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Letter 6 (page 4)

What’s news in America

Americans think a lot more about bombs than they used to. The bombing of the TWA flight is still in the news and the bomb at the Olympics briefly held the headlines. These follow the Oklahoma City bomb last year and one a few months ago in Saudi Arabia. One thing that has come across on TV is just how easy it is. As a test, I searched for "fertilizer bomb" (the type used in Oklahoma) on the internet and found several sites that gave detailed instructions. It is hard to justify a total lack of censorship when it comes to making bombs and child pornography and the US Congress passed a law making transmission of such information illegal. However, the law has since been struck down as being unconstitional (violating the right to free speech) and it is impossible to police on the internet anyway. Frightening stuff.

The American tax year is January 1 to December 31 and we had to file a return by April 15. It is effectively impossible to state whether the tax is higher or lower than Australia because the tax codes are so different. For example, in America, you can claim the interest on your home loan as an expense (you can't in Aust.) but against that, you have to pay capital gains tax when you sell it and this can be tens of thousands of dollars. Also, the government provides different services. The Australian government gives free hospital care through Medicare but most Americans pay $50-$100 per month per person to private health insurers. Although there are now fees at university, they are trivial compared with what Americans pay. One thing I do know is that among OECD countries, tax as a proportion of GDP (the size of the economy) is lowest in Turkey, then Australia and I think the US is next. Also complicating the issue is that there is a state income tax (5% here) and sales taxes.

Being America, someone is always trying to sell you something, no matter where you are. The church bulletin has 4 pages and the back page is devoted to advertising. At a black church I visited, there are cardboard fans advertising a funeral company in the seats along with the song books. (Our white church is air conditioned). I should also mention that the Catholic church has a very different attitude to gambling from the Protestant churches. Our church recently had a social outing to the local casino! We didn't go.

More quality bumper stickers:

  • If we had known that grandchildren were so much fun, we would have had them first!
  • Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most.
  • There is an anti-drug campaign called DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and the normal bumper sticker says DARE to keep kids off drugs but I have also seen one that says DARE to keep cops off donuts!

This graph from Newsweek fascinatinated me. Perhaps there is hope for racial integration. As you can see, 25 years ago, blacks married almost exclusively within the black community but that is changing. The rising number of educated blacks is believed to be a factor but black women are still twice as likely as white women to have children out of wedlock.

Welfare reform is a hot issue at the moment as there are about to be major changes. There is a lot of resentment against people on "welfare", which normally means a program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The resentment arises because, unlike Australian unemployment benefits, it seems there is no need to make even the pretense of looking for work. It is also a racial issue as most whites assume that the majority of welfare recipients are black (not true). There are now more than 14 million receiving Federal welfare and it is a widely held belief that AFDC breeds poverty by taking away the incentive to work and making it acceptable to depend on the government for everything. Amongst other things, the law about to be passed will require work after 2 years, an individual can receive benefits for a maximum of five years during their lifetime, single mothers must identify the fathers of their children or lose 25% and unmarried teenage mothers must stay at home and at school. The last is totally heartless as recemt studies show that many teen pregnancies are from older men, often mum’s boyfriend so getting out of the home is their only hope.

The welfare changes (officially called The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act) are expected to save $60 billion over 6 years, though critics say there will be a big increase in crime and homelessness. Some elements are drawn from a program run in Wisconsin where the caseload was reduced by 44% since 1987 but they did this by spending more, not less (on things like job training, job subsidies and childcare).

This is an election year though and so truth is often distorted. $60 billion sounds a lot but it is trivial compared to the approaching crisis of spending on the elderly. I have also seen a figure of $85 billion being spent annually on "corporate welfare" on things like subsidising exports of American wheat and helping McDonalds pay for advertising in overseas markets. The difference of course is that old people all vote which gives them political clout and companies buy influence with donations to political parties. Poor people don't have a powerful lobby group.

In the last poll I saw, President Clinton had a whopping 24% lead over Bob Dole for the coming election. Although the gap will probably narrow, it seems only something really nasty coming out of one of the many minor scandals can prevent him being re-elected.

Americans make generous allowances for people with disabilities. The best positions at every carpark are reserved for those with disabilities where a disability can just be being old and frail. At our local supermarket, the standard spaces are 2.7 m wide. However, in recognition that older drivers are more "approximate" in their driving the spaces for the disabled are 4 m wide!

Gasoline prices jumped as high as US$1.35/gallon or 45 Aust ¢/L in June. This made Americans angry and the politicians felt the need to be seen to be doing something. The Republicans removed the 4.3¢/gallon federal tax on gasoline and President Clinton promised to release 12 million gallons of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves to increase supply. The reserves are there in case of national emergency such as war but apparently, a rise in gas prices during an election year is a national emergency.

I thought Australians were wasteful but Americans are far worse. Americans don't drive big cars now but almost half have minivans, pickup trucks or 4-wheel drives instead. Houses are big but not built to last or conserve energy. Automatic sprinkler systems make it easy to have beautiful lawns in a near-desert. It makes me depressed as it is now clear to me that while Americans do care about National Parks and want clean air and water, very few are prepared to change their lifestyle to help make a difference.

I'm surprised that it is legally possible but there is a curfew on teens in Denver County. Children 18 and under are not allowed to be on the streets after 11pm Sunday to Thursday and after midnight on Friday and Saturday.

You may be interested know that if you live in Los Angeles, you have a lower chance of having your house burgled than if you live in Sydney but you are 20 times more likely to be murdered.

… and finally

When are we coming home? I'm not sure but my best guess is the end of 1997. It depends on whether Lan gets another job and if so, how it turns out. I need to stay into next year to get paid back for all the work I did before my visa was approved. In the mean time, please write to us. We do miss you.

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