Stateside: This Week, Last Week, Yesterday, Never!
This Week, Last Week, Yesterday, Never!!
Earlier this week I happened to catch a glimpse of the BBC Rough Science series that was filmed in New Zealand. It was the episode where the scientists had to use the scant materials available to them in a deserted West Coast sawmill to decide whether the Franz Josef Glacier is melting faster than it is advancing.
Two things struck me about this episode. The first was that my high-school educated parents could have done just as good a job as those Ph.D. scientists, just by virtue of the stuff they'd learned in school and the "No. 8 wire" mentality Kiwis are brought up to aspire to. The second thing was that the rough results the scientists got were checked against calculations made by a scientist at the University of Canterbury using satellite-based telemetry.
After the program, the PureNZ commercial played, and I'm sure that US viewers took from the program and the advertisement the common image of Aotearoa/New Zealand as a destination known for its beauty and its unique Maori culture. But deeper than that, there is the fact that the sawmill was deserted, hinting at a culture of conservation of natural resources. And it also showed the nation's obvious embrace of modern research methods and technology as implied by the use of GPS in tracking the glacier's retreat.
Last weekend I went to a forum that was looking at how a regionally-based plan for growth around the Bay of San Francisco might benefit the local economy while avoiding the type of urban sprawl and freeway gridlock that Los Angeles experiences.
One of the speakers pointed out that if it hadn't been for two women back in the seventies launching a group called Save the Bay in order to oppose plans to fill it in and build more housing and freeways on the reclaimed land, the economic boom that the Bay Area experienced in the last three decades of the twentieth century might never have occurred.
He said that is because the single most attractive thing to knowledge workers when deciding on where to take a job is quality of life. If you're a miner you have to go to where the mines are. But if you're a knowledge worker--on whom that financial boom was based--you can live anywhere that your employer chooses to locate.
Silicon Valley, as the engine of that economic boom became known, is located not only near a couple of research universities, but near this beautiful, protected Bay. And it was the Bay Area environment and lifestyle that attracted the best, most innovative thinkers here rather than to the East Coast research establishments.
I spent yesterday--actual Down-Under Waitangi Day--in the company of a Kiwi friend who was on a very short trip to San Francisco. Also an ex-pat, he was en route from Auckland back to London, where he has lived for decades, and had scooted on up here from LA during a stopover.
Why doesn't Air New Zealand do its London route via San Francisco, he wondered, upon discovering what a wonderful city San Francisco is. I wonder that myself. I'm not sure that Disneyland is the great attraction it was when airlines first started using LA as a hub, and there's not much else down there. Although, to be honest--and much to my surprise--LA is to SF as Wellington is to Auckland culture-wise. But hey, it's just a short flight down there from here if you really want to visit Smogland.
What struck me most about my friend's visit was that he was looking for property to buy. He had, over the years, established three retirement funds, and one of them now has less money in it than he had contributed to it. Such is the way of personal retirement accounts anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, the president's great push here at the moment is to get people to divert some of their Social Security payroll deduction into private accounts.
He wants to make the US an "ownership society." Well, hey, Mr President, most people Stateside already own more than they can cope with--it's called credit card debt. And what is the highly advertised solution to that? Why, using the equity you have in your home to pay off your credit card debt.
And since credit cards themselves are the highly advertised way to "own" all those must-have things like $2,000 flat screen TV's, who's going to close their credit card account when they pay it off with their home equity credit line? So then they'll run up more debt, have to relinquish yet more equity in their home to a financial institution, and before you know it they'll be homeless.
Oh, silly me! That's exactly what the president means by an "ownership society"--an exclusive club of financial institutions that own vast amounts of property. Not content with mere real estate--which, after all, has to be maintained, so involves some cost to them--they now also want to own your retirement future, which involves no maintenance costs whatsoever. Like, whoever heard of rewiring a house of cards?
Many millions of dollars worth of the usurious interest financial institutions have collected off consumer credit-card debt is being spent on lobbying Congress in order to get the president's plan approved. And a similar amount will be spent on advertising campaigns to convince the public that private retirement accounts are, indeed, a good idea and one that is in their own best interests.
It's like being clubbed to death by your own humerus and tibia after the arm and a leg you paid to be a good ownership-oriented consumer was picked clean by some company based in Delaware where, for God's sake, they don't even have to pay much tax on their profits!
*Never try this at home, folks!" Which brings me to my Waitangi Day rumination for you this year--don't ever get suckered into the American brand of capitalism. It is nasty, brutish and deeply conservative. I don't mean "conservative" in the values sense of the word; I mean that it is deeply committed to maintaining things the way they are. That status quo could just as easily be liberal as it is conservative, values-wise, but it will always be maintained so long as money has anything to do with it.
What set me thinking along these lines was all the recent hoo-ha about the death of Johnny Carson. He hosted a comedy/talk show for thirty years, establishing a format that has never changed even under his successor. Why was he host for thirty years? Why did the format never change?
Because, once that stone got rolling, it gathered so much moss in the form of advertising dollars, the network was afraid to change anything about it. That's why the nationwide network news bulletins all look the same and have had the same anchors for a similar span of time. It's why sitcoms are all so interchangeable in their sets, their scripts, and their formats.
I use the US television industry as an example of how fiscal conservativism both concentrates power and constrains innovation only because its products are so visible all over the world. You see the same force in action in the pharmaceutical industry, the automotive industry, airlines, telecommunications, financial institutions. And enormous sums of money are available to established players in order to counter any opposition.
The president, it seems, has taken a leaf out of television's book. The most effective way that industry cemented in the benefits of preserving the status quo--the "formula"--was to give a privileged few of its participants buy-in. When you're not only the news anchor but also the executive producer, then you're even less likely to want to change anything that might risk your income.
Back here, down on earth, when a person's buy-in to an "ownership" society is predicated on their having to either borrow money they don't have and then risk losing the roof over their head to pay it back, or on their having to gamble with the money they do have by putting it into the stock market instead of what should be a government-guaranteed social security system, then you know that the interests of the ordinary person are not what the government has at heart at all.