Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Christmas Cards

06/01/2004
The ancient practice of sending Christmas cards refuses to succumb to alternative means of communication such as phone and email. Politicians still send them, hoping you'll put them in pride of place on the mantelpiece; companies post them as advertisements; one Auckland public authority on the brink of extinction because of the Government's welcome transport restructuring sent us a card signed by all members of staff, only one of whom I knew. Belated lobbying? Probably, but the target seemed a bit misplaced!

The cards most prized in our household are those from old friends. For forty years I've sent a few each year, and it's been interesting to see how one's college friends, former students and those engaged in good causes have moved (or not) with the times. Many university friends are on the verge of retirement, some having pursued distinguished careers in a variety of fields. My former students are a more mixed bag. Several hold significant public sector positions in international agencies. I always pay special attention to their cards, realising they are at the cutting edge of the world's most serious economic and social problems. Some serving in New Zealand quangos usually got there because of political patronage rather than intrinsic merit, and I read their messages for an update on the latest in political correctness. One former student who was a dedicated and lively social reformer in his youth lives overseas. He has become astonishingly self-important and ponderous. All a bit distressing when I recall his youthful idealism.

It's those still involved in the world, most of them fifty to seventy year-olds, who send the most interesting cards. Thirty six years ago we spent nine months in the United States where I was attached for research purposes to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. It was at the height of the Vietnam War. To this day I think that war was misconceived, and at the time I became involved on the edge of the huge American protest movement that bit President Lyndon Johnson's backside and influenced a generation of politicians there, as well as here. Early in 1968 we joined the March on the Pentagon with some American friends, and have stayed in touch ever since. They've had interesting lives, always devoted to the cause of peace and helping the disadvantaged. The Democratic Party has never been quite good enough for them. They toyed with Ralph Nader and the Greens, who in the last presidential election helped defeat Al Gore, putting George W. Bush into the White House. Room always for debate with them! This year their note commented that they were unable to find any cards with the word "peace" on them. Instead we received one with a lion lying down with a lamb. Assuming their message is that they'd like some unilateral gesture in the Middle East, I'd have thought a lion lying next to a nest of poisonous snakes might have been more appropriate.... I always have had trouble with the notion that unilateral acts produce lasting peace.

My American friends are interesting people. One has spent her life working for the homeless in Washington DC where for many years rent controls have been used by city administrations to try to bring housing within reach of the poor. "Reluctantly", she said when I saw her in Washington last year, "I concluded controls will never work. Landlords just exit the market". Less idealistic people worked out long ago that nearly all controls cause more problems than they solve. I told her about the observation by the Swedish economist Asar Lindbeck in the 1970s that next to bombing, nothing had done more to destroy the centres of many cities than rent controls. She nodded sadly, having invested so much hope in them for so long. My best North American friends keep learning on the job. They inform us each year about social innovations, some of which could be used to advantage here if only our ministers opened their minds.

The US has a stronger philanthropic sector than New Zealand. Their churches remain more vibrant. Here, the dominant tradition since early times has been to leave things to the Government and to pressure groups, most of whom stand to benefit from more state intervention, something our ministers can't comprehend. One day, maybe, New Zealand will possess more think tanks producing useful policy advice. It's a pity to have to rely on overseas sources, let alone one's Christmas cards.