Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Living Beyond My Means

When I decided to finish work to do my Master's thesis full time, I knew it would be interesting making ends meet. Since I got back from Peru, I've been seeing how this works out.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Master's by Thesis scholarship This scholarship gives me $277 per week to live on. My rent, for my part of a 2-bedroom flat in Northland, is $200. Electricity and telecommunications bills add another $40 per week. That leaves $37 for everything else. Much as I have come see living well and frugally as an interesting and worthy project, I haven't been able to get my food budget much below $100 per week, even leaving aside such frivolities as sport or the occasional beer or espresso coffee.

To be fair, the $20-odd per week for telecoms includes broadband internet (arguably a necessity these days), and the basic Sky TV package. With our electricity usage (both out of the house a lot), the $20 per week estimate may be a little above the average. But these things only make a couple of dollars difference in any case. The elephant in the room is the rent, which takes up 72 percent of my principal income.

You might think that the rental is high, but although it's in quite a good location, it's not luxury. I also walk everywhere and have no transport costs. From memory, the cheapest monthly bus pass is at least $100, or $25 per week. In summary, I'd make the case that a subsistence income for living in Wellington would be at least $350 per week.

Now, although it would be nice to have an income that matches my outgoings, I don't have any actual problems. I have savings from several years of well-paid work as a backup. I also have a bit of work doing tutoring and marking, which, although not well-paid for something requiring a graduate degree, is relatively stress-free and drags my overall income part of the way towards the break-even level. Studying is a personal choice, and there are a number of othe rbenefits gained through being a postgraduate student.

However, for those on a benefit or pension, working on close to minimum wage, or god forbid, having to support dependents, things must be very difficult. In some future posts, I want to reflect on the situation of people on low incomes, which I think includes some structural disadvantages that aren't always noticed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Swings to the Left? (1)

An interesting round of local body results at the weekend in New Zealand: Len Brown has become the first mayor of Auckland Super City, while in Wellington it's possible that Green party member Celia Wade-Brown could pip has beaten Kerry Prendergast on special votes.

This hardly constitutes a massive swing to the left: Brown seems like a pragmatic centrist, while Wade-Brown has acknowledged that the knife-edge result doesn't give her a huge mandate and she will need to work with others on the council. However, it does a) make the New Zealand political situation a little more complicated and interesting and b) it provides some impetus for important public transport projects in both cities.

The push back has started already, with John Key and Steven Joyce doing their best to deflate expectations about expansion of inner-city rail in Auckland or new public transport. Gordon Campbell has the usual good coverage of the new central government-local government dynamic.

Meanwhile, the Dominion Post on the day after Wade-Brown's count back victory was confirmed ran with the rather extraordinary headline: "Wellington goes green and fluffy". Isn't there some kind of journalistic tradition of at least outward respect to a newly elected political leader? There's already been two stories about how she prefers to walk or cycle to work and may not want to use the mayoral Audi very much. Human interest pieces, or working up to the "she's a wierdo who wants to take away you cars" angle. Time will tell.

Of course, as Obama will tell you, these days it's pretty hard to undertake even the most timid reforms without provoking the corporate media to scream that you're a radical socialist who will enslave poor hard-working rich people. For comparison, here's an interesting story in the Globe and Mail arguing that big business and media systematically undermined a social democratic government in Ontario in the 1990s.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Mario Vargas LLosa Wins Nobel Prize for Literature 2010

The Reuters news item is here, and coverage in La Republica here. I think it's well-deserved. Vargas Llosa is not all that popular in Peru. This is perhaps partly due to tall-poppy syndrome. Partly it relates to his conversion from leftist to neoliberal politics, his failed presidential run in 1990 and subsequent self-imposed exile in Spain. There's also a reasonable case that he has a quintissentially limeño viewpoint that treats the Andean world as the mysterious Other, misunderstanding and essentializing it. His involvement in an investigative commission into the murder of eight journalists in the Ayachucho locality of Uchuraccay in 1983 during the Shining Path uprising remains controversial, and the commission's conclusions contested.

Even my limeña development studies classmate in New Zealand frowns at the mention of Vargas Llosa and says "I prefer [fellow Peruvian novelist] Bryce Echenique" I'm a fan of Alfredo Bryce Echenique as well, but he only wrote a handful of books. In terms of the range of styles and technical virtuosity, Vargas Llosa has few parallels. I've read five of his novels, and they're all different, while all are also very readable. Conversation in the Cathedral is surely one of the great achievements of Latin American writing, remaining gripping in terms of plot and character while gradually piecing together a thoroughly splintered array of time sequences and viewpoints with amazing literary dexterity.

Other than that, the great strength of Mario Vargas Llosa is his depiction of power, its abuse, and the fear of it, especially from a male perspective. Perhaps influenced by a period of his youth spent in a military academy, themes of authority, obedience and oppression run through most of Vargas Llosa's work, including burlesque like Pantaleon y las Visitadoras. He has a genius for showing how the personal is political and the political personal. Regardless of his current views and pronouncements -- which I often don't really agree with -- this makes him a worthy recipient of an award for lifetime achievement.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Not Acceptable

This is one of the relatively few occasions when I'm ashamed to be a New Zealander. It's bad enough that a mindless buffoon like Paul Henry gets air time at all, but on a state-owned broadcaster that is supposed to be in some way representative of our society it is truly beyond the pale.

What really takes the cake is the official response from TVNZ, that: "The audience tell us over and over again that one of the things they love about Paul Henry is that he's prepared to say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud"

So ok, New Zealand has an ugly, narrow-minded, ignorant, reactionary underbelly. TVNZ thinks it's ok to not only acknowledge this, but to embrace and perpetuate it? And who is this "we" that they refer to?

I can't actually bring myself to watch the clip, so can't comment on John Key's initial reaction, but as the Prime Minister ought to have made a stronger response in the aftermath. Likewise, how limp is Phil Goff's comment that: "I think it's just Paul Henry being Paul Henry"? (If the focus-grouped strategy to get back in touch with working class voters by not appearing too "liberal" requires you to assume they're all stupid bigots, this may not be a good start).

My long-ago post on political correctness has some relevance here. But a more concise summation of what's wrong with Paul Henry comes from the Unite Union's Mike Treen:

"Unite Union national director Mike Treen said he did not call for someone’s dismissal lightly. “However Paul Henry legitimises racism and bigotry in the workplace. I deal every day with problems associated with managers and even co-workers abusing staff because the look or sound different,” he said. Workers could end up “tormented and bullied out of their jobs by the so-called humour being practiced by Paul Henry”.

“When we try to protect the workers, the inevitable response is ‘well, Paul Henry is allowed to use this language on national TV why can’t I?’ Paul Henry has become the poster boy for bigotry.”

Another good comment from Public Address commenter Deep Red:

Seriously though, to those who say "harden up, ya PC wankers!", Mr Henry's latest sewage-mouthing reminds me all too well of my high school experiences. Not just any old high school, but a reputed First Four Ships/Ivy League one.

It reminds me of my high school as well. And authority figures there who could have expressed disapproval ignored or laughed it off , too.

Update: and then he comes out and "apologises" by talking about gypsy ancestry, which is "much, much worse" than being British. Seriously, wtf?

Update: TVNZ has suspended Henry until the 18th of October. So that's something.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

No One Really Wants to Hear About My Medical Records

...but I'm still going to report that in my check-up at the Travel Doctor required by Adventure Consultants if I want to join the expedition to Aconcagua, I had a resting pulse rate of 66 and blood pressure of 104/60. That pulse rate seemed low. "Your pulse rate goes down as you get older, right?" I asked the doctor. "Actually, it goes down as you get fitter", she corrected.

So, I must be doing something right. The only down side is that I managed to have a mild hangover today after just three beers last night (and not large ones either). It's a far cry from when we used to play for beer at His Lordships in Christchurch and over the course of the night it was a reasonable goal to work your way through ten jugs. I'm not sure how I would have gone at high altitudes in those days, though.