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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Expensive tomatoes and cheap toilet paper

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Although I’m not an economist at all, I would like to try to explain the difference between living in Spain (which I consider representative for most of Western Europe) and Taiwan by using simple examples about how you can or you actually must spend money.

While on the island, more than once I decided not to buy tomatoes as sometimes one, not particularly big, was about 1.25 euros. I switched to a more affordable local vegetable instead. Well, in Taiwan tomatoes are considered to be a fruit. However, that’s another story…

Taiwanese supermarkets in general are expensive, as there’s no Lidl or Aldi concept and many are located in exclusive Japanese department stores. Maybe 15 years ago I saw an apple for around 13 euros. It was enormous, looked pretty delicious and had the character for “happiness” carved into its skin. For that amount, you could enjoy three to four decent, healthy meals. So how many Europeans would be willing to pay so much for a mutant apple? Probably only a few…

A German friend, who in my view had a quite superficial understanding of the Asian environment he was living in, and never bothered to learn Mandarin, around five years ago complained about the price of toilet paper in Formosa compared to Germany.

Sanitary articles are indeed costly in Taiwan, and Western-style bathroom tissues even more due to different cultural traditions. You may instead use the traditional variety or just not be wasteful. In that way you will also help to protect the environment.

Imported Western food is also somehow a luxury, but you can cut down your expenses by getting a Costco membership card at a yearly fee of 30 euros. With the exception of wines, in no way this American hypermarket chain can be considered cheap in Taiwan, though your treats just become more affordable and good quality is always guaranteed.

So in Spain (and Germany) tomatoes and toilet paper are steadily cheap. The problem is that in sharp contrast, certain services you can’t avoid are nowadays outrageously expensive. Gas, water and electricity fees, as well as banking activities, which in Spain I find particularly dreadful, make up a significant part of your fixed expenses.

Banco de Sabadell charges me 140 euros per year for almost no personal interaction, as nowadays I’m really into internet banking. A tax of close to 50% is added to my electricity bill every month, while in Taiwan there’s just a minimal basic fee and the rates are much lower in the first place.

Is there a way to escape this obvious profiteering? No, as in modern times all these amenities count as basic necessities and no real alternatives are available. A romantic candlelight dinner only works on certain occasions and going back to taking a shower with a bucket of water from a public fountain would remind you of past camping pleasures. Besides that, other banks appear to be even worse when it comes down to attitude and charges…

When I visited Berlin in 2018 I asked a married friend with two kids, whose wife also works full time, why his garden looked so dry and why he didn’t sprinkle it. He said that it hadn’t rained in months and that he couldn’t afford to do so…

Last winter in Valencia, my former tenant and I were having dinner at her new place dressed in thick coats. She probably noticed the expression on my face and told me she had bought a little electrical heater. It was stored after the first bill turned out to be 180 euros, 80 more than this busy self-employed person had expected.

In almost 20 years in Taiwan, I never met anyone that wouldn’t switch on the air-conditioner because that might exceed the budget! In Spain, I have left shops because it was too hot inside, and I guess that it wasn’t due to the owner’s stinginess…

So in spite of all that empty talk about social justice in the West, in Europe there’s a growing army of working middle-class poor, who basically can be happy to make enough money to cover all costs. In Taiwan, this kind of people mostly come from lower income groups with stagnant salaries.

As a whole, a free economy at the end benefits everybody. Argentina and Venezuela should serve a warning examples of what happens to nations with a big potential who have fallen into the interventionist trap set by an almighty State that is slowly, but steadily consuming its wealth.

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