New Zealand Today Response
January 13th, 2004 | View Post

The cover of the magazine
While taking a rather enjoyable and short flight from Christchurch to Dunedin, I came across a seven-page article in an "NZ Today" magazine written by editor, Allan Dick. With a bolded introduction proposing my thoughts in return for $100 and a supply of tea, I could not refuse the offer - I love tea.

My background in brief: I am an American citizen twenty-five years of age and have been traveling this fine country for the past seven months. I hold an honors degree in Mathematics and have resided in the state of Texas most of my life. I am generally employed as a computer programmer or web developer but I love to write, especially when there is some degree of philosophy involved. I am of the age where I still believe I can help the world and my future ambitions include working with NASA and even running for president of the United States.

Dear Mr. Dick,

I found your views of the world fairly entertaining and certainly captivating enough for a travel through the sky. There are a few things I disagree with and I would like to use this time to share them with you.

Firstly, I would like to comment on your thoughts regarding toll roads and tax increases on petrol. Allow me to note early on that I am much more in favor of toll roads over petrol taxing. The reason is fairly simple, toll roads ultimately create a 'simpler' albeit more expensive passage from points a to b. I doubt very sincerely that a toll road that whisks drivers to an uncharted area will be built or that an existing road will be tolled without the existence of alternate (perhaps somewhat longer) routes. Because of this, I see a toll road as a luxury - a luxury affordable to those who are willing to pay its toll. Petrol tax is, amongst other things, a highly regressive tax. You can assume that as I have found my way to New Zealand, such a tax increase would not ruin me, and I will assume that since you are a published editor that it would not ruin you either, but it seems somewhat unfair to simply include you and I in this mix. The people that it hurts are those near the poverty line. They pay the same 5 cent per liter increase (as an example) that you or I would, only it is significantly more of their income with each liter pumped.

I have been asking myself why you make petrol cost comparisons to the UK, Europe, and Japan but fail to include the United States. Not surprisingly, these comparisons follow the same introduction that claims, "Petrol in this country is too cheap". Petrol in New Zealand, by any American standard is incredibly expensive. Even with gas prices currently 'high' in Texas, I would expect to pay no more than $1.30 US / gallon (~$0.51 NZ / liter). A Californian, who would probably pay the most within the US, might shell out around $2.40 US / gallon (~$0.94 NZ / liter). Within that range, prices can vary significantly around the United States but any way you dice it, it is still considerably less expensive than anywhere in New Zealand.

That brings me to your claim that if petrol was not so inexpensive that New Zealanders would "...all be driving smaller cars". Again using my homeland as an example, the SUV (Explorers, Land Runners, etc.) has been on the rise for years now. Americans want their cars larger and the car companies will stop at nothing short of being able to transport your entire estate in the backseat. I realize that this is the same idea that you describe occurring in New Zealand but what's wrong with it? Your claims are not geared at being more efficient, nor reducing gasses in the atmosphere but rather your argument is with respect to "...transport and traffic problems". Not only that but specifically if people want to fix the aforementioned problems, they will need to expect an increase in petrol tax.

I did not say I have a PhD in mathematics, but lets see if I can get the algebra right. If I drove a truck that only got 14 miles / gallon and tax on gas is roughly 40 cents per gallon then I am giving the government roughly 2.8 cents per mile of travel. On the other hand, if I drove a mini that got 40 miles / gallon with the same tax rate then I am paying the government only 1 cent per mile traveled. The distance is the same but I am ultimately paying a higher tax rate to drive that 'gas-guzzling' vehicle. Also, as the truck's four wheels do not harm the roads any more than the mini's four wheels, the road maintenance cost is the same for both.

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating further pollution of the Earth but you neglect to discuss green politics and thus I am simply arguing that driving smaller cars hurts the government's revenue rather than helps it. This is especially true when we throw diesel into the equation.

Another point I would like to make is regarding your visit to a Challenge petrol station. Perhaps you are much wealthier than I, but the ability to save money is just that. Your blurb about a man thinking he would save $20 on petrol at a Challenge station over a BP station is humorous but its connotation is also somewhat arrogant. Years ago I would ask my mother why she spent the time to cut out market coupons in the Sunday paper even though I knew we could afford our groceries without them. Her response was always "you don't become wealthy by wasting your money". It seemed silly to me when I was ten, but it is perfectly logical now. Consistently saving 2 cents per liter of gas adds up quite quickly and claiming the savings are not worth your thought is capitalistically incorrect. It is incredible what amount of money a shrewd shopper is able to save in a year - saving on petrol is just one of those savings.

Furthermore, scoffing at the consumer for his or her desire to save a few pennies undermines the goal and ability of a free and competitive market to work for the consumer. You point out in the same passage how even though only a few pennies could be saved via Challenge, the BP station was still empty. It is by that very example that the BP station would ultimately have been forced to lower its petrol prices by 2 cents in order to resume business. If Challenge then wished to drop another cent or two, it could do so thus regaining control of the local market and BP would have to match it, and so on and so forth. Eventually both stations would assume a financial level where they could no longer afford to drop their prices and the competitive market has been a success; the consumer is now paying the most nominal price for his or her petrol. In regards to your overall argument, this does not adversely affect what the government collects, as the tax rate on petrol remains constant. If anything, the government is able to collect slightly more from this local market as people may be more inclined to consume higher quantities of petrol finally available at a cheaper rate.

As for your concluding paragraphs in this section, I tend to agree. We could probably solve a lot of problems in the world if real solutions were provided and the powers that be (ie: politicians) stuck to those solutions instead of finding ways to mend them for personal financial gain. Since, however, we do not live in such an idealistic world, we need to work with what we have. Flat taxes can be great in certain areas, specifically when some of the proceeds will help those that the tax hurts most. Increasing petrol tax does not do this. There is zero return a poor person will expect to gain over a wealthy person with reduced traffic or better roads. Choosing between your two options, the toll road only financially hurts those who choose to drive it. You could argue that it's the same thing where higher petrol taxes only affect those who 'choose' to purchase petrol. Unfortunately for many, that is similar to arguing that increasing food prices only affects those who eat - definitely a true statement, but immensely unfair given the necessity.

If you'd like to use my math from above to help your government increase revenue, get rid of those small engine, anti-gas-gobbling three cars you have. Instead buy a car that gets 1 kilometer to the liter. You'll be paying the government the full tax rate for each kilometer traveled! The ozone hole over Alexander may slightly increase, but you'll get to work faster thanks to reduced traffic from increased government profits.

Another section of your article that I would like to comment on is regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I certainly am not picking on you in this matter, as there are literally millions of people that have written about the conspiracies that may or may not have existed. The point that I would like to bring across, especially when depicting American history in a New Zealand magazine, is that Kennedy, contrary to popular belief, is not that unique.

Ask any American which presidents have been assassinated and you'll most definitely hear Kennedy. A generous proportion will also tell you Lincoln. I doubt very sincerely, however, that you will hear the likes of James Garfield or William McKinley, both assassinated. The fact is that 4 of 43 presidents have in fact been killed, just over 9% of our complete presidential history. Moreover, 4 additional presidents have suffered assassination attempts, the most famous probably being Ronald Regan, yielding roughly an 18% chance that someone may try to kill you while president of the US. Why then is Mr. Kennedy so famously credited with being assassinated?

I have no idea whether or not there was a conspiracy to kill JFK but what I do know is that is that we as humans tend to make up better stories about the more popular or controversial figures. There is nothing terribly surprising about that logic but it does put a nasty thorn in the side of conspiracy theorists because scientifically speaking, the control group (less popular figures) has suffered just as many occurrences. So what was the great conspiracy to kill McKinley, or Jackson, or even Truman? Gerald Rudolph Ford had assassins after him twice, why didn't Oliver Stone make a movie titled GRF?

The reason is simply that there just is not enough controversy and mystery to dig up. Truman approved the incineration of tens of thousands of people in minutes, you would think we could find good reason to discuss gunner Oscar Collazo at the same level as Oswald but the time was different. WWII did not have the same controversy as the Vietnam war. The media format of the time was different and there was not a tremendously sized hippie movement in the 40's as there was in the 60's. Best of all, Collazo was not Japanese and the assassination attempt had nothing to do with the atomic bombs at all but rather issues regarding Puerto Rico.

The elements just happen to line up for JFK. That does not take away from the notion that there could have been a conspiracy, but rather that it's easier for us to believe there must have been one instead of considering that perhaps we are over examining one moment in time. It does seem that Oswald could not have acted alone, but why is it so impossible to accept that perhaps his partner(s) in crime got lucky and ultimately got away? Plain and simple.

Will we ever know? Most likely we will not. But quoting you, "in public life, perception is often more important than reality". I could not agree more with that statement and would like to use it for my own benefit. We will always be more infatuated with the perception that the government set all of pieces moving rather than the possibility that one or two radicals didn't like Kennedy. Either way, given he was just one of eight presidents targeted for removal in American history, his assassination is not quite as unique as we have made it out to be for 40 years.

I hope you will find my comments insightful and fully worth a supply of tea.

My response in print - Page 1

My response in print - Page 2 (including Mr. Dick's own commentary on the paper)

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