5 Simple Ideas From the Antipodes

By James Fallows

If I were in big-think mode, I might say something about the contrasts a superficially similar society, like Australia, offers to the modern United States. How much more egalitarian the culture feels, in a thousand detailed ways that remind me of the age-of-abundance California of the Pat Brown era. And this despite the heightened local concerns about a "two-track economy" and the distortions created by a Gold Rush-scale resource boom in the mining areas. How much less poisonous the disputes over the role of government seem -- what they call "Medicare" is like our Medicare, but of course it covers everyone, of all ages -- despite flamboyantly contentious Parliamentary politics. (Plus mandatory voting! Hard for an American even to contemplate.) How much more authority the "mainstream" media still have, as was true for America back in the Walter Cronkite era. Update: Benjamin Schwarz covers a mega-big-think book on exactly this question in our current issue. Subscribe!

And so on. Instead I'll mention a few little practical fit-and-finish details that would improve life here if we could emulate them. Which we probably can't, but I might as well dream.

AussiePlug.jpg1) Switch-off power sockets. As shown on the right, all electric sockets come with little rocker switches to turn the power on and off. You can find similar things in New Zealand, a variant in the UK, etc. These are safer -- parents don't have to worry about kids sticking a knife into a socket, and I don't have to worry when I stick a knife into the toaster to fish out the bread. They also are conveniently energy-saving. I don't usually go to the bother of unplugging the chargers and power cords for all my various appliances when they're not actually in use, even though I know that they're a significant power drain. I realize that you can use power strips for the same purpose, but they can be cumbersome. It seems more convenient and precise to snap individual sockets on and off. More from Grist.

CabCharge.png2) Cab cards. Lots of Aussie businesses give their people these "Cabcharge" cards, which most cabs are set up to accept. Little boxes in the taxis transmit the sum to HQ by wireless network and print you out a receipt. They're the parallel of the magnetic subway cards that I could use to pay for taxis in Shanghai and Beijing. Here's the point: the "can you break a twenty?" and "please give me two dollars back from that, and a receipt" petty-cash exchanges that are part of US taxicab life are primitive by international standards.

3) Related: No tipping. Yes, some people expect and offer tips in Australia, but that's the exception rather than the degrading-to-all-parties rule. I realize that there is no chance that we'll actually switch to a similar system with a much higher minimum wage (> $15/hour in Australia) and consequently higher service-sector prices, but no expectation of the ongoing bazaar-and-bribery ritual that is the tipping culture. That's too bad, because the no-tip system is better.


4) Beer paddles. I know these exist in the US, but I saw them more often in Australia, in establishments offering samples of a variety of beer. Of course the difference could simply be that I was spending more of my time in such places. Here is the way one paddle looked at last month's (phenomenally good) Star Spangled SpecTAPular at The Local Taphouse in Sydney, at which 20 of the genuinely best American craft brews were on draft. (From Bear Republic, Green Flash, Moylans, etc. And sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture! Thanks to Jonathan Bradley for letting me know this was happening.) The close-up pictures make the sample glasses look bigger than they are. Each holds a few ounces.

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And here is one from the more scenic (if less impressive taste-wise) Bluetongue brewery in the Hunter Valley.

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5) No leafblowers. Or nowhere near as many, and more consciousness of their externalized nuisance. One Aussie's take:

But what about when someone is using a power tool, that despite being extremely noisy achieves nothing? A device that is not just appalling in terms of noise pollution, but damages the environment and as often as not creates work for the user's neighbours?\You might have guessed: I am talking about the leaf blower.

More on this anon.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/5-simple-ideas-from-the-antipodes/255511/