Minnesota's miseries

The government of the northern state shut down on 1 July following a disagreement over the budget de

It's party time across America today as the nation celebrates Independence Day -- but in the state of Minnesota, it's political fireworks lighting up the sky. That's because for the second time in six years, party leaders have failed to agree a budget because they can't decide how to tackle the deficit, so the entire government has shut down. That's only happened in a handful of states before -- and Minnesota's the only place to go through it twice.

Today at least is still a holiday of sorts -- leaders won't hold any more talks until tomorrow. But for local people looking to spend some time outdoors over the holiday weekend the shutdown means that state parks are all closed, along with historic sites, rest-stops on highways, and even two racetracks run by the state.

In an ironic twist, state troopers are still handing out tickets for traffic violations -- but you can't get a fishing licence, buy a lottery ticket or claim on a winning number.

And more seriously, among other closures: a women's refuge, reading services for the blind and a helpline for elderly people and their carers. Parents say they're having to stay home from work because childcare facilities aren't operating. And the 22,000 employees who work for the state aren't getting their pay cheques.

Both parties, naturally enough, are blaming each other for the impasse. The Republican chairman Tony Sutton accused the (Democratic) Governor Mark Dayton of causing "maximum pain" for political reasons -- while Dayton is blaming much of the $5 billion deficit on his predecessor-turned Presidential candidate Tom Pawlenty. Left wing activists have set up a "shutdown shame'" website which invites users to "share the impacts of the GOP's reckless political game with your friends".

Pawlenty was in charge last time the state shut down in 2005, but this time he's saying it could have a positive outcome: forcing Minnesota to live within its means. Tackling it has come down to an ideological battle between Democrats, who want to raise taxes on the highest earners -- while Republicans are demanding sweeping cuts in spending, including heath and welfare.

The breakdown in negotiations shows quite how far apart these two sides have become: bipartisan spirit is precious thin on the ground. This was the state which was once home to high-minded liberals like Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone. Now politicians on both sides have grown ever more radical. On the left, Al Franken's bitterly fought campaign for the Senate in 2008 won him the seat with the slimmest of majorities -- just 312 votes. Minnesota's representatives in the House include Democrat Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the progressive caucus, and on the right, the darling of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann. Polarised parties -- where the zone of possible agreement is growing ever more thin.

Today at least the politicians are back in their districts, the acrimony on hold for now, as they celebrate the 4th of July. But one thing they're unlikely to escape is their constituents -- who'll no doubt have their own views on how the two sides should reach a budget deal. And it's a fight with national implications too, as President Obama and Congress wrestle with that little budget defict problem of their own...

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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