John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s Not to Like?

February 27, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Please consider this a dispatch from New Zealand, a country that has opposing political parties but nothing like the divide we have currently in the US. I have to get out of our country every now and again just to remind myself that we could be living differently, if only…

I have just attended the 33rd Annual First-Year Experience Conference and San Diego and instead of returning immediately to our home base in Brevard, North Carolina, my wife and I are taking a two week vacation largely in New Zealand and a brief time in Australia.  I am writing from a country where my fellow US citizens of the right could not imagine people being happy in a country that provides generous social welfare benefits.

This posting is being written on the third anniversary of the Christ Church earthquake in 2011, which took the lives of 168 people. We were there 3 years ago today and departed about three hours and forty minutes before the quake struck. I have always had more than my fair share of good luck.

On our way to New Zealand with a brief stop in Sydney, Australia, it was not necessary to tip in restaurants—unless you are staying in a hotel or other establishment that caters to Americans who expect to have to tip. For you see Australia has a minimum wage law, just as we do, which currently is 16.50 Australian dollars (=14.83USD) an hour. Compare this to the 7.25 USD for American workers except tipped workers who are guaranteed a Federal minimum wage of only $2.13 an hour. As I thought about this in Sydney, I realized that through tipping in the US to make up for the lack of a living wage for tipped workers, I am, in effect, subsidizing what would otherwise be a living wage paid to such workers in some other countries and thereby also subsidizing profits of restaurant owners, all thanks to the power of the restaurant/hotel lobby in our nation’s capitol. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to tipping. I want all my fellow Americans to earn a decent living and be in the middle class.  I am an American who is thinking a lot more these days about the structural inequality in my country and the effects of that on all citizens, especially college students. It only takes me being out of the country and visiting Australia and New Zealand to remind me how other advanced countries manage to do what we seemingly cannot: raise the minimum wage to a level where people can actually support themselves on it. But on to New Zealand.

Spent a full day in Auckland a city of 1.377 million people. Didn’t hear a horn blown once. It was explained to me by a native, that horn blowing is viewed “as an extremely aggressive act” which is considered to be very bad manners.

On this same day in Auckland, I did not see one single police officer. I am just trying to imagine being in a US city of comparable size and hearing no automobile horns and not seeing the constabulary.

If you go in a restaurant even for a light meal, you need to check your American impatience at the door. And definitely allow more time than you would in the US for a comparable meal.

On the front page of an Auckland newspaper this morning was a story of a hit and run accident, in the course of which a bystander stole a bicycle that had been involved in the accident. The paper opined with a question: what is New Zealand coming to that someone would steal a bicycle?

This is also a country with 3% unemployment under a Conservative government, something the Republicans in the US have never been able to accomplish. And the economy is booming in full recovery mode, unlike the United States.

And this is a country with very tightly restricted immigration. It is understandable why so many less fortunate people might want to come to live, work, and enjoy life in such a country.

While I am here, if I should get sick, I am responsible for any hospital and medical expenses incurred for my care. But if I were a citizen, I would have access to universal health care. But I would be much less happy if I had access to universal health care. The life expectancy of US citizens is 78,7 years and for New Zealanders 80.90 years.

And even a cursory visual inspection of the men and women on the street confirms the much less lower level of obesity in this part of the world, especially in younger people.

And as I walked the city of Auckland, and drove it too, I saw no evidences of poverty and extreme differences of wealth as would be measured by the quality of housing stock. And no mobile homes in the countryside. But we Americans think we have more freedom and insist on its preservation, to preserve our shorter life spans and lower standards of living.  A short vacation reminds me that it doesn’t have to be this way.

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