A resolution to do nothing
It is customary to start the New Year with splendid resolutions and high hopes for the future, but I have learned the hard way that disappointment is best avoided by tempering expectations.
Therefore, with modesty in mind, let's examine some ways in which the government could increase the sum of happiness not by bold action, careful planning or anything of that kind. All that's needed is for the people in charge to stop doing some of the things they do now - the price of these negatives is entirely affordable.
First up - and this is a modest money-saver - the government could abandon its generally farcical programme of so-called Announcements of Public Interest, or APIs, that appear on radio, television and in some of the least skilfully composed posters I have ever seen. The low point of these announcements last year was a radio spot informing the public not to share contact lenses. You can't make up this nonsense, but someone in government either has a refined sense of irony or is just plain ...
Then, and on a related theme, additional savings could be achieved by ceasing to produce notice boards of a kind that give caution a bad name. Walking recently in one of Hong Kong's splendid country parks, I came across a shallow pool of water; next to it was a notice informing an unsuspecting walker that it was indeed a shallow pool of water and therefore dangerous for swimming. Elsewhere are notices warning of the dangers of walking without maps, climbing and goodness knows what other perils await Hong Kong's intrepid hikers.
Even if countryside lovers ignore carefully placed pieces of idiocy, they cannot escape the horrendous clatter of low-flying government helicopters with massive sound systems blasting out a bilingual message about preserving the environment while in country parks. I had foolishly believed that the sky was part of the environment and heavy consumption of fossil fuels was to be avoided, but the intrepid officials from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department think otherwise.
Once we get onto the subject of government waste, a floodgate opens and it is hard to imagine that there is a single reader of this newspaper who could not contribute to this outpouring. But, in general, it can safely be said that a couple of million trees could be saved by a reduction in the number and complexity of government forms.
Additional savings could easily be secured by cutting down or eliminating the small forest of government literature that lies gathering dust in every department and when on public display fills small mounds inside the offices of these departments. The mounds remain largely untouched.
Of course, even greater savings could be achieved by abandoning grandiose plans so beloved by bureaucrats who crave what they call 'legacy projects', which we simple citizens are more likely to regard as vanity projects. The biggest one under current discussion is the plan to host the Asian Games. Even the usual rabble of government sycophants has noticed that this is a bad idea, but the determination of the top bureaucrats to push through the bid for these Games shows no sign of abating.
So, there is no doubt that lots of money can be saved by doing absolutely zilch. However, human happiness is not only secured by public frugality; it can also be achieved by gestures and actions which spread a warm glow among the populace.
The rest of the world seems to have noticed that bankers, the chaps wearing wide braces who call themselves fund managers, and other associated members of the failed financial class are not the most admirable people in the universe. But, here in Hong Kong, officials are still fawning over them and never hesitate to leave their desks to attend events celebrating their 'achievements'. A smidgen of official scepticism when dealing with these people would make many of us much happier.
And here's another cost-free idea for spreading joy - maybe this year officials could learn what more or less everyone else in Hong Kong knows, which is not to assume that what's good for the tycoon class is necessarily good for Hong Kong. They need to practise not saying, 'Yes, sir', every time one of these tycoons comes along with a new idea for lining his pocket.
Finally, and in the interests of preventing cruelty to absolutely useless government departments, surely the time has come to close down the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, whose main purpose appears to be to block further constitutional reform and pass on instructions from the central government that could well be conveyed directly. This redundant office needs to be put out of its misery and we'll all save some money.
So, unless you have some better plan, all the best for 2011 and let's affirm that less can be more.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur