A Matter of Attitude

This page written circa 27 June, 2008 .

Elizabeth, a friend from Kay's art class, summed up what we do not like of New Zealand Attitude perfectly: "It's the assumption that you will happily accept what they have instead of what you want". She related how she asked in a cafe if they had Earl Grey tea, and being told that they did, she orders said tea. Plain tea arrives, and when she reminds the waitess that Earl Grey was the order she is told that "they had run out"; she had served whatever they had without a word. They got it back, of course. Two weeks later Elizabeth could not recall that particular story. It was simply the latest instance, no doubt superseded in memory.

My favourite story that epitomises the opposite attitude in CA concerns a newspaper article that appeared just short of one Christmas where power cuts loomed. The writer exhorted readers to do as he had done upon reading of the risk of a power shortage, namely to go out and buy as many christmas lights as he could and plug them all in at once, on the theory that one needed to pound the system as hard as possible so that the powers would realise just how seriously the people expected that this problem would not happen again. At first this seems an arrogant and wasteful attitude, vastly less desirable than the considerate response of immediately pulling your horns in by buying high-efficiency globes, living without illuminating every line of your house from November to January, etc. While that is a noble response, the higher concern is that the powers may form the opinion that you are willing to put up with such shortcomings. And we are not.

The positive view of the Kiwi condition leads to the "number 8" philosophy. Our dear Kiwi friend Annette has "number8" as her email moniker, as tribute to the NZ ability to make just about anything work "with a bit of (number 8) fencing wire". It's like duct tape to Americans or coat hangers to Australians, it is the key to repairing everything from your car's muffler to a rattling window. You fix things using whatever you have to hand, and sheep fence is ubiquitous here, like gumboots.

The negative view of the Kiwi condition is to call it defeatest: "Well, there's no Earl Grey, we better get used to it, here, practice with this". My mother left England when she saw that attitude all around. Noting that Brits are the single largest ethnicity immigrating here, you might speculate that they have been importing the attitude even as they escape from England as my mother did all those decades ago.

Is this attitude a cause, or an effect? Are Kiwis beaten down and used to putting up with what they can get and so get no better, or do they put up with what they get because there are not the resources to provide better at reasonable cost? Perhaps a bit of both.

Talking to Tom, I lamented the shopping and how much we miss CostCo, and in true Californian fashion he retorted "sounds like an opportunity to me!". Lovely idea, but CostCo would not survive because the population base is just too small, there is not enough disposable income per square kilometre to support such large-scale retail therapy. Regrettably, I now put most of New Zealand's shortcomings down, at the root, to the net shortage of resources. The NZ GDP per capita is a little more than half that in the USA, the population density much lower, and there is simply much less money sloshing about. Rarer commodities are expensive, or non-existent, like Marklin and out-of-season berries, because they would attract too little revenue to justify overheads if offered for a reasonable price. At left (reproduced from NZ Education Review) you see the results of a recent report on academic salaries here in NZ, and it tells the same story: Major Western expectations, less bucks.

With even the high rewards for Australian and US professors there come downsides. The real-estate slump and building free-fall in the US acompanies over-valuation, and a recent SMH article points out that Sydney's houses cost 6 times the median income, compared to 3x in the USA. (The article is also amusing, with real-estate agents steadfastly voicing opposing opinions without any supporting numbers.)

In a recent Hamiltonian I speculated that the attitude problem might not be tied to finances or might be a cause. After due consideration I have to change my position. I do not accept that the black attitude and low GDP are a co-incidence, and I think Wil was probably right, the downsides of New Zealand are consequences of the upsides. This leads to a necessary willingness to "make do". Not inescapable consequences, mind you; I honestly believe that the right attitude could turn things around... boost the population without spoiling the terrain, rely more on technology and less on agronomy, redirect investment to education and business, increase GDP. This room for improvement, were the attitude there, is probably not available to the Brits, with population density of 247/km² compared to New Zealand's 15 on land of comparable productivity. There is opportunity if only there were attitude to take advantage of it.

OK, Australia's population density is 3/km², but it is mostly desert. Keep selling the rocks, guys.

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