I’ve been writing books
for over thirty years. The other evening I explained several of my ideas about
the writing process to two writers, one from the world of journalism and the
other from the world of academia. This essay is for Gwen and Pavida who
asked me the question: How do you go about writing a book? And encouraged me to
put my thoughts down for other writers.
I believe every writer
develops their own secret formula to describe the writing process that works for
them. Mine is not that original or profound but I set out some of the guideposts
that have served me well along the journey to writing a book.
I am also asked ‘How do
you go about writing a book?’ Another question I am asked is closely
related—‘What book would you recommend that I read?’
We genuinely seek
satisfactory answers to these questions, we need to address how a writer thinks
about books and the writing process. Not have the usual discussion about
when you write, how many words in a day, where your inspiration comes from, what
does your office look like, what time of day do you write and so forth. These
are the questions we are curious about and wish to ask an author.
I will start instead with
a question that I believe a writer should put to himself or herself: What kind
of book should I write?
For me, I start answering
this question by glancing up at two boxes on my Borges’ library shelf. Each box
contains an infinite number of pieces to an infinite puzzle. My first
decision is which of the two boxes to take from the mental shelf and start to
The first box the puzzle
pieces require the author to assemble a number of complex relationships, that
grow, fall apart, set up in conflict, ignite emotional reaction, detail
involvements, track maturity and damage of characters who face conflict, hard
decisions, and life-changing choice.
This is what I look for
when I open the Fiction Box.
When I write a novel this
is the box I choose to take off the shelf and start taking out the pieces and
figuring out how the pattern connects. Yes, there are novels of ideas where the
characters’ emotions are far in the background. This proves the Fiction box has
a range of possibility. Because an intellectual novel can succeed doesn’t
undermine the basic premise that most novels succeed on an emotional plane,
explaining the source of our feelings, the depths of our fears and anxiety, and
the tensions arising from relationships, family, schools, political systems, and
religion. The author goes inside people’s lives to examine the personality,
attitude, and character, their limitations and failures as well as their
The second box is also
filled with infinite pieces of infinite puzzles.
This is the Non-fiction
Box. It is the box I open to write essays for this blog.
When I open the
Non-fiction Box, my approach is to build logical arguments based on evidence,
facts, statistics that support the arguments. The idea is to persuade the reader
that your interpretation of the evidence supports your argument, solution, or
policy proposal. In this box there are few if any pieces that represent a
character whose emotional reaction is central to the book. Yes, there are highly
polemical books charged with emotional calls urging others: join a cult, a
political party, or a life-style.
These are confirmation
bias-based books that promise to confirm what you already believe to be
‘factually’ true or consistent with your ‘faith’, or the stories manufactured
about history, culture and language. The best of non-fiction challenges your
preconception by assembly of facts and evidence and argues for a change of your
views. The non-fiction book is deliberate, rational and analytical and emotions
are seen, like a cognitive bias, as weakening a clear assessment of the
My personal role model,
whether I choose The Fiction Box or The Non-Fiction Box may come as a surprise.
It is Charles Darwin. His Origin of the Species published on
24th November 1859 changed not only science, but also his book
immediately raised a serious debate about religion and the existing social
order. Darwin’s creative process is instructive for any writer.
The Origin of
Darwin’s journey resulted
in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant
minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory
of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of
discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was
also his lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the
evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from
the evidence that he gathered.
Every time I start a new
book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the
Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond
the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the
side of mountains and look for patterns.
Capital in the 21st Century is another of those Beagle
explorations. This time computers and historical records combined to yield
patterns of wealth and income that create a picture of the real
What a writer is doing,
whether conscious of the process or not, is finding patterns in objects, things,
ideas, people, animals, language, history, and culture that are knotted up,
entangled in seemingly random, chaotic ways. A writer’s goal is to find
patterns, correlations, and causation that gives a sense of order to the mess of
what is life.
Quantum physics is a good
place for a writer to explore the hidden reality of entanglements.
A writer needs to sign on
to his own private Beagle and set sail.
A writer needs to take
time to observe, record, and search for connections.
A writer needs passion. A
book is a long voyage. Without a burning passion fired by curiosity, a sense of
wonder, a withholding of judgment, a love of research, the journey can become
intolerable. You really must be honest how passionate you are to reveal in the
entanglements a plausible story.
Ultimately what readers
look for in a book is a voice that they can trust that can untangle the
complications, incoherence and randomness of life. A charlatan earns trust
through empty promises and sleight of hand; they never take a personal journey
on the Beagle, though they may try to convince you that they have.
Readers hunger for meaning
and purpose, and a writer’s task is to fulfill that desire.
Buddhism offers several
lessons that help me as a writer, and they may help you once you’ve decided to
write a book. I am grateful to Professor John Paulos for drawing my attention to
an interview with Jay Garfield who discusses the key premises of
Buddhism. All three lessons are stories about fear and how we deal with
A central theme of
Buddhism is non-attachment. Whether that attachment is to a theme, facts,
emotions, a character, a plot point, a sentence, or at every writer’s personal
base camp: the self. Many people become frustrated and angry at a dialogue tag,
a setting or scene, or a phrase, and they can’t move on until they have resolved
their internal conflict. My advice when you hit that impasse? Let it go.
Don’t become attached to your idea that this passage, sentence or word must be
perfect before you give yourself the green light to move through the
intersection and continue your journey. The desire for perfection is a destroyer
of creativity. When you are trying to be perfect as you write, ask yourself whom
you are trying to please?
You think that it is you.
But it is most likely you’ve learned the perfection habit from someone in your
past. Your mother, the person who had her share of disappointment and
frustrations (as many mothers have) and she wants you to be perfect and
have a perfect life like the one she idealized that she could have had? Or it
might have been your demanding father, an uncle, a teacher, a neighbor who
passed along the idea, the one you’ve never allowed yourself to seriously
challenge, that you must be careful, organized, perfect in every detail before
you are allowed to take the next step.
When you write you
sometimes reach a dead end. Don’t panic. Find a new trail around the
avalanche that has blocked the path ahead. Don’t stop, in other words.
Creativity is finding another path when the one you’re on is closed. Fear is the
roadblock that keeps you clutching onto something you can let fall away.
Non-attachment is a way to defeat fear of disappointment, regret, failure or
being less than perfect.
Another important tenet of
Buddhism is that reality is unpredictable and chaotic. We spend our entire lives
trying to make sense of a reality that science increasingly shows makes no
intrinsic sense. Most people hate and fear uncertainty and doubt and will
seek refuge in illusions of certainty. We find our way by making correlations
knowing that the patterns we create aren’t fixed or permanent; they are that
temporary pontoon bridge that allows us to get from one side of a river to the
If your characters are too
predictable you will likely bore your readers. If they are too chaotic, readers
will also abandon your book. The challenge is to build characters and stories
that have real life unpredictability and your story navigates a passage, a
bridge, a boat, and a life raft that gives confidence to a reader that he or she
is in good hands.
Specifically this means
you don’t need to have a full solution to every problem, not everything turns
out the way you thought, and the things that turned out right didn’t last. The
closer your fiction travels these rails of reality, the closer you will come to
writing in an authentic voice that others will trust and learn from.
control is an illusion. Let it go. Don’t become attached to a world of
certainty. Doubt is your friend, your ally, and keeps you researching, thinking,
and feeling. When you feel yourself trying to be a hundred percent accurate in
your choice of a word, a plot point, or a character development, you are
guaranteed to get lost in one of those mental fun house filled with
Learn to accept ambiguity
and uncertainty as the natural state of all things. This will free you up to see
reality in a different way, knowing that sometimes not all the pieces of the
puzzle fit. That is the paradox of the Fiction and Non-Fiction Puzzle Boxes,
there are an infinite number of pieces and you will never fit them
The last of the Buddhist
lessons for a writer is the idea of identity or self. The fear of losing self is
a hard one to overcome for any writer or any person. It goes to the core of how
we perceive self. Buddhists believe that our psychological construct of ‘self’
is an illusion.
For a writer, the concept
of identity is the substitute for self. A writer’s identity, like everyone else,
is shaped by many social forces from tribe, ethnicity, religion, place of origin
to language. Our myths and memories all rolled up into the default image we see
in the mirror.
There are a couple of
problems for writers. To write about others is to enter their network of
memories and slowly reveal the factors that give them identity. If we can’t get
past our own identity, a writer can’t ever truly describe an identity that is
alien without becoming judgmental. We are also misled by our desire for a
‘permanent’ self or soul. Our fear of death is a mighty motivator for
perpetuating our sense of identity.
The act of writing
requires an act of forgetting one’s personal set of memories, and substituting
the memories of characters. Once you are free from yourself, it is much easier
to enter the ‘self’ of your characters. Once you cast aside your ‘self’ your
characters stop being clones of you—your thoughts, dreams, plans, fears, hopes,
jealousy, and desires.
Once that happens it is
possible to create a rich, authentic character whose identity lets the reader
feel she’s in the story of lives that have come alive. The author fades away.
He’s a storyteller. He’s not the story. And there lies a big gap. Especially for
fiction, to find that sweet spot called empathy where you enter another’s
persons mental processes means you need to shed your ‘self’.
powerful sense of ‘self’ can contaminate our search to understand the interior
life of others—and without such access to the workings of a character’s interior
life, the characters in a novel will not be fully realized. Overcome your fear
and let the ‘self’ go. Detach from it. As you are in the writing process, it is
another attachment that prevents you from exploring all you can on your Beagle
ship journey into the unknown.
Darwin didn’t set out on
the Beagle to become a celebrity, write a book that would change the world, or a
book about himself. He set out to explore, discover, record, and examine the
world around him. That is his technique and process, in my view, what makes
Darwin a good role model for all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Overcoming
our sense of ‘self’ is one of the most difficult projects we confront. Without
the ‘self’ ‘Who am I?’ rings as one of those existential questions we seek to
avoid. You can read others much better qualified than me for a range of
The point of this essay,
is that your sense of ‘self’ is a prison you need to break out of in order to
fully appreciate that the book doesn’t have to be about you. That your sense of
‘self’ may be the major obstacle to your book. If you are writing a book to find
your sense of ‘self’ or confirm your ‘self’ in the world, then you will have a
lot of company. There are many such books written every year. You can write one
if you wish and it might become a commercial success. With an infinite number of
puzzle pieces and infinite time all kinds of books are possible. For certain
kinds of books, another approach is useful. You sign on to the Beagle and go
This is a look into my
writing process. Other writers will have their recommendations as to how the
process works. I love the sense of the unknown and the adventure of
exploration. I find an idea, a character, a theme for which I have a passion.
Without passion to sustain you, it will be a long, lonely and isolating voyage.
Find a subject that you feel passionate about and then go sailing on your own
A crime fiction author is constantly patrolling the perimeter searching for interesting crime stories, hints of cultural trends in crime enforcement, and for the criminal characters who will become the latest generation of men and women to make a fortune in crime.
My Vincent Calvino series is largely set in Thailand. That means I am alert to and on the look for information about crime in Thailand. Like all commercial activity, crime also is divided between the 1% and 99% in terms of wealth concentrations. I’ve written about criminals whose activities place them at the bottom and at the top of the illegal crime proceeds world. I’ve also written about the intersection where the legal and illegal wealthy gather and share a meal.
I am also interested in how others perceive Thai crime and Thai criminals. Wikipedia, that first rest stop on the journey to enlightenment opens its article on crime in Thailand with this:
“Crime in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and under recognized problem. Crime in Thailand is reported by the Royal Thai Police, however, there is no agency which acts as a watchdog and publishes their own statistics.”
The first sentence is one of those Chinese fortune cookie pronouncements that reads like written by a sage until you think how you could substitute Thailand for a few dozen other countries. Or it would be the sentence of choice for a host of unrelated things. For example:
“Misshaped mango in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and under recognized problem.”
You get the picture. Research limited to Wikipedia has its limitations. That’s why a writer, like a journalist, need his or her sources on the street, and must spend time on the street cultivating old and new sources, and experiencing the life in all of its odd, strange complexity.
It is the second sentence about statistics from Wikipedia that is more interesting. In crime writing, one of the first things an author needs to figure out is who runs the statistics business about crime. It is, after all, a business, and a vital one. That fact about statistics about Thailand hints at a few matters about crime that you ought to pay close attention to. If you control the statistics that reflect upon your competence and ability to do the job, you just might have a bias about how those statistics are collected, stored, analyzed, communicated, and the policy implications they imply. It’s called a conflict of interest. Trusting the fox to count the chickens is good for the fox but not always so good for the chickens.
What Wikipedia is saying that without ‘independent agencies’ (a loaded term if there ever was one) tracking the statistics, you have to use a certain amount of caution regarding the reliability and accuracy of the statistics that the police are keeping. You don’t need a fortune cookie to tell you that he who makes the cookies is the one who is telling you what your future holds. Don’t let the mango growers define what is a misshaped mango unless you have an appetite for some funny business about the nature of geometry.
Crime comes in all kinds of packages. In Thailand, if Wikipedia is to be believed, we can carve up the criminal activities into: drugs, rape, white collar, tourist scams, human trafficking and prostitution, prison crime, identity theft and passport racket, gender violence and school violence. A kind of pick and choose your poison list. If you want to write a crime story, you’ll find some bones that haven’t been picked clean by the previous pack of hyenas with typing skills.
The problem with this approach is that it’s so 1990s or early 2000s. If you want to know about the future, study crime statistics and trends. That is the story of criminal activities down the road and around the bend. Most crime operates as a kind of rough and ready redistribution of wealth that capitalism allocates between segments of the population.
Before looking ahead, let’s look at the history of one crime hero. Robin Hood was a legend. A gang leader, militia boss, mafia chief, and Robocop rolled into one; someone who had empathy for the little people. That is why it is a legend. Because over the sweep of history, Robin Hoods don’t make a dent in the wealth of the powerful and they don’t go around singing ballads in the forest with a group of merry men. Most of them are imprisoned, exiled, or killed. You can’t look only at Robin Hood without looking at the position, influence and power of the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest and his boss. After all, it is the sheriff who is keeping the statistics on crime.
The Sheriff of Nottingham Forest who is responsible for maintaining law and order and recording on the criminal activities going on inside the forest historically has suffered from some serious credibility issues. Nothing much has changed in this part of the forest, urban and rural. Thai police who keep tabs on the ‘illegal’ nightspots in Bangkok and collect the statistics about crime including illegal gambling, prostitution and corruption. Getting tough on crime with harsher penalties is also a way to increase revenue flows from those who violate the laws so they can stay in business. When a man’s job depends on him not knowing something, there is a good chance he will argue against attempts to interfere with his ignorance. He will fight against anyone who seeks installing some windows in the wall of authority. That can be dangerous.
Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, is a Thai forest park chief, who has been accused of involvement in murder, arson and disappearances in a forest under his jurisdiction in northern Thailand. Though charged with serious crimes, he continues to work in his position. Por Chalee Rakcharoen (nicknamed “Billy”) a young ethnic Karen environmental activist, was recently stopped in the park by Chaiwat and fined for possessing six bottles of wild honey before supposedly being sent on his way. By coincidence, Billy had been on his way to gather signatures for an appeal against the park chief’s abuse of power (for torching homes of Karen villagers, indigenous forest dwellers – Billy’s people). Billy never arrived. No one knows where he is. Chaiwat is quoted as claiming that he has no knowledge of what happened to Billy. He was the last person to see Billy alive. The case has been in the newsbut such cases in Thailand quickly fade away as media attention is drawn elsewhere. In the real world of Thailand, political activist in the tradition of Robin Hood who challenged authority don’t last long whether on the streets of the city or the forests in the country.
The obstacle faced by modern criminals, who fit less in the tradition of Robin Hood and are more likely motivated by personal gain, is finding out who has the wealth, where they keep it, and how best to organize a heist to relieve that wealthy person of part of their riches. The first thing you figure out is that the real criminal class is a closely held secret, largely very small, out of sight, and never in danger of prosecution.
By the fact you are reading this blog, the chances are you fit somewhere way above the average of wealth on the planet. When you review the statistics, the question is why the poor are content in their criminal activity to take crumbs from the rich as there are vastly more poor people than rich people.
Credit Suisse’ 2013 Global Wealth Report observes:
“Our estimates for mid-2013 indicate that once debts have been subtracted, an adult requires just USD 4,000 in assets to be in the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, a person needs at least USD 75,000 to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and USD 753,000 to belong to the top 1%. Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold 86% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% alone account for 46% of global assets.”
At the upper end of wealth concentration a clearer picture emerges of the number of people who own staggering amounts of wealth:
“We estimate that there are now 31.4 million HNW adults with wealth between USD 1 million and USD 50 million, most of whom (28.1 million) lie in the USD 1–5 million range. This year (2013), for the first time, more than two million adults are worth between USD 5 million and 10 million, and more than one million have assets in the USD 10-50 million range.”
And the upper limits of wealth show the numbers of truly outstanding fortunes:
“Worldwide we estimate that there are 98,700 UHNW individuals, defined as those whose net worth exceeds USD 50 million. Of these, 33,900 are worth at least USD 100 million and 3,100 have assets above USD 500 million. North America dominates the regional rankings, with 48,000 UHNW residents (49%), while Europe has 24,800 individuals (25%), and 14,200 (14%) reside in Asia-Pacific countries, excluding China and India.”
With the proliferation of information and statistical analysis our notions of crime, criminals, wealth and power are undergoing a serious conversation.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Centuryhas installed a whole set of windows into the wall that the very rich have lived behind. In the United States, where statistics are now available and from multiple sources, we find that the top 10% has 76% of the national wealth, and the top 1% has 35% of that amount. The bottom 40% of the population has a negative wealth. As you can see from the chart below, that position is growing worse for the overwhelming number of Americans. I suspect there are statistical evidence showing the top 10% (with the top 1% having a big share of that percentage) of Thais have national wealth concentration at the same or levels exceeding the Americans.
Historically, the way to prevent revolt by people who have nothing has been repression or justification. That’s where the Sheriff of Nottingham has done his historical duty: he’s the enforcer for the 1%, and he’s enforcing laws that maintain the status and power of the 1%.
It’s a cozy arrangement (as least it used to be, but the arrangement has come under strains even in a society like Thailand where the rich and powerful and titled are now being challenged, unthinkable before – people, the likes of Billy, are fighting for their rights even to what little they have). It makes sense why the 1% wouldn’t want other sources of statistics about crime, especially their involvement in crime circulating among the bottom 90% of the population, who might have a question or two about the fairness or justice of such an allocation of wealth (and income also tracks a similar ratio).
Here’s a breakdown of how these percentages translate into the number of people within the population of a country:
USA population 310 million:
1%=3,100,000; .01%=310,000; .001%= 31,000
Thailand population 66 million:
1%= 660,000; .01%=66,000; .001%= 6,600
The lions share of increases of wealth and income since 1980, according to Piketty have accumulated to the benefit of those at the 1% and above level. This elite group has also experienced most rapid increase (enjoying most of the gains of wealth and income) at the expense of all other members of the population. Piketty also has found there is no noticeable difference in skills, training and education to account for the large difference in wealth and income from individuals who occupy the bottom 9% of the top 10% and those at the top 1% of the top 10%.
That is unfortunate for the top 1% because without a convincing story to justify a vastly larger piece of the wealth and income pie their continued good fortune becomes vulnerable as the forces of political change push for a new allocation. It makes their claims to superior abilities sound like classic Dunning-Kruger Effect arguments. The ultra-wealthy, one would have thought, would wish to distinguish themselves from the likes of Mr. McArthur Wheeler, the American banker robber who believed rubbing lemon juice on his face made him invisible.
What the PEW chart above doesn’t breakout is how much of that pie is taken by the top 1% and the top .01% and how much of that percentage flowed to those two groups. From Piketty’s research, it is a safe bet that it works out to more than 50% assigned to the 7%.
Now for the future: here are some possibilities (nothing is inevitable and many factors coming from technological changes may change everything)—the .01% is the real problem. This category is for people making an income of more than $1.5M a year. The further you go up this chain, the more concentrated and vast is the wealth and income. These are the people who hire lobbyists, who fund political campaigns, and use their wealth to preserve their status and power. In less developed countries, there are more incidents of outright brute force and legal intimidation as the political systems have shallow roots in a functioning democracy and powerful forces behind the scenes act together to operate a covert dictatorship.
What Thomas Piketty’s research has done is to provide a laser-like focus on this highly elite group—where they are, what they own, and what their presence means for everyone. The initial targets will likely be the super-managers of large American companies who make $11.5M a year in compensation. Great wealth has successfully hidden behind the super star actor, athlete or inventor who appears in the public spotlight. It is a good place to hide as at least a case can be made to justify their wealth based on a combination of skill, knowledge and talent. But the old inherited wealth, which remains a source of enormous power and influence, lacks that justification. It becomes more of a hard sell to the 99% to maintain that degree of inequality of wealth and income.
Future criminals will be able to find information that allows them to access these people and their assets. Kidnappings and abductions of people, their family members, and associates are likely to grow. Tracking down the off the book wealth the extremely wealthy own will also be another line of criminal activity; as there is already a convergence (this is why the sheriff keeps the records) between the ultra-wealthy and the high-level criminal organizations. We don’t really know how much business they do together. In the future, we will find out a lot more about that connection.
Leaving aside crimes of violence, crime for economic gain is largely conducted by the poor against the rich. That makes a great deal of sense as the rich write the laws to protect them from theft and kidnapping by the poor. So long as the wealth concentration is hidden, or if not hidden, at least justified, the imprisonment of poor people who seek ‘illegal’ means of redistribution (we call them criminals) has large-based support.
The stories we tell about the wealthy and their riches are effective to the extent the population has a consensus about social justice and fairness. A large inequality gap that continues to grow undermines that consensus. If highly concentrated wealth is thought back a plausible story to justify it, alternative stories begin to question the illegitimacy of the wealthiest. We are at that crisis point. Wealth is being viewed as a by-product of profoundly unfair economic system. The result is the old question of who are the criminals and who are to be protected from predation shifts as the spotlight moves from the poor to the ultra-rich.
I would also predict a boon in online wealth locaters. Individuals and organizations that specialize in isolating who owns what, where it is owned, the income generated, and its current market and book value. This information is inside ‘big data’ and it will be mined. The ultra-wealthy won’t much like this intrusion into their business and personal lives. In the stock market of the future, I’d invest heavily in companies with advanced surveillance technology. That might prove to be a winner as those who want a means to uncover the location and nature of wealth will be in an arms race against those who want to block out the windows that stare into their deepest bank vaults. Also security firms and technology companies will combine. They may experience a bullish period selling products and services such as highly trained SWAT teams, personalized armored vehicles, CCTV technology, computer security and drones to the .01% for protection.
The SWAT team works for a private person or family. They go through the streets of New York, Bangkok, London or Tokyo as if they were the head of state; and indeed, they are looking more and more like that level of powerful figure.
We are at a crossroads where economic slowdown, technological change, and big data are changing perceptions about concentration of wealth and income. The .01% have enjoyed a monopoly on telling the story that suits their interest, and they have anointed the story tellers and information gathers. It is tempting to say that world is about to end. The reality is the extreme inequality of wealth and income is the normal state of political, social and economic life in almost all places and times, especially since the industrial revolution. It isn’t some evil system that arose thirty years ago.
The test is whether new political institutions and legal systems will evolve policies to limit wealth and income concentrationsaccumulating at the 1% level. Over the next twenty years will the world’s wealth and income look more compressed like Denmark and less like the United States of America or Thailand? Alternatively, as the .01% won’t go into that night quietly, it is just as likely that the world becomes modeled on American inequality and Denmark is an old story like Robin Hood told to children who are innocent enough to believe the hero could defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest. What Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has done is show that if you dig hard enough into the historical record you can find a great deal of information about how nature of wealth and income concentrations over time and how policies, wars, revolutions, and depressions have caused temporary compressions.
We’ve lived in a statistical dark age when it comes to wealth. We are waking up to the reality of what gross inequalities bring. Like a dentist peering into the mouth of an elderly patient who never owned a toothbrush, we aren’t quite certain what treatment is appropriate but we’re reasonably clear there is considerable work and at great expense to be done.
It’s official. No Broken
Windows has been adopted as policing policy to be taught in a senior-police
training-course offered by the Central Investigation Bureau in
Post reported on the adoption of
the No Broken Windows Theory for Bangkok. “The Central Investigation Bureau has
sent its senior police back to school in order to learn about what it calls
‘sustainable’ crime reduction.”
It seems from the press
report, that No Broken Windows training program for senior cops, as explained to
the press by the police, means pretty much whatever the police say it means:
stopping three or more people from riding a motorcycle, not using zebra
crossings, and, of course, taking broken windows more seriously.
As the senior brass go
back to school to learn about No Broken Windows, I have a few suggestions for
extra reading on the theory.
No Broken Window Theory
overlooks reality that in Thailand routine violation of minor traffic laws (not
to mention murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, trafficking) by the
rich is a significant law enforcement issue. Ever notice those luxury cars
speeding up as they approach a zebra crossing? Getting people to use a zebra
crossing as a means to deter crime is indeed a challenge for several reasons.
The most important of which is a zebra crossing doesn’t carry the same message
for Thai motorists and pedestrians. To assume that using a zebra crossing in
Thailand is the same as in England is a death sentence.
Zebra Crossing in
Nothing quite highlights
cultural and historical difference than a policy borrowed from another culture.
New York City conceived a policing policy under the name—No Broken Windows. For
whatever reason Bangkok is scheduled to adopt this policy. Let’s take a stroll
together and talk about what this means, how it works, and if it
“Consider a building with a few
broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to
break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and
if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a pavement. Some litter
accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start
leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into
After Rudy Giuliani’s
election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, he hired a police commissioner to
implement a no tolerance policy. Under the umbrella of that policy, NYPD began a
strict enforcement program, targeting those engaged in subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the
The theory was also used
to support the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question, and
Having lived in both New
York City in the mid to late 1980s, and in Bangkok since 1988, I have observed
law enforcement efforts in both cities. The two urban environments are
significantly different. For example, is the absence of an equivalent of the
vast slums of Klong Toey curled up in the heart of Manhattan.
Typically windowless Klong
Toey slum is situated right next to the richest part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit area,
sometimes called “The Green Zone”
In the mid-1980s, New York
City streets at night would have few people around. Bangkok streets overflow
with hawkers and food vendors. CCTV camera coverage is widespread in Bangkok as
well (although many of them as I written elsewhere may be “dummies” or fake), the tight-knit social
organization in Thai society may have less traction in Bangkok than in the
provinces but the bamboo telegraph remains operational and ensures most of the
time that staying anonymous is more difficult than in New York.
The No Broken Window
Theory rests on a neighborhood’s general appearance. If social norms tolerate a
shabby and neglected appearance, No Broken Windows suggests this is an
invitation for vandals to increase the chaos. The assumption is No Broken
Windows will restore the city to an ordered and clean state and discourage minor
acts of crime, which lead to further criminal conduct. It also makes implicit
assumptions about the scope and degrees of relative poverty within an urban
environment. I like Utopia as much as the next person but accept this state is
an idealized fiction that never existed, and will never exist.
The contemporary Bangkok
neighborhood scene is better known among foreigners for its glitz high rise
towers and shopping malls but along the edges are hard core areas of poverty
that you’d be hard pressed to have found in New York City thirty years
The police monitor the
disorder in the environment and arrest those breaking windows, littering the
streets, painting graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings and train cars. The idea
is to reclaim the environment as a clean and ordered place. And put the vandals
on notice that they are at risk of being stopped and arrested.
The central question is
whether the New York City policing experience under the No Broken Window police
brought about a reduction of crime? The researcher found no benefit resulted
from the police targeting petty crime. The causal link between the theory and
the dramatic drop in crime is also questionable as crime decreased across the
United States, and in urban environments like New York, but which had no such
Other factors such as the
reduction of the number of young men between the ages of 16 to 24, the reduction
of the crack epidemic, increase of prison populations, the fall in unemployment
rates are more likely explanations for decline in crime rates. The theory hasn’t
been supported by the evidence and alternative explanations.
Others have written the
theory results in criminalizing the poor and homeless who are mainly racial
minorities. The policy was a way to use ‘science’ as a basis to expand the
discretionary power of police to stop, frisk and arrest young black and Latino
men. The racial divide, and the fear of minority criminals, is never far from
the surface in American policing policy formulation or gun control
With No Windows Broken,
the police are issued a free pass to arrest locals “for the ‘crime’ of being
undesirable.” The policy becomes a fig leaf to cover racist profiling. In the
context of Bangkok, dark skinned natives from Isan and migrant workers
from Burma and Cambodia, would be more vulnerable to arrest. Their appearance
makes them a convenient target for stop and frisk street operations. And their
arrests would have the legitimacy of the No Broken Windows Theory behind
Joshua C. Hinkle and
Sue-Ming Yang have questionedthe methodology used to test the broken
windows theory out in the field.
The perception of what is
an acceptable level of disorder is not a universally agreed upon. Cultural and
class attitudes play a large role in what is an acceptable level of litter on
the street. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life
experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways . . .
social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete
Bangkok motorcycle taxis
Precisely. Not to mention
the hiring, training and monitoring of the police and the widespread corruption
make Bangkok’s law enforcement light years away from the broken windows in New
York City. The culture of New York and Bangkok are vastly different, and that is
reflected in street life, the slums, the culture of policing, the social
hierarchy and the prevailing kreng jai system where important people
are immune from the law. Count the illegal gambling casinos operating in
Bangkok; then count the ones operating in New York.
Bangkok traffic police
There are acts of
behavior, that after many years seems almost normal, but they stop outsiders in
their tracks such as a chorus line of synchronized women police officers dancing
in the street. It is difficult to imagine this scene in New York. The point
being not that Bangkok cops are breaking into dance and song as part of their
daily rounds, but from the sub-culture, tradition, uniforms, and training they
march to a different drummer than the one that leads the New York band of
brothers. Indeed if the dancing scene above suddenly appeared mid-town Manhattan
at lunch hour, tourists numbers would balloon, coop prices inflate, and hedge
fund managers would spend more time on the street. Markets would suffer. No one
would care about a broken window. A SWAT team and snipers dispatched to seal the
area. Drones overhead. But I digress.
So how did the Thai police
force, which excels in dancing around tough law enforcement issues, conclude
that a 30-year-old policy called No Broken Windows, overloaded with baggage, was
suitable for Bangkok in 2014? That is exactly the kind of question the
authorities hate foreigners for asking. It might be worth asking the instructor
at the police training seminar.
Let’s journey a bit down
that theoretical road and stop now and again and see what we find.
New York City hired
thousands of new policemen in the early to mid-1990s and regular patrols were
conducted throughout the city. As a civilian observer in the mid-1980s I rode
along with NYPD to see first hand how laws were enforced in tough, crime
infested neighborhoods with high-rise slums and illegal immigrants. There was a
major crime problem in New York during that time. I witnessed it first hand. New
York City has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Can we say it was the
No Broken Windows policy that is responsible for that change? Many experts
conclude that wasn’t the case.
As with most social
engineering, the knot of complex features working in one environment at a
particular time and in a certain culture yield a result. Others want the result
and discount that complexity, believing that the policy alone will produce the
same result in a radically different environment, culture and time
From the local English
press reports in Bangkok, there is no indication that new resources will be
allocated to the Bangkok version of No Broken Windows. Given that an expansive
and subjective interpretation of that theory as a kind of social control of
behavior, i.e., use the zebra crossing (but don’t expect the person behind the
wheel to stop) it does fit a cultural inclination to favor the vague over the
concrete and fits a certain mindset that underwrites senior police training
Part of Bangkok’s charm
has been the crowded, broken pavements, motorcycles driving on the pavement or
the wrong way on the street, the pure chaos of food vendors with bottles of gas
cooking up Pad Thai to order as dogs beg at tables for scraps of food.
Klongs (the canals) in most parts of the city are laced with an evil
brew of refuse and sewage. Broken windows? You’ve got to be joking if you think
that’s the way to solve the crime problem in Bangkok. Taxi drivers routinely
stop along the road to relieve themselves against a wall or a bush.
No one denies the big
difference in Thai culture inside Bangkok from American culture inside New York
City. During Songkran white powder paste is traditionally used as a kind of
graffiti to vandalize people’s faces – and sometimes the police are targeted.
Instead of replying with a Taser, they reply with a smile. Songkran is a
special holiday where nearly everyone extends tolerance to total strangers who
insist on throwing water on them and pasting their faces with white
Bangkok policemen standing
behind a banner that reads: “No power play on Songkran holiday. Violators may be
found guilty. With best wishes from the Police Department.”
In that case, how did a
two-decade old heavily criticized New York City policy called No Broken Window
end up as a ‘new policy’ in Bangkok? It is as if Dr. Who arrived in a time
machine and convinced the top brass he had a solution to their law enforcement
problems. Sometimes things have no explanation. They just happen and you deal
with that happening in the Thai way—wait a couple of months before it is shelved
and Dr. Who arrives with another foreign policy that promises to make Bangkok
streets and canals look like a version of Geneva.
I wouldn’t want to think
what would happen to the teenager who rubbed wet powder on the face of a member
of NYPD. I am guessing the probabilities are high that he wouldn’t respond with
Bangkok Cop celebrating
Summary answer for the
final examination in the police training course: Even if New York and Bangkok
were identical, a large amount of research that suggests that the No Broken
Windows Theory has produced no evidence that it was responsible for reducing
Meanwhile, an alert has
gone out for Dr. Who to retrieve a law enforcement plan from the future, one
that has gone through all the research and testing phase and produces
jaw-dropping reductions in crime. He may come to alert us, as we need the
reminder, that some foreign imported political ideas from the past have quietly
been abandoned in the place where they were tried out and found to be, well, not
to put too fine a point on it, disappointing.
Everyone has lots of
‘friends’ on social media. Some people you’ve never heard of have millions of followers on Twitter. How can anyone
have that many followers as friends. They aren’t really friends. Internet
followers are a new and different category of relationships. Before going
high-tech, some context is useful to understanding the limitations we all face
in accumulating friends. I have under a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, and I
follow 23 people on Twitter. That’s a large spread and I want to come back to
the idea of the maximum carrying weight for ‘friends.’
We are violence prone
species when expanding our territory in search of resources and mates. Like
other primates, we lived in small groups. The size of our population remained
relatively small and stable for 12,000 generations. It is the last 500
generations that a number of events happened that allowed an inflation of
population size. And in the last 20 generations the way people clustered
together and their lives inside that cluster expanded beyond the initial seed of
our universe. In terms of evolution, the human species experienced something
like a Big Bang in technological evolution only the brain has stayed much pretty
much the same wiring configuration.
We’ve all had moments when
tearing out our hair over red tape when we’d vote for anyone who would dismantle
bureaucracy. The far right wants to do something like that in America and
elsewhere. Getting entangled with bureaucrats makes a revolutionary out of many.
Or have you ever wondered why elections, demonstrations and protest need layers
of bureaucracy? Given the interconnected age of the Internet why haven’t we
figured out a way to leave bureaucracy in the past?
The answer to this riddle
is found in what might be called the Dunbar
number: 150. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, director of
the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University,
discovered that the maximum of our cognitive abilities to keep straight the
people we know and their relationship with us and each other. These are the
people you know and keep in social contact with.
Our cognitive limitation is found deep in our
250,000-year-old brain structure. It’s a hardware limitation in other words. We
evolved to live off the grid.
Others have argued that “the optimal
size for active group members for creative and technical groups — as opposed to
exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages — hovers somewhere
between 25-80, but is best around 45-50.”
The numbers are linked to
brain size and grooming habits. What has made our species different from other
primates, according to Dunbar, is we used language as a substitute form of
grooming. Language, as it turns out, our species found a more efficient and
effective grooming kit in words that largely replaced the hours of picking lice
and fleas off the hair of our friends.In other primate social groups, 42% of the
group’s time is spent on socialgroomingas a means to maintain social
Language, as it turns out,
is a more effective and efficient kind of grooming. We are in the next stage
where digital grooming has replaced face-to-face language exchange. Press the
‘like,’ ‘share,’ ‘retweet,’ or ‘reply’ button, or the thumbs up vote icon act as
grooming techniques. There are people grooming others all day on social media.
We have our social grooming colonies that share our personal biases online.
Rather than 150 groom-mates, many people have a thousand or more and we appear
to have returned to a new environment where many spend 42% of their time
digitally grooming other primates. Only we don’t think of it as ‘grooming’ any
more than we think of ourselves as primates. We are as inventive as we are
delusional and biased. We clutch these illusions as reality as we find them
useful in making our way through the jungle of everyday life.
For the sake of argument,
I am using Dunbar’s 150 as the upper limit on the number for the self-management
of effective social relations among people that doesn’t require someone from
outside the group to organize resource acquisition or distribution. Inside
Dunbar’s world, things are done in-house. The group doesn’t need a manager. It
is useful to note that the upper limit is not the same as the optimal
number, which hovers closer to 60 people rather than 150
How did we scale from
small bands of less to 150 in number to living in cities like Bangkok with 12
million people—all of whom need, as some point, to use transportation, sewers,
drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, and jobs. That required creating a
‘grid’ and this work in progress of creating, refining, managing the grid in the
face of technological destruction of our history.
This is a massive scaling
problem and the experiments to ever larger numbers living in dense, concentrated
areas has been going on for the last 10,000 years. But it is the last couple
hundred years that management of resources and people with ever better
technology, systems, management and logistics has permitted co-ordination needed
to feed, cloth, house and control millions.
Bureaucracy has been the
backbone of the system that distributes resources and benefits. From the
beginning there was a conflict of interest between those governing the
allocation of benefits and the people who received benefits. History is filled
with slavery and oppression arising out of governing elites who used bureaucracy
and threat of violence to domesticate people and use them as a resource rather
delivering resources to them.
Why would anyone agree to
such an arrangement? Rebellion and uprisings are a constant feature in our
culture. Herding large numbers of people into close quarters and demanding that
they to do things they’d rather wish not to do often requires threats of
violence, a combination of tools such as genocide, displacement, starvation,
exile, and territorial expansion through wars. It also leads to
The question is who has
the whip hand in running the vast enterprise of an entire culture, society, and
economy? And how are individuals and groups under control of the whip treated?
The elite members seek to give an appearance of grooming the rest of us. Our new
social media grooming venues suggests that appearances no longer are sufficient.
People want actual grooming. And what does that mean? It translates into demands
for justice and fairness and liberties, and rights to participate in the
decision-making process. They no longer like the old way of being treated like
members of a grooming herd to be managed and culled for the benefit of the
rulers. We don’t groom sheep. We sheer them for their wool. Modern economic
models have adapted the sheep template to humans and packages it as grooming. A
clever, sinister streak runs through our desire to dominate, acquire resources,
mates and power.
The problem has been one
of legitimacy of bureaucrats coercing people to do or not to do things. The
threat of official violence underwrote their order. Originally bureaucrats, in
religious or civil organizations, operated under the authority of religious
leaders, kings, chiefdoms, warriors, or strongmen. They were sacred and objects
of worship; they inspired awe and respect making following orders tied with
loyalty, purity and honor.
Once the social setting
requires organization that vastly exceeds the Dunbar number there is no going
back. Society is organized along very different principles and the values and
ethics evolve to reinforce authority and to punish unconformity. Our brain ware
doesn’t give us any other choice. Our neocortical architecture is our cognitive
prison. The grooming prison is egalitarian, housing everyone despite high IQ,
status, birth, or abilities. No one, but no one breaks out of brain prison
Democracy, in the modern
sense, is a very late arrival—only about 500 years ago—when the sentiment
shifted to asking whether the authority to devise and implement the policies
that controlled the actions of the bureaucracy ought to come from the citizens.
That was and remains a revolutionary idea. All of history had been either people
living together in small bands where everyone knew one another or much later,
forming into larger agricultural communities that had various degrees of tyranny
to compel compliance with the allocation of resources according to the desire or
whims of the top leader.
We live in a time where
extremists seek to reinstate a council of elders, purists, who are truth
believers in an ideology or faith, a strict hierarchy of authority beyond
outside challenge or change. That’s the Taliban model with the suicide
bombers, oppression of women, hatred for gays, infidels, or foreigners. Inside
the capitalist system: wealth is used to terrorize and control; the wealthy
co-opt the bureaucracy like ancient caliphs for their own personal
Capitalism, in the gilded
age mode, has produced a kind of suicide vest destruction leaving the people who
most need bureaucracy unable to access it or, if access is allowed, the range of
benefits available are reduced. The battles in the United States to expand
bureaucracy into the field of universal, public health care in a way that many
developed countries have done is a classic example of ideological beliefs
undercutting distribution of resources to the wider population.
The old grid our parents
were born into, one based on a monopoly of ‘state’ bureaucracy is threatened by
a new grid built by the social media. You signal status, wealth, success and
power through a registry of ‘likes’. A lot of companies and people pay for
‘likes’. They use wealth to generate authority. It is an illusion that ‘likes’ bought for likes have any
meaning. But it is not an illusion that social media is causing a reorganization
of how people accumulate into group with shared goals, values and interest. The
center of management is returning to smaller groups who define themselves by
affiliations to political, economic or social causes, charities, sports teams,
or other interest.
Today it is difficult not
to question Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is the people who control
the Government, not the Government the people.” It is the very wealthy people
who are retaking government, meaning the vast management system that runs the
machinery of life for millions, and they are doing so with the intention of
It is utopian, as the
Khmer Rouge demonstrated, to believe that millions of people living in large
cities can be emptied into the countryside and coerced into a social system
based on ‘self sufficiency’ or ‘self-reliance’ and survive as their ancestors
had done. Such a time never existed, except in a romantic, idealized
imagination. The Chinese disastrous Cultural Revolution miscalculated our
capacity to form large coherent rural communities without the inevitable
brutality, murder and oppression. The villain in both cases was the educated,
urban person. Destroy that type and return the population to its roots was the
policy. But the roots had died long ago. There is no going back to where we’ve
come; that road washed away centuries ago.
We haven’t quite come to
terms with the importance of having crossed a system threshold that has allowed
more than 7 billions people to exist. How far can we scale before the whole
system comes tumbling down? No one knows. Our cognitive abilities can’t take in
those numbers. We can’t imagine the implications of that number on the overall
population. We have and will continue to experience the collateral fallout from
the large population and the economic system that and face the prospects of
climate change that may well cause the population to crash.
Our weakness is for the
benefits of scaling population, and convincing the population that the
government is working for them. As Gore Vidal wrote, “The genius of our ruling
class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the
inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which
they get nothing in return.”
The ruling class has its
own set of grooming rules. When someone within the ruling class is perceived to
have violated the elite grooming protocols, there is the risk of huge disruption
as Thailand is experiencing. Thaksin’s problem was when he stopped grooming the
‘right’ people and brought in a new grooming tribe. Until the elite grooming
system is revised, agreed upon, and implemented, expect more violence,
disruption and instability. Nothing makes primates more irritable and insane
with anger than having their grooming interfered with especially by another
member of their band.
People pay for a system
that watches them, controls their lives by pandering to their biases, feeds them
propaganda, and uses them for the watcher’s purposes. To transcend our inability
to keep track of people and their connections, we have put faith in a system of
organization, logistics and management that woke up to its own power, and that
is when the nightmare started. We haven’t woken up from the reality, that we’ve
been captured, harnessed, domesticated by a system that herds the population and
limits their grooming rights. We had a taste of coherence—social media has
created the illusion that we’ve busted through the 150 Dunbar number. It has
made us unruly, more demanding, more suspicious of authorities outside our
We’ve gone way beyond the
150-group member limit. Our cognitive abilities are flawed by cognitive biases,
and have limited carrying capacity, but we are smart enough to look around and
understand once we handed the keys to the bus to others they will ultimately
drive us to whatever destination they have in mind. It will be a place that
suits and benefits the driver. We have no choice but to go along for the ride.
We are passengers riding together in one of those double-decker upcountry Thai
buses at three in the morning with 150-meter ravines on a narrow road and a
driver taking another large slug of whisky.
This is our transport. It
isn’t really our choice of how we’d like to travel. It’s the way things turned
out as the speed of change started to accelerate about 10 generations ago. There
is no evidence that the pressure on our cognitive resources is slowing down.
More friends, more data, same meat operating system to process it.
Look out the window, look
over the edge into the ravine and ask yourself if the airbrakes will hold on the
next hairpin curve. It’s too late to get out and walk. That is a definition of
noir to keep us awake at night and force us to flee back to our computer and log
on to our grooming station, looking for ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up arrows’ for
coherence, comfort and calmness. This is the source for the Hollywood ending
where all that grooming leads to redemption, fulfillment and happiness. Our
primate cousins made friends finding and eliminating head lice and ticks. We are
trying something to do something similar with our relationship with our digital
friends. It makes us feel far superior and worthy. Until you sit back and think
about the implications.
After some thought, can I
offer you, my friend, a Red pill, or blue pill? The choice has always been