of service by a certain time, do you get informed by the service-provider in case, for some reason, the service cannot be completed as originally committed?”

Seeing that the question was not clear, the PM was nothing if not perceptive, he repeated, “Say your washing machine is not working and you call the repair service who tell you that the engineer will visit you between 2 and 4 PM the following day. Say something comes up in the morning on the following day and the engineer is unable to visit and needs to reschedule. In such a case, will the service-provider contact you and inform you of the same?”

The President was fully alert now. He immediately responded with a prompt “always” and added with some vehemence, “and he will, in all probability, also apologise for the inconvenience”.

On hearing the response, which was on expected lines, the PM could only smile. “Apologise! Inform!” He inwardly chuckled at the strange world the President lived in. With a straight face, he continued, “in your country, is it common to throw your garbage in front of the neighbour’s house, or roll down the glass and throw trash out of your moving car onto the road?”

The President was fully alert now. He immediately responded with a prompt “never”.

He had warmed to the “quiz” format adopted by the PM. He had been a good quizzer in his student days and had won many accolades for his quizzing exploits. Since becoming President all he had received were brickbats. He saw this as a chance to win some accolades. He even looked around for the “buzzer” in case it was part of the format, but did not find one.

“How about talking loudly on the phone in a cinema immediately after an unambiguous message asking patrons not to, has been played on the screen?”, the PM continued, “does that often happen in your country?”

“Never ever”, the President responded firmly, and added with pride, “others in the hall will lynch them if this happened”.

The PM leaned back in his chair and smiled. Again.

The President smiled back.

The PM smiled once more. “What do you see in these examples? When a person at a traffic signal breaks the queue he is in, and boldly drives forth in the lane meant for oncoming traffic hoping to get through first, effectively and completely blocking traffic on all sides, he is making a statement. Do you know what it is?”

The President’s shoulders drooped. He had confidently answered all questions pertaining to his country and people. But he was out of his depth when confronted with a question about people in another country. His quizzing record would be sullied, he thought.

But the PM did not let that happen. He continued, “he is stating that he is the smartest person on this planet and all others, standing in line on the right side of the road, are fools.”

The President nodded. He felt like Po sitting at the feet of Master Shifu, learning the secrets of kung-fu in order to defeat Tai Lung.

“Similarly, when he is throwing garbage anywhere outside his own house or car, he is demonstrating his love for the land; it is as if it is all his own where he can do as he pleases.”

“And do you know what happens when several hundred million people, each of whom loves the land in the same way, is the smartest on the planet and believes all others are fools, get together and interact?”, the PM quizzed again.

The President was veering towards saying “magic”, “new inventions”, “pushing the frontiers of human development”, and was still searching for the right term when the PM’s voice rang out, “Chaos”.

“Total utter chaos”, he repeated. “And do you know what needs to be done when that happens?”

The President was now out of his depth. He stayed silent.

“Every activity needs to be done again and again because it cannot be completed. You would have spent two hours before realising that the repair engineer is not showing up. You will then call agin, set-up a visit again, and then wait again on the next such occasion. Every interaction needs to be supervised and monitored. For every person manning a counter, we need a dozen guards to manage the melee at the counter, as each person spends five times the effort and time in getting his work done first, as compared to meekly and merely waiting his turn in a queue.”

Even while the PM was speaking the President was turning the incidents around in his head; he was a multi-tasker par excellence; he had not become President by being a single-tasker. And it began to dawn on him. He could see the light. He could see that all the examples given by the PM created a virtuous circle of inefficiency and employment. The less people followed rules and guidelines, the more people will be required to manage processes and situations.

The PM could see the halo around the President’s head. He knew he had got it. To drive home the point that it is not merely the latest fad, but a characteristic that is intertwined with their very identity, he added, “we discovered this secret long ago, and we have to thank our ancestors for faithfully passing on the practice from generation to generation.”

“So this is the secret”, the President thought to himself.

“We don’t sit on our laurels”, the PM continued softly. “It is a process of continuous improvement, as Mr. Welch may have explained to you. Newer generations are upping the ante and rewriting the rules. In keeping with the energy and enthusiasm of their generation, they have started exhibiting advanced patterns of behaviour which is being called bipolar behaviour order (BBO) by scientists. People endowed with BBO will exhibit all the behaviour patterns I have talked about but, at the same time, roundly criticise others for displaying exactly the same behaviour. For example, if you see a short queue and join it to await your turn, and you see someone jumping the queue to get ahead of you, you are likely to launch a vitriolic attack on the absence of manners in that person, the jumper. However, on a different occasion, when you are the jumper, you will provide logical excuses for why you had no other course of action open to you, such as ‘you were in a hurry’. We have no doubt that this recent development will lead us to the next phase of human development”, he completed.

The President drew in his breath. This was becoming too much to handle. He had come seeking a few answers and what he was getting was a whole new way of life.

“Our responsibility to the future generations remains undiminished”, the PM added. “Our adults are showing leadership by inculcating these habits in their children from an early age”.

“But how do you ensure more than a billion people behave in the same manner?” the President could not help asking.

The PM did not immediately respond. This was always a sore point. A black spot on an otherwise immaculate record. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his coat sleeve and put them back on. With his head bowed, as if in shame, he said, “There are still some people who resist. They will stand in line at a counter. Stop at a red light on the road. Call you back on their own even if it is to give the customer bad news. We call them coconuts here. Ever seen a coconut?”

“Yes, yes”, the President said enthusiastically. He had grown-up in some tropical locations and he had happy memories of those places.

“Just as the coconut is brown outside, like our skin colour, and white inside, like the skin colour of  many people living in the western parts of the world, these people, though they look like us, pretend to think like the people in the western part of the world think, which they believe equates to standing in queues, giving way, showing courtesy to old people, etc., hence the nickname ‘coconut’”, the PM explained.

The President complimented the PM on the clever use of the coconut. The rest of the world had only discovered the edible side of coconuts.

“We have tolerated their destabilising tactics with good humour, in view of our culture and ancient civilisation. But it cannot go on forever. We are, and I share this in confidence, in the process of enacting a law to deal effectively with people demonstrating such form of unacceptable behaviour.”

As the time scheduled for the meeting was over, the PM has thanked his countrymen once again for the state of affairs where so many attendants have to be deployed, even for simple interactions, and so many tasks redone. “It is a cultural thing”, he explained to the President, “You guys will take generations to reach this state of self-centredness.”

The President was no more as upbeat as he was the previous day. He had realised that to achieve the same level of employment generation would take a cultural change, which could be difficult to implement and can take time, putting his next presidential campaign in jeopardy. He could see his vision of employed countrymen becoming dimmer.

The PM, seeing the despondent look on the President’s face, wanted to help. He said, “But we can help. We can export people so that you can fast-track the cultural revolution. Though there are reports that our past exports have been corrupted by prolonged exposure to the host environment and not had the impact we would have liked, we assure you that the newer strains of people are more hardy and are guaranteed to deliver the promised results.”

Death of unemployment

It started out as a normal head of state visit to another country, with billions of taxpayer money being spent for promising co-operation in a wide range of spheres.

However, it soon turned into the most unlikely, and most productive state head visit in history.

It is no secret that a somnolent economy and rising unemployment were the two issues that had been dogging the government of the most powerful nation in the world. With the elections over, the President lost no time in getting down to serious business, like scheduling state visits.

He had seen some signs during the last visit but, since, like any respectable state head, he was grappling with many other serious problems at the time, like people who wanted solutions and an opposition that wanted answers, he had not paid much attention. But now, with elections just over, and there being no need any more to provide solutions or answers to anyone, these issues started taking centrestage, because of which he lost no time in in scheduling a state visit to the large democracy.

On his instructions, and in an effort to look like “everyman”, the trip planners had included activities that a common man would do, and planned to make him unobtrusive. As unobtrusive as a posse of six armoured limousines in a land of cycle rickshaws and scooters could be.

The first of these was a trip to the local mall where he would hang-out at a coffee shop and talk to people without ordering anything from that shop and having other customers wait for the coffee they wanted to order.

His entourage of six bullet-proof cars drove into the underground parking lot of the mall, like any common man. The President’s eyes popped out when he saw that when his car stopped at the entrance to the parking lot, no ticket came out of the ticket machine next to the driver’s window. The driver stuck his hand out but nothing happened. The driver then looked at a person sitting in a small cubicle just ahead of where the car was standing and nodded his head briefly. The person in the cubicle nodded back, and punched a key on a keyboard with flourish. As if by magic, the ticket came out. The driver took the ticket and moved forward, only to stop immediately else he would have crashed into the boom-barrier. There was another person standing next to the barrier who looked at the driver. The driver looked back. There was a moment of awkwardness. Then the driver relaxed and nodded his head. The standing person smiled and pressed a button and the barrier opened. The driver moved forward.

The President relaxed and smiled. His memory had not failed him. He took out his notepad and quickly made some notes. This was important. He could not trust any other person with the details.

His joy was short-lived, though. When his entourage drove into the parking lot of the next mall, there was no attendant to pluck out the ticket from the machine and hand it to the driver. Was it an isolated case in the previous mall, the president wondered? Instead, there was a booth where one paid the fixed parking charge. There was no other person in sight. The President drooped in his plush seat in the car. He had built up hope from the last parking lot. He was in a despondent mood right through that mall. When his entourage was driving towards the exit of the mall, however, he saw a lonely figure standing in the distance, right at the exit of the parking lot. He sat straight again. He could sense hope once more. The person at the exit was checking the ticket receipts to ensure that the entry fee, without paying which the car could not have entered the lot, had been paid. And, in another bold step that showed the importance and necessity of the the job being performed, not to forget the highest level of decision-making skills, if the car-driver could not locate the receipt, he just waved the car on. He again took out his notepad and made notes.

He was amazed at the efficient use of resources inside the big supermarket he strolled into while at the next mall. He could see young men and women, apparently employed to work in the supermarket, efficiently avoiding work and chatting inside the aisles. The less work they did, the more people had to be hired. The more the people hired, the more their idle talking and even lesser work done. So it became a virtuous cycle of employment. He had not seen this kind of commitment to the cause of nation-building anywhere he had travelled.

What really freaked him out were the security guards manning the exit points of each shopping outlet. Even a shop twenty square feet in area had a security guard at the exit to prevent any cheating. These guards would stop a customer from going out of the shop till they had checked that he was taking out only what he had been billed for. And, this being done by people who could not even read or write; it boggled his mind. How had they managed to implement this, he wondered?

He watched them for a while, took out his notepad and made notes again.

In some of the shops, grocery stores and supermarkets for example, the average number of items on the bill of a customer checking out was over fifty, with most checking out with bags stuffed with bags laden on trolleys. Each security guard was able to do the checking in an average of three seconds. He was able to “take in” the fifty items on the list at a glance and then, even more magically, check the goods without opening their bags. The entire process was completed in under five seconds, for total customer convenience.

He took more notes, even though he did not need to. He was beaming by now. His mind was clear. His efforts had not been in vain. He would go back and implement the best-practices he had seen on this trip. He could visualise his country being rid of the scourge of unemployment. He could see grown-up men and women, in their new jobs, enthusiastically doing nothing. The rest of the trip he was floating on air. He did not need to make any more notes. He could see elevators with attendants to push buttons at the bidding of people travelling in them. He sensed the presence of attendants right next to automated vending machines, to take money from customers, push it into the machine, press the right button and handover the chosen item to the customer. He saw waiters carrying trays at self-service restaurants. There were a dozen parking attendants in every parking lot. He could go on and on.

He made a mental note of sending his entire team on a study-trip to this place.

Though he was sure his country’s unemployment problems would be solved, he was still troubled by one aspect; what was the genesis of this wonderful state of being of the large democracy? How had they discovered this miracle cure that they, the most powerful nation, had no clue of. He racked and racked his brain but could not come up with a convincing explanation.

He had a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister the following day. He resolved to ask him this question.

(To be continued after the meeting of the President with the Prime Minister…)