Pandemic Diary June 8-14
Fifty shades of poverty
Food poverty has been a feature of New Zealand and other formerly egalitarian societies for thirty years now. Instead of being able to buy food where the non-poor buy it, and eat a varied and healthy diet, the poor have to go cap in hand to government agencies or charities, and ask for a food parcel, or a referral to a source of food parcels. Poor children get fed some very basic foods at their schools, also provided by charities.
Last August the Market-State (NZ Inc) announced that “Children in 30 primary and intermediate schools will begin receiving a free lunch every school day from term one next year” and that “The Government’s prototype school lunch programme will initially roll out to all Year 1-8 pupils in 30 schools that will be part of a trial, extending to 21,000 children in 120 schools by the beginning of 2021.”
According to the Market-State’s own statistics this is less than 10% of children living in poverty. Statistics NZ reported in February 2020 that:
“In the year ended June 2019, about one in seven New Zealand children (168,500) lived in households with less than 50 percent of the median equivalised disposable household income before housing costs are deducted.
After housing costs have been deducted, the number of children living in New Zealand in relative poverty rises to one in five children (235,400). This measure, accounting for both inflation and the impact of housing costs, shows about 20.8 percent of children live in households with an income below half the 2017/18 median equivalised disposable household income.”
“As well as looking at incomes before and after housing costs have been deducted, Stats NZ reports on material hardship, which indicates the number of households missing out on more than six of the 17 basic things most people would regard as essentials.”
“Examples of material hardship include the respondent reporting not eating fresh fruit or vegetables, putting off a visit to the doctor, or not being able to pay the gas or electricity bills on time,” Mr Broughton said.”
“Looking at that material hardship measure, in the year ended June 2019, about one in eight children (13.4 percent) lived in households reporting material hardship. There was no significant change from 2017/18 to 2018/19 in material hardship rates.”
If children are living in food poverty, what does the government think their parents and caregivers are doing? Scoffing all the fresh fruit and veges and sending the kids off to school without lunch? All the research shows that this is not the case, and wherever child poverty is found, there is plain ordinary poverty. Full stop.
Recently the Market-State (NZ Inc) discovered two kinds of new poverty afflicting the young in this country – period poverty and digital poverty. It plans to fix the former by providing free menstrual products in schools, announcing on June 3 that “The Ministry of Education will begin providing free period products to schools during term three, following the government’s $2.6 million investment.The roll-out will begin at 15 Waikato schools and be expanded to all state and state-integrated schools on an opt-in basis in 2021.”
So-called digital poverty is another form of poverty affecting both the young and the elderly in New Zealand. The Market-State’s response to the fact that large numbers of school children did not have access to computers at home (or broadband connections to run them) in order to study at home during the pandemic lockdown period was for the Ministry of Education to be empowered to provide laptops and internet connections. How well this worked for those children and families who received them has yet to be assessed. It may turn out that the main beneficiaries were the definitely not-poor (make that ‘filthy rich’) digital corporations like Microsoft and Google which are in the teaching software and delivery business and sell their services to the Market-State in New Zealand and most everywhere else.
This subject requires separate investigation and discussion. For now, suffice it to say that it beggars belief that governments for the past thirty years have been content to go on identifying new shades of poverty (energy, housing, health care – you name it, the poor have not got it) and applying a Bandaid here and there on these huge gaping wounds in our society. Why has nobody had the brains (or is it the guts?) to speak the truth and say that there is only one kind of poverty – lack of money.
So the cure for food, and child, and period, and every other shade of poverty is more money for the poor. Simple as that.
As historian Rutger Bregman puts it in his 2017 TED talk on poverty and its cure: “When it comes to poverty, we, the rich, should stop pretending we know best. We should stop sending shoes and teddy bears to the poor, to people we have never met. And we should get rid of the vast industry of paternalistic bureaucrats when we could simply hand over their salaries to the poor they’re supposed to help.” It is worth listening to the whole talk for Bregman’s other insights on poverty and what would fix it once and for all, namely a fairer distribution of wealth. This would cost the Market-State less than current Fifty Shades of Poverty approach, and be so much easier and cheaper to administer. When will it become clear to those in charge that if they keep doing what they have done for the past thirty+ years, they will keep getting what they have always got? Poverty of thinking and practice leads to material poverty as well.
Back to the present
Almost a century ago – 1930 – my mother was seven years old, and her mother (the grandmother I never met because she died of cancer before I was born) was coping with her husband and family breadwinner out of work (it was the Great Depression) and her eldest child suffering from polio (it was before the vaccine was invented). By the time I was born (1952) New Zealand and the world were experiencing a post-war economic, there was near-as full employment, and vaccinations for children were available as part of basic primary health care for all.
So my mother did not have to queue outside the public hospital, as her mother did, to be given a loaf of bread and a tin of golden syrup to feed her family with. These days, the cheap food on offer has changed, but the queues are still there at the doors of charities dispensing food, and there are once again thousands and thousands of mothers who are just as stressed and desperate about feeding their children properly as my grandmother must have been.
What has changed in ninety years? Not the unjust and exploitative economic system which at best permits and at worst creates poverty, so the levels of want and deprivation keep rising. A new system is needed, and that requires new forms of thinking and doing. The words “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” came into my head as I wrote that last sentence. I just looked up where they come from and they are from W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, which was written in 1919 in the chaos of the aftermath of World War One, and also during the global flu pandemic of 1918-19. That pandemic killed millions and almost killed Yeats’ wife, who was pregnant.
The past and present unjust and exploitative economic and political system creates wars and pandemics as well as poverty, and a climate crisis as well. If change does not come soon, what will the poets of the 22nd century – if poets there still be – be writing?
Growing deserts with clouds
“We’re from Microsoft. We’re here to help.” as Vanessa Sorenson, the general manager of Microsoft New Zealand said on May 6, paraphrasing US President Ronald Reagan. Well, she didn’t say it in those exact words, but if you read what she did say on behalf of her employer at Microsoft to establish its first datacenter region in New Zealand, you’ll get that this is the general idea. Building a data centre here is going to contribute to further ‘innovation’ and ‘growth’ for New Zealand and its economy, and that can only be a big help, right?
The Prime Minister thinks so, saying on May 6 (Microsoft’s “significant investment” shows faith in NZ’s digital future) that it would be a ‘significant investment’ which “… serves as a signal to the world New Zealand is open for business and quality investment.” The data centre itself (still subject to approval from the Overseas Investment Office) won’t be open to New Zealanders, however – its location will be secret. Like the bunkers built for other American tech company profiteers, no doubt.
It is probable that the OIO will approve the Microsoft application, since judging by its previous decisions no amount of corporate immorality and skulduggery seems capable of causing a company to fail its ‘good character’ test. But be under no illusions that Microsoft is the good corporate citizen it makes itself out to be in New Zealand. Just six months ago it settled a long-running investigation with Inland Revenue over international transfer pricing, which saw Microsoft adjust multiple back years of tax to a total of $24.7 million in IRD’s favour.
That’s Standard Operating Procedure for transnational companies, and all the big tech companies do it. Also SOP for big tech companies is growth in digital infrastructure. Not fluffy clouds up above, but big fat energy-intensive data centres which now sprawl over thousands of hectares all around the world. On 11 March 2020 Mark Haranas reported that “Hyperscale data centers are becoming the new norm in the IT world, with the number of these large-scale centers tripling since 2013.
The amount of spending on building and equipping hyperscale data centers hit record heights in 2019 as spending in the third quarter alone reached $31 billion. The largest cloud and internet service providers in the world are investing billions each quarter on constructing hyperscale facilities that house tens of thousands of servers and hardware alongside millions of virtual machines … The number of hyperscale data centers now exceeds 500 with more than 150 new facilities on the way … Hyperscale operators accounted for 33 percent of all spending on data center hardware and software in the first three quarters of 2019, up from 26 percent in 2017 and an increase from 15 percent in 2015.”
That’s the sort of growth that the American companies you have heard of (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple) and the ones you likely haven’t (Equinix, Digital Realty, Stack Infrastructure) just love. What does that growth look like in terms of the space, concrete, steel, plastics, energy and other non-renewable resources devoted to it? Check out this Facebook promo video from 2018 and this one from 2017 for an indicator of just one company’s environmental bootprint which is part of this hyperscale data centre growth.
Then multiply that by all the other data companies in the world. Be sure to include China, where the three largest data centres in the world are currently located, more centres are planned, and 73% of the energy used by the current ones comes from coal. Further, by 2023 it is estimated that China’s data centres alone will be using more energy than the whole of Australia.
I could go on. You get the picture. The facts about ‘cloud’ computing and the environmental catastrophe it creates and is intensifying as it grows on land are readily available on line in text, images and video to anyone who wants to search on ‘data center’ – as is the fact that each new search emits the carbon equivalent of boiling a kettle with electricity derived from fossil fuel burning. For a greater understanding of what is going on you could read New Dark Age by James Bridle (2018) or Extrastatecraft by Keller Easterling (2014). For where it is all going to end, try This Civilisation is Finished by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander (2019).