It’s about time – Obama’s speech on income inequality and sensible tax policy

Woke up today and read about President Obama’s speech in Kansas.

I’m convinced the whole Occupy movement has been successful at one thing and one thing only – getting the term “income inequality” back on the national agenda. Thanks to all the folks sleeping in parks and whatnot, we’re talking about the core American ideals again. Oh, and memo to the unwashed, park-sleeping masses: unless you have something else to accomplish, some specific action you think you’re going to get by continuing your protest, then time to pack up and go home. Thank you very much.

So…onto Kansas. I took a few minutes after lunch to read the text of the speech. It’s a good one – recommended reading. If I had to sum it up:

1. We are a more and more unequal country, and that’s not good for anyone; and
2. We have to stop kidding ourselves when it comes to tax and economic policy – you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

Will a platform like this get Obama re-elected in the midst of a recession and with unemployment at nearly 9 percent? Who knows, I’m not playing pundit. But kudos to him and his advisers for finally standing up and talking about these issues.

Read the speech – good stuff in there on education, innovation, shared sacrifice and the amorality of inequality.

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What’s in a pot of water? Muharram

There are pots of water around, lots of them – outside houses and stores, in hallways and more. I’m perfectly happy to go with the flow of course, but I got curious about all the water pots.

Turns out it’s Ashura, a mournful Islamic holy day that marks the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. On this day, according to the historical accounts, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was martyred. The historical accounts I’ve heard involve the Battle of Karbala, where Hussein and his followers were killed or captured after Yazid cut off their water supplies. Hence the pots of water.

There’s a mosque across the train tracks next to our office and yesterday evening, there were particularly mournful sounding prayers. It’s not a holiday as in celebration, but rather a holy day. To all my Muslim friends out there – may you have a peaceful and contemplative Ashura and if you’re fasting, an easy fast.

And I learned a new lesson: let no pot of water go un-investigated. You just might learn something.

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House guests

I’ve had a lot of house guests since I got back to Bombay (less than a week ago). Guess I’m not one to settle back in gradually…

Vanessa, Jordan and Ben have all crashed the guest room and couch in recent days. Bryan and Chris have just been hanging out. Click on these links…I’m lucky to know such interesting people.

If there’s any downside, it’s that I haven’t been getting as much done as I want to, or sleeping enough. Or is that a downside? Instead of spending time on my to-do list, I’ve been having late night, early morning and mid-afternoon conversations, debates and brainstorms.

Vanessa, an actress from Ontario, saw India through a uniquely artistic lens.

Jordan is back in India for his second extended trip here. He’s just completed a 275-day contiguous walk from Vancouver to San Diego. Another artist, and another set of perspectives on life, love, ambition, motivation and purpose.

Ben is about to leave India, having lived for the last 3 years in Mumbai but now staying in Delhi (which is why he needed a couch for a few days). After Delhi, he’ll be traveling and spending time with community development organizations. I’ll miss him – from the ultimate field to the seder table, he’s been a friend and co-conspirator.

Bryan and Chris – the Rising Pyramid guys – are on a long trip en route to a friend’s wedding in Uttar Pradesh. Bryan just wrapped up a year in Lahore as an Acumen Fund Fellow; Chris works for PwC. It’s great to talk a little work without devolving into too much detail with them.

Hard to capture a week’s worth of conversations, jokes, observations, debates in a sensible way. I’m glad I have the space to host people. Turning my apartment into a salon – glad I have plenty of coffee and tea – has been a really pleasant surprise. I hope people will keep swinging through in the coming weeks and months.

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India Insights: How can 10 rupees be worth more than 100 rupees?

I leave the house in the morning, and run through a mental checklist. Wallet – check. Cell phone – check. Keys – check. Wad of 10-rupee notes and assorted coins – check.

Change is king here. I need it, I hoard it, and I part with it wistfully and often under duress. It’s actually kind of funny, to tell you the truth. I mean, I get it. If you’re a rickshaw driver, or a chai wallah or a shoeshine guy and you’re doing hundreds of small ticket transactions a day, then you need change. And you can’t suffer fools when some customer tries to pay for a 4 rupee chai with a 100 rupee note. Not cool. And I get that.

But the funny thing is, there are a lot of more formal businesses – car service companies, fancy coffee shops, department stores – where you simply can’t extract a 10-rupee note if your life depended on it. At a Cafe Coffee Day one time, I was about THIS CLOSE to getting my coffee totally for free for the fact that the woman at the register didn’t want to break into a new wad of tens she had under the tray. Crazy.

This quirk has been an accepted part of my day to day since I moved here a year ago, and I’ve found ways to adapt. In fact, when I lived in Hyderabad, I once went to a liquor store around the corner from my first apartment and changed out a 1000 rupee note for 99 ten-rupee notes. 1% commission was no big thing. After all, those rickshaw drivers were killing me and I wanted to have exact change to support whatever negotiated price I’d settled on.

However, the ten-rupee note thing came to a head the other day at, of all places, the bank. Long story short, I am sans ATM card for a few days, and while waiting for my new one to come, I withdrew some cash at the bank. While there, I figured, “Hey, let me go get some tens so I can make rickshaw change, chai change, etc.”

With two 500-rupee notes in hand, I walked back to the cash cabin, and politely asked the gentlemen sitting at the desk, “Hi. Can I have some change, please?”

“Yes, yes. No problem. You want hundreds? Fifties?”

“No thanks, I just got hundreds and fifties from the teller. Can I have a hundred ten-rupee notes please?” I asked, showing them the two 500-rupee notes.

“No no. Not possible. No tens.”

WHAAAAAAAA? My face widened into a smile, and I must have looked totally incredulous.

“Really?” I asked, “No tens?”

“No sir, sorry sir, no tens, sir.”

I was not to be deterred. “Guys, I’m sorry, but I know you have tens. The teller told me you have tens. And you’re the bank. You have to have tens. It’s your duty!”

“No sir, sorry sir, no tens, sir.”

I tried again. “Please? I know you have tens. I just want a few. Can I please have some?”

This time, god only knows why, it worked. “Okay sir. Wait outside. Two minutes.”

Two minutes later, he beckoned me inside. I watched as a machine counted out 100 ten-rupee notes, fresh and crisp from the vault. I smiled at my adversaries, “Thank you.” I got the head bob in return, with a couple smiles to boot.

Small victories.

And THAT, my friends, is why 10 rupees can – and often is – worth more to the average Indian resident than 100 rupees.

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A Year Ago Today

A year ago today…

…the Dow Jones Industrial Average was actually lower than it is today.
…few people outside of Minnesota had heard of Michelle Bachmann
…nor was Anna Hazare a household name in India
…I had never experienced the joy of pav bhaji
…I thought DC traffic was bad. Boy was I wrong.
…I had never played more than a few games of beach ultimate
…I didn’t know how to make chai other than by pouring water and milk over that gross powder from a purple bag. Yucko. Thankfully, that’s changed.
…I couldn’t speak a word of Hindi.
…I had never tasted a custard apple.
…And so much more.

My, how things change. India, you’ve been good to me…pushing and pulling me, sometimes frustrating me, often bemusing me but always making me think.

Happy 1 Year Anniversary, India!

(And coincidentally, happy birthday – since August 15 is Indian Independence Day!)

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America (2)!

Been back in the US for a little while now. Great to see friends and family, to work out of the AF New York office, to eat familiar foods and see familiar places.

It was surreal to be away during last week’s bombing attacks in Mumbai. I have to admit I cried a little when I read the reports, and thought of my friends and co-workers living there. Luckily, no one I know directly or indirectly was hurt, but too many people were. There must be a general feeling of insecurity throughout the city, which makes me sad. On e-mail lists and chains, friends rose to the city’s defense, while others lambasted the Indian government for not doing more to prevent future attacks. It was a weird week, to be sure.

And without further ado, a few more America observations while I have your attention:

1. Central air conditioning now seems decadent. Why do we have to waste so much energy keeping homes and hotel rooms and office buildings at 68 degrees? I’ve been in all of the above in the past week and even though it’s warm here, I’m cold all the time. There are rooms with no one in them that are getting cooled down for no reason, and there are more than a handful of people wearing sweaters to keep warm in July. Yeah, I’ll be the holier-than-thou guy and say it: it just doesn’t feel right. Be grateful for the grid electricity – such blatant power-suckage simply wouldn’t be possible in most other places, I’d think (except Dubai, etc).

2. Ironic moment: We stopped at a liquor store to buy beer. The owner is a vegetarian Gujarati who (as may be expected from someone hailing from Gujarat) doesn’t drink. I think that’s pretty funny. And the poor guy says he’s started eating non-veg since moving to America because “salads all the time cannot be considered a meal”

3. Taylor Ham is pretty amazing, but I can only eat about half a Taylor Ham sandwich. For shame, Rob, for shame.

4. Baltimore needs late-night food options in the Fells Point area. Attention, Baltimore based entrepreneurs: start a late night street cart biz in Fells, you’ll be printing money!

5. Observed, non-scientific data: average time between placing your order and receiving your food at a restaurant:
– India – 30 minutes
– America – 15 minutes
Is that because the food is fresher, more complicated to cook, or what? Are the American restaurants more prepped?

6. There are so many amazing green grass fields here. India ultimate players, you must come to America, there are so many grounds you won’t know what to do with yourselves! American ultimate players, quit being so picky about fields…you don’t know how good you have it.

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Got back to the States yesterday morning. A few random nuggets / observations.

1. Dogs have it GOOD in America. In Mumbai, there are so many strays. They’re generally friendly, and usually reasonably well fed. That said, since I’ve been back I’ve been hanging out with a couple of dogs and man, they have it good here. Love, a place to sleep, lots of food and water, vaccinations, and no wild rickshaws running them off the road.

2. Background noise…i.e., there’s not nearly as much out here. Dear Suburban American Resident: Are you complaining about your neighbor who mows the grass at 7:00 PM, disturbing your dinner? Or what about those obnoxious kids from next door, playing outside while you try to read the paper? Ha. No sympathy from this guy, no way. Lawn mowers, kids and other background noise pales in comparison to the dull roar that is life in urban India. There is ALWAYS noise…car horns, music, people, bus horns, dogs, chickens, rickshaw horns. America is damn quiet.

3. Dunkin Donuts. Dear Dunkin Donuts, please come to India and when you do, bring coffee. With cream. That is all. Thank you, Rob. PS – don’t forget the Munchkins.

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