Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bring us more caviar, waiter

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 21.)

THE RECENT Treasury update reminded us that the economy is in a parlous state. The Budget deficit is expected to top $11 billion, $2.4 billion more than was forecast only a few months ago. The government continues to borrow a staggering $250 million a week - some say more - to keep things ticking over.

These are figures to make your eyes water. Yet the country remains in a state of denial, partying as if the illusory boom of the Clark-Cullen years never faltered.

Economist Kerry McDonald, chairman of the government’s Savings Working Group, warns that we’re still spending too much and saving too little. Unless our high foreign debt is cut, he says, we risk a “sudden and destructive economic shock”.

Yet a timid National government refuses to ease the pressure by selling state assets, modifying our unaffordable super scheme or axing inherited Labour election bribes such as interest-free student loans and Working for Families.

On the contrary, it’s throwing even more money around, such as the extra $3.8 million in sports funding announced last week. Talk about mixed messages.

Perhaps the ever-chirpy John Key knows something we don’t. Maybe there’s a secret offshore oilfield about to come into production and wipe the national debt overnight. If so, he should tell us – that is, once he’s dealt with more pressing matters, such as singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town with the breakfast DJs on The Edge.

Meanwhile, the national sense of entitlement continues unabated. Secondary teachers are threatening to strike again next year for higher pay and some arts organisations are indignant at being asked to supply more information to Creative New Zealand – the impertinence of it! – before they get their annual taxpayer handouts.

This serves as a reminder that it’s one thing for governments to buy support by doling out money when times are good, but quite another to claw it back when the going gets tough. Even when everyone knows the economy is taking, no one wants to take a cut.

On the property market, we’re told that demand remains strong for “high-end” houses and apartments in central Auckland and Wellington. It’s surely a mark of our capacity for self-delusion that yet another “premium” apartment development, this time in the former Overseas Passenger Terminal, will come on the market early next year. Just what we needed.

Perhaps the most bizarre symptom of the national mood of denial, at least among those who spend other people’s money, was the announcement that Wellington City Council has given a $10,000 grant to cover the cost of an outdoor exhibition of lesbian art called All the Cunning Stunts.

Crisis? What crisis? Let’s have more caviar, waiter. Just put it on the card.

* * *

TWO WEEKS after her encounter with John Howard, in which she treated the former four-term Australian prime minister as if he were only marginally preferable to a Nazi war criminal, Radio New Zealand host Kim Hill interviewed Don Letts, a peripheral figure in the British punk and reggae movements of the 1970s.

It was interesting to note the contrasting tone of the two interviews. With Howard, Hill relentlessly went for the jugular; but with the undistinguished Letts, whose politics seem firmly stuck in the 1960s protest era, she was chummy and empathetic to the point of being ingratiating.

His wistful lament that Brits no longer rioted in the streets like they did in the good old days – just one of several juvenile statements that a sharp interviewer might have asked him to elaborate on – passed without so much as a questioning eyebrow.

A tigress with Howard, Hill purrs like a kitten with anti-establishment figures like Letts. The inconsistency is striking.

* * *

IT’S A common complaint about America that it’s so big, Americans don’t understand there’s another world outside. They don’t need to.

I am made aware of this every time I try to order a Christmas or birthday present online for my son and daughter-in-law, who live in California. I have yet to find an American retail website that recognises any address other than an American one.

They rub salt into the wound by allowing you to go through every step of the process – selecting your gift, choosing a card to go with it, composing a message – then thwart you at the last hurdle, when you’re required to enter your personal details.

Resorting to subterfuge last week I tried to enter my son’s US address as my own, but even that didn’t work. The system obviously spotted an anomaly between my credit card details and address, and disallowed the transaction.

I’ve had similar problems with Australian retailers’ websites, but have learned how to deceive them into thinking New Zealand is part of Australia. Unfortunately the defences of US websites are much harder to crack. They refuse to recognise that there’s any country outside America – or if there is, that anyone from such a godforsaken place could possibly want to do business with them. So much for the global economy.

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