Bertold Brecht had a dirty mind, politically speaking. He suspected the worst of men in power, knowing human nature well. From artists working within political systems he demanded works of art that made people think. He wanted warning fables. This, then, is a warning fable of our time:
Jack and Jill, having saved their money and being in love, decided to get married. Both were working, both in good health. Helped by Jill’s parents, they put a deposit on a modest house and took out a mortgage. The rates were high but Jack reasoned they’d come down soon; the Government said they would, because inflation was down.
It was just three months after they moved in that Jack was made redundant. Without warning the business in which he was assistant warehouse clerk went into receivership. The closure was announced by a top executive at a snap meeting in the staff canteen. Jack could not believe his ears. The top executive, assisted by graphs and an overhead projector, showed how sales had declined while costs had risen and productivity had remained constant.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘The decision to suspend operations for a time is final. Wage settlements including holiday pay are being drawn up by the accounts department. I think that’s all there is to say.’ An angry murmur rose. The top executive departed hurriedly. The door was held open for him by one of the sales staff and he climbed into his Holden Commodore and drove speedily away.
My image is the Poverty Trap – the kind of insect trap made in a large jar; the neck is wide but narrows to a small aperture just wide enough for the falling insect to tumble through. Below, the jar widens and its walls are smooth, so the creature is trapped. I believe the legislation passed over the last few years results in just such an economic poverty trap. In it, a sizeable proportion of our population will never attain economic freedom, and will be united only in their resentment, fear, lack of education, ill-health, and cynicism. The consequences will change forever the nature of our society, so that when we finally wake up we will look at our diminished freedoms and relative impotence and cry aloud for the world we have lost.
Capitalism places economic power in the hands of a small number of executives who may or may not be men of honour. They usually have inside knowledge and the means, through clever manipulation, to hide the truth of their undertakings till disaster strikes. Employees depend on these men, and ultimately on the economic and social theory that guides their actions. Recent New Zealand governments have placed their faith in the economy as the sole means of ‘saving’ the country. The argument runs like this: if we encourage exports, hold down imports, restrict domestic spending, the country will prosper. The external debt will be paid off and … (then at last we can begin to think about the kind of society we want and can afford).
By and large, economies are of two types, those that are regulated and those that trust the marketplace. In recent years governments have privatised and sold off public assets, frequently in defiance of public outcry; the sale of Telecom is a glaring instance. This is to move us towards a market-driven economy, which we are well on the way to having. This might not be too bad if the marketplace took account of social values, but it does not. The market is mindless; it completely lacks imagination and moral sense. It does, however, respond to aggression, and its catchphrase is ‘user pays’ – a slogan with which we are already sickeningly familiar.
‘User pays’ might be fine for private purchase of luxury goods; applied to essential goods and services it is lethal. Charging for what we need to stay alive emphasises inequality; it widens the poverty trap while reducing the escape aperture, totally destroying the fabric of society. It is one of the tragedies of this system that it rewards the already well off and denies the already hard pressed.
One of the reasons capitalism is so strong is that it reflects the pyramidal power structure of government, so that its destructive consequences seem almost like a law of nature. They are not. Power sharing is just as valid, as proportional representation is a valid electoral system.
That night Jack talked the matter over with Jill. She was reassuring. ‘Don’t worry, love. I still have a job; you’ll soon get another one – and if you don ‘t there’s always the dole. And I have something special to tell you.’
‘I don’t want to be a dole bludger,’ said Jack. ‘I’m fit and strong, and besides, I like working.’
‘Of course you do. But the dole is just away of making sure people don’t die of starvation when they’re hit by hard times. It’s your right. You’ve paid for it in tax ‘
Jack still sounded puzzled.
‘They said at work that the closure was planned so the management could reorganise and offer new contracts, but all that’s happened is this sacking.’
Jack had never really concerned himself with politics or looked closely at the way society is managed. ‘That’s for them in the Beehive, they’re paid for it aren’t they?’ he’d said, echoing his father. He was keener on sport. If people didn’t do well it was somehow their own fault wasn’t it? His sudden dismissal was the first time life had dealt him a punishing blow, and he was still reeling from it.
‘You haven’t asked me what my secret is,’ said Jill.
‘You won the Instant Kiwi.’
‘I’m going to have a baby. We’re…’
Jack was unemployed for four months and then pocketed his pride and applied for an unemployment benefit, only to discover he wasn’t eligible. Jill earned $380 a week before tax, giving them a monthly income, before tax, of $1520. The cut off figure was $3 77 per week, or $1508.
Jack found the daily round of applying for jobs and being rejected, it seemed almost automatically, demoralising. But he found companionship too; thousands of others were in the same boat, some for much longer times than himself. He kept asking why, why? One of the other unemployed, an economics graduate, gave him an elementary economics lesson.
‘The Government, following the advice of Treasury, have an obsessive desire to lower inflation; it’s seen as the main economic evil because it destroys the value of your currency, makes you look like a banana republic, makes economic planning impossible. But to bring inflation down you must curb demand, take money out of the system.’
‘But I thought they wanted economic growth. If there’s no demand won’t firms keep going bankrupt?’
‘Those that are inefficient will. Or that’s the argument. Of course “inefficient” may simply mean they’ve got too many people on the pay roll. So they sack a few, make them redundant.’
‘Then they cut the benefits. Surely that reduces demand but also stifles growth? Doesn’t this mean they’re encouraging more and more executive-financial-manager middle men who take home a salary without creating anything themselves, any real wealth?’
‘The puritan mentality believes it’s good for you. Listen to all the talk of ‘pain’. However, if you create unemployment and cut benefits ‑’
‘People get desperate. ‘
‘Right. So you need an Employment Contracts Act to make sure the workers keep quiet, and will never again have a real voice.’
At home the standard of living declined in subtle ways. One less potato in the pot, more meals made from mince, careful pondering in the supermarket, more darning, more hours spent balancing the cheque-book, more worry about the mortgage, which suddenly took a giant share of their income. And Jill’s pregnancy wasn’t proving easy. Her visits to the doctor were still free, but Jack lived in daily fear of sickness himself. The cost of the doctor’s visits and prescriptions was going up all the time.
Let’s go back to ‘user pays’. The public health system of New Zealand is one of our glories, envied by many other countries, but it costs money and must be backed by political idealism and political will. But in fact, an administration is already in place in our hospitals which has money-making as its top priority. The day is approaching when most health services will be privatised. Soon we will look back with great regret on a time when the health of our citizens was paid for by taxes. The wealthy will have health insurance and the poor will have whatever scraps of social services are left in the trap. Do you doubt me? Remember that we once had TV without ads. Now television, with its awesome power to mould public opinion, is in the possession of commercial interests.
‘Economising takes a lot of time,’ said Jill one evening. ‘I’m tired. They didn’t tell us about this at Polytech.’
‘I wish you didn’t have to work.’
‘We’re lucky I have a job. At least –
‘Meaning what?’ Jack was suddenly defensive. ‘I’m trying, aren’t I? It s just that there aren’t any bloody jobs!’
Jill looked at him; then she broke down in tears. ‘I was round at Mum’s today,’ she said, ‘You know Denise has been having blackouts? Well they took her to a doctor and he wants her to have a brain scan. He’s done tests and thinks it could be a brain tumour.’
‘They made an appointment and there’s a waiting list for over eighteen months. It could get worse in that time. It could even … The doctor says they should get it done privately.’
‘That’ll cost the earth.’
‘I know. Should we give them back some of the money they lent us?’
What would you do in a case like this, which is, I assure you, not fictitious? The gradual privatisation of health is one of the most sinister moves of recent years. Remember, the wealthy can always pay; the poor cannot.
Two days later Jack was offered a job. He started at 7.30 and finished at 5.00. The pay was poor and did not include travel, but Jack was assured his contract was completely in accord with the Employment Contracts Act. ‘Take it or leave it,’ they’d said. ‘There are plenty more out there. Just think, under communism you wouldn’t have a choice.’
‘I don’t have much choice as it is,’ said Jack.
Control of employment is now firmly in the hands of employers, and only workers skilled in diplomacy can challenge them. Qualities such as loyalty, trust and disinterestedness are in decline. Moreover, the Act does not insist on the high standards of safety once demanded by trade unions. You can see at once the connection with higher health-care charges and restricted accident compensation.
Discontent and helplessness preyed on Jack’s mind. He observed himself harden and become mean. One day he found a man’s wallet containing $25, credit cards and two undeclared cheques. He took the money and handed the wallet to a traffic officer. While shopping he received the wrong change, in his favour; he knew the cashier would have to make it up out of her own money, but he said nothing. He was tempted to shoplift but didn’t have quite enough nerve; but he looked admiringly at those who did. Once he received change for $5 and indignantly claimed he’d given $10. Later he found the $10 note rolled up in the bottom of his pocket, but did not go back to explain. He took to looking in the gutter for change.
One evening he heard the Prime Minister say on television that unemployment and violence are not necessarily connected, and suddenly the contempt he felt for politics, politicians, so-called experts, and the wealthy and privileged spilled over. ‘What do these bastards know?’ he shouted. ‘They’ve all got land, they’ve got businesses, they earn money, they have guaranteed retirement plans. They can ignore us. Nobody cares. They say they do but they don’t. Dog eats dog. That’s the way it really is. We’ve been lied to and cheated. Damn them all. Damn their filthy, inefficient, cruel, mindless system! Damn them, damn them, damn….’
For the first time Jill saw her husband cry.
He went on. Unemployment breeds poverty and poverty breeds crime – no wonder they amalgamated the traffic service and the police. They needed more police and quickly too; the crime rate is going to go up and up and up.’
A few days later Jill met her friend Jessie, an unmarried schoolteacher who had always been dedicated to her work. In her eyes Jill saw the same haunted look Jack wore.
‘I’m afraid that bulk funding is going to make me dispensable,’ said Jessie.
‘But you have years of experience.’
‘Yes. And therefore I cost too much. They could employ two teachers straight out of college for what they pay me, in fact they’ll employ one.’
‘They can’t just fire you.’
‘There are many ways of getting rid of people: destroy the pride in your work; make teaching a job rather than a vocation; educate students to pass tests, not to think or feel. And, you’ll see, schools in poor areas will get poorer; they won’t be able to afford enough fund-raising to get the best teachers or the best equipment. Wealthy schools will protect themselves; and teachers are human too, they will go where the money is; or many of them will. We had one of the best school systems in the world, but we have let it become a pawn in the hands of politicians: right-wing ideologues who are so blind to human values that they want everything to have a price.’
So there you have the Poverty Trap, created by systems and policies that promote inequality. Only by a complete repudiation of materialist values and a sturdy no-nonsense affirmation of humanist values and, yes, socialist values, can it be overthrown. There are no alternatives. But let no one think this is a party political broadcast. The ills we currently suffer from have been created by the cynicism, lies, contempt for democracy, and the power games of both main parties. I am sorry for any lack of subtlety in this article, but sometimes it is necessary to paint in broad brush strokes using bright, albeit garish, colours if one wants a pattern to stand out clearly in a time of murky light. So. Now it is over to you, the reader, to write a happy ending to the story of Jack and Jill.
Phil Mann, an economics student, is now Reader in the Department of Theatre and Film at Victoria University.