The Guardian 6 April, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Some future!

I see the federal government is going to jump in with a whole $8 million for research into diseases of the ageing. The $8 million will be spread over no less than 13 research projects, which spreads it pretty thin.

More than $3.5 million of it is going to a Monash University-led consortium researching the effects of aspirin, so the other dozen projects have to make do with $4.5 million between them. And some people say the Liberals don't care about the elderly.

In fact, as I am sure Guardian readers would know, the Howard government cares just as much about the elderly as they do about the unemployed, welfare recipients, the poor and oh, just about anybody who is not a millionaire businessman.

According to the press, that $8 million, I notice, is allocated "for 2005 and beyond". Makes you wonder what they are going to do in 2006, doesn't it?

"What, you want another grant? But you had $8 million last year don't tell me it's all spent already?"

In announcing the grants, Minister for Ageing, Julie Bishop, made nice statements about how research into Alzheimer's and strokes, etc, had "enormous potential to reduce the financial and human cost of degenerative and chronic disorders".

She said nothing about the piddling size of the funding overall. And it is piddling.

Let's face it, $8 million is less than the cost of one wretched Abrams tank. These useless, surplus Yank behemoths unsuitable for use in our conditions, too big and too heavy for our transport ships or aircraft, but otherwise just the neatest are costing our federal government a cool $9 million each.

Which kind of makes the Defence budget the most degenerative disorder of them all, don't you think?

Have you seen the alarming figures on the increase in crime by the elderly? That's right, the elderly.

Last year in Japan, the coppers arrested and sent to jail an astonishing 30,000 criminals aged over 65. That was an increase of 320 percent on the situation ten years earlier.

In Berlin, the situation is not quite as bad, the number of criminals over 60 increasing in the last ten years by a mere 28 percent. The press report that in lower Saxony alone, the police have 8000 cases pending in which the accused are aged over 60.

And we're not talking shoplifting. In Berlin police arrested a 75-year-old grandmother for sticking up savings banks; in Dusseldorf a 70-year-old woman was caught after her fourth bank robbery.

The response of the relevant German authorities is to build a new jail just for pensioners. It will feature cells to accommodate walking frames and wheelchairs. Beds and toilets will have hand rails.

Just what the elderly need: aged-sensitive jails.

Enthusing about the new jail, a spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry demonstrated just how out of touch the Ministry is. She said that pensioner prisoners "don't need weight training rooms or further education.

"They need advice on how to spend their free time so they don't drift into repeat crime."

See, they turn to crime because they are bored. It's so obvious.

They get a gun and go stick up a bank because they can't think of anything interesting to do, not because they are pissed off to the max with banks that use their customers' money but still treat those customers as if they were pond scum. Oh, dear me, no.

They are not trying to strike back, inexpertly and individually, at a patently unjust system. They're not short of money. No, they are simply victims of an excess of leisure time.

If ever there was an example of responding to a symptom rather than to the cause, building specialised prisons has to be it.

All around the world, capitalist governments are gutting welfare systems, increasing poverty and hardship, forcing more and more people to seek help from hard-pressed charities.

I reckon we might be in for a big increase in "grey crime"?

But what a condemnation of capitalism, that it takes such poor care of its aged citizens, that in country after country rich, developed countries tens of thousands of aged pensioners have had to turn to crime.

Of course, a world where the elderly have to turn to crime might be no more than the ideologues and futurologists of capitalism expect. At the New York Motor Show giant US car manufacturer Ford unveiled their vision of a brave new world.

It was embodied in a car (naturally), a "concept vehicle" called by the catchy name Synus. This is not an obscure jokey reference to its fuel efficiency ("runs all day without going dry") but is an acronym for Synthesis Urban Sanctuary.

The target market for the Synus is the urban population in 2020. By then, according to Ford's corporate advisers, most people will be living in densely populated mega-cities, sharply divided into haves and have-nots (like Lima in Peru, but bigger).

As Ford puts it, in these future urban conglomerates, "security will be considered a priority", and Ford will be ready to meet the demand.

The Synus has bullet-proof windows and deploys protective shutters over the windshield and side glass. The rear hatch opens not with a key (electronic or otherwise), but with a four-spoke dial similar to that on a safe.

This nightmare vision comes from one of the giant transnational corporations that is leading us towards the future.

Time, I think, to make it clear that's not the future we and the rest of the "have nots" want.

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