Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

The withering away of America

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

The other day, I read a story about a Hedge Fund buying up foreclosed homes in Atlanta, Georgia.   They bought up 4000 such homes on a single day and the story said they are buying more all the time.

Their plan, according to the article, is to hang onto these homes until the price of the houses rise and then they will sell them for a nice profit.  In the mean time, they will rent them.

Apparently, these folks have a lot of money so they can afford to buy these houses up at distressed prices and then be patient until the market turns.

This is one of those stories where you could say these folks are pretty smart.   Or not.

On a smaller scale, many of us, if we had a few extra dollars in the bank and if we saw a reasonable house come up on a foreclosure sale, we might just jump on that opportunity.  We would fix it up a bit, rent it out and wait for its property value to go up and then, at some point in the future, perhaps at retirement time, we’d sell it for a tidy profit.  And it would be all to the good.

Indeed, many of you who are doing fairly well with your finances probably already own one or more extra properties as investments that you are renting out just as the hedge fund folks are.

This is the American way, is it not?  We get ahead by working hard, saving our money and by investing it well.

Some of you, as you are reading this now, are waiting for the “gotcha” fish hook to emerge out of this little story of mine, aren’t you?

Well, sorry, it’s not going to happen.  At least not for all of those Mom and Pop investors among you.  I am decidedly on your side in all of this.  The hard working and smart saving American work ethic is one I embrace.

But, if we go back to the opening of this story and think about those Hedge Fund folks buying up thousands of foreclosed homes, I’ve got some problems there.

More is not always better

This Hedge Fund is buying up thousands and thousands of homes and taking them off the real estate market.

That means less homes are available for those people that want to buy.  And that also means that the prices of the homes that are available for sale will rise given the inexorable logic of supply and demand.

Buyers on the lower end of the economic scale will not be able to buy in this situation and they will be forced into renting.

All of us know that renting, while done by many, is surely not the best way to spend your money.  All you get is a roof over your head and as soon as you stop paying rent, the roof goes away and you have nothing.  The best thing you can do as a renter, is to save money as quickly as possible so you can buy a place of your own and start building some equity.

Stacking the deck

So, here we have a case where a very large entity, the Hedge Fund, is driving the market in a way that highly favors them and disadvantages the smaller folks.

From the Hedge Fund’s POV, as they take more houses off the real estate market and put them away into their investment portfolio, they are causing the prices on the remaining houses to rise. As the prices of the remaining houses rise, less people can afford them and more are driven into the rental market.

And look who is there waiting?   Its the Hedge Fund which has lots of houses to rent. Sweet, eh?   It’s not unlike driving sheep into a pen.

Its sweet on all sides for the Hedge Fund beacuse as more folks compete for the available rentals, the price of rents will rise as well.

The Hedge Fund will always do well with this strategy so long as they pick their locations well.

All they have to know to win is that in desirable areas, the population inexorably rises because people want to live there for the environment and/or the work opportunities.  And in such areas, more people means more homes are needed.

The bottom line here is that the Hedge Fund is using its enormous financial clout in a way that benefits them but not necessarily the rest of us.

Now, small folks with some accumulated savings can invest it by buying one or two extra homes and renting them out as we mentioned earlier and that’s just what the Hedge Fund is doing, isn’t it?   Except they are doing it on a vastly huger scale.

And it is precisely this difference between the huge Hedge Funds of the world and the small folks like us which is the point of what this article is about.

The story of bigger and bigger

A small fellow starts a Mom and Pop business in his home town and it goes well.   The local people like what he’s doing and they buy what he’s got.

He’s smart.  He saves his profits and he opens a second shop across town.  He employees more folks in the second shop. The situation is a winner all around.

He opens more shops all up and down the area of the state he lives in.  More people are employed by him.  He gives money to charities and he support the local Boy Scouts and the YMCA.   The story is getting better and better.

At some point, he shifts from being a family owned business to being a corporation because that structure provides better protect for his family by separating their corporate assets from their family assets.  And perhaps it works better for their taxes as well.

Soon, as things continue to grow, the owner opens subsidiaries or franchises and moves into other states.

And for this business and these people, things just continue to go from strength to strength.

Now, the owner knows State Representatives and State Senators on a first-name basis.   He’s invited to sit on various boards for the YMCA and the local hospital.

At some point, his privately owned corporation may go public.  And, if the public offering is successful, he and his family will make a large amount of money and the corporation will get a large influx of cash to fund its further growth.

Now, as a publicly held corporation, it has a board and stock holders and it becomes responsible to more than just the former owner and his family.  Now, it becomes responsible to its stockholders who expect it to make a good return on their investment in the company.

This is all the stuff of magic.   The stuff that every small business owner hopes will happen to his or her business.  It is, literally, the stuff of the American Dream.

Ever onward and upward

The newly minted public corporation continues its growth.  And with the wisdom now of its board of directors and of its corporate officers, (either of which may or may not include the former owner) the corporation becomes a real competitor in the market segment it competes in.

Somewhere along this spectacular rise, it expands out across the nation from its original state and soon it is eying international markets and establishing overseas subsidiaries. And, if the run of success last long enough, it will become an international success.  It will become a global player.

Every national and global corporation you’ve ever heard of has followed this trajectory, unless it was spun off from earlier corporations.  If you trace their roots back far enough, every corporation, or its antecedents, will have begun with one person, one family or a small group’s dream that they too could build something out of their hard work and creativity.  It is a hugely commendable thing to build something like this out of nothing.

But can there be too much of a good thing?

Can there be too much competitiveness?  Too much success?  Too much market dominance?

Yes, there can be, Dorothy.  Absolutely.   Just because bigger seems better here in Kansas, or anywhere else, doesn’t mean it’s always the case.

Businesses can get so big that they becomes monopolies and bullies in their markets And when their competitiveness becomes market dominance, then serious systemic problems can develop.   And those problems mostly affect the small folks.

Remember the U.S. breakup Standard Oil in 1911? Or the U.S. breakup of Ma Bell in 1982?

In both of these cases, the growth of the organizations had led to so much market power that they were in the position to virtually set any price they wanted for their goods. They had grown so strong that they had very little competition left.

So, what limits run away corporate power?

What has always limited corporate power, up until recent times, has been government power.
That was what did it with Standard Oil and Ma Bell.

Now, by many people’s definition, government is suppose to exist to look out for the people’s common good.  See if you recognize this quote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

The founding fathers of the United States specifically said, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men….”.

When corporations are small, they are of a net benefit to all of us because of the the products and services they create and provide for us.   But, when they get too large, this net benefit can become a net liability.  And, when things get too far out of whack, corporations need to be controlled and regulated by the government for the common good.

And that’s the way it has worked with our government and corporations in the past.  But things are changing, Dorothy.

To show you how things are changing, let me digress and tell you a short story about the environmentalist movement in the U.S. during the 1960s.

Bear with me, please, even if you are not an environmentalist.  My story is relevant to the overall point of this article which is actually about the corrosive influence of mega corporations and big money on the American Democracy.

In the 1960’s there were numerous movements afoot to get laws passed that would protect the quality of our air and our water. These proposed laws were wending their way slowly through the legislative process at the national level and the corporate world was half attending to all of this but it is probably safe to say they weren’t too deeply worried about it.

Then some things happened that changed the game. There were reports about the utterly disgraceful state of some of the east coast’s rivers.  The Cuyahoga River in particular caught fire in Cleveland.  And the Interior Department was proposing to flood the Grand Canyon.  And then there was the infamous Santa Barbara Oil Spill that occurred in 1969.

Almost overnight the environmental movement, which had been simmering, was galvanized by these events to do something now.   And the bills in the legislature involving clean air and clean water were well positioned to benefit from the public’s new found passion for environmental protection.

As a result, these bills were passed decisively in a strong and undiluted form and became the new laws of the land.

The corporate world had been caught flat-footed by these rapidly moving events.  Things had moved too quickly for them and suddenly there were powerful new laws that put serious limitations on what corporations could and couldn’t do with their waste.

And they couldn’t complain too openly about all of this because, after all, the new laws had widespread public support.  The corporations couldn’t be seen in that political environment as opposing laws that protected the public commons from those who would abuse the air and the water for their own profits.

And about the same time that big business was realizing their vulnerability to such laws, the environmentalists were realizing that passing good environmental laws that just applied to the U.S. wouldn’t be sufficient, if the rest of the world just continued on as before. So, most of the people who were big players in the U.S. environmental movement shifted their efforts from being U.S. centric to being globally focused.

But never again

But, the business world is anything but stupid.   They had learned their lesson the hard way and they resolved to never again be caught sleeping nationally or internationally.

And, indeed, they’ve kept this promise to themselves.   Since those fateful days in the 1960’s and 70’s, when the Clean Air and Clean Water acts were passed, very little else of environmental significance has been signed into law within the U.S. or internationally because of effective and well focused resistance from the world business communities.

The only notable exception to this trend would be the Montreal Accord, which was ratified in 1989.  This international accord limits the production and use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) which were decisively shown by scientists to be the smoking gun that was destroying the world’s Ozone Layer.

For those who might be interested in this type of history, I learned a lot of this from reading the books of James Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  Speth is, and has been, one of the foremost actors in the U.S. and International environmental movements for many decades now.

The two books of his which I’ve read are, Red Sky at Morning – America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (2004) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World – Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis  to Sustainability (2008).

But now back to the main plot line

So, here’s how the story continues to unfold after the seminal events of the 60’s and 70’s:

The large corporations, whose bottom line’s were impacted by the new environmental laws, learned their lesson.   Now they could not just dump their industrial wastes into the rivers nor put just anything they wanted to up their smokestacks.  And those changes to what they could and could not do were going to cost them money and lower their profits.

Stung badly once, the corporate world began to pay attention to the environmental laws that were wending their ways through the world’s legislatures on their way to possibly becoming laws. And now, the corporate world began to put on the quiet full-court press to dilute or defeat such laws preemptively to protect their bottom lines.

These battles have mostly been fought in the smokey back rooms of the political world but sometimes they have erupted into public view.

Who doesn’t remember the Tobacco Industry executives testifying in front of Congress in 1994 on TV, no less, that smoking cigarettes was not harmful to public health?

They were prepared to, and they did, lie and say anything they could to deflect congress and the people’s will from diminishing their profits.  The Tobacco Industry spent an enormous amount of money on dis-information campaigns trying to deflect the law makers. But eventually Congress, with the input of scientific data on the effects of smoking, saw through their smoke screen and national laws were passed to lessen the dangers of smoking to the American public.

But the corporations have won many of these battles as well.

For instance, have you ever wondered why we cannot read on the  labels of the food we buy exactly what is in it and where it came from?

I could cite many examples where the corporate world has prevented the passage of laws to protect their own bottom line profits.

For a long time now, corporations have fought via their lobbyists in our legislatures to defeat or to water down bills that will impact their bottom line profits.

And regardless of the PR and the advertisements they put out which attempt to make them all look like our cuddly responsible corporate friends, these mega corporations and extremely high net-worth individuals, like the Koch brothers, are simply all about profits with little or no concern for the public good.

We’ve drifted from what the founding fathers envisioned

Do you remember the idea of one-man-one-vote that we all learned about in school?

We are not all equal voters.  It is obvious that mega corporations or very high net worth people with big money behind them can inordinately influence which laws are passed and which are not through lobbying.

Some of you will say, “Well, it’s always been that way in politics.”    And, probably, you are right.

But I’m not happy about it.  Maybe I was corrupted by watching Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 movie ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘ too many times.

So, here we have the picture then of why the corporate world exerts so much of its financial muscle on lobbying in our nation’s capital.   And the ugly truth is that it is to protect their own profits.  And all of that power, which is being exerted to shape the nation’s laws, have little or nothing to do with the common good as the fathers of our nation intended it.

Ah, but don’t despair – it gets worse

It gets worse? Yes, it does. This battle between the various forces in our society for who gets to make the laws is an ongoing thing. And like any ongoing battle, the strategies and the rules change as new opportunities are realized.

At some point, the large corporations and the mega high net-worth individuals realized that they could better influence which laws get made and which don’t not by lobbying – but by influencing who gets elected to make the laws in the first place.   Why hack at the branches if you can go for the roots, eh?

So big money has begun to pour huge sums into getting folks elected who will be sympathetic to the needs of business – rather than to the needs of the people.   And lets be clear, again, about what those ‘needs’ are.

The needs of business are to have their way cleared of ‘unnecessary’ laws so they can increase their profits.

This process of gaming the system in American politics with big money has gotten quite advanced.  And amazingly, most of the American public hasn’t noticed.

Big business isn’t stupid by any means. They know that they can still have their gains rolled back at the ballot box if people were to get aware of and upset about what’s going on.

So, you won’t see them promoting their side of this battle by saying things like, “The rich have every right to get richer regardless of the consequence to ordinary citizens.”

Instead, they push themes like, “We need less government regulation and interference.  Such interference prevents small hard working Mom and Pop entrepreneurs all over this great country from reaching their full potential.”

They purposely, and cynically, associate themselves with the small and medium size business community and make it seem like these folks and big business have common cause.

And there’s just enough truth in what they say sometimes to make it plausible.

But the cynicism of why they are doing it is breathtaking. They don’t give a rat’s behind about the small and medium Mom and Pop folks other than to use them as a foil to distract the public’s attention from their devious gaming of the American political system.

Back near the beginning of this piece, I made a point to say that I applaud the Mom and Pop small and medium sized entrepreneurs of America.  And I meant it. The are the engines of creation in this country. They make the country better.

But, the really big corporations, those whose sole motivation is to maximize their profits and minimize their costs, and the really high net worth individuals who never think they’ll have enough money, these folks are of a different breed altogether.

The signs that they are making inroads into controlling our legislative processes for their own benefit are all around us.   But, these signs are largely hidden by the immense PR smoke screens they are putting up to confuse the public.

In this context, the ‘Citizens United‘ decision by the Supreme Court a few years ago to grant corporations the same rights as people was huge.

So, what is a corporation anyway?

I’ll tell you this – they are not our neighborhood fuzzy responsible community friends.

Consider that a large corporation is an entity that exists solely to maximize the investment returns of its stockholders. This is a simple cold hard fact. They have only one motivation and that is profit maximization.

They have zero motivation to consider what’s good for the nation or for the public unless the issue begins to interfere with their profits.

And, if some public concern does begin to impact their profits, they’ll make superficial changes and unleash a storm of PR designed to make us think that they are on our side and they have our best interests in mind and they are part of our community and they share our values and etc. and etc. We’ve seen it all. But few of us have recognized how deeply cynical it all is.

If this was a real person who had such a single minded focus, most of us would think they were a dangerous unfeeling psychopath walking among us.

But now, according to the Supreme Court, these entities can move among us with the same rights as sovereign citizens.

And the limits of how much they can donate to political campaigns have largely been lifted.

So, what causes do you think that these newly minted mega corporate ‘citizens’ donate money to?   The only ones they care about, of course. And that’s getting folks elected who will not pass laws that will interfere with their right to maximize their profits.

Their audacity knows no limits

This corporate philosophy, of not hacking at the branches if you can go for the roots, is expanding in a frightening manner internationally now.

There’s something called the TPPA, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.   It has been under negotiation since 2005 and currently 11 nations from around the Pacific Rim are involved.

The stated purpose of the TPPA is:

… to enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs.

Whooo-ee.  That sounds good, doesn’t it?

Folks in most of the countries involved in these negotiations have no idea these negotiations are even going on, much less the details of what’s actually being negotiated.

You see, the negotiations are being carried out in secret.  In many cases, they are being kept secret from even from the legislators of the countries negotiating.  Specially appointed government trade negotiators are conducting these negotiations and these folks are appointed people – not elected people.

It gets even more incredible.

In the U.S., which is the most dominate of the countries involved, the vast majority of the House and Senate membership are blocked from knowing the details of what’s being negotiated while representatives from a number of large U.S. corporations are allowed to sit in on the negotiations – as they occur.

Yes, you heard that right. Our elected representative are locked out and the mega corporations are sitting in as advisors to the negotiators.

Why the h*** would that be, you say?

Well, from the few documents that have been leaked from these secret negotiations, it turns out to be evident that only about 30% of these agreements actually have anything to do with free trade.  While the majority of what’s being negotiated has to do with protecting corporate rights and profits!

I know, many of you at this point in this story think that I must have drunk the bad kool-aid on this one right?

Well, you’d be wrong.  This is no straw man.

There’s ample documentation of what’s going on out there and of what’s intended to happen, if the corporations get their way.

Proof?

Here’s a statement by Ron Wyden, a U.S. Senator from Oregon expressing his deep frustration as how little, as a U.S. Senator, he’s been able to find out about what’s being negotiated.

In a floor statement to Congress Wyden said, “The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of US corporations — like Halliburton, Chevron, Comcast and the Motion Picture Association of America — are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement.”

And here’s a recent article that appeared in the New York Times by Joseph E. Stiglitz, a U.S. Nobel Prize winning economist, about what he thinks the TPPA is really about and what’s wrong with it. I encourage you to read this.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/15/on-the-wrong-side-of-globalization/

This is huge, my friends.  Just Google the TPPA and you will find a ton of commentary on the Internet about it.   And then you might also reflect on why you never hear about this sort of thing on your evening news?

Just a bit more on the TPPA and then I’m going to wrap this up.

One of the worst aspects of what’s being proposed in the TPPA is that corporations will be able to sue sovereign nations – if those nations pass laws that diminish the profits of the corporations.

Yes, you heard that right.

Imagine that a country passes laws mandating that cigarette packs sold in that country have to have plain labeling and carry pictures of what happens to folk’s lungs when they smoke. Such a law would be passed for the good of the people, yes?

Or, perhaps they pass a law that no mining will be allowed in their national parks.  Again, this is a law passed for the good of the people of that country.

But, of course, the profits of the cigarette manufacturers and those of the mining companies would be decreased.

Under trade agreement law, as it would stand post-TPPA, the corporations involved could sue the countries that passed such laws to recover their lost profits.   And these law suits would be not be held in the courts of the countries involved but rather they would be decided by a three man international tribunal which would not be beholding to any country.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?  And all of that is going on around you in secret.   In secret even from your legislators.

When I tell folks that the large multi-national corporate world is infiltrating and taking over the sovereign functions of national governments as their latest strategy to increase their profits, some people look at me like I’m a nut case.

Make up your own mind

Pay attention to the news, now that you are aware of all of this.   Keeping watching and see what you think.

Ask yourself if mega corporations, solely obsessed with profits and utterly indifferent to the welfare of the people or of the nation, should be considered to be people and allowed to walk around unchecked in polite society?

Ask yourself, if a corporation is suppose to be a person, if you’d actually associate with a real person that had such nasty and mercenary personal attributes?

Or even more to the point, given how things are going, ask yourself what you think about living in a country where the “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth” is, in sad fact, withering away before our very eyes and being taken over by mega corporations and the very greedy.

These are not idle questions in the world today, my friends.

-dennis

Final wrap-up on the major travel we’ve been doing these last four months

Monday, October 21st, 2013
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Vancouver’s West End

Wrap up

This will be a final wrap-up for the major trip Colette and I have been on these last four months.

We’ve been back in New Zealand from our trip now for about ten days.  We left on June 3rd for the U.S. where we spent a month touring up and down the west coast seeing friends and family.  We traveled from Orange County, on the south, to Vancouver, B.C., on the north.  I’ve done this trip four times now and this was Colette’s 2nd go-round.  All the cross country driving is fun.

U.S. West Coast

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Benicia lunch with Dave

We  saw a ton of stuff and the especially good bits, other than the friends and family we saw (smile), were Las Vegas, Yosemite and Vancouver, B.C.   We’re especially pumped about the city of Vancouver and it is on our list for next year’s live-in immersion adventure; along with Montreal.

My head is spinning as I’m reflecting on and remembering all the places we’ve been in these last four months.

From the U.S., we flew July 1st to Frankfurt, Germany and then onto Paris; arriving on the 2nd.

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Family in Irvine

It wasn’t going to be a smooth trip, as we discovered, when we left my friend Dave’s house, bound for the BART station where we were going to catch a train to San Francisco Airport.  It turned out that we had chanced to try our travel on the very day of the first BART strike in 16 years and BART train stations all across the Bay Area were shuttered.

After the initial shock of learning this for all of us, Dave stepped up to the plate and said he’d drive us all the way into the airport and off we went with our only guide; his GPS.  That little guide was, itself, a gamble as he hadn’t brought its charger so it was running on batteries and none of us had any idea how much juice it had left.  If it died on the way, we’d be lost and we’d be toast.

But it lasted, thanks to the God of small batteries, and we arrived in time.  And, with profuse thanks to our host and transporter, Dave, for his hospitality and for being willing to drive us all the way into the airport with zero notice, we took leave of him to catch our flight.

Away to Paris

A flight which, as it turned out, was an hour late taking off from San Francisco.   Which meant that later, when we arrived in Frankfurt, we then failed to make the connection with our Paris flight to Charles de Gaulle airport.   Ah my, it was, indeed, a day of travel problems.

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Gerry and Colette at the Louvre

Our Parisian friend, Gerry, was waiting for us in Paris at Charles de Gaulle and he managed to work out what probably had happened to us when we didn’t get off the expected plane.   So, bless him, he stayed around for the next plane, which we were on, and all was well; though we were a bit frazzled after all of that fun.

And then began three months in Paris as Gerry’s guest in his extra apartment.

That was, indeed, a beautiful and very special time for us.   But, since I’ve already written extensively on our adventures in Paris, I’m not going to wax on further here about that.  Instead, I’m going to press on to describe the last part of our trip; which was Singapore.

We departed Paris for Singapore on September 30th and, after an overnight flight, we arrived in Singapore on October 1st.

 

And on to Singapore

Singapore Skyline

Singapore Skyline

It’s hard for me to recall what I expected from visiting Singapore.  When we booked, it was just a place I’d heard of that we were going to pass through on the way home to Christchurch.   But, since I’d never been there, we decided to lay over for the better part of a week and have a look around.  Really, at the time we booked it, it was nothing more than idle curiosity on my part.   Colette had been there once before years earlier and said it was nice; though hot.

Well, it is not an exaggeration to say that the place really knocked my socks off.

Singapore is one of the wonders of the modern world in many ways.  If you don’t get anything else out of reading this, treat yourself and go read the Wikipedia article about Singapore here.  You will learn a lot that will surprise you, I expect.

High-rise Apartments

High-rise Apartments

The first thing we noticed was the intense urban feel of the place and the high rise apartment and business buildings in all directions.

Singapore Island and Metro System

Singapore Island and Metro System

There are four to five million people living here on a small island that is at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  The main island is approximately 42km east to west and 23 km north to south.  Or, in miles, it is 31  by 19.   There are, as well, a number of smaller islands but only one big one.

Weather?  It is very hot and humid as you are just slightly north of the equator.

I’d heard about the cleanliness of the place but, still, it is something to see.   No trash, no gum blobs on the sidewalks, Metro trains that run smooth as silk and a mixed racial population that seems to get on very well.   There’s feeling of prosperity in the air in the dense central city areas of the eastern end of the island where we began our explorations.

Shopping Mall

Another Shopping Mall

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Shopping Mall

Colette finds 'her' store

Colette finds ‘her’ store

Walking down the main shopping road; Orchard Road, you could easily imagine yourself back in Paris.  All the big fashion names are there.  And you will find shopping mall after shopping mall; each one more amazing than the last in its architecture.

Beating the hea

Beating the hea

On the first day, we went out and walked a lot but I found that really tiring.  The heat was like a hammer and the difference between being in the sun or the shade was huge.  And shade was hard to come by at mid-day because the sun was straight overhead.

After I was throughly hot and miserable (Colette had an umbrella so she handled all of this better than I did), we finally found a nice cafe with shade and settled in for an afternoon beer and some relaxed people watching and I began to recover a bit.

Double-decker bus touring

Double-decker bus touring

The next day, we were smarter.  We found out that for $18 Singaporean each, you could ride a city double-decker tour bus and get on and off as you liked for the entire day.  It went around the most interesting and dense areas of the city on the eastern end of the island and it came by every 30 minutes.

So, we did this.  In the morning we got on and sat on the right side of the bus and went all the way around the loop just looking and talking and taking pictures.  It took about two and a half hours.

Hindu Temple

Hindu Temple

In the heat of the day

In the heat of the day

Building everywhere

Building everywhere

High-rise Apartments

High-rise Apartments

 

Then, we got off on Orchard Road and wandered until we found a nice lunch place and then, after a short rest, we got back on the bus again.  And this time, we sat on the left side and went all the way around again.  It was well worth the money and we saw a ton of things without having to suffer and sweat in the tropical sun.

The street to our Hotel

The street to our Hotel

The five evenings we were there, we mostly followed the same pattern and ate at the restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel.  By that time of day (6 or 7pm), the temperature was nice and sitting outside was a great pleasure.  We sat outside and ate slowly and watched the traffic and the people passing by and discussed all that we’d seen during the day.

Singapore evening meal

Singapore evening meal

 

Genesis of Singapore

For me, there was a lot more to Singapore than the glossy surfaces we were seeing.  In odd moments, I delved into reading about it and learning how the place came to be; and it was a fascinating story.

In a nutshell, Singapore, Malaysia and other former colonies of Britain in the area came together to form a new Malaysian Federation in 1963.

At that time, Singapore had been a long time British colony and had a thriving harbor and was a regional trade center.   But it was also an uncomfortably hot tropical place where most folks lived in poverty, corruption was the rule, squalor was everywhere and there was a lot of racial disharmony.

The new union of Singapore and Malaysia was an uneasy one from the beginning and the issues were mostly racial.

Malaysia wanted to pass laws making the Malaysian people the first among equals to keep them ascendant over the Chinese.

The folks on Singapore strongly favored the alternative idea that all races should have equal rights.   Singapore today is 75% or better Chinese and it was probably a similar mixture back then.

Singapore's birth

Singapore’s birth

There was a lot a strife over all this and the situation looked like it might evolve into a civil war.  But Malaysia acted preemptively and ejected Singapore by a unanimous vote from the Federation in 1965.

And at that point, Singapore found itself, by surprise, as an island city-state and as a newly minted nation.

The first years were quite scary, I think, as SIngapore could have easily been subsumed into Indonesia or reabsorbed back into Malaysia under less than optimal conditions in either case.

But, they were lucky in that they had a leader named Lee Kuan Yew.  He was a take-charge fellow and a visionary and he took Singapore in hand and began to mold it.

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

And this molding wasn’t of the standard dictatorial militaristic take-all-the-money, bank it and suppress any dissent type.   No, it was a beneficent moulding.  Yew’s motives, so far as I can see from reading history and by looking around me, were to shape the place for the good of the people.

This doesn’t mean he was a Communist or a Socialist.  He was a Capitalist; but one of a different sort than seems to predominate in the world today.

He believed in using the power of business to raise the living standards of his people.  I believe he saw Capitalism as a tool but he also saw, that as a tool, it must always remain subordinate to the greater goal; which was “the good of the people”.

In my opinion, what’s where most of us in Capitalist countries have deeply lost the plot.  We’ve never established that the highest goal of our countries should be to maximize the quality of life for all of the country’s citizens.  And, not having made that decision, we’ve left a vacuum into which others have rushed to promote the supremacy of their visions of personal wealth, of political power, of corporate domination and on and on.  In the absence of clear priorities, the pushiest and the greediest find their ways to the front of the bus.

Within 10 years Yew had rehoused most of Singapore’s population in high rise apartment buildings.

Early on. he passed laws with real teeth against graft and corruption; laws that were actually enforced at all levels.

He declared that English would the first language of the land (though everyone could and did have a second language of choice which they were free to us).

He mandated racial equality and built support for it into the school curriculums to teach it at every level.

He poured a large amount of the nation’s wealth into housing, into their military (modeled after the West German and Israeli models), into education and into transport (busses and Metro) and into communications needs.

Ship Building

Ship Building

He realized the value of having a diversified economy and he moved Singapore into many types of business that were new to it and he did this very successfully.

He made the price of owning cars so prohibitive that today only one person in 10 in Singapore owns one.

He promoted Singapore’s involvement in finance and Singapore today is one of the world’s largest financial centers.

But it has to be said that the Singaporean government is essentially a benevolent dictatorship in spite of having a multiparty parliamentary system.

Yew ruled from independence in 1965 until 1990,  Then a protégé of his, Goh Chok Tong, ruled from 1990 to 2004.  And then Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, took over and he still rules today.   So, it’s been very much a dynasty with a controlled succession.

They allow multiple parties in Singapore but the party Yew was part of, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has won every election since the country was founded.  And of all the seats in the legislature, the vast majority have always gone to PAP candidates.

That sounds like it could be a dismal situation, politically, but in fact the results say otherwise.

People in Singapore live well.  80 to 90% own their own homes.  They are an enormously well educated bunch and the per capita wealth level is very high (third highest in the world).

Death for drugs

Death for drugs

There is a hard side to the place, however, but maybe its not so bad.   If you spit on the sidewalk or throw trash, you can get a major fine.   And if you bring drugs into the country, they will simply execute you.

There’s a lot of superlatives about the place.

Singapore is the world’s fourth largest financial centre.

Its harbor is one of the busiest in the world (it is the fifth largest).

Singapore is one of the four ‘Asian Tiger” nations.

Democracy – are we smart enough?

All of this information made me quite reflective as we wandered around.  In thinking about Singapore being a beneficent dictatorship, I remembered what Churchill had to say about Democracy:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I reflect on this saying a lot because I’m not convinced people in general are smart enough for the responsibility of participating in a democracy.   But, on the other hand there’s very little to be said for Communism or dictatorships either.

So Singapore, for me, was a bit of a revelation because it represents another possibility; a third way.

A way in which power is gathered at the top and wielded sincerely for the good of the people being governed rather than for the good of those who govern (as in dictatorships) or for the good of the wealthy (as in the case of many western democracies today).

You may say that Singapore is a very rare and special case and could not exist except for the small size of the place and the remarkable circumstances of its birth.  And I would have to agree; it is remarkable and it is probably not a pattern we will see often; no matter how admirable it might be.

The way they were and how they changed

Racial tension was a part of the early Singapore.   Today, Singapore is 75% Chinese and most of the rest is made of up Malays and Indians with an odd smattering of Europeans.  But the melding is working.

The government helps to make it work in an intelligent manner.  For example, each apartment building, as the units are sold, is supervised to make sure that the racial mixes of the apartments agrees with the racial mix of the country.  School programs actively structure things so that everyone get a good look inside the cultures of the other groups in Singapore as they grow up.  The government works actively to diffuse enclaves of different racial groups from forming in the different neighborhoods; with the exception of Chinatown and Little India which are grandfathered in.

Anyway, all of this was background for me as we wandered around and looked at the place.  Reading the newspapers and absorbing the evening news fascinated me daily as I looked to see if the place seemed like it was really working as well as it claimed to.  And for me, it looked like it really was.

Chinatown and Little India

Chinatown Delux

Chinatown Delux

The day after the big bus tour, we went to Chinatown and then onto Little India; both of which are special enclaves within the city which survive from pre-independence days.  We walked and looked and shopped. Colette bought a pair of pants she loved for $6 Singaporean; which was a serious steal.

In Chinatown, we saw a very beautiful Buddhist Temple.

In the Buddhist Temple

In the Buddhist Temple

A man and his beer

A man and his beer

At one point in Chinatown, we sat in a side street cafe outside (but shaded) for a long time while I imbibed a 660 ml Tiger beer and we people watched.  Yum.

Then, in Little India, we found a lot of fun and amazing things; including an upstairs clothing sales area that was absolutely chock-a-block with tens of thousands of Indian dresses of every description.  If you couldn’t find it here, you were not going to find it.

Colette does the shop

Colette does the shop

Then we sat down in a large courtyard surrounded by little food stalls selling all sorts of ethnic dishes and I had a coke and we just watched it all flow by; contentedly.

Life for the average man and women

On the last full day, we did a favorite things of ours.; we got on the Metro and bought a ticket to the end-of-the-line and went all  30 miles or so to the western end of the island – just to see what was there.

And along the way, it was something to see.  Mile after mile of high rise apartment buildings of all sorts of vintages all the way back the the first one built in the late 60’s. These were intermixed with industrial areas and off in the far distances, I could see huge cranes and I recalled reading that Singapore is a major ship building and repairing port as well.

Metro Train Station

Metro Train Station

Periodically, at the train stations, there would be huge shopping centers.  Really, these were small cites in their own right.

And, beside the larger train stations would be huge parking lots exclusively for busses by the dozens which would carry people to the north and south of the Metro line to and from their apartment homes or their work.

Along the tracks, in addition to the high rises and industrial areas, were nice parklands as well.  Singapore has dedicated 5% of itself to parklands.  But of native bush there wasn’t much to be seen.  Truly, the Singaporeans have nearly filled their island and the only way for them is up.

We rode to the far end of the East/West line to a place called, “Joo Koon”.  And it really was the end of the line.

There was a fair amount of industrial stuff scattered around but not much in the way of high rise housing there.  We came on a Sunday so it was pretty quiet.  A few locals stared at us and we couldn’t find a any place to get a cup of coffee or to wander and shop a bit so we got back on the train and headed east again after 15 minutes.

I expect that the high rise apartments will build their way out to Joo Koon soon.  If we come back in a few years, I’ll have another look and see what’s happened.

Heading east, we got off at Jurong East.  This is a junction where we could transfer to a train that went north and then east again and looped across the top of the island before finally finding its way back into the denser eastern areas.

Switching trains would show us entire areas of the island that we hadn’t seen before.  But before we did the transfer, we got off at Jurong East and walked over to one of the ubiquitous, massive shopping centers.

This area was definitely off the beaten tourist track; which would mostly run up and down the shops on Orchard Road and through Chinatown and Little India in the dense easter sections.   Here, we were seeing where the real Singaporeans lived and shopped; away from the tourists.

328

Starbucks in Jurong East

The truth was, it wasn’t much different. We found a Starbucks in the shopping center and had a coffee and a snack.

Around us were kids talking and studying their laptops and their assignments; much as you might find anywhere in the world.  A European couple sat a few tables down from us absorbed in their conversation and not looking out of place at all.   A boy and a girl were sitting and talking quietly near us and I thought they were in a new relationship by the way they looked at each other.   No one was rowdy, no one was rude, and no one paid us the slightest attention.   And the coffee was excellent.

We got back on the train and began the ride north.  Along the way, we passed stations with catchy names like “Bukit Batok”, “Bukit Gombak”, “Choa Chu Kang” and “Yew Tee”.

It was a long and slow trip and the train was quite crowded at times.  Outside, the scenery was always changing but, yet, always the same.   High rises, parklands, industrial areas, and shopping centers.   Only at one point on the northern journey did I see a bit of what might remain of the original rain forests that once filled the island.   I read on-line that of the entire island, only 100 hectares of land remains in use for farming.

After awhile, the train’s rocking and the crowded spaces got to Colette and she felt a bit queasy so we got off and sat on a bench in a station, “Khatib”, I think.  She felt better in 10 minutes or so and we got back onto the next train after that and completed the circuit back to our home station at Novena which is about a 15 minute walk from our hotel.

View from our room

View from our room

Out hotel was nice and clean; though the room was a bit small.   I liked it though because I could look directly out our window on the 9th floor and see a huge number of apartments in the 25 story apartment building just across from us.  It was one of the more recently built buildings and I thought it compared favorably with the nice high rises we’d seen in Vancouver back in June.

View from our hotel's 9th floor

View from our hotel’s 9th floor

The next day, we played a bit and then, in the afternoon, we caught an overnight flight direct from Singapore to Christchurch which took 9 hours.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore had one last lesson to teach me; even as we were leaving.   We flew out on Singapore Airlines and the service was very impressive and we were just flying in coach.

Most of the world’s airlines are caught in the “maximize profits and minimize costs” cycle which is an essential thing to do if, as a corporation, your bottom line is focused on maximizing the returns on investment for your shareholders.

Buying coach fare these days on most airlines is like riding in a third-world cattle car.  If you get a nod and a small bag of peanuts, you should count yourself lucky.

It wasn’t like that on Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines Menu

Singapore Airlines Menu

I realized it was going to be different when they came around with the menus. I was so impressed with getting a menu, I kept mine.  First, they came around before we ate with hot cloths to clean your hands or to wipe your face.  Then, we had a glass of wine before the meal was served.   Then they served a nice meal which we chose from the menu.   Later, during the night, as most of us slept or watched movies, they came around three times with apple juice to keep us hydrated and with snacks.   In the morning, it was excellence again as they came around with another hot cloth before we ate breakfast.

I spent sometime on the flight wondering why, in a world in which all sorts of businesses seem to deliver less and less service for more and more money, why should Singapore Airlines be different.  I think it may be a lack of greed.

Virtually all large corporate businesses are focused on maximizing the return on investment for their shareholders.  The CEO’s of these companies keep their jobs if they can maximize profits and minimize costs and they are tossed out if they fail.  And with huge pay packages and bonuses CEO get, they have a huge motivations to succeed.   In truth, most corporations make so much money that the impact of these large pay packages is minuscule in the bigger picture.

But why is Singapore Airlines different?   Singapore, the state, owns the majority of the stock of Singapore airlines.  The state, through all the wise things it has done, is doing very well financially and it is also doing well with its goals to optimize the quality of life for its citizens.

Singapore, the country,  doesn’t need to grind every last penny out of Singapore Airlines.   In fact, it can afford the extra it costs to make the brand a quality brand by providing superior services for the money paid.  And they know that’s going to be good in the long run for Singapore and all its citizens.

What I like about Singapore

There are no controlling shareholders who have to be appeased.  If the airline makes money and runs in the black, then it is a success, it is good enough and it speaks well of the overall enterprise; Singapore.  There is no need to squeeze it for more profit out of greed.

That’s a good deal of what I liked about Singapore.   They clearly have the notion of Capitalism in hand.  But they also get the idea of ‘enough’.   More is not better; balance is better.

The people and the government of the place are doing well.  It has the world’s 11th larger foreign reserves which is huge.  Remember, this is a tiny city-state of only four to five million people.

Every 6th household in Singapore has more than a million dollars U.S. of disposable wealth.  This doesn’t include property, businesses or luxury goods.

They are rated at the very top, along with New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries, as the least corrupt in the world.

The World Bank rated Singapore the easiest country in the world to do business in.

So, why, with the people and the government doing so very well, would they need to grind out more profit?   They don’t; they understand ‘enough’ and ‘balance’.   They are using Capitalism for their purposes and not letting it use them; as seems to be the case in so many other places.

Singapore has a game plan that puts the good of the population first and then harnesses Capitalism to serve that goal.

Well, after that little philosophical burst of enthusiasm on my part that probably gave a few conservative ‘me-me-me’ profit maximizing Capitalists a bit of heart burn, I think I’m going to wrap this long travel saga up.

End of the line

I’m back in Christchurch, New Zealand, now and settling in for awhile.   Next year, in August, I will be able to get my New Zealand citizenship and I am looking forward to that.

Truly, folks, I see myself as an Internationalist.  I don’t feel aligned with any particular country.  I am aligned with what works; with what might make for a better world.  I hope some of you will join me in thinking this way.

Cheers, from the end of the current road.

Home again for awhile

Home again for awhile

– 10Nov2013 – More on Singapore here:
 

The world has a new oxymoron…

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

“Full-scale minutia”

Remember, you heard it first here.  Tell you friends.  Send money.   Praise the author.

…and so on.

 

– dennis

Thoughts in a Paris square:

Thursday, September 26th, 2013
Wall from 1200

Wall from 1200

In a part of Paris I like, there’s a wall from about the year 1200. In truth, it is only a part of a wall; 40 feet long and maybe 20 feet high.

Near it is a story about the wall in French which I was able to partially read. It tells that when the French King, Philippe Auguste (1165-1223), left to go on one of the Crusades, he had the locals build this wall to protect themselves until he returned.

Apparently, the center of what needed protecting was there at that spot then. Though now, the remains of the wall lie deep within the city almost forgotten, except for the sign on a side street next to it where it is jammed between newer buildings.

Newer is, of course, relative. Just now, I’m sitting in the Delmas Cafe a few blocks away having a coffee and writing this. Just across from me is a building which says it was built in 1748. It’s an ancient looking thing from before the French Revolution. And yet, it is over 500 years newer than the wall. And the building is, itself, over 265 years old now. Don’t get me started; there are Roman ruins here in Paris that I’ve admired, and reverently touched the stones of, that are almost 1000 years older than the wall.

Truly, every thimble-full of dirt under our feet here contains the memories and experiences of men and women beyond counting.

This bit of wall from 1200 is on Rue Clovis between Rue Descartes and Rue du Cardinale Lemoine and not too far from the inestimable and quaint Rue Mouffetard. The latter, which is much beloved by tourists, is a narrow walking street filled with interesting shops and pubs.

1748 building

1748 building

I’m sitting in this small square we ‘discovered’ at Rue Mouffetard and Rue Blainville having a coffee and ruminating on my time in Paris.

Just now, some tradesmen are working on the 1748 building and pulling what looks like very old beams out of it. Apparently, someone is having its interior reworked. Hard to tell how old such beams would be. I doubt that they would hail from 1748 but it would be interesting to know their age.

When the wall was built and the King went off to try and wrest control of the Holy Land away from Mohammed’s people, the Americas were untouched save for a few transient Viking villages in New Foundland.

Fenimore’s Mohicans still walked their ancient forest trails; never having dreamed of the white-man or of tuberculosis.

The Central and South American civilizations, with all their alien (from our POV) ways, still flourished and the history that they were evolving was still all theirs.

Deep in the Amazon, vast tracts had been cleared and a charcoal dependent form of agriculture was underway. All of which vanished thoroughly after the European’s maladies swept the Americas. They vanished so well that for a long time, no one believes there had been anything there in the deep Amazon; so quickly did the jungle claim it all back.

We are a species of unintended consequences. Indeed, all of evolution is a dance of unintended consequences; other than the drive to proceed while there yet is energy.

——–

The ancestors of these faces I see passing here were mostly here when the wall was built 800 years

The author's lair

The author’s lair

ago. Genetics doesn’t change that much. It swirls into slightly different combinations of forehead and cheek, but it is all here.

You can see that the beauty in women and the strength in men was celebrated in their issue And Paris has a lot of all; beauty, strength and issue.

When the building and the wall were built, a few people held the power and, for the rest, life was an often brutal business lived quickly and with little understanding; save what the church purported to explain.

I look at the faces here and try to see them as the workmen erecting the building then. And I gaze on the women and try to see them as the servant girls or as the wives of peasants and workers.

Occasionally, a face passes me here; haughty imbued with the power of money and self-possession. And I can see them here as well, then. Wearing fine silks and sleeves,. Sure of their God-given right to dominate

———

Left behind

Left behind

We’ve come such a long way in the years since the wall and the building went up. But we are still creatures of unintentional consequences; we always have been.

We’ve banished the darkness and fear of diseases not understood. And, though we still die, most of us know now, why and how. And we’ve saved ourselves, for the moment with antibiotics and surgeries, from those dark dreams and we live to see longer lives. But, on yet longer scales, we have also unintentionally enabled the increasing promulgate of genes of lesser and lesser fitness into the pools from which our future will be drawn.

We’ve conquered nature in that no other species can, in the remotest sense, stand against us.

We’ve worked out the division of labor for the greater good and most of us no longer hunt the food we eat nor build the homes we live in. Now, some grow, some build, some supervise and others organize. And all this has raised our standard of living and freed us to have more leisure and more children with less early mortality.

The armies went forth, the armadas went forth, the colonists and the colonizers went forth. And almost without impediment, we’ve nearly filled the world in a few short centuries. All we needed were a few enabling technologies because the drive to go forth was always there in our deep natures.

Technologies do not sleep. Technology begets technology and the increasing leverage, born of the more efficient division of labor, grows stronger for us with each iteration.

As we approach the full point of the world, we are moving faster all the time. There are more of us every moment. We communicate faster, we travel faster, we can make more and we can consume more.

The royal ‘we’ has no idea of what we are doing. Most of us are just lost in the dream of our current life. Our lives are before us and we live them. It’s no one’s fault that the rain forests in Indonesia are vanishing along with the Orangutans.

No one intended any of this. Nature and evolution intend nothing. Energy evaporates down gradients and little creatures arise in the backwash. All the philosophers and saints dancing on the heads of pins are not a pimple on the ass of this simple reality.

—–

So, the morning’s given way to the afternoon as I’ve sat here in the square, watching. The sun that once shone on Mesopotamia shines on me here. And the one that shone on the stones of this earth before the first little creatures crawled from the sea; that very sun shines on me here as well.

The building from 1748 across the square is ignoring me. And the waiter here at the cafe is only marginally better. The royal ‘we’ swirls around me. I intuit in them dreams of youth, of money, of love and a hundred other things in the mix of passing faces.

The simple stones in the building’s wall have been here in the square longer than any of them have been alive; but every face is the center of its own dream.

The “time past and time future” that Eliot mentioned are not here for them. They inhabit the “time now and the time mine” and everything else lies frozen and nearly unseen for them.

No Orangutan calls pierce the square around them.

Credit Card Fraud

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Credit Card Fraud

That’s what’s on my mind today.

As in it has happened to me.

Actually, this is the second time this year (once in the U.S. and once here in France) and both had similar aspects which I should learn from. And you too, as well, after I share them with you.

credit-card-fraud

I found a 98 Euro charge I didn’t recognize on my HSBC card today. I called HSBC and they told me that there were several others that were declined and there were yet others there that been charged that hadn’t yet had time to make it to my account transactions listing on-line. Yow!

The card was cancelled ASAP and I’ll have to go through some hassles to get refunded; but I will in the end. After I go to the police station here in Paris and file a report, then I’m to send that into HSBC.

The bank folks tell me that this sort of thing can happen when you pay with you card and you let them carry the card off away from your sight to ring up the bill and bring you a receipt.

They are not charging you extra in the back room. They are writing down your C/C number *and* the three digit code on the back. Because, often, they can make purchases over the Internet with just these bits of information.

So, the moral of the story is never let them carry your card away. Have them bring the swipe machine to you or follow them to where it is. Watch that no one copies the three digit code on the back.

I’m a wiser man now.

-dennis

Human irrationality

Friday, August 30th, 2013

I’ve cited three things that are illustrative of humanities irrationality:

1. Near vs far

2. Now vs. future

3. Concrete vs abstract

Humans irrationally favor near, now and concrete over far, then and abstract and because of this bias, they make bad decisions.

Now, add a fourth: Personal vs. Them as in me and mine and they and theirs.

But, the deep truth that shows the irrationality of all of these biases is the simple fact that everything in this world is ‘one’.

-dennis

Personal – 13 Apr 2013

Friday, April 12th, 2013

– My partner, Colette, and I are wrapping up four months in Wellington, New Zealand, this weekend and preparing to spend two weeks touring New Zealand’s North Island by car before we travel across the Cook Strait via ferry to the South island and then by train back to Christchurch.

– I’ve really conceived a love for Wellington.  What a vibrant, beautiful and pleasant a city it is.  We’ve been over most of it on foot and by bus these four months.  We’ve sat in on Parliament’s question and answer sessions, visited endless coffee shops and restaurants, hosted a few friends with us, made use of the libraries, theaters, free concerts, talks and various cultural and ethnic street events.

– Another event that transpired during our time here was that Colette wrapped up 12 years with the New Zealand Ministry of Justice and is now a free agent.

– And yet another event was that it looks like I will finally be paid out for the apartment I lost in Christchurch in the February 2011 earthquake there.  And that money, when it arrives, will augment my income nicely and give me a bit more flexibility which is never a bad thing.

– While I’ve been here I’ve been digging into programming iPhone and iPad apps and I’ve come up to speed nicely.  In fact, just today, I bid my first job to write an app.

– That’s the news.

– Cheers from New Zealand, my friends,

-dennis

 

Food, Corporations, Government and who’s got your back?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

– This is an original piece.  I feel pretty strongly about this stuff.  Comments will be welcomed.

– dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost….”

~ Galadriel – Lord of the Rings

 Things are changing all around us though most of us do not see it.   Indeed, the world is nothing but change, and when enough change is going on around you, it is easy to miss some of it.

Administrations change, inflation rises and falls, the stock market wobbles along, prices at the market and at the gas station always seem to rise but then, to be fair, our wages seem rise as well.  Sometimes, amid all that change, it’s hard to see if we’re losing or winning.  After all, we’ve got businesses, families and lives to live.   The daily round of just getting on with things absorbs us.

Maybe it has always gone on but it seems to me that if we want to pick out just one area where things are going wrong, we could talk about food.

Food is big money because, after all, the millions of people who comprise a nation all have to eat and most of them are not farmers.

So, food industries are born and food is brought to us through vast networks of growers, transporters, processors, storage facilities, packagers and wholesale and retail outlets.

There are people and corporations out there making vast fortunes supplying us with food.  And therein lies a problem because where ever big money goes, there also goes big temptation.

Recently, here in New Zealand where I live, the top local executive of the American corporation, Coca-Cola, criticized New Zealand for being ‘anti-business‘ in an interview (http://tinyurl.com/br6dxex) that he gave on the occasion of his departure from the country.  Some of us here in New Zealand, myself included, were not amused.

But the real irony of his comments came a few weeks later when a story came out in the New York Times entitled, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” (http://tinyurl.com/as52ncb).

This story details the efforts undertaken by major American food companies (like Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars) to create foods that we just cannot resist.

On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it?   It’s just good old Capitalism creating better products for the benefit of the American consumer?

But, it’s not all good news, I’m afraid.

These companies are corporations and they, especially the big publically held ones, are focused on only one thing and that is the maximization of profit for their shareholders.

When I say this (about corporations being solely about profits), I’m afraid that some folks might think this is some sort of a Liberal conspiracy theory on my part.

Well, it’s not.  Corporations are required in the U.S. by law to be primarily focused on profit.   You can read about it here: (http://tinyurl.com/3y63to)

In search of these profits, the big food companies, like those mentioned above, have established large and sophisticated laboratories setup to work out exactly how much of ‘this’ and how much of ‘that’ they should put into their products to make them as appealing to us as possible.  They know that the more appealing the products are, the more they will sell and thus the more they will profit.

Sadly, these companies have found through research that to maximize their sales they generally need to add more salt, fat and sugar.  And they also add preservatives and coloring agents and whatever else helps with the product’s visual appeal and its shelf life.  We all know that more salt, fat and sugar are not good for us, the consumers.   But, in the quest for profit, that becomes irrelevant.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here about how they optimize the appeal of their foods because it’s all in the article cited.

But remember, friends, that it is you and those you love that these companies are trying to manipulate into eating their junk food.   And they are not doing it for your health or welfare.

Quite simply, these folks do not care about whether the foods they create for profit  are making more and more of us obese or prone to diabetes (and they are making us more obese and prone to diabetes).   These concerns are irrelevant to them unless they should start to get ‘bad press’ that begins to hurt their sales.  But whichever way they turn, be assured it will be about profit.

So, to return to the subject of the Coca-Cola executive who criticized New Zealand for being ‘business unfriendly’ as he left?  One has to wonder what exactly he was criticizing New Zealanders for?  Did he judge them as  ‘unfriendly’ to business because people here in New Zealand might want to have some say in what foods they eat and how those foods might affect their health?

An American, Sinclair Lewis, said the following:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

I think this would be the reason why the American Coca-Cola executive could have trouble understanding what the New Zealanders are concerned about.

From his point-of-view, such worries could interfere with Coca-Cola’s profits and thus with his career with Coca-Cola.  So he labels New Zealand ‘unfriendly’ to business.  That’s cynical in my view.  Does he think that New Zealanders are suppose to trade their health for Coca-Cola’s profits?

This story I’ve been sharing with you about junk food science is just one example of how corporations will pursue their profits without regard for the health of the people they sell their products to.

And this is a global problem.   If one country resists having their health corrupted in the name of corporate profits, then the corporation involved can always move along to another country.

As an example, let’s reflect a bit on the tobacco industry.

These days, people take it for granted in the U.S. that nicotine is addictive and that smoking causes cancer.

But it wasn’t always so.   You don’t have to be too old to remember a time not long ago in 1994, when several of the top U.S. tobacco executives went before the U.S. Congress and testified that nicotine was not addictive (http://tinyurl.com/4xofj7).  But the tobacco industry’s real subterfuge with regard to defending their profits began long before that.  If you follow this link (http://tinyurl.com/cl78heo), you can read about this deeper history which is referred to as ‘Operation Berkshire’.

After the congressional hearings and a lot of debate, the U.S. forced tobacco companies to lower the tar and nicotine levels in their products and to place health warnings on their packaging.

The tobacco corporations simply shifted their focus to concentrate more on other countries where there were less protections against their predatory practices.   The Philippines was one such target.   That poor country has long been a prime target of the tobacco industry.  You can read about it here: (http://tinyurl.com/cgtb4vw)

So, let me point out yet once again, that these strategies by tobacco corporations to advance and expand their markets whenever and where ever they can, with no regard for the health of consumers, is simply standard behavior for corporate entities.  Their primary motivation is the maximize the profits of their shareholders and the rest, all the human misery they cause, is irrelevant to them.

All of this begs the question, for those of you who are fortunate enough to own stocks or mutual funds, do you know what corporations your money is invested in?   Do you know what they are doing?  Are you making profits on investments that, if you really stopped to see what these corporations are doing, that you would find repugnant?

Not long after I read the story about junk food science in the U.S., I began to read another one about the Horsemeat Scandal in Europe.  Details are here: (http://tinyurl.com/cobggsg).

You’d have to have been living in a cave recently to have not heard of how the Europeans discovered through DNA testing that all over western Europe, meat labeled as beef actually contained significant amounts of horsemeat.

It’s a sordid tale and at the bottom of it, as always, it will be found that someone somewhere (whether an individual or a corporation) found a way to make extra money by cheating and substituting the cheaper horsemeat.  And they didn’t think they’d get caught or they thought that they’d make so much money that the risk would be worth it.  I doubt that they thought much about whether or not folks wanted to eat horsemeat.

I know that a lot of people in the U.S. and in other countries as well (like here in New Zealand), think that we just have too much government.

But isn’t it the government that is suppose to protect us from horsemeat scandals, from aggressively marketed junk food and from cigarettes, among things?

Some folks believe that the markets should be left alone and allowed to regulate themselves.  They believe that in a free market “cheaters never prosper“.

Well, I think that history has shown over and over again ad nauseam that this is a particularly naive point of view.  The evidence clearly seems to be that cheaters prosper quite a bit.

Another article appeared about a week ago.   This time the subject was bogus seafood in the U.S.

This was a great wake-up call for everyone in the U.S. who might have been smirking over their morning coffee and newspaper at  the horsemeat scandal in Europe.

Here’s the story in all its gory detail if you want to skip right to it: (http://tinyurl.com/buwrj5b).

It turns that an organization called Oceana.Org conducted DNA testing and determined that 33% of all fish samples subjected to testing in the U.S. were mislabeled.

That 59 percent of fish sold as tuna in U.S. restaurants and grocery stores is not actually tuna.

By retail outlets they found that, seafood was mislabeled 18 percent of the time in grocery stores, 38 percent of the time in restaurants and 74 percent of the time in sushi venues.

That 84 percent of fish samples described as ‘white tuna’ were actually Escolar.  Escolar is a type of Snake Mackerel that has rich, buttery flesh, but unpleasant side effects.

What side-effects, you ask?

Oh, just ‘prolonged, oily anal leakage’ for some of the people who eat it; nothing much.

And it only takes about 6 ounces of Escolar to cause this effect.

So, let’s go back to the ‘less government’ idea again.

Who exactly is it that we think is going to test for stuff like this?  Who is it that will ensure that when someone sells us something they call ‘Tuna’, that it is what they say it is?

While you are thinking about that, consider that 90% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.  And less than 1% of that is tested.

Consider as well that human nature seems to be such that there’s always going to be someone who, when given the opportunity to make significantly more money, is going to ‘work’ the system to do so if they can.  We can count on it.

So, shouldn’t it be obvious that someone is going to substitute cheaper varieties of fish for the more expensive ones unless they are prevented from doing so?

We’d all like to think that folks won’t cheat us, but the blindingly obvious fact is, many of them will.

In this case, it was an organization called Oceana.org (http://tinyurl.com/bxawv7x) that discovered the substitutions; not the U.S. government.

That was lucky for the American public.  But in my opinion, people should not have to rely on luck to uncover this stuff.

So, when you hear the siren song of ‘less government’ you should think about all of this.

So, why doesn’t the U.S. government protect Americans better on these sorts of issues now?   Well, sometimes they do.  But as the opening quote of the article suggests, “The world has changed”.  And it is continuing to change.

Part of the reason is because increasingly a lot of Americans believe in the idea of “less government”.  And, because they vote, their beliefs are reflected how the government runs and what it does.

Another reason is because it is in the best interest of many big corporations and high-net-worth individuals to prevent the government from making laws that interfere with their profits.  Thus these folks unleash armies of lobbyists and bags of money in their efforts to influence and control law makers.

And yet another reason is because of what’s called “The Revolving Door”.  The Revolving Door is the practice whereby a man who yesterday worked as an executive at a big coal mining company will somehow today be appointed to a high office in government to oversee the coal industry.

You can read about this practice here: (http://tinyurl.com/yzhndor)

The Revolving Door practice has been going on for a long time and it truly is an example of letting the fox into the chicken coop.  But, somehow in the U.S. (and in other countries) this has become an accepted way of doing things.  And a seriously dysfunctional way, in my opinion.

Regarding “less government”, I don’t like the over-the-top Liberal ‘nanny-state’ anymore than the next individual.  But people do, in fact, need government to  regulate business so we can all maintain our quality of life.   What we don’t need are governments that exist primarily to protect the rights of the corporations.

But, in my view, the sad truth is that these days corporations are slowly and inexorably increasing their control over our governments.

Witness the “Citizens United” ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that says “corporations are people” (http://tinyurl.com/b4czkdp).  As a result of this ruling, corporations cannot now be limited in how much money they can donate to political campaigns.   Does that stink or what?

What do I want from my government in the U.S. or here in New Zealand (or anywhere else for that matter)?

I’d like to know that my government inspects my food and ensures that if I buy something called Tuna, that that’s what I’m getting.

I’d like a government that exerts itself to keep its populace well informed as to why the junk food being cooked up by the large corporations to maximize their profits may not be the best thing for people to eat.

I’d live a government staffed by people who haven’t just, for example, walked out the door of a coal mining company and are now sitting at a desk in the government office responsible for regulating the same coal industry.

I’d like a government that realizes that corporations bent solely on profit may not always make the best decisions for a people or for a country.  A government that will protect us against their worst excesses.

These are common sense ideas to me and most of us, I believe, would like think that this is how things are done.

But, I have to tell you, they are in general not being done this way and every day the influence of the corporations and big money over our governments grows.

Would you believe me if I said that corporations don’t even care about the health of nations?

Many people think that the economic problems in the U.S. began long before the melt-down of 2008.

They think that it actually began when many of the big U.S. based multi-national corporations realized that they could increase their profits by moving their U.S. based manufacturing operations overseas.  The corporate logic was that it will cost less to make it over there and we can therefore make more profit when we sell it.

That was good thinking for those corporations but it was bad for America.  The net result?   America has beggared itself.

Just ask yourself, how can a country remain a net creator of wealth when it isn’t making anything to sell?

And if it is not generating more than it is spending, how it can ever expect to pay off an ever increasing national debt?

So, off shoring was good for the corporations and absolutely ruinous for the American economy.   But the corporations didn’t care.  It was, as always, all about their profits.

So, the American national debt rises every year and the battles in Washington, D.C. about what to do about the debt get more and more rancorous all the time.  Everyone’s fallen into blaming everyone else because there isn’t any good solution to the mess the corporations have put us into.

The Liberals blame the Conservatives and the Conservatives blame the Liberals and the big corporate interests who are getting richer and richer just keep pouring money and lobbyists into Washington, D.C. every year to make sure that things don’t change in any way that will affect their profits.

But it gets even worse.

The main overseas beneficiary of sending American manufacturing offshore has been China.

China is the largest Communist country in the world.  China used to be dirt poor and now it is overflowing in American dollars.

America, helped by the mercenary multi-national corporations, has sent China all the money  it needs to convert the Chinese third rate, third-world military into something with first world capabilities so that now it is a force to be reckoned with.

The Chinese may look capitalistic but their government is Communist to the core and their ambition to remake us all in their image has never faded.

And, in the mean time, America’s having trouble paying its bills.

Corporations, unchecked, are a bad idea.  But they are, of course, just doing what comes natural to them when they seek profits above all else.

The truth is that they’re a lot like a junk-yard dog; it’s been trained to bite people and that’s what it does.   But you wouldn’t let a junk-yard dog run loose on the street, unchained, would you?

To be fair, corporations are good in many ways.  They drive innovation, they provide jobs, and they help the economy grow and prosper.   But they are too mono-maniacal in their focus on profit to be allowed to ‘run free’.  They, quite naturally, don’t care about the health of people or even the health of nations.

It’s my strong opinion that in every country, the number one priority of government should be to maximize the quality of life for the people of that nation.  The freedom of corporations should always be of a secondary priority.

Corporations should be allowed freedom of action only so long as their actions do not impinge on the quality of life or the freedom of the people.  Corporations will, of course, make less profits this way.  But this world should not primarily be about their profits but, rather, about the quality of life for all of us.

Until we make such a decision about our priorities, we will continue to be abused by those who care only about their profits.  Horsemeat, bogus fish, revolving doors, and foods designed to addict us and kill us.  How much evidence do we need?

Two-year anniversary of the Christchurch Earthquake – 22 Feb 2011

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Several people today, on the two-year anniversary, have published retrospectives about the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 and what happened to them then. 

I’ve decided to resurrect something I wrote not long after the quake and to republish it here today in honor of the two-year anniversary and to add a bit of a postscript to it describing some of what’s happened since then. 

Hope you enjoy it. Be warned, it’s a long read.

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After an intense eight days, I managed to reconnect to the Internet and get my computer running. As many of you are aware, we had a major 6.3 earthquake here in Christchurch, New Zealand, at mid-day on Tuesday, February 22nd. The epicenter was six miles/10K southeast of the city center and 3 miles/5k deep. That’s’ very close and very shallow and it was, to say the least, a major event for all the 300,000 people who live here. 

We expect the death toll to approach 240. Compared to some recent events like Haiti, that doesn’t sound like much. But the difference is, of course, building codes crafted for safety and followed when building. 

But, even so, we had two large buildings pancake entirely and the tallest building in town; a 26 story hotel, is leaning badly and will have to be destroyed. In the Central Business District , 30% or more of the buildings have been destroyed or will have to be taken down. The entire center of the city, called the Four Avenues area (several square miles), is entirely off-limits and cordoned off by military and police. 55,000 people are off work because of the cordon. At this time, they are still digging bodies out of the rubble. 

I was lucky to have taken the day of the earthquake off and I was riding my motorcycle when it happened. The ground shook so badly, that I thought I had a flat tire and stopped – but it kept shaking. When it finally stopped, I rode onto my apartment building to see what had happened and everyone was outside. 

There didn’t seem to be much damage at first glance but closer inspection revealed several disquieting things. There were large and widespread liquefaction pools in the park across the street. A walk down below into the parking garage revealed water gushing up from the base of the support columns and that the concrete garage floor was serious bowed up from pressure beneath. Upstairs, at the base of the building I lived in, there was serious damage to the supporting concrete and its internal rebar was exposed. Everyone was standing out in the parking lot talking and waiting for the aftershocks. 

I concluded that the buildings were very likely fatally damaged and I went upstairs to gather what I could. Two bags of a minimal set of clothes, my passport, checkbooks, coat, bathroom items and a few other essentials. While I was doing this, my friend, Colette, had walked from her work at the courthouse a quarter mile away to see how I was. But I was upstairs and missed her. I came down with my bags and texted her and she text-replied that she was now walking to her house in Hoon Hay; about an hour’s walk away. I spent some time talking with folks in the parking lot of my complex and then I went down and retrieved my second motorcycle from the parking garage below and brought it up. It had been thrown to the floor by the force of the quake and the handle bars were bent but still drivable. Water was beginning to fill up the garages, below.

I took off then to drive to Colette’s house to see what sort of shape it was in. That was one amazing ride. Destruction was on all sides. Water and sand and silt filled many of the roads from liquefaction. Cars and anxious people were grid locked everywhere in their efforts to get home to their loved ones. My motorcycle made it easier to weave in and out of traffic but it was also very dangerous as people were very distracted. At one point, I fell in behind an ambulance with its siren on which was slowly clearing a way through and I just followed in its wake. It took me 45 minutes to make the 15 minute ride and Colette and I arrived at her place at just about the same moment. 

Her battery powered radio said that the quake had measured as 6.3; Apparently a lighter event than the September 4th event at 7.1. But, this one was a lot closer and shallow. The water and power were off there but her place seemed to have suffered no obvious damage. Her son, Jonathan, arrived after a long and harrowing drive up from Ferrymead and, while we were all talking about the event, a major aftershock hit. It was big enough that I stood under a doorway and wondered if her house would stand it. The ceiling light over her dining room tore loose and smashed down onto the glass-topped dining room table.

I left then by foot to walk back to my apartment complex to try recover my 2nd motorcycle and to begin to pull more stuff out of my apartment. I strongly suspected that if the building was fatally damaged, as I suspected, then the authorities would be by before long to red-sticker it and then all access further would be blocked; perhaps forever until it was demolished. But, given that the disaster was city wide and serious, I estimated that I had some hours and maybe even days before such restrictions were put in place. 

Colette and I agreed that when I got there and had a brought down a load of stuff from my apartment and had it ready for transport, I’d text her and she’d drive over and we’d load it up in her car to take to her place. There was no point in her trying to come over immediately in her car, however, as the city’s streets were still in utter chaos. 

It took me an hour and ten minutes to walk back. It was an amazing walk for the entire distance. Some areas had sustained no damage and there were others where entire rows of shop fronts were just tumbled down. Sirens, cars, anxious people, water and silt everywhere. By the time I passed Hagley Park near my place, a helicopter landing area had been set up out in the open space for emergency transport. I also walked by the hospital and I could see a lot of folks sitting out on the grassy areas around it. I assumed that some of the wards had been evacuated. 
Back at my apartment complex, many people were still standing about in the parking lot. A few were actively bringing things down from their units but many were just standing around drinking beer and thinking that the damage was not that bad and that we’d all just go back upstairs in a bit and it would be over. 

My unit is in the B Block on level 5. New Zealanders call the ground floor 0 whereas in the US, we call the ground floor 1. So in Kiwi terms, I was on the fifth floor but in the US, we’d say I was on the 6th. Not an inconsequential distinction since I was now about to start climbing up and down the six flights of emergency stairs over and over again. The elevators were off as well as all sources of power and water. The only thing that seemed to be functioning were high-pitched alarm warnings that were repeatedly squealing on every floor and within every unit – as if we hadn’t noticed there was a problem. 

This began several hours of intense packing and carrying. I’m sure I made over 20 trips up and down. And, there was a lot of triage style decision making as I went along. I took the most important things first and then tried to work my way down. After two hours, I sent a text to Colette asking her to come over now to load up if she could. And then I pressed on. I never heard from her so I texted again in 15 minutes. And then repeatedly after that ever trip down; and still got no reply. 

At that point, the phone systems and cellular systems were massively overloaded in the city and very little was getting through. Sometimes partial messages came through four and five times in a row. I tried calling her land line and the system told me it didn’t recognize the number; which was an amazing response. I kept carrying and soon I had quite a lot of stuff gathered up in the parking lot in piles next to my 2nd motorcycle. 

Finally, I called her land line one more time and it went through and she answered. She’d been texting me as well but with no response. She agreed to head over and I continued to carry things down. I was pretty sure that I probably had two car loads down in the parking by now (she’s got a small hatchback). 

After 30 minutes, I began to watch for her as I continued to carry. I went up and down many times and my legs were seriously aching. After an hour and a half, she still hadn’t arrived and I was getting worried about what had happened to her. And, it was verging onto rain and all my stuff was sitting exposed in the parking lot. Computers, clothes, and cardboard boxes full of my life. 

Finally, she arrive on foot. Without proof that she was a resident in the area, she’d been unable to get her car through the police cordons which had closed off the center of the city so she’d finally had to park a very long distance away and walk in.

We got on my 2nd motorcycle and rode back to her car, and then left the motorcycle there and brought the car back in (I had a driver’s license proving I lived there). 

Now, it was raining in earnest and I was deeply worried about my things. There was no worries about looting though as I knew many of my neighbors who were milling about in the complex’s parking lot. We loaded up everything that we could in her car and stashed the rest under a partial overhang for rain protection and took off for her place. Each trip through the city was an amazing and different experience. The city was like a bee hive that had been kicked. At this point, we had no idea of how bad the destruction had been over more into the business core. 

At Colette’s place, we unloaded my stuff into her garage. In her house, there was still no water or power. So, after a few minutes, I suggested we might as well go back and pick up the rest of my stuff since there wasn’t much we could do at her house in the dark and cold. 

On each trip, we encountered roadblocks and at each roadblock, what was allowed and not allowed changed according to who you were talking to at that moment. On one trip in the pouring rain we couldn’t go east on Harper Avenue because the bridge over the Avon was damaged and we’d fall in. So we had to take a complex detour around into Papanui. But, an hour and a half later when we returned, the traffic was flowing both ways on Harper. I’m not saying this by way of complaint – it’s just that the level of confusion and misinformation throughout the city was very intense and everyone was trying to do their best in the midst of a huge city-wide disaster. 

We returned to the complex and most of the people in the parking lot had cleared away due to the rain. Some, like my friend Raj and his partner, were still trying to decide if they should try to sleep there that night without water and power or not. The aftershocks were still coming fairly regularly and some were quite big. With no water or power in the rain, the buildings were just large dark hulking masses. 

We loaded my remaining stuff and took off again for yet one more cross city drive. When we returned to Colette’s we found the power had come back on which was unexpected and lovely. We could make now tea to warm ourselves and have something to eat. The water, however, was still off. 

That night, we tried to sleep but we didn’t sleep much. Every 20 minutes or so, there’d be another aftershock. The violence of some of them was strong and as I lay there, I wondered how strong they’d get and if I’d have to seek shelter on the floor beside the bed. You could hear some of them coming from a distance like a low train rumble and others hit you suddenly like a slap under the house. Some were deep or distant and rumbled far away while others were shallow. You could feel the earth settling and resettling on a scale that was, and is, very hard to imagine. It make one feel very small indeed. 

Colette’s talked about having survivor’s guilt over the fact that while so many lost had their homes, she’d come through unscathed. The emotions for everyone run high in something like this. 

Death, acts of quiet heroism, anguish, fear and grief mixed with human compassion and caring gathered around all of us in all proportions amid the many scenes of destruction. 

Watching how a ‘civil’ society responds to something like this is also an education. Yes, there were looters and con-artists out immediately but they were the tiny minority. 

The real picture there in Christchurch in those terrible days was that it wasn’t every man for himself but more that everyone was looking out for each other when they could. The emergency folks were out immediately and worked for days without rest even while they had no idea of the state of their own homes and little knowledge of their loved ones. it was ‘Civil’ in that folks obeyed directions and pulled over to let the ambulances through. The search and rescue folks from the US and Japan and other countries who came in the days following the quake said that they had never encountered better civil disaster coordination organization. People worked incessantly to get the water and power back on as soon as humanly possible. Centers were set up and manned immediately for the homeless. The Mayor said over the radio, “Check on your neighbors and help them” and it wasn’t a cliché. 

The next morning after the big quake, on Wednesday, we went back over to my apartment again and Colette came upstairs with me and we began to pack up more stuff for transport. Everything in my kitchen cabinets had been tossed out onto the hard floor and sugar was mixed with pills and glass shards as well as tools and silverware. It was a huge mess. My bookcases had also dumped their contents all the way across the room. 

She gathered up everything salvageable from the kitchen and from the drawers of my desk while I packed various other things. Again, we made multiple trips up and and then, in the mid-afternoon, it became obvious that the authorities had arrived and were about to restrict entry to the buildings. 

On my next to last trip I was told by a police officer that I couldn’t enter the building again. But Colette has talked to another officer at about the same time and had determined that what the law actually said was that until the building had been officially assigned a red ‘no-go’ sticker, that the authorities present could only ‘advise’ you not to enter rather than prevent you. 

This was an important distinction for me because I’d just realized just minutes earlier that I’d failed, in all my previous trips, to get a box that was critical. It contained a lifetime of slides and all my family photographs that had been passed down to me from previous generations. I talked to another police officer to make sure of my facts and then I went back to the gate where the officers weren’t letting folks in anymore. 
I explained what was still up there and that I needed to, I had to, go up one more time. And I explained that I was aware of what the law was in this case. The policeman tried to bluff me but I told him that if he was going to stop me, then he was going to have to arrest me. I was nice, not confrontive, but firm. Finally he relented but said I had to be in and out as quickly as I could; and I agreed. And thus, my family photos were saved as well. 

At Colette’s, when we’d returned with the last of the stuff, the water had come back albiet with very low pressure – but it was on, so that was nice. We could have showers. The tap water however, if consumed, had to be boiled according to the authorities. Pipes were broken, sewage was running loose, and there was too much danger of cross over. 

Thursday dawned and we’d slept better; maybe we were getting used to the aftershocks. 

After some rearranging of things (my stuff was scattered everywhere), we went on a motorcycle ride to see what had become of the city and to revisit my apartment complex; even though we couldn’t get in. We found that physical security there was loose and we could still walk into the complex’s parking lot as well as into the parking lot of The George Hotel next door. 

A half dozen folks were still in the complex gathered at the two small isolated apartments near the front car gate. They were drinking beers and having a barbeque. They said they were ‘guarding’ the place but I suspect some of them were just there because they didn’t know where else to go and because the authorities hadn’t tightened the security cordon and ejected them yet. But the main part of the complex (the high-rise buildings) was definitely off-limits. 

In the coming days, we took numerous motorcycle rides through the various parts of the city and revisited the apartment complex repeatedly. With each visit, the physical security cordon grew tighter. The entire Four Avenues area, which is considered to the Central Business District (CBD) of Christchurch, was cordoned off with police and military. It became common to see armored personnel carriers rolling down the street or parked across intersections. 

By Friday, the authorities decided that two of the apartment complex towers; A & B, might fall down in a large aftershock so an additional restriction was placed around them and Park Terrace Road from Bealey on the north to Armagh on the south was made a no-go zone. Also, a 6 PM to 6 AM curfew was imposed for the entire Four Avenues area with arrest-on-sight orders issued. In the deeper interior of the CBD, near where the two buildings had pan-caked and surrounding the 26 story Grand Excelsior Hotel, which had acquired a highly visible lean during the initial quake, addition ‘no-go’ zones were imposed. 

By Saturday, no one was left in my apartment complex. 

With each ride, we visited different areas. Once, we went up Avondale to my friend Roy’s house to find him sweeping up. He thought his house would probably be condemned. All around the edges, the foundations had shattered. We tried to visit my friend Dorien’s place but I wasn’t willing to take the motorcycle through the huge puddles blocking her street without knowing what was under them and how deep they were; so we rode on. 

We rode down through Ferrymead on the way to the beach communities. It reminded me of driving in third-world cities where road repair are often very badly neglected and everyone just drives where ever they must to avoid the holes and garbage piles. In places, the remains of brick buildings would just lie in ruins. Entire walls would be fallen away in other places. 

By now, crews of people, many of them part of volunteer student armies, just went where ever they were needed and began to shovel up all the liquefaction sand and silt up into piles on the sides of the roads. Everywhere, people had painted warnings on the roads of holes or dips or rises. 
Down by the beach, a Christchurch icon, Shag Rock, which had stood in the shallow surf, was shattered into fragments. 

Further along, the backs of houses were caved in by the rock and dirt slides that came down the cliffs above them. A number of people had died in these places. We stopped to see our friend, Steve who lived in the area, but he was out. His apartment looked fine though he told us later there was no water or power. He’d been involved in some of the early rescues when the cliffs had fallen onto the houses not far from his place. When we were there, I think he was still out doing volunteer work. 

It’s now 12 days since the quake. It took me 8 days before I got my DSL switched over to Colette’s (she’d had dial-up before) and before I got my computer connected up so I could get and send E-Mail. Prior to that, I sent a few things out on Facebook via dial-up and I had an E-Mail address I’d setup on my iPhone. A few of you will have communicated with me via those mediums. 

When I did open up my E-Mail, I had so many messages of concern – people asking how I was and what could they do. It was really quite a beautiful thing to see how many friends care about you. Many of you reading this are part of that group – thank you! 

Indications are that my apartment will be demolished – though the issue hasn’t had a final decision made. I’ve filed claims with the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and with State Insurance who had my policy covering the things inside my apartment. It’ll take a good long time to see how the entire insurance picture unrolls; years, perhaps. This was a big hit for a small country. We’ve yet to convene a meeting of the Body Corporate for my apartment complex, Park Terrace (for US readers, that’s like a Condominium Association). The BC had the insurance policy that covered us all and, as you can imagine, everyone wants to know if we’re going to get 50 cents on the dollar or full value for our losses. 

The company I work for was in the high rise BNZ building just beside Cathedral Square. If you’ve seen pictures of Christchurch and the earthquake damage, you’ve likely seen the ruins of the Cathedral. Our building appears from the outside to be OK but it’ll likely be weeks, if not months, before that part of the city is opened again. In the mean time, those of us who’ve begun to return to work, have setup to work from home or from other employee’s homes or from small make-shift offices. Fortunately, most of the services we provide to customers are provided from server systems sitting in US based server farms – far from Christchurch. 

I’m staying now with my friend, Colette, and it looks like that may work out to be a long-term thing – and I’m happy about that. Most of my personal stuff has been saved. I’ve had a big loss but I’ve also been fortunate. If I’d been working that day, I might well have been sitting at lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes that was decimated by falling masonry – many were killed that way. 

So, I have a good place to stay and people around me that care about me. And it looks like my job will continue. It could have been far, far worse. 

———————

Postscript: I’m republishing the text, above, on the two year anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake. And here’s a bit of what’s happened since:

The City of Christchurch is still badly damaged. People talk about the city now being into the ‘rebuild’ phase. Personally, I have my doubts. Yes, some things have been built and signs of life are definitely appearing in many formerly bleak locals. But, there are still more buildings coming down than are going up and large expanses are still standing forlorn and empty where formerly buildings stood. 

The authorities and the public (and the press) are all still debating about what the new city will look like and the matter is still mostly undecided. There’s a contingent there in Christchurch who want a green, beautiful and livable city. And there are the folks who will be fronting the money to build whatever’s built. And the latter group sees the problem though eyes that measure most things on the dollar-return-per-square-meter yardstick.

The government’s got its oar in, the insurance companies are having their say, the city council, the public, the press, the new agers, the anarchists, and Uncle Bob Cobbly. Everyone’s talking and not much is getting done, in my opinion.

My apartment complex is an instructive case. None of us in the 103 units were ever able to live there again after February 22nd, 2011. For a long time, it was thought the buildings might be repairable. But then the two June 2011 quakes came and then, finally, the big one hit in late December 2011 – and that put paid to it all and the EQC declared it too badly damaged to repair and even had two of the five buildings pulled down on an urgent basis (that’s when they just take them down; contents and all).

It’s two years on now and the insurance and Body Corporate negotiations over the destroyed apartment complex are still going on. I’m hopeful that we may see a payout in the next six months but, in truth, I am not holding my breath.

I moved into Colette’s place the day of the quake on an emergency basis. And, two years later, we’re still living together and it is, and has been all along, an excellent relationship.

My employer, SLI Systems, hung on and found temporary quarters in Syndham. I stayed with them until January of 2012. They were great employers and people. But at 64, my heart was no longer in working on other folk’s convoluted and long-in-the-tooth software. I still love programming but I only want to work on my own stuff and to be able to do the way I like it. 

Fortunately, I have enough income to make that call. These days, after a long rest (of 10 months) from programming anything other than a coffee machine, I’m once again back into programming and am deep into developing an app for the iPhone / iPad market and having a blast figuring out the Apple paradigm.

I’ve been back to the U.S. three times in these two years for a total of four months total there, over to Ozzy several times for vacations and off for five days to Rarotonga once. So, it’s not been a bad time for me.

Currently, my partner, Colette, and I are living temporarily up in Wellington, New Zealand, for four months just to give ourselves a break from Christchurch.

So, the earthquakes in Christchurch have had a profound effect on my life. New beginnings and endings, as they say. Eventually, I’ll get paid out for the apartment; which I’d free-held, and I’ll put that away into term deposits and use the interest to live on while I play at programming and at being retired. I would have never guessed that my life would look like this two years ago.

Thanks for reading along.

– dennis

Personal – 28 January 2013

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

– I correspond with a lot of folks in a Yahoo Group called Expats-in-New-Zealand.  These are wanna-be immigrants to New Zealand, folks who’ve just arrived and folks who’ve been here for years – all in a big discussion about what it is like to be an immigrant to New Zealand.   Most of the folks are Americans though many other countries are represented as well.   FYI, of all the folks who immigrate to NZ, only about 3% are Americans.

– Below, is a piece I recently wrote and posted on the Yahoo group summing up my experiences in NZ.  It was in response to a flurry of such pieces in which folks were discussing what they liked and what they didn’t like about New Zealand and about how much the experience has been as they expected and how much of it has been a surprise.

– Not everyone who immigrates, stays.   I’ve heard that as many as 30% of folks return to where they came from for various reasons.  It is, after all, not always greener on the other side of the fence.

– In any case, these were my thoughts and I thought I’d share them here on Samadhisoft as well.

– Cheers

-Dennis

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

All,

My New Zealand immigrant story.

I secured, with my then wife, a resident’s visa in 2006 and finally moved here permanently (sans wife) in 2009.  It’s a long story about the wife but the simplest explanation is that she changed her mind and I did not.  I will, however, be forever grateful to her because I would have never secured the right to immigrate here without her as she was younger and better educated.

Be all of that as it may, I’ve been here permanently since 2009 in Christchurch.

My story is different than a lot of folks, I suspect.  When the residence visa was granted us in 2006, I was 58; already past the use-by date of 55.  When I shifted here permanently in 2009, I was 62.  Now I’m 65 and I’ve got Social Security from the USA and a Gold Card here in NZ.

On the good side, I free-held a nice apartment then in Christchurch.  On the bad side, I was ending a 20 year marriage that I thought was going to be for life.

But I had, and still have, good friends here.  People, other American immigrants, that I’d met through this group in 2006.  Friendships that have endured all this time and become central in my life.

Then came the Christchurch earthquakes and I lost the apartment and all the patterns of my life were tossed in the air – just as I was beginning to feel some daylight following the ending of my marriage.

But, life has a way of smiling upon fools.  A Kiwi lady I’d been dating prior to the quake took me in as a temporary measure and we are both living together still today and it has become a wonderful relationship and the emotional center of my new life.

I’ve always liked people and I find it fairly easy to meet and get to know new folks.  So, my circles have grown.   My original US expat friends are still my core group.  Colette, my partner, has introduced me into her extended family and friends.  I’ve met people through meditation groups, through a men’s group, through open mike poetry readings, and through motorcycle riding.  I worked as a programmer for nearly two years with a Kiwi high tech company, SLI Systems.   I met many Kiwis there as well as other immigrants like myself.

My younger son has come over and has a work permit, works in Christchurch and now lives with a beautiful Kiwi women on a farm not far outside of the city.

So, with some rough patches, my new life here has worked out well for me.  But, as I said, my story is a bit different.

Most of the people who come here from the US are more into the central part of their life and careers.  Their careers are mid-stream, they have children and mortgages and they are still building their finances.

I came nearer the end of my life and career – though my health is still excellent.   My finances, between what the apartment was worth and what I get from the US Social Security, mean that I can live simply but well without having to work anymore.  My partnership with Colette has also helped in that.   She owns her house free-hold and is near the end of her career with the New Zealand Ministry of Justice and, by sharing our finances, we are both empowered.

It’s been with some sadness that I’ve watched others come to New Zealand and then depart again for a variety of reasons.   But, I don’t think there are mistakes.   Just events we experience and learn from.  A couple with the last name of Rice left because they found a glass ceiling over their heads at the University.  Another couple, Mike and Cara left because Mike couldn’t find a pathway to use his considerable artistic talents.  There have been others and each story is different.

Today, it’s Curtis and Amy from Wellington who are heading home.

I’ve dealt with the fact that I have many people I still cherish back in the USA by resolving to go home once a year for a month or two and to see all of them.   And, for the last two years, I’ve done this and will continue to.  I drive all up and down the west coast sleeping on couches and sharing stories of where we are now, in our lives.   Those bonds, build of a lifetime’s love, are too important to me to let them wither with distance and inattention.

As a fact, I deeply love the US and its people.   But, just as certainly, I detest the politics, the corporations and the politics with a passion.  It is, in my mind, an empire in collapse from within riven by the greed of those who are looting her.  But, like all such things in history, when you are in the middle of living it, it is very difficult to see clearly.

I’m here, probably, for good.   I never say never because, as I’ve found so clearly in my own life, life can turn on a dime.   But, for right now, that’s what I’m thinking.

Colette and I have made plans to go and see some of this amazing world while it’s still intact and while we can.  And as I said, I can get by without working if I’m careful.   Colette will be able to maintain well if she works on contract work for about six months of the year and then she’ll be free to play the other six.   So, our plan is to spend three to four months a year each year in a different foreign city.  Perhaps, two cities a year.   This year, we’re spending four months here in Wellington while things wrap up for her with her government job (she’s been made redundant).   Then, in June, we’re off for  month in the US while I visit my peeps.

And then, for July, August and September, we’ll be in Paris living frugally in a small apartment.   Shopping each day in the local markets, walking the city, seeing the many museums and just generally ‘being there’ as a way of seeing directly what it’s like to live there.

After that, we’re back to Christchurch.  The next year?   We’re not sure yet.   Montreal, Canada, Vancouver, Canada, Florianopolis, Brazil have all been discussed.   Maybe even Cuba?  In 2014, I’ll have my NZ citizenship which I’ve been waiting patiently to acquire.

Life has been good here in NZ though I do have my gripes.   Why does Steinlager cost $15 a six pack here and $6 in the US and Britain?   There are many economic anomalies like that which makes me suspect that under all their good-natured Kiwi masks, their lie some skanky good-old-boy networks here cornering markets and suppressing the sorts of competition that keep prices low.  No proof, of course – just suspicions.  Book prices?   Give me a break!

And then there’s John Key and the Nationals wanting to always put business interests to the top of the pile and to disassemble the social nets.   Sell the asserts, trim the education programs and sign onto free trade agreements with economic sharks like the US – putting NZ freedoms and self-determination at risk.  Don’t get me started.

But, the one thing to say about NZ is that it’s better here than in the US.   Just today, I read that in the US in the next few days, a law is coming into effect that will make it illegal for folks to break the ties that make their cell phones dependent on one network.   After that, if you have a phone (that you own outright) that is tied to the AT&T network, for example, you will not be able to liberate it without breaking the law.   Isn’t that sweet – for the networks and the phone manufacturers?

I want to mention one other thing before I end this long piece.

Part of the reason I’m here is that I love NZ.  Another part is that I detest the US’s politics and economics, as I said.

But there’s still a third reason and that has to do with the fact that I think the world’s getting unstable; environmentally and politically.  There are a lot of meters creeping up into the red zone.  But they are moving so slowly that it is easy to get used to the rising sounds of impending political and environmental doom and gloom and to just take them all for granted.

But I believe, at some point not too far (5 years .. 20 years?), the wheels are going to come off and there’s going to be a major global reset and many millions are going to die.  Quite some time ago, when I first became aware of all this, I decided that very probably one of the best places one could find themselves and their families would be right here in NZ.  The low population, the high food production, the physical isolation, and the strong infrastructure all tell me that if chaos begins, New Zealand may be able to hold the remnants of civilization together while the rest crumbles.

Something else to think about if you are thinking of where you might want to end up.

Thanks for reading my story.

Cheers,

Dennis Gallagher

2006 Seattle -> Christchurch