For quite some time now I’ve been meaning to write about how the Christchurch quake was giving us a salutary lesson on how the “free market” handles a major disaster. But (with hat tip to Bryce Edwards) I see that novelist and poet Fiona Farrell has made a much better job of it than I would have:
‘Free-market quake’ turns citizens into assets
There have been two kinds of quake in this city.
The first was geological. The earth shook, as it has shaken many times before. In different eras, this would have caused no more than some shock to the people living on the surface. They would simply have decamped, moved away from the wet places and the rock falls and set up home somewhere more solid. End of story.
But in 2011, an earthquake has another dimension: it is a social and political event. We can adapt to the geological quake, but this other dimension is a completely different and more challenging matter.
In Haiti when a quake hit, a socially negligent government abandoned its people to chaos. In Japan, a highly organised system mended the mess left in Kobe within two years. The Christchurch quake is happening within a particular political setting.
There is still a lot of that wonderful traditional community energy about, but this energy is being expressed within a wider political framework, led by a government ideologically committed to not interfering in the workings of private business.
So, the future of the city lies not with democratically elected government, but with private insurance companies: big multinational companies like State and Tower and EQC, which is at base not some benevolent government department like the old Ministry of Works, with blokes in cardies testing every rivet, but a government entity that in 2009 entered a contract with an international company, Gallagher Bassett Services, whose head office is a shiny tower on Two Pierce Place, Illinois. …
‘BIG CLAMMY PAWS’ OF INSURANCE COMPANIES
The city is in the big clammy paws of insurance companies and all the consultations, the vision groups, the creative planning meetings to determine the future shape of Our City, are sideshows. The main event is determined by a government that consistently agrees to be powerless before the demands of international business.
In this system, New Zealanders are not citizens with rights but assets to be traded round a table. We make a profit or a loss for the shareholders in a company. Our wellbeing is not their primary focus.
The much-maligned nanny state, the welfare state, had as its focus our individual wellbeing. But not any more. Not in John Key’s New Zealand.
That is why he can head off to India to have his photo taken with his wife at the Taj Mahal while people have grass growing in the living room and children have to be bathed in plastic barrels.
He can exist in a kind of presidential isolation, his presence not really necessary unless required for a flattering photograph.
The real force driving this city’s recovery is business negotiation. Private rather than public figures are dictating the pace of recovery. Their faces are not familiar from the television. Their voices are not heard answering hard questions on Morning Report.
FREE MARKET EARTHQUAKE
This is a 2011, free market, market-driven earthquake. … [It] is simply sordid and painful, an endless tussle with private business.
And maybe it could be different. Disasters happen in a context.
When the world markets crashed back in 1928, there was chaos in this country for seven years. A conservative government permitted suffering rather than intervene. It let the market decide. But in 1935, a different ideology was set in motion: things changed. People were able to attend a doctor, go to school, earn an income, live in a leakproof state home, lead a decent life.
This quake is no different. It’s a disaster. But it’s the political structures we create to respond to disaster that make the difference.
The “free market” exists to make profit. It does have some advantages when everything is running smoothly (if we ignore the facts that it takes no heed of externalities such as pollution, and that we live in a world of finite resources). But the free market is hopeless in tough times. It never wants to pay out or clean up the mess. Like the recent massive government / taxpayer bailouts of the broken financial sector, dealing with disaster needs strong government.
We should keep all this in mind in the face of right wing “small government” rhetoric and the ever growing risk that NZ will privatise its few remaining public assets. There are big challenges ahead, and the free market isn’t up to it.