Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thank you sir, may I have another?

Mainstream country music kills me. Searching for a radio station in Northern California, I came across Cost of Livin' by Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn fame (and no, this time that's not David Brooks). After the obligatory glorification of serving in Iraq/Afghanistan, the song celebrates the plight of the unemployed man applying for a job:
I work weekends
if I have to
nights and holidays
give you forty
and then some
whatever it takes
This mindset is beyond my understanding. It seems there is a large portion of Americans that have the puritanical view that suffering is good for them. They don't want a living wage, a reasonable work week, regulations to protect them, or a social safety net. They want to suffer to prove they're better than those who would welcome, ask for, or demand something more. Corporate America must love these people, and the millionaires like Ronnie Dunn who simultaneously promote and profit from that sentiment.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Party Like it's 1999

Last week, David Brooks wrote a column saying poor and unemployed Americans should suck it up and suffer in silence like dignified Americans did during the depression. I restrained myself from responding. I thought it might be better for my mental health to let it pass. However, that approach doesn't seem to be working for me, so here's the latest stupid thing from David Brooks.

Yesterday, he was on NPR, commenting on the Occupy Wall Street movement, Brooks said that the Tea Party represents 10-15% of Americans, whereas the OWS movement only represents 2-3% of Americans. How did David Brooks arrive at 2-3%? Was this estimate based on the latest scientific poll results? Of course not. This is David Brooks. He said the OWS movement represents 2-3% of Americans because Ralph Nader got 2-3% of the national vote. While that is hilarious, I am not joking, and neither was David Brooks.

First, it's assinine to suggest that 2-3% of votes was an accurate measure of support for Nader's anti-corporate views. Plenty of voters sympathetic to Nader's anti-corporate message voted for Gore rather than wasting their vote on Nader.

Second, that was 11 freaking years ago! Any OWS protester younger than 29 wasn't even eligible to vote in 2000.

Third, a few things have happened since then that might shift public opinion a bit. The Supreme Court intervened to rule in favor of George W. Bush, the candidate Brooks supported. We went to war in Afghanistan, which Brooks supported. We went to war in Iraq, which Brooks supported. We got deficit-financed tax cuts for the rich, which Brooks supported. We got a financial melt-down caused by lax banking rules, which Brooks supported. The banks were bailed out with taxpayer money, which Brooks supported. Meanwhile the banks/bankers have recovered nicely, unemployment is at it's highest level since the depression, real wages for the middle class have declined, and income inequality is in banana republic territory.

Other than that, it's all good. Americans just need to pipe down. According to Brooks, suffering is good for you, but only if you're poor.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More Brooks BS

Krugman reads David Brooks, but directs his ire toward the Tax Foundation
I read David Brooks citing the Tax Foundation this morning, and I thought he must have misread them. They couldn’t possibly have compared one year’s take from higher taxes on the rich with the total stock of debt, could they? They can’t possibly be that stupid, or think that their readers are that stupid, can they?

This deliberate fraud — because that’s what it has to be — is an example of the reasons knowledgeable people don’t trust the Tax Foundation.
This deliberate fraud — because that’s what it has to be — is also an example of why I don’t trust David Brooks. Maybe Krugman focuses on the Tax Foundation instead of his fellow New York Times columnist out of professional courtesy -- maybe contractual obligation -- but I won't let Brooks off the hook. I doubt Brooks "misread" the study. Brooks cherry picks data and cites studies from right-wing think tanks, all while pretending to be the reasonable centrist. It's who he is, it's what he does, and it's his job.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Due process is now optional

I need to move back into my vehicle soon so that I can't turn on CNN. This morning, I'm watching Obama celebrate America's unprecedented assassination of an American-born American citizen. I first wrote about this in April 2010.

Just last week, I felt shame as America executed Troy Davis. Davis may or may not have been guilty, but he at least got a trial, though the trial itself was an embarrassment. Anwar Al-Awlaki didn't even get a trial. He wasn't even charged or indicted. We will never get to see evidence against Al-Awlaki because it is classified.

I guess we are supposed to shut up about Constitutional rights and trust that Obama is acting in our best interest to protect us from the evil terrorists, ala Bush. I'm not OK with that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Piling On David Brooks

Paul Krugman links to Dean Baker, a fellow economist who's views on economics are often ignored in favor of those of non-economists like David Brooks. The title of Baker's post really says it all -- David Brooks Is Upset at Liberals Who INSIST on Applying Arithmetic to Economics -- but here's a snippet.
So how is anything about stimulus disproved because a stimulus that could have been expected to create maybe 3 million jobs was not adequate in a downturn where we needed 10 million jobs? There are no tricks here, this is all arithmetic and it is all right there in black and white.

But, Brooks does not want to be bothered by arithmetic. He wants his readers to support his plans for tax reform, for cutting Social Security and Medicare. In other words he wants his readers' support for doing all the the things that David Brooks always wanted to do, but he now says that we absolutely have to do because of an economic crisis caused by the incompetence of the people who always wanted to do these things.
This echoes what I said about Brooks here and here. I know I've been hammering Brooks frequently, but I will continue to do so. I know smart people that listen to this guy. Maybe I can change that. You know who you are.

Friday, September 16, 2011

CNN's Alison Kosik - Professional Liar

We're house sitting for someone with cable, so I flipped on CNN a couple days ago. The host, TJ Holmes, was contrasting Republican versus Democratic views on Social Security. First, he showed footage of the Republican debates, where social security was labeled a Ponzi scheme that's going broke. Then, Bernie Sanders gave the opposing view, stating that social security in it's current form can fully meet it's obligations for 27 years.

To get to the truth between these opposing views, Holmes called on Alison Kosik. She was reporting with the Wall Street floor as a back drop (so she's obviously credible!). She claimed that Social Security will "run dry" in 25 years. Over and over, she used the phrase, "run dry". Even CNN's crawler at the bottom of the TV screen said, "Social Security to Run Dry by 2036".

I know nothing about TJ Holmes, but I tip my hat to him for his follow up question. I really hope it was deliberate. He asked Alison Kosik if that meant Social Security payments would just stop in 2036. She responded that it wouldn't work like that, as Social Security would still be able to pay out 77% of benefits.

Whoa! That's a funny definition of "running dry". I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy by nature, but when my glass is 77% full, I'm not quite ready to order another drink.

Alison Kosik, with an assist by TJ Holmes, exposed herself as a professional liar. She was specifically tasked with revealing the truth about Social Security, and she knew the truth. She knew it. The truth was that Bernie Sanders was essentially correct, and the Republicans were absolutely wrong. Instead of saying so, she attempted to perpetuate the myth that Social Security is going to "run dry". This is because Alison Kosik is rich and selfish. She will never need Social Security, so she doesn't want to pay into Social Security. It's really that simple. Unfortunately, mass media is full of people just like her, so plenty of Americans who aren't rich believe that Social Security is broke, bankrupt, or going to run dry. It's not.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rush Limbaugh Never Lets Me Down

OK, I'm now driving across Montana. As we approach Billings, I switch through the channels and catch the voice of Rush Limbaugh. It had been a few years, so I decided to listen to his show for a while to confirm that he's the same old jackass I remember.

With his first few breaths, he claimed that the stock market was tanking because Obama and Bernanke had run out of ammunition (no chance of QE3). Then, he complained about how Obama's policies, including QE1 & QE2, had wrecked the economy. How does the man's head not explode? He's basically saying that if Obama does X, it will be a disaster, and that if Obama doesn't do X, or can't do X because the Republicans block it, that will also be a disaster. Confirmation in less than 5 minutes. He never lets me down.

Ron Paul Should Run as a 3rd Party Candidate

Listening to progressive radio, I heard a lot of callers voicing support for Ron Paul. The next day, he was interviewed on NPR. Again, he got a lot of support from the callers. This is a guy who finished a close second to Michele Bachmann in Iowa, and he has loyal followers who listen to progressive radio and NPR. Wow.

His only appeal to me is his opposition to our military adventures, but that seems primarily driven by his crank economic views. On NPR, He actually claimed that the financial crisis is a validation of Austrian economics. That blows me away. The government can still borrow money at record lows and inflation is below 2%. That's not validation. That's utter repudiation.

Still, there are obviously a lot of Paul supporters from both sides. This makes me wonder about a third party run. He did well in 2008 and his supporters tend to be very enthusiastic. He doesn't get much love from his fellow Republicans, and he's not running for re-election to his house seat. Therefore, he shouldn't fear pissing off the party establishment. The media ignores him now, which they couldn't do if he ran as a third party candidate. Furthermore, if he really thinks the future of America depends on returning to the gold standard, how can he not run?

Note, this is not a prediction. Logically, I can't see why he wouldn't run as a third party candidate, but Ron Paul's logic is very different from mine.

Sometimes the High Road is a Dead End

Trying to find a good radio station while driving through Chicago, I came across someone that sounded like Rush Limbaugh. He was calling someone un-American, not for being a Kenyan socialist, but for wanting to cut spending. I was intrigued. Who is this guy? It turns out that it was Ed Shultz. I had heard of the Ed Show on CNN, but I didn't know he also did radio. He is one of many talk show hosts on a progressive radio network that we heard in Chicago and again in Madison.

I have mixed feelings about what I heard. I have long complained about Democrats tying their own hands behind their backs, so I like the idea of having a progressive radio network to counteract Fox and Clear Channel. At the same time, it irritated me that Shultz was labeling some American citizens as un-American. Another host used the term "Republicon" so frequently you'd think he was earning royalties each time he said it. It's easy to make a strong progressive argument without resorting to these juvenile tactics, so what's the deal? Is there really a market for left wing values wrapped up in the rhetoric of the right? If so, I'm not sure I want those people on my team--either the hosts or their listeners. Then again, that's just the attitude the right wants me to have. It's a classic ends versus means dilemma. Hmmm...

If the choice is between manipulating people to get them to support policies that ultimately benefit them versus manipulating people to get them to support policies that ultimately hurt them, I'd obviously prefer the former. However, I worry that I am presenting a false dichotomy. I would certainly prefer a third option--an option where people demand solid arguments and respond rationally, but then I think about Iraq, the health care debate, and the focus on the national debt instead of unemployment. Sadly, it seems there really are only two choices. Sometimes the high road is a dead end.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

For Labor Day

Following a summer of extensive manual labor, I am annoyed with the push for more Americans to go to college. It's not that I think going to college is a bad thing, but it's just not the answer to our economic woes. College is not a panacea. A college degree may give one applicant an advantage over another, but that advantage disappears when everyone has a college degree. Furthermore, if everyone had a college degree, we'd still live in a country where we need people to pick fruit, roof houses, fix roads, repair cars, etc.

Instead of pushing a one-size-fits-all college solution, we should be ensuring those doing the physical labor can make a decent living, but we are doing just the opposite. Leaders on both sides of the aisle think we should be increasing the retirement age. They say this is just common sense, as people are living longer. I've heard this argument over and over, but it is highly misleading. People are living longer, but it is mostly the financially stable people that are living longer. From 1977 to 2006, life expectancy for 65 year old men rose by 6 years for those in the top half of the income distribution, while increasing a mere 1.3 years for those in the bottom half. That itself is a disgrace in the richest country in the world. And which half do you suppose is doing the physical labor? It's not fair to ask those people to spend their extra 1.3 years on the job.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

It's Krugman's Fault

My blogging has really dropped off this summer, partly because my frustration with politics has left me nearly speechless, but mostly because Paul Krugman keeps expressing my thoughts before I do...and better!

He's been on fire all summer. Lately, he made a great point about why CEO's do not have magical powers to address the broader economy , but my favorite was his comment about people who make economic arguments based on prejudices instead of models.

I’m basing what I say on a model; the model may not be right, but it does represent some hard thinking conditioned by evidence. If you have a different model, fine; but if all you have to counter my model is a set of prejudices, you don’t have an argument.

... if you just can’t believe I’m saying the things I say, at least consider the possibility that you’re the one who just doesn’t get it.

This has been a point of frustration for me for awhile. This is why Very Serious Persons like David Brooks, George Will, and Thomas Friedman drive me crazy...crazier than people like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, or whoever is next in line. The impact of these Republican savior du jours is fleeting, as they are eventually dismissed as the crazy people they are, but the careers of these media VSP's span decades, as they are stealthy. They don't foam at the mouth while doing so, but they endorse the same economic policies as the crazy brigade, and those policies are never based on mathematical models. Instead, they just say things that sound true. Things that tell a good story. Things that just so happen to support the policies they've supported for decades.

People lacking in basic math skills, or even the slightest bit of cynicism, are easily mislead by these confidence-men wearing suits, bow ties, or ridiculous moustaches. This is how we end up with people who view historically low interest rates as a great time to take out a mortgage to buy a house, but a terrible time for the government to borrow money to invest in infrastructure. They love the low interest rate on their mortgage, hate the low interest rate on their savings account, but never consider that the two might be related. They complain about Chinese currency manipulation, but also complain about a falling dollar. They worry about the national debt, but can't fathom how higher inflation would help. They follow the daily ups and downs of the stock market, but couldn't tell you anything about the bond market. If they're aware that it even exists, they'd prefer it to go up, because up is always better.

I recently made these points to some Tea Party types. These are people that respect my intellect. People that acknowledge that I spend way more time studying these issues than they do. Even though they couldn't make a counter-argument, they still couldn't accept an argument that contradicted their prejudices. Maybe I needed a suit, bow tie, or a porn star moustache. Maybe all three. The situation depresses me to no end.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Self Aware Much?

In response to Obama's speech on the debt ceiling negotiations, David Brooks says:
His appearance was suffused with that “I’m the only mature person in Washington” condescension that drives everybody else crazy. Obama lectured the leaders of the House and Senate in the sort of patronizing tone that a junior high principal might use with immature delinquents.
That's right. David Brooks, who makes his living by pretending to be the only mature person in Washington, starts his column with, "Some of us like to think big", and then criticizes Obama for being condescending. This is like Donald Trump accusing someone of having a big ego. Or Sarah Palin claiming someone is unqualified...for anything.

Of course, per usual, being condescending and lacking self awareness isn't enough. Brooks is also inconsistent (this must be in his contract). He starts the column arguing that Obama's patronizing tone has jeopardized the possibility of a grand bargain, but then concludes:
John Boehner and Harry Reid will continue to verbally abuse each other. But there’s a script to their taunts. Nobody’s feelings are hurt. The old pros are perfectly capable of exchanging clich├ęd volleys in the morning and then going off and negotiating with each other in the afternoon.
So, John Boehner is simultaneously an old pro who can take some verbal abuse from Harry Reid, yet not enough of an old pro to handle a patronizing tone from Obama. Thanks David. Your insight is as valuable as ever.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

America's Best Scam

Anyone who jumps through the annual hoop to get an eye exam and a prescription for glasses or contacts probably knows what a scam it is. It had been a few years for me, so maybe I just forgot.

I ended up at America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, where they advertise a free eye exam with 2 pairs of complete glasses for $69.95 with single vision plastic lenses. That sounds like a great deal, but magically, my actual cost would have been over $200!!! How is that possible?

Well, first off, if you want an eye exam for both glasses and contacts, it's not free. By itself, an eye exam for glasses is $45. An eye exam for contacts is $69. You might expect that they'd just add the difference of $24 if you're buying glasses and also getting a contact exam, but you'd be wrong. You also might expect that "complete glasses with single vision plastic lenses" would actually include single vision plastic lenses, but you'd be wrong again. That's just for the frames.

I decided to take my eyeglass purchase elsewhere, and to just pay for the $69 contact exam. Except, they tried to charge me $99!!! What the hell? Well, the optometrist recommended that I have my eyes dilated. She failed to mention that this was an additional $30. I protested, and they agreed to charge me only $15, the cost of the visual field exam. I had already declined the visual field exam.

Like a car salesman pushing a rust protection package, the technician rattled off a bunch of fine print before the visual field exam. When I asker her to repeat everything, I realized it was an extra $15. After declining, she presented me with a refusal form. The form described the benefits of the visual field exam, but it also indicated that I was not in the demographic that really needs the visual field exam. Furthermore, there was no reason this form couldn't have been included with all the other forms I filled out in advance, except they were trying to scam me.

When I went back for the follow up for my contacts, the optometrist sent me to the front desk to "order my contacts". When I told the clerk that I wasn't going to order contacts, but wanted my prescription, she had to go back to the optometrist to get it. The optometrist was going to keep it on file at their office without giving me a copy of my prescription. I know this is standard procedure at these places, but it still disappoints me that so-called medical professionals are willing to whore themselves out for the big-box eyeglass pimps.

The upside of this whole experience was that I got online and started searching for alternatives. That's how I found glassyeyes and Zenni optical. It turns out that most of the big players in the eyeglass business are owned by the same monopoly. If you're tired of getting screwed over by them, try ordering eyeglasses online. I ended up getting a pair of prescription sunglasses and a pair of prescription glasses with polycarbonate lenses shipped to my door for a total of $51!!! I had my doubts, but they provided excellent communication, including a tracking number when the glasses shipped. I couldn't be happier. Stick it to the man.

Good Government in Action: IRS Edition

People like to complain about the government, especially the IRS, so I want to share our recent experience.

Several months ago, the IRS notified us that we failed to report a stock sale in 2009. They were right. Living in Australia, we didn't get the form, so we didn't report it. The IRS proposed a tax increase of $8000 plus a $1500 penalty.

Acknowledging our mistake, we quickly sent in the $8000, begging for mercy on the penalty. Later, the IRS represenative pointed out that their proposed increase assumed a zero cost basis--hint, hint.

Sure enough, in our haste to rectify our mistake, we missed their not-so-fine-print assuming a zero cost basis. We had obviously overpaid. No problem. Just send the cost basis information.

That was easier said than done. Our employee stock purchase plan changed agents 3 times. Over two months passed before we could establish the cost basis. We sent it in just before the IRS deadline.

A week later, we got a notice of deficiency and instructions for petitioning our case to the US Tax Court. Doh! Figuring that our cost basis information was lost in the mail or sitting in queue, we called the IRS.

No problem. We gave them our cost basis and capital gains information over the phone. They recalculated our taxes, determined that we owed nothing, and said they'd be sending out a check to refund our $8000.

Four weeks later, we got a check for $8000 + interest. The whole ordeal was our fault, yet they didn't even charge a penalty! In a world where everyone seems to be trying to screw you out of your money--more on that later--it's nice to know the IRS is not.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bayh to Fox News--Hoocoodanode?

What a surprise--Evan Bayh is headed to Fox News. As John Cole at Balloon Juice likes to say, hoocoodanode? Well, Icoodanode. Back in June, I predicted that both Lieberman and Bayh would end up at Fox News.

So far so good. Good because I get to gloat, and good because this will end Bayh's chance of ever being a Democratic presidential candidate. I hope he switches parties and tries to run as a moderate Republican. A humiliating primary defeat might be just the thing to wipe that perma-smug look from his face.

My only worry is that one of the crazies will use him as their vice presidential pick to demonstrate their centrism, just like Fox will use him to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Nearly a year ago, I criticized Ezra Klein for his silence and Matthew Yglesias for his late condemnation of Obama's claim of the right to assassinate an American citizen, but at least they are both stepping up with regard to Bradley Manning's detention (here, here, & here). This sort of behavior was not acceptable when Bush did it, and it's not acceptable when Obama is doing it.

Imagine if a foreign country was holding an American soldier in solitary confinement for nearly a year, without charges, and subjecting him to sleep deprivation and forced nudity. Americans would be outraged. The government would be appealing to the UN, imposing sanctions, and threatening military retaliation. In this case, it's not a foreign government. It is our government.

I guess it's a positive sign that more people are speaking out with regard to Manning, but it's sad that it took the detention of a white non-Muslim American soldier to get people fired up. Brown Muslim foreigners have been subjected to far worse for nearly a decade. Still, baby steps.

Another Ounce of Prevention

As if on cue, Ezra Klein illustrates my point about the lack of focus on diet and exercise in the health care discussion. He was invited to give the keynote address at the annual convention of the American Medical Student Association. Laying out his vision of the future, he says one or more of the following things will happen:
  1. Doctors will be paid on outcomes, with the curve constructed such that most doctors are making less but the best doctors are making more
  2. doctors will not be the only ones doing doctorlike things
  3. some disruptive innovation, such as IBM’s Watson, will have made various classes of doctors less necessary
  4. we’ll have moved to an all-payer or single-payer system where we’ve cut doctor payments dramatically
  5. more people are flying their jet packs to India for surgeries
  6. we’ll have dramatically cut health-care subsidies such that fewer people are able to afford health care
  7. something I haven’t thought of
That's from Ezra Klein--noted health care expert--the kind of person who gets invited by the American Medical Student Association to give a keynote address. His list of future possibilities includes people flying their jet packs to India for surgery. His list does not include the possibility that Americans will start eating better and exercising. Perhaps that should have been number 7.

Friday, March 4, 2011

War on the Middle Class

I declare war on the middle class. And the lower class. And the upper class. Not with the people, but the terms. When people making $20k to $200k all claim they are middle class, the term is obviously meaningless, at least with regard to finances. What seems to be going on is that people don't want to associate themselves with the uncouth lower class or the snooty upper class. So, we're all middle class. And we're all above average.

The problem here is the word class. The media and policiticans should be replacing class with income: lower income, middle income, and upper income. These terms better represent what we're talking about. They also disassociate income from class, an association clearly disproven everytime some multi-millionaire calls for the "shared sacrifice" of cutting social security benefits, while simultaneously supporting permanent tax cuts for the rich.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An Ounce of Prevention

Paul Krugman pointed out that we don't have a socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid problem. His point is that social security and medicare/medicaid are very different programs with different funding and different problems. Very true. Ezra Klein followed up saying we don't even have a medicare/medicaid problem--we have a health care problem. Also very true. Medicare and Medicaid must keep pace with the skyrocketing costs in the private market or doctors will drop out, so the problem is not just government healthcare. I would extend this a little further by saying we don't have a health care problem--we have a health problem.

I hear a lot about projected obesity and diabetes rates, but always as foregone conclusions, not as things that could be avoided. I feel like I've been following the health care debate closely, yet I don't hear much about diet and exercise. Michelle Obama seems to be making an effort, only to be rebutted by fitness fanatic and Runner's World covergirl, Sarah Palin. Is there anyone out else out there, politician or pundit, that is proposing a public education campaign on the importance of diet and exercise?

How about Arnold Schwarzenegger? He shouldn't be busy. How about prominent blogger Matthew Yglesias? He quietly dropped 70 pounds this past year. I read his blog almost daily, and I don't think he even mentioned trying to lose weight until it was a done deal. I think he had previously given up smoking too. That's great. Maybe in addition to arguing for taller buildings, deregulation of hair care, and elimination of public parking lots--all worthwhile projects--he could promote policies that encourage more people to adopt healthy lifestyles--a much more worthwhile project.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Freedom Campers Spoil Rugby World Cup

In the wake of the assault on freedom campers in Golden Bay, the ground work is being laid to excuse the inevitable disappointment of New Zealand's hosting of the Rugby World Cup. Like all events of this sort, the organizers surely promised ridiculous numbers of visitors and outlandish economic benefits. The media is already suggesting that the attack on the freedom campers could harm New Zealand's tourism industry. The opportunists promoting the World Cup surely know an opportunity when they see one. When they are criticized over the empty stadiums, you can bet that they will know where to place the blame...freedom campers!

Hello, Sweden, Can You Hear Me?

Are there no phones in Sweden? According to the news on New Zealand's Radio Live, Julian Assange is fighting his extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. Of course, like most reporting on Assange and Wikileaks, it is flat out wrong. Assange has not been charged with anything--not in Sweden, not in the USA, nor anywhere else.

Swedish police want to question him about accusations of sexual assault. Fair enough, but do they really need to extradite him to answer questions? Have your people call his people. Exchange letters. Use email. You could even send your prosecutors to England. It's not that far. It would be easier and cheaper than fighting the extraditon case in court and transporting Assange to Sweden. It's weird. These are pretty simple solutions. It's almost as if Sweden has some ulterior motive that has nothing to do with the alleged sexual assault.

They Hate Us For Our Freedom Camping

My wife and I spent 1 year freedom camping in America, 1 year freedom camping in Australia, and the last 8 months freedom camping in New Zealand. The level of hysteria over this issue in New Zealand is unlike anything we've experienced. We were planning to extend our visa from 9 months to 12 months, but now we're wondering if we shouldn't just cut our losses and travel to a more hospitable country.

Before I get started, I want to make one thing clear--littering and leaving shit for others to clean up is not acceptable. Afterall, the whole reason we are here is to enjoy New Zealand's natural beauty. I strongly support severe penalties for littering of any sort, both for locals and tourists, but the demonization of freedom campers in New Zealand is pure hysteria.

Thanks to Campbell Live and the echo chamber of NZ talk radio, it is accepted truth that freedom camping is synonomous with littering and public defecation. The media has created a climate of hostility towards freedom campers. Now, a freedom camping couple (Kiwis no less) have been violently assaulted. Of course, the media says they're not to blame. Afterall, they never promoted violence, they just promoted the outrage that led to the violence.

Now, the talk radio hosts are condemning the "alleged" actions of the vigilante, even as they brainstorm non-violent methods of harassing freedom campers. Radio Live's Jeremy Parkinson even claimed it is the duty of all New Zealanders' to harrass freedom campers to protect their country. Great idea. Self-annointed deputies waking up and harrassing strangers in the middle of the night certainly won't lead to violence.

The whole freedom camping issue has become nothing less than a witch hunt. First of all, the accepted truth that freedom camping is synonomous with littering and public defecation is ridiculous. Of course, there are some freedom campers who litter, defecate, and leave the mess for others to clean up, but who exactly determined that this is representative of a majority, or even a significant number of freedom campers?

It is easy for Campbell Live to go looking for evidence of misbehaving freedom campers. Toilet paper and human poo makes for great TV. But how do you find evidence of well-behaved freedom campers? There is none! They leave the place as they found it, perhaps better. No litter and no poo? That makes for terrible TV!

In the past 7 months, as we've traveled throughout NZ, we've witnessed 1 freedom camper littering, and 3 Kiwi's littering. We didn't see any human waste, but since we weren't filming for TV3, we didn't go sniffing around for it either.

Not surprisingly, the media focus is on the international freedom camper. Nothing like a little xenophobia to help fuel the fire of outrage. It's always the fault of those international tourists. Apparently, the numerous Kiwi freedom campers, multi-day trampers, hunters, fisherman, beachgoers, OE travelers, etc.--they never litter or defecate. Kiwis are special. This sort of behavior just isn't part of their culture. At least that's what Jeremy Parkinson says.

Our experience says otherwise. Freedom campers seek remote spots where they're unlikely to get hassled. Unfortunately, partying Kiwi hoons also seek out remote spots where they're unlikely to get hassled. As a result, more than once, we've found ourselves cleaning up after Kiwis before moving on.

Just outside Kaka Point, we parked literally on top of a seaside trash heap. The foreshore was layer upon layer of rusty old farming equipment, auto parts, and appliances. Who knew that international freedom campers traveled with so much baggage?

On the west coast, a beautiful Denniston lookout has been turned into a dump site. We found an abandoned car, a rusty barrel, old fencing, irrigation pipe, lawn waste, and part of a broken toilet. How's that for irony? Foreign freedom campers finding a discarded Kiwi toilet.

In Dunedin, two surf beaches had signs warning people not to enter the water due to sewer discharge directly onto the beach. While we were there, officials put up new signs in the dunes adjacent to the surf club warning about exposure to arsenic and asbestos from the former ocean-front landfill. Near Greymouth, it was some unidentified poison in the water.

The one night we actually paid for camping was at the gorgeous DOC campsite at Purakaunui Bay. Fortunately, we were in a van. It would have been absolutely impossible to set up a tent amidst all the sheep poo. More was nearly impossible to walk from the van to the toilets without stepping in sheep poo. And all of this sheep poo was right next to a creek flowing directly into the ocean.

Unfortunately, this is often the norm here. There are 50 million sheep, 9 million cows, 1.2 million deer, 0.4 million pigs, and 0.3 million goats. That's nearly 62 million farm animals, and as far as I know, none of them are toilet trained. Compare that to the number of international tourists. At any one time, there are around 133 thousand international tourists in NZ.

A Ministry of Economics survey says 5% of those travel via campervan/motorhome/RV and that 2% of all international visitors camp at DOC sites. So, lets say 1% are freedom camping. Of those, lets assume 10% have no qualms about defecating outside, and that they only manage to find a public toilet every other day.

Do the math. That's 67 freedom campers versus 62 million farm animals crapping all over NZ every single day, and I'm not even including the dogs that crap all over the beaches. That's nearly one million farm animals per freedom camper, but by all means, blame the evil foreigners for fouling your waterways.

Since it is obvious that the poo and litter issue is being blown out of proportion, how about the focus on cheap vans?

That too is blown out of proportion. Freedom campers drive all kinds of vehicles, including no vehicles at all. Ever heard of tents? Some freedom campers hitch rides or travel on foot. Some ride bicycles. Some ride motorcycles. Some drive hatchbacks, sedans, wagons, utes, or trucks. And yes, some drive cheap vans. And some of those cheap vans have graffiti-esque paint jobs with words designed to offend. And apparently, that's working. Some freedom campers drive self-contained motor homes or house trucks. And some of those, like us, never use those on-board toilets!

Does that mean we're crapping all over NZ? No. Just like any other traveler, we use public toilets. They are available at rest stops, supermarkets, petrol stations, restaurants, visitor centers, shopping centers, libraries, parks, boat ramps, and trailheads. It's not that difficult to find a toilet, but some council policies force freedom campers far away from these facilities. Toilets that are available for free for 16 hours of the day are suddenly off-limits for the other 8 hours of the day. Why is that?

Money. That is the one aspect of freedom camping that isn't sufficiently examined. If a town or council welcomes freedom campers, you can bet that they do so because their economy needs the business. Just consider the differences between the freedom camping policies of Queenstown versus Wanaka.

Queenstown doesn't want to completely ban freedom camping because those are the people who support their bar scene. They are also the people who support their bungee jumping, jet boating, white water rafting, and other businesses that make Queenstown the "Adventure Capital of the World". Of course, Queenstown politicians have to simultaneously appease the snooty residents who don't want to share their piece of paradise with the riff raff. Their solution is to allow freedom camping 10km from town, away from residential areas--close enough to support local businesses, but hidden from the precious eyes of Queenstown's royalty.

Wanaka, on the other hand, completely bans freedom camping. It's a no-brainer for them. Unlike Queenstown, Wanaka businesses don't cater to the less affluent. Wanaka is a playground for the rich, and the rich kids don't want to play with the poor kids.

It is obvious that this dynamic was at play in the assault in Golden Bay. The assailant was a Christchurch man who is affluent enough to have an ocean-view vacation home in Pakawau, and his lofty reputation is so delicate that the court has granted him name suppression. He is a rich kid.

The poor kids were in a self-contained motorhome. One of them was a Kiwi. There was no suggestion that they were littering or defecating outside. They were not camping in a prohibited area. What they were doing was interrupting his view. That was enough of an outrage that the man smashed the windscreen with a machete and attempted to set fire to their vehicle with methylated spirits...all while the couple was inside.

If money is mentioned at all in the debate about freedom camping, it is usually to suggest that freedom campers are parasites who aren't spending enough of it. However, at the very least, international freedom campers pay for their flight to NZ (perhaps on Air New Zealand), their vehicles, their petrol, and their food. GST applies to all of those purchases. In 2010, New Zealand collected about $1.3 billion in GST from international tourists.

Visitors pay this tax, but they don't get to vote, they don't get public health care, public education, or public pension. Is it too much to ask for some of this GST to be directed towards public toilets and rubbish bins?

Apparently so for people like Jeremy Parkinson. He claims that any international visitor who can afford to come to NZ can afford to pay for a campground. Even if that were true, it could come at the expense of restaurants, souvenir shops, tour operators, etc. No one has unlimited finances. Lots of people have a budget for annual vacations. New Zealand is not a cheap or convenient destination. The choice may be a luxury trip to Costa Rica versus a freedom camping trip to New Zealand.

However, arguing about the affordability of campgrounds misses the point. Freedom camping isn't about the cost. It's about the freedom. New Zealand weather is volatile to say the least. Having the ability to change plans, without worrying about making or canceling reservations has been hugely important to our New Zealand experience.

Furthermore, paying campgrounds for the privilege of parking side by side with other vehicles, while paying for ammenities we don't want, simply makes no sense. In fact, you couldn't pay us to stay in most campgrounds. For us, it is simply not enjoyable, and if we can't enjoy ourselves, what are we doing here? There are a lot of other countries in the world. Almost all of them are easier to get to, and surely most of them are more welcoming.

Note: I don't mean to single out Jeremy Parkinson. He just happened to be broadcasting in the aftermath of the attempted murder of the freedom campers in Golden Bay. It is clear from comments from his callers and other radio hosts that there are plenty of people in NZ who are more than willing to ban things they don't like or understand.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We Are The Greatest!

From a book I just finished:

I do not believe you know what it is like here. There is this group of people who own everything. This room we are dining in, they own it. This apartment building, they own it. They own the buses and the trains and the boats. And the rivers. Everything is privately owned in this country. We own nothing. Everyone owns nothing.

These same people, they own the factories and the churches and the schools. Every school. And all the books the children read. They wrote the books the children read. They own the art and the music. The radio stations and the TV stations and every newspaper and every magazine.

And, they own the language. In every newspaper and in every school and in every factory they speak with this language and they say the same thing. What are they saying? We are the greatest country in the world. Every other country in the world is poor and dangerous and ugly and we are the greatest.

The quote is not from some professor at Berkeley. It's not from some union boss at the UAW. It's not from some Massachusetts liberal. The book is Off The Map by Mark Jenkins. The book is not about politics. It's about bicycling across Siberia in 1989. And the quote is from Sasha Alexander Tarasov, describing Soviet Russsia.