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Issue #1620      November 27, 2013

Culture & Life

Cold War and global technology

US propagandists are fond of telling us that the Cold War is over. It is something in the past, something we have happily moved on from. But every now and then they do something that makes it glaringly clear that the Cold War never ended. It is alive and well and being waged vigorously right now.

A poster from the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger. Cold War stylised propaganda continues in mainstream US culture.

US scientists and military together created the Global Positioning System, the satellite network that allows hikers in dense bush to accurately determine their position or coal seam gas companies to precisely locate their next gas well on some unsuspecting farmer’s land. But today, Russia, China and the European Union are all increasingly reluctant to rely on the American system. They are all looking at establishing their own GPS systems.

Russia in fact already has its own system, but it lacks sufficient ground-based monitor stations to make its system truly functional. Naively, perhaps, the Russians have asked the US to assist them by allowing Russia to build half a dozen monitor stations on US soil. This would give them the continental coverage they need to adequately cover the Western Hemisphere.

The US State Department, desperate to rebuild a relationship with President Putin’s government after several recent verbal stoushes (and one written one where Putin wrote a highly critical opinion piece for the New York Times no less), was receptive to the Russian request. The CIA and the Pentagon, however, went ballistic. Using the best Cold War rhetoric, they yelped that these monitor stations could be used for Russian espionage against the USA and also improve the precision of Russian missiles fired against US targets.

There is a certain twisted logic to this, because that is exactly what the Yanks would do if the positions were reversed. Ironically, the US State Department emerged from this new Cold War flare-up as a bastion of common sense and clear thinking. A “former senior official” in the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technologies told the media in Washington that “they [the Russians] don’t want to be reliant on the American system, and believe that their systems, like GPS, will spawn other industries and applications. They feel they are losing a technological edge to us in an important market.”

Preventing Russia and China from gaining a “technological edge” on the US, to the extent of keeping them in the dark about technological developments in the West, has been a key feature of US foreign policy ever since WW2, i.e. for the whole of the (still ongoing) Cold War.

However, with even America’s ally the European Union seeking to establish its own GPS system rather than rely on the US system, US foreign policy on global technology would seem to be in some disarray.

Changing the subject completely, did you see the article by Paul Sheehan on the rental crisis in Australia in The Sydney Morning Herald for November 18? Very interesting reading.

When I was a youngster, in the years at the end of WW2, very few working class people in Australia owned their own home. The tradition for working class people here as in Britain was to rent. Owning your own home was as uncommon as owning your own car. Only three people in our street in Woollahra had a car, and one of those was a taxi driver whose cab belonged not to him but rather to the cab company he drove for.

Just as it took a massive advertising and media campaign to convince Australians that cars not public transport were the way of the future, so a similar campaign was waged by real estate companies to convince everyone that private housing was not only affordable (and “security for the future”) but was also cool and modern. To rent was a mark of social failure.

When I worked in the mortgage department of National Mutual, the rule of thumb for the size of housing loan a client could afford was double their annual income. Sheehan’s article points out that in 1990, the price of the average home was two and half times your average income. By the end of the century it had climbed to 4.2 times average income. Sheehan commented: “With housing prices surging, this level will be reached, and possibly breached, in the near future, making Australian household prices the most expensive they have ever been.”

Sheehan’s complaint, and it’s a valid one, is that this situation has almost made it impossible for first-home buyers to actually buy a home. The solution, of course, is not to subsidise first-home buyers, which is what the Labor government tried to do, but to take housing out of the hands of for-profit speculators altogether. Housing is a basic right, like health care, and like health care it should be the responsibility of the people through the state.

Public housing, properly funded and properly run. Not the petty bureaucratic nightmare it is for public housing tenants today, but the way it has been run in countries that provide sufficient funds and a proper understanding of the value of public property. When the soldiers and workers who had stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd in 1917 were leaving the building, Red Guards demanded that they turn out their pockets. When silver spoons and gold ornaments belonging to the Tsar were revealed, the Red Guards admonished the revolutionaries “Public property, Comrades, property of the people!” Abashed, the would be looters turned around and started demanding that the revolutionaries behind them also turn out their pockets, saying loftily “Property of the people, Comrades!”

In the Soviet Union, rents were pegged by law at 4 percent of weekly income. Work it out on your own income: that’s a rent anyone could afford. Capitalism’s defenders always sneered at the wages paid in the Soviet Union. But they rarely mentioned the hidden income that people enjoyed in the form of low rents, cheap fares, subsidised holidays in works’ or industry resorts, or universal health care.

Soviet people never knew the fear of losing their job or of being tossed out on the street.

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