Friday, November 23, 2007

Bah Humbug 2007!

The various city Santa parades have been and gone but the holly and plastic snow has yet to appear in retailers windows. Cheesy reindeer and red-suited Santa window displays are nowhere to be seen. The sound of sleighbells or christmas crooning is still not to be heard in the streets. New Zealand is in the grip of a Grinch and the only obvious emotions on people's faces are fatigue and irritation.

The fact is New Zealanders can't afford Christmas. Credit card debt now stands at a record $4.9 billion as of October 2007 while the base lending rates are around 13%. True the slumping US dollar means that consumer durables have never been so cheap but retail outlets have been fighting a vicious credit driven market share war for these customers all year. Retailers have wrung the stone dry and consumers have nothing left to give.

With the resourceful hypocrisy of advertisers everywhere I suspect 2007 will be a 'spiritual' christmas. Marketers will have to lay off the hard sell and push for the small and meaningful, with as much reference to stories of poor people giving as possible. Soulful songs and even religious overtones are the go for 2007. The Hard beat, hard sell jingle bells of previous years will spark nothing but resentment and avoidance in retail outlets this season.

But the curious thing is the anti-merchandise sentiment seems to be equally strong among both rich and poor at the moment. People are sick of stuff. They are sick of being told to buy and they are sick of the clutter buying things brings with it. Having gorged on credit for so long people are gradually losing their appetite for meaningless merchandise as it becomes less affordable.

An amusing parallel arises here. This was precisely the situation in the Roman Empire which led to the widespread adoption of St Paul's Christianity. Tired of sex, violence and excess, the Romans - and especially the Greeks - found the humble sanctity of the Christian message a refreshing change.

But the big question is whether this anti-material kick will last or is simply symptomatic of an economic down-turn. My suspicion is that it will last and is not just due to a slow-down. Is a cultural transition.

For despite reaping record farm profits due to the global grain shortage New Zealand is facing a slow-down. You cannot run interest rates over 12.5% without a crunch coming sooner or later. Meanwhile The global housing pop is beginning reducing demand for property. Personally I would not be too surprised to see a reversal of the holiday home market over the next few years and foreign owners liquidate their unused New Zealand assets when they fail to meet the rosy growth projections their purchase was predicated on.

Baby-boomers provide the west with its cultural lead. In the 80s they went mad on champagne and dodgy bonds. In the 90s it was tech stocks and in the 00s it was housing. Most boomers have done pretty well for themselves - certainly better than other generations have or may expect to do. Now as the housing bubble begins to pop I suspect boomers are bedding themselves in for an economic winter. During this period I suspect they will start to get all spiritual on us - from the comfort of their tidy nesteggs of course.

But New Zealand is not a particularly christian nation. In the past five years those professing to be Christian has slipped from 60% to 55% with only the Catholics growing their flock. But if one scratches the surface of this the story becomes a bit different. New Zealanders have never been particularly good at accepting spiritual authorities and have a tendency to go their own way. From the fundamentalist cheese of the self-proclaimed Bishop Brian Tamaki to Christian rationalist chalk of Lloyd Geering it would be hard to discern much in common with these different brands of christianity other than their reference back to events between Nazareth and Bethlehem 2,000-odd years ago. All invoke christian motifs but variation in philosophy between Christians in New Zealand is far greater than in European nations with long established churches.

No, if New Zealand has any common set of beliefs, they turn around environmentalism. More than 80% of New Zealanders say they are concerned about the impact of humankind on the environment. As with christianity these beliefs vary enormously from the practical business-like values of farmers to the theoretical idealism of suburban politicians but there is at least a common view that the environment must be preserved, and that we are not doing a particularly good job of that.

Perhaps then, what I am predicting is the rise of more low-key "green Christmas". This will emphasise charity - particularly to third world causes, and enjoying New Zealand's outdoors. The essense will be simplicity, freedom, family and nature. There will be a greater role for businesses and religious organisations which can refine their message and deliver goods and services which meet these needs. I suspect the simple and natural will end up being humungously expensive as the middle class inevitably engages in its tragic little competitions but at least those who genuinely are poorly off will not feel too far out of place.

My only real question is, when will councils stop being so up-tight about letting people have fires on the beach? Its one of the great symbols of New Zealand freedom and yet everywhere you go the miserable sods have outlawed it!

The Government may have nothing to do with such restrictions but it is the sense of being enmeshed in red tape which is another pressure that is Grinching out New Zealanders at the moment. The Government, led by self-styled Queen Jadis, is presiding over the beginning of an economic winter and is doing so by locking down everything that moves. Recent surveys show the public is chafing against these restrictions and wants to return to a world without overpaid public servants telling them what to do every time they turn around.

People, rich and poor, are tired of being told what to do. And the problem for the Labour Party is they can't help doing it. As a reforming party Labour sees it as its mission to transform New Zealand into something it has shaped. The tendency of Ministesr to leap in and try and micro-manage is just another example of this in-built sense of mission. When money is abundant (as it has been or as it was pre-1987) most people are too busy getting rich to worry about the nonsense being spouted in Wellington. But as the interest chocker-chain tightens people start looking for someone to bite - and that will be whoever holds the lead.

For National in 2008 the answer will be simple. Sell simplicity, freedom, family and nature and they can't go wrong. Don't get enmeshed in deep policy, just keep telling everyone things should be simpler and smile a lot. Be seen in nature and talk about respecting it. Talk about simple freedoms everyone can relate to and talk about family. Following such a campaign should make getting elected a walk in the park. It will probably all be lies but these are the things people want to hear right now.

The end of the golden weather for New Zealand is definitely in sight. Thus we need to think about strategies for what is likely to be a long cool autumn.

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