As an American expat living in Thailand, I’m more or less an outsider to the intricacies of political life and what the ruling junta calls “Thai-style democracy.” Yet as a resident of Bangkok, one of the world’s largest cities, I am intimately acquainted with another form of Thai uniqueness—what I like to call Thai-style economics.
Whether it’s the random roulette that determines Thai taxi drivers’ willingness to accept passengers, the remarkable proximity of business competitors selling the same exact product, or the lack of basic household goods at various stores, many idiosyncrasies of day-to-day life in Bangkok are a frustration, if not a mystery, to expats. Though routinely maddening, the city’s micro-economies evince an ingenuity and communal spirit often lacking in our more atomistic American system.
Take taxis—a perennial topic of expat derision. There are refusals to use the meter, refusals to take passengers to another part of the city, refusals to take passengers to another part of the same road. In many cases, it simply doesn’t make sense—why are you turning down my money? How confident are you that you will find a passenger wanting to go where you want to go?
For starters, many taxi drivers lend their vehicles to friends or neighbors when they aren’t using them, participating in what one Thai official calls “the informal sector” of the country’s economy, which contributes to an astounding unemployment rate of 0.6 percent. Do these other people have the proper certification to be driving a taxi? Often I doubt it—every registered taxi has a prominently displayed registration card with the driver’s photograph and ID number. Frequently, especially on nights or weekends, the person driving the car does not match the identification information. Less frequently, an awkwardly taped separate registration will hang over that of whoever technically owns the vehicle. Regardless of whether or not this is legal, the laws are laxly enforced.
Obviously there is enough business to warrant this makeshift economy, which has the added benefit of employing a lot more Thais. Concerns about threats to safety appear minimal, given that though Thailand has an egregiously poor record on traffic fatalities, drunk and negligent driving are the predominant causes of death, and motorcyclists, not taxi passengers, the most likely victims. Indeed, I would think friends and neighbors have a strong incentive to take good care of the taxis they borrow, particularly if driving is their main source of income.
Moreover, though uncooperative and unwilling taxi drivers are the bane of those traversing the city, there is a method to this madness as well. If a cab driver is borrowing his friend’s car, but needs to get it back to his buddy by a certain time, he can’t take a passenger to a district in the other direction. He needs passengers heading towards his home or meet-up point. Annoying for those hailing a cab? Certainly. But there are plenty of cabs on any major thoroughfare, and the ubiquity of Uber and similarly-themed companies operating in the city means that even in the worst of circumstances, one needn’t wait more than 10 minutes for a lift.
This doesn’t mean taxi drivers don’t pull the same annoying stunts found elsewhere in the world—wanting to avoid traffic jams where the numbers on the meter will only inch forward, or waiting for a “bigger fish” who is headed to the airport or some other distant location. Yet even these are unsurprising. Who of us wouldn’t rather wait a few minutes to make $10 or $15 more, rather than getting $2 or $3 now? Which, truthfully, is how much drivers are making for most rides, as the meter in Bangkok starts at the equivalent of $1. Can I really fault a guy for having the business sense to make a couple extra bucks?
Another example of Thai-style economics is the industry of street-side food vendors who erect makeshift, transportable stalls in busy thoroughfares. This, in and of itself, is not particularly unusual—what’s strange is that many of the Thai vendors are selling the same thing. On my morning commute, I pass by a lady selling pineapple and watermelon, then a lady selling guava and rose apples … then another lady selling pineapple and watermelon … then another lady selling guava and rose apples. All within about 50 feet. To an American observer, this looks like the worst business plan ever. If I wanted to open up a Mexican-themed fast-food restaurant, I would be pretty stupid to buy the vacant commercial space next to a Chipotle.
But in Thailand, a different perspective drives such business choices. As one local explained, the Thai mindset is: “if you can do good business here, maybe I can too.” Which, truth be told, we Americans think, too. Consider how gas stations often congregate in the same places, sometimes even on the same side of the road. Yet they often all seem to stay in business, year in, year out.
Furthermore, the proximity of businesses selling the same products allows more people to make a living, and to take care of one another. Often I have stopped to buy fruit, and the vendor has been unable to make change—but never fear, the vendor simply wanders over to another stall and gets the required money from a competitor. Or, even more surprising, vendors who run out of a certain fruit will ask their competitors to share from their supply. Presumably all the balance sheets get evened out in the end. What to an American seems like the perfect lost opportunity to beat out the competitor is inversely an opportunity to strengthen community solidarity. Nobody is going to make a fortune selling tropical fruits on a Bangkok street corner. People can make a living doing it, however, and if a busy street can handle 20 vendors, it can probably handle 22 or 23.
This is more than just Thai economics—this is how people in much of the developing world scrape by. When I spent a summer in Uganda, I was surprised to discover that for many communities, the financial success of a single member is expected to be distributed among extended family networks. This seems contrary not just to the individualism of American capitalism, but to more basic rules of justice as well—shouldn’t the one who does all the hard work reap the rewards of a hard-earned diploma or well-paying job? Certainly to some degree this is true, and the propensity for communities to demand this distributive system perpetuates a paradigm defined by periodic windfalls and more consistent poverty, rather than one encouraging investment and long-term planning. These communities need prudent businessmen who save, invest, and build some successful industry that, over a longer horizon, improves everyone’s standard of living.
Yet for all their flaws, communally-based economic systems have been remarkably resilient in providing livelihoods, or at least basic financial protections, for a large majority of their participants. People in these communities not only know each other, they take care of one another, and provide a parachute of sorts, even if it’s quite delicate and vulnerable. This is in contrast to a more isolated, if globalist, approach, one defined increasingly by Wall Street instead of Main Street. The kinds of homes Americans live in (note the dramatic increase in square footage in the last century), the kinds of entertainment we indulge in (I’m talking about you, Pokémon Go), and the kinds of forums we communicate in (Twitter users worldwide united to condemn… a safari hunt in Zimbabwe), all discourage or fabricate the solidarity and subsidiarity necessary to preserve a strong community ethos.
There are a lot of things about Thai culture and economics that I don’t understand, and may never understand (the lack of light bulb options at their Walmart equivalent, for one). Yet I’ve also seen that some of my atomistic and capitalist American proclivities have a tendency to run roughshod over communities that have found some system—albeit an imperfect one—that works, likely through the trial and error of many generations. Such American communities did exist, or continue to exist, just barely, in places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Their way of life, like that of the Thai taxi drivers and street vendors, represents the conservative ethos at its most fundamental, local level.
On a trip back home last year, I visited an increasingly popular Virginia distillery that produces surprisingly tasty white lightning and its own trademarked “Virginia Whiskey.” During the tour, the guide introduced us to a 75-year-old bottling machine held together by jerry-rigged bungee cords. “Redneck ingenuity,” our guide called it. It will require a lot of Thai-style, hillbilly-style, conservative-style ingenuity and communal spirit to preserve such ways of life.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.