Wednesday, January 1, 2014

From Slaving Lands, To Sharing Lands (Part I)

Once upon a time, emperors ruled supreme over the earth. 

From the tiny state of Macedonia, Alexander The Great crossed the Mediterranean and conquered Asia Minor (including the lands now known as Egypt, Syria and Iran). Never been defeated in battle, he stopped short of marching into the Indian heartlands merely because his men missed home. His life and reign ended abruptly, succumbing to sickness. He was only 32.

Generations before that, the tides of war flowed in reverse - from Asia to Europe. Led by the imperious Prince Xerxes, the Persian army ruthlessly laid the Grecian coasts to waste. The Athenians flee from their city. The Spartans were slaughtered.

Centuries later, with Europe mired in the Dark Ages and the meteoric rise of Islam cooling, an unlikely new conqueror rose from the dusty desert plains of Mongolia. Genghis Khan, and his horseback posse with hands as steady and eyes as quick as the elves of Middle-Earth, rolled over China with sheer impunity and sacked Baghdad, crown jewel of the Abbasid Caliphate.

First, Asia (7 extra men after every round). Then, the world!

Illustration by Willow & Monk

Mo' Land, Mo' Problems

Humans have an innate attachment to the earth below their feet.

The Age of Enlightenment heralded a new dawn in scientific and philosophical thinking. And yet, Western Europe remained morally unenlightened, whilst the discovery of the compass and gunpowder further fueled their lust for land. Whether Columbus discovered America is disputable - what is indisputable, however, is that he paved the way for its lands to be overtaken by foreign invaders and its indigenous populace to be killed and displaced. The English, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch also looked eastwards towards Africa and Asia - overthrowing warlords, and subjugating their people.

Even today, all conflicts are intrinsically tied to land. Put culture and religion aside and ask: what are the ruling incumbents and rebelling insurgents really fighting for? The Palestinians demand unequivocally for lands they feel rightfully belongs to them. The Catalans from Barcelona, dissatisfied with mere autonomy, cry for independence. Iraq remains in disarray, as the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds cannot agree on the partitioning of lands. 

Kings and Kingdoms

We know why nations fight over land - for economic resources, political power and nationalistic pride. Why do each of us, as individuals, crave for land? Land offers shelter and security. We perceive land ownership as one of our basic needs, as natural as the need to eat nourishing food and drink clean water.

Forget about motives. Our basic intention is the same, whether collectively or individually. We want to own land for ourselves, and deprive others from a share of it (unless we so permit). We are driven to divide and mark territories - this is yours, this is mine. We exult in the feeling of control.

We all want our own kingdom. We all want to be kings.

Scotland to England: "We want our whiskey back!"

You Don't Own Your Land, Your Land Owns You!

Private ownership of land - that has been humanity's dream for the last century. But how many of us have truly attained that dream? To those who have - at what cost? It it a dream worth even chasing?

The reality is grim - few of us in the world actually 'own' our own homes. Ownership is a legal fiction, a pipe dream. Consider the cold hard facts:

  • All lands originate from the state. Over time, the state chooses to give away its lands away. But who are these lucky beneficiaries? Government agents, local warlords, and the rich. Lands are either gifted for free to a select group, inherited over generations by aristocrats, or bought over cheaply by well-connected and well-resourced property developers.
  • Almost all of us buy our homes from property developers. Seldom do someone buy an empty plot of land, and build his own house, brick-by-brick. We cannot afford to buy lands outright - instead, we take long-term loans ranging from 15 to 40 years.
  • The property market is inextricably linked to the financial market (hence, tied to financial elements like inflation, interest, mortgage, foreclosures, etc.). Opportunistic investors (local and foreign) snap up properties that they have no intention of staying, but to rent out or to flip at a higher price. In developing countries, the land registry offices and town planning and building councils are run by lowly paid civil servants, hence susceptible to bribery and corruption. Real estate agents act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers.
  • All over the world, the housing industry is booming. In many places, the bubble has already popped, or close to popping. And when the bubble does pop, it is the genuine house-owners, existing and prospective, who suffer. Banks can absorb the bad loans due to their huge capital - even if they fall, governments bail them out. Property developers, who have already pocketed most of their monies from the banks, will bear a drop in demand and profits in the short-term. Investors, with their superior holding power, are content to wait for the next bubble. Real-estate agents can still squeeze a buck from fire-sales. 

For regular folks, it's not easy owning a kingdom. Holding onto them is even harder.

Out Of The Dark, Still In The Shadows

Life in medieval Europe is largely synonymous to feudalism, a system where society is loosely divided into two classes - noble (lords) who own lands, and poor homeless folks (vassals) who are allowed to stay and work on the lands (fiefs). The vassals benefit from shelter and protection provided by the lords. The lords benefit from receiving the fruits of the vassals' hard labour. There is a relationship of master and servant, revolving around the land.

Nothing much has changed much since the medieval times, have they? Instead of lords, we are now beholden to developers, banks, investors and agents. When we sign a land sale deed and loan deed, we think we have become proud owners of our own land. But we are owners only in name. Until and unless we pay the full amount of the purchase price plus interest - which only occurs after two or three decades - 'our land' is liable to be forfeited and sold at an auction. Once we've bought - or rather, borrowed money to buy - a house, it's not easy to move out to a new house.

Even if we own a property, we have little control over what happens in the surroundings. Today, you have a nice apartment room with a view - tomorrow, the view might be obstructed by a new towering apartment building. Today, you may enjoy the peace and quiet of your neighbourhood - tomorrow, a new metro line may open up right across the block. Haphazard development plans are approved by local councils with little regard to the environmental and social costs. Historical and religious sites are destroyed, forest reserves and green lung parks have dwindled.

A private residence at the coastal town of Miri, ala Tony Stark style. Move along, public citizens - find some other beach to walk and watch the sunset.

Greed Is Bad, Governance Is Good

Imagine a pan of pizza, cut into eight slices. Each of us are thinking: "I better buy a slice now, since there's more than twenty of us at the table. And since I can afford two, though I don't need the second, I should just buy both and sell it later to make a killing." 

That's the same kind of thought process that goes behind the minds of emperors to justify conquest and colonisation. Two kinds of motivation arises - greed and fear. Greed - we want that extra slice of pizza, even if we don't need it. Fear - we are afraid and paranoid that if we don't take that extra slice fast, someone else will take it.

The solution is simple. If there's twenty people at the table with a single pan of pizza, then cut the pizza into twenty sliced. In terms of housing, this means that each of us should accept living spaces smaller in size, and shorter in tenure. Let's not be selfish. Let's learn to share.

However, trusting people to share food is like leaving a candy or toy shop unattended to a group of kids. Let's face it. We're all driven by our primal survival instincts. Left to our devices, we'll cheat, steal and even kill to get ahead of the pack. Hence, the need for governments to act as parents - distributing food and toys equally amongst the kids, and punishing those who refuse to share.

The right to private ownership of land is a utopian dream. On our own, we cannot guard the borders from foreign invaders, stop our neighbours from throwing trash on our land, or allocate enough land for future generations, without the intervention of the state. Hence, what we need are benevolent kings to look after the kingdom. What we should ask for is good governance. 

Deleted scenes from the draft screenplay of "The Hobbit: The Perils of Poor Asset Management".

To Be Continued...

Ancient history teaches us that our traditional approach to land distribution is unfair and unsustainable. Modern history shows us that nothing has changed much. Emperors and warlords still rule the lands - the difference is, they now hide behind the veneer of legitimacy of a broken land regime.

However, all is not lost. There is hope for change. Future societies need a new land regime model to serve the common good, rather than the greed of a few. Before that, however, we all need to drastically change our mindset about our unhealthy obsession for home ownership. This shall be explored further in the next part of the article, in weeks to come.

Till then, think a bit more about our bloody past, and what we can do to avert history from repeating itself. Here's a clue and sneak preview - when less things are owned, more things can be shared.

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