Monday, January 11, 2010

An Unlikely Tandem: Tennis & Taxes

I’ve been watching on TV the women’s tennis in Auckland. The men’s tournament begins today. In my youth I played a lot of tennis.

Wellington has the reputation as the windy city. It’s true. But to date this summer it has been windier than usual. I long for a few still days. [I wrote this in the morning. Mid-afternoon it’s windless.] One particular long-ago wind-gust is etched into my memory banks. It happened on the Birdling’s Flat school tennis courts.

A bonus when I switched from Little River to Okuti school was the tennis court alongside the school. With only fifteen pupils. I was one of the seniors. Almost every fine day I spent lunch-hour on the court playing. I was never a powerful player but had guile and a good eye so I did reasonably well as my game improved.

Three days before I finished my primary schooling we went to Birdling’s Flat for a tennis tournament between the local schools. The forecast had predicted a southerly storm but it was a calm hot day. To my surprise I reached the boy’s final. Ahead 5 games to 4 I was serving and leading forty love. In today’s parlance I thought I’m home and hosed. But my opponent changed his tactics. Returning my service he rushed to the net and I could not volley past him. Deuce! Advantage receiver! In desperation I went for a high lob. I saw his face as he realised he couldn’t retrieve it in time. At that precise moment the southerly buster arrived and the gale-force wind blew my ball out of court. With the wind whipping around us we played on. I never won another point. The hard knocks of childhood.

At Akaroa District High the south courts were very handy. So we often played during the break. Tennis was also played during summer physical education lessons – for a small group of boys and girls as a game it was a better leveller than cricket.

I boarded at the north end of the town. My landlady’s place had a gate leading to the tennis courts at that end. There most afternoons after school a small group of us gathered to play; a mixture of ages from the high, primary and convent. Play is the operative word – teen-agers as we now know them had not been invented. We were children, country bumpkins, having fun. For two years I spent a great amount of time on those courts. For my last year at Akaroa I boarded at Barry’s Bay and caught the school bus so I then only played tennis when at school. Thereafter I’ve rarely played.

Politics as it is played in our neck of the woods is rather like a tennis game. The ball goes from the left court to the right court and vice versa. At present our particular set is in the right court. The recession is being lauded as the reasons for cuts in public expenditure. Politics has always been about choice. Part of the party political divide is how the concept of obligation is determined.

When introducing his latest budget proposals, California Governor Arnold Schwatzenegger had this to say: ‘The current tax and budget system is cruel. It is cruel because it is forcing us to make a Sophie’s Choice amongst our obligations. Which child do we cut? Is it the poor one or the sick one? Is it the uneducated one or is the one with special needs?’ The hard knocks of adulthood.

The comment reflects an American dilemma – the recession has led to a huge decline in state revenue. Nationwide, expenditure on critical services is being slashed, education, health, welfare, public transport and corrections are all affected. A New York Times columnist says ‘this is not a disaster waiting to happen. It’s under way.’

To this bear of very little economic brain it seems to me that cuts in public expenditure only increase the downward spiral. If people don’t have an income they will not spend. Accordingly there will be less tax intake. I accept it’s a wilderness of mirrors and that people dislike paying taxes. But a narrow intepretation of obligation means distress and discomfort to a greater number.

Our situation is similar to the USA and yet at the same time dissimilar. Apparently, our unemployment increase is easing and the housing market is improving. It concerns me that the rhetoric around suggests a tough budget for us this year. Balance the books, yes. Attempt to cut waste and inefficiency, yes. Certainly see if a more effective tax system can be devised. But is it wise to do such things at the expense of public services? When a Republican governor uses the word ‘cruel’ I think we should take note.

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