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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ask Arthur 2018, Part 1: Perfect place

It’s time to begin answering the questions in the 2018 Ask Arthur series, a little later than I’d planned to start this year. It happens. This year’s questions are varied, as usual, and as in previous years, I’ll sometimes group related questions into one post. I may not always answer the questions in the order they were given to me, but this first question is also the first asked, and once again, real-life and long-time friend Sherry was first in with a question:

If the world were a perfect place, would it be closer to the U.S. or New Zealand? What would be the key measures of perfection?

It’s an interesting question, and one that could be more than a little fraught: If I say a nice thing about one country rather than the other, potentially someone may be offended. So, it makes sense to say, as I have for the entire time I’ve lived in New Zealand, that there’s no such thing as a perfect country. People can claim there’s one all they want to, but the reality is that countries, all the way down to a local community, are built by human beings and we’re all flawed in some way, so our creations are, too.

The next important point is that the real measure of the perfection of a place is a simple one: Whether it’s perfect for oneself. I wouldn’t want to live in a desert, for example (though I might consider living in a dessert…), but some people absolutely love it. Same with a place that’s cold and snowy for most of the year: Definitely not for me!

With all that out of the way, and those caveats taken on board, the next thing to say is that place isn’t really all that relevant because beauty is found in all parts of the planet, and the climate we like the most exists in many places. So the perfect place it’s less about those things because, theoretically, at least, they can be found in many places.

For me one of the top criteria for a perfect place is that English is the main language. The reason for that is that I’ve come to realise that I don’t have the capacity to learn another language, beyond a few words or phrases. It’s not for lack of trying—definitely not—and I’m stubborn enough to refuse to give up. But I’m also realistic enough to know that the odds of picking up another language are remote, and becoming more so the older I get. So, I’d struggle anywhere where I couldn’t live using English alone. Some people would find that sad; to me, it’s just reality.

So, with natural beauty, weather, and non-English language out of the equation, that leaves all the things that make a country unique, it’s culture, absolutely, but also the values that make that place what it is.

I have found some things to be true. More democracy is generally, though not always, better than less democracy. Working together as a society to solve our shared problems is better than always going it alone, and personal responsibility means nothing without social responsibility. Care and concern for out planet, its wildlife and wild places, the air, the water, the climate, is non-negotiable. Healthcare is a human right.

In each of those areas, New Zealand is, in my opinion, better than the United States.

Democracy is the structure that keeps us from ripping each other’s throats out when we disagree. It’s what keeps things orderly and predictable because we know that if we lose the argument on the day, we may win it on another day.

For that to work, government and its democratic institutions must have legitimacy—basically, people have to believe they can effect change through the democratic process—the consent of the governed, and all that. New Zealand clearly has the edge on the legitimacy of its democracy, and so, its democracy is better.

Part of this is because New Zealand has a parliamentary system, which means the executive can never have more power than the legislative because they are the same. It means the legislature can get things done, and if it goes too far it can easily be changed completely.

We also have a proportional representation system so that our parliament reflects, as closely as possible, the will of the people. If the USA had that, even only just for the US House, it wouldn’t have half the problems it has. Mind you, New Zealand has no upper house, so the USA would have to abolish the Senate to have the same level of democracy—and that’s not necessarily a bad idea.

On the other hand, we elect representatives to our District Health Boards, which control healthcare within specific regions—the hospitals, the priorities for the area, especially in public health, those sorts of things. This was brought in by Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour Government (which ended in 2008), and I think it was a mistake. Too many people (dozens, even) we don’t know at all to choose among for a handful of spots, and some people run just out of personal ambition. Our local elections (towns and cities) are done by postal ballot and it’s appallingly bad—mid 40s percent bother to vote. The authorities adamantly refuse to even consider how online voting might be done. So, our democracy is not perfect, just better.

Because New Zealand is a social democracy (basically, that’s a fusion of socialism and capitalism within a democratic system), we value collective action. We believe that together we can do more than any of us could do alone, and that we can solve problems and move forward together. So, like all but one developed nation, we have national healthcare. Education, police, fire, are all functions of the nation's government which minimises political interference (I say “minimise” because politicians like to muck around with education all the time, and they sometimes pander on crime).

The USA doesn’t share in that ethic—it once did, but no more. However, New Zealand is far from perfect: We have the world’s worst youth suicide rate, among the worst domestic violence rates, the gap between rich and poor is growing, and people with mental illness have problems getting the help they need. The reason for all those persistent problems is that we don’t take enough social responsibility, leaving it up to individuals to work out. That’s failed. We should get back to Kiwi values and work together to solve those problems.

And that’s why I say, “personal responsibility means nothing without social responsibility”. People can’t “tough it out” when they’re in emotional or psychological pain, when they have no decent housing, when interpersonal violence is chronic. Essentially, we act too much like the USA, and not enough like New Zealand.

New Zealanders really do care about the planet and our environment—it’s not all hype and tourism slogans. However, we’re hamstrung by a strong farming lobby that prevents action on things like pollution of fresh water—our streams, rivers, and lakes—by dairy farms, something they deny is even a problem. The corporate sector—most of it owned by foreigners—doesn’t want strong action on climate change because, like corporations everywhere, they care only about their immediate profits.

What is different about New Zealand as compared to the USA is that all our political parties believe in science and they all want action on climate change. They differ only on what action we should take and how soon. The parties of the Left generally promote more urgency, the Right less, but ALL sides agree on the basics. Unlike the USA.

And the big one: In New Zealand, healthcare is a human right, and no one is denied healthcare because they can’t afford it. We don't even get a bill when we're discharged from hospital. People are still free to pay for experimental treatments themselves if they want to, but except in the rarest of cases, all treatment is possible in the public system. In the USA, well, things are very different.

So, when you look at what makes New Zealand society and culture what it is, its shared values and, especially, its commitment to social democracy, add in the natural beauty, good weather, and English as the main language, and New Zealand is for me the perfect place. For someone else, it could easily be somewhere else. Indeed, for most of the world, it is.

It’s okay to think of a place as being perfect, even if no one else agrees with you. Because the one thing I believe more than anything else is that the real measure—the only one that matters—for deciding on the perfection of a place is simple: Whether it’s perfect for oneself. New Zealand is—for me.

Thanks to Sherry for the question! It was the—ahem!—perfect place to start.

It’s not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me (mailto:amerinz@yahoo.com?Subject=AmeriNZ%20Blog) your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-18”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, "Ask Arthur”.

Previously:

Let the 2018 asking begin – The first post in this year’s series.

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