Saturday, 22 September 2007

is this obscene, or what?

A few months back, I commented on the wealth imbalance between different countries. Recently I came across statistics on the ratio of salary of the CEO of companies to the average worker in that company.

The figures show that in 1965, CEO's were paid 24 times what the average worker earned. By 1989, the ratio had risen to 71. The disparity grew even faster in the 1990's, peaking at a massive 300 times in 2000 before a stock market fall reduced the ratio to 143 in 2002. But it is rising again, reaching 262 in 2005.

Thus, CEOs are paid more in one day than their workers earn in a year!

It is hard to believe that anyone can usefully use this much money, and even harder to accept that it reflects true human worth. Communism has been shown to be oppressive and not to work, but surely capitalism is showing itself to be oppressive too, only in a slightly subtler way.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

bigger, uglier and emptier?

Houses in Sydney are, on average, getting more expensive. Not because housing costs are greater (they are actually cheaper) but because houses are getting bigger. About a 50% increase in the last twenty years.

At the same time, the average household size has fallen, from about 3 people per household twenty years ago to about 2.5 now (16%). So the average person uses about 60% more space than they did two decades ago.

And some people who have studied these matters are worried:

  • If we were satisfied with smaller houses, we wouldn't always need two incomes to pay them off, allowing people more choice in having and raising families.
  • Some people are mortgaged to their eyeballs to purchase these large houses, and if interest rates rise (as they have recently), they can no longer meet the requirements, and they lose their house. Loan defaults have risen. In a new suburb near me, one street has four uncompleted houses, presumably because of this.
  • Bigger houses and smaller blocks mean very small backyards with nowhere for children to play outside, and people being isolated behind the wall of their "fortresses".
  • Bigger houses use more of the world's precious resources, especially energy.
  • It's just one more symptom of "affluenza", the disease of excessive materialism that makes no-one happy, and is built upon inequality that keeps so many people in the world in poverty.

And another thing. The new big "McMansions" seem to generally be less attractive, as people tend to maximise space at the expense of good design, and (I'm guessing) want their homes to be imposing rather than attractive. At least that's how it looks to my eyes. Here are a few examples.

Houses don't need to be like ugly boxes. They used to know how to build attractive houses.

And they still do.

So we have more space, but less beauty and utility. Affluenza and status extract a heavy price. And, sadly, we are often so desperate to build our self image that we are willing to pay the price. Truly we are sometimes like sheep without a shepherd!

Friday, 14 September 2007

forgiveness and reconciliation can work

Sometimes the news is good!

So often the TV news is full of hatred, murder and war, so it is good to be able to report people giving peace a chance.

The sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland generated a lot of hatred, division and violence. But not all Protestants and Catholics hated each other. Way back in 1965, the Corrymeela Community was formed, with both "sides" of Christianity represented. Among its purposes was to "Work to realise a society whose priorities are justice, mutual respect, the participation of all, concern for the vulnerable and the stranger, stewardship of resources, and care for creation."

Facing the sectarian violence that was rampant at the time, the community specifically aimed "to establish over time a shared society defined by tolerance: a normal civil society in which all individuals are considered as equal, where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere and where all individuals are treated impartially."

The community won an international peace prize for its programs and promotion of reconciliation in 1997. You can read about its current programs here. It is, of course, only one of many groups that have led to the current peace in Northern Ireland.

In August, the British Army ceased "active deployment" in Northern Ireland, although a peacetime garrison remains, a significant development.

Other stories about reconciliation have made news recently.

  • A year ago, former South African Police Minister. Adriaan Vlok, visited a church in Soweto to apologise to the Rev Frank Chikane for attempting to murder him during the apartheid regime. Rev Chicane commented: "The fact that Mr Vlok has come to make a confession to me and is here with us today is a miracle". He said that, despite being angry, people should be prepared to "pick ourselves up and move on...... We must not let the past we've defeated dictate our future."
  • In April this year, Matthew Cloyd, along with two others, was convicted and sentenced to prison for arson attacks on nine churches in Alabama. One church was Galilee Baptist, a small congregation whose building was burnt to the ground. A replacement building has been completed, and recently Cloyd's family were among those who attended a service to celebrate the new building, in an attempt to reach out to the congregation. "We felt like they deserved to hear from us," Mrs Kim Cloyd said. "We felt like they needed to know that this was not about racism or hatred."In return, the congregation hugged the Coyd family, and visitors reported they were overwhelmed by the sense of forgiveness and love in the congregation towards the family.

Jesus said: "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24) Reconciliation is more important than religious ceremony.

We need more people to live out this teaching, like the brave examples in these stories.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

the politics of fear

Terrorism in one form or another has been around for millennia, but modern weaponry makes it so much more fearful. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the United States has been hypersensitised to terrorism. The attacks a year later on two nightclubs in Bali commonly frequented by holidaying Australians, had a big impact on thinking in Australia. Attacks in London, Madrid and elsewhere have also played their part in making all western countries re-think security.

Sydney has just hosted a meeting of APEC, which resulted in a massive disruption to thousands of workers and businesses, and claims of heavy-handed policing and unnecessarily strict security.

Few of us would think that we can ignore the threat of terrorism, and most would surely support some tightening of laws and some increase in police and security powers. The question is, how much security is necessary, and what is the "correct" balance between security and civil freedoms?

Australian economist, author and thinker, Clive Hamilton, has addressed this question in a recent speech and an essay in the Sydney Morning Herald titled "Fear the creeping powers of the state".

He argues that we have gone too far in creating laws that no-one fully understands, making it easier for people to come to the attention of shadowy surveillance and security organisations without knowing it, and without presenting a security risk in reality. He argues that even if most of us don't know the technicalities of ordinary laws, we all know murder and theft are against the law. But with new anti-terrorism laws, it is hard to know exactly what actions or acquaintanceships or interests might be construed as presenting a security risk.

"The [anti-terrorism] laws are not transparent and are no longer in alignment with our natural sense of what is right and wrong."

He cites the recent case of a Pakistani doctor working in Australia who gave his mobile phone SIM card to a relative, who was an associate of a terrorist in the UK. Government actions to charge him with terrorist offences and then expel him from Australia (by cancelling his visa) were shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. When facts were finally made public, the Government's case was generally considered inadequate. But it was all done using the new anti-terrorism laws that give the government and police enormous powers.

So are these laws an over-reaction? Those whose family or friends have been victims of terrorism may not think so, but many others are concerned. It is worth considering the following:

  • 88 Australians died in the 2002 Bali bombings, with a few also killed in other terrorism attacks. By comparison, about 1600 Australians die each year as a result of road accidents.
  • About 2,800 people died in the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks. By comparison, more than 3,700 US troops have been killed in the Iraq war, together with about 300 other coalition troops, about 7,000 Iraqi troops and perhaps 80,000 Iraqi civilians (this number is hotly disputed, with estimates varying from about 15,000 to more than 100,000). Back home, each year about 30,000 people die because of firearms and about 42,000 die on the roads.
  • In the UK, 52 people died in the 2005 London bombings, compared to about 170 British deaths in the Iraq war, and about 3,200 Britons killed on the roads each year.

I honestly don't know what to make of these figures, but I can't help feeling our level of concern should somehow be more in proportion to the numbers of deaths. Nor do I know what laws will best preserve our quality of life, but I think we would all do well to consider Clive Hamilton's points.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

a tale of 3 watches

One watch has the slogan: "It's your watch that tells most about who you are." And this is who they hope you'll want to be like ...

Another watch suggests your watch determines what you are made of ...

So what does Unkle E's watch tell you about him?

Let's resist advertising and social images that try to sell vanity, and self esteem where it cannot and should not be found!

Sunday, 2 September 2007

stuffed or starved?

Photo: Freeimages.

It shocks you at first, then it makes you think. A map of the world with all of the countries distorted - some bulging much larger than they really are, some thin and emaciated.

The map shows who produces the world's food, who consumes it, and who over-consumes. And what it shows is really no surprise. South America (notably Brazil), Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Australia produce much more than they consume. The United States, most of Europe, much of the middle east, South Korea and Japan consume more than they produce. The richer countries generally over-eat, and the poorer countries, notably in Africa, don't have enough.

But what is really shocking is that the food imbalance is so great. Almost a billion people in the world go to bed hungry. But more than a billion are overweight (see the flabby country?).

A new book, Stuffed and Starved:Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel, reviewed recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, analyses the world's food supply systems and finds them inequitable, unsustainable and manipulated for profit.

We all know that food is not distributed well or evenly, because of inequalities in wealth and suitable land. But this book reveals the large part played by governments and big business, for example:

  • High farm subsidies in the US and Europe provide more funds to each cow than a poor family in a developing country can earn. Trade restrictions limit the opportunities for farmers in poorer countries to make a living.
  • With food seen more as a multi-billion dollar business than a necessity of life, corporations create foods rich in sugars, fats and taste while poor in nutrients, leading to endemic obesity in western countries, poor nutrition in poorer countries, and often economic dependency as farmers in poorer countries move from subsistence farming to cash crops. "Through processed food, consumers are engorged and intoxicated. The agribusiness's food and marketing have contributed to diet-related disease, harming us today and planting a time bomb in the bodies of children around the world. Supermarket shelves offer an abundance of cheap calories, even as they bleed local economies."
  • Trans-national companies control 40% of the world food trade, with some foods almost totally controlled by a few companies.
  • Several major food companies also own weight-loss enterprises. They "promote products that make customers fatter and thinner simultaneously."

There are good health reasons why we in the west should modify our eating habits, consume less fat (and probably less sugars), eat more good carbohydrates, and avoid highly processed foods with a concoction of artificial additives. Doing our bit to avoid supporting companies which put profit way ahead of health may be another reason.