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The crash of the can market


Smith Street, Flickr image by pappaliciousOn Smith Street, an archetypal inner suburban street, rain fell on the corrugated supermarket veranda.

It was about a month after the sub-prime market collapsed. Underneath the verandah the regulars, and others in need of a meal, sipped hot soup or munched on sausages. From behind the BBQ I asked one of the regulars if he had collected any aluminium cans in the past week.

'No, not this week.' He glanced up.

'The rain?' I suggested.

'Nup,' interjected another bloke, 'no point anymore.'

'Yeah,' continued the first, 'scrap dealer says China doesn't want aluminium now.'

We were at a St Vinnies' soup van on a street that brings together an eclectic mix of bohemians, disadvantaged and homeless. It is a hub for drug users, residents of surrounding housing commission flats, as well as a large Aboriginal community.

A number of the van's regular clients collect aluminium cans. They then sell them on to a scrap dealer who has them melted for recycling.

This is by no means the easiest way to make a buck. Although they can collect cans from many places, they have to lug them home (often on the back of a push bike), sort them, and transport them again to the dealer.

Usually this work supplements the welfare income they live on. The extra income allows for a few luxuries, but, more importantly, they get a sense of fulfillment from their work. Collecting and selling the cans requires knowledge, expertise, connections.

No longer, though. The financial crisis meant that the demand for raw materials dried up. So the dealer halved the price he offered for the cans.

This is a small illustration of the interconnected world in which we live. In so much of the debate surrounding the recent market collapses and economic stagnation, 'Wall Street' and 'Main Street' have been cast at polarities. This belies the more complex reality of the connection between the financial centres of the world and my mates on Smith Street.

Open, global markets offer the best opportunity for prosperity for all people around the globe. Any and all solutions in what the Prime Minister has described as a new epoch, must strive for transparent, well regulated markets with a social policy that integrates into them as many members of society as possible. This is the best hope, indeed the only sustainable model, for those living in poverty in the developing and the developed world.

To attempt to insulate the men at the soup van from the tumults of the market would equally exclude them from the range of benefits the market provides. Correctly regulated markets offer the fulfilment and satisfaction of the aluminium can market on a vast stage.

In this context Kevin Rudd's proposal for twenty thousand new units of social housing is economically sound and, therefore, compassionate policy. It gives hope to the human heart, and stability to the economic individual.

The government will also need to provide services to entrench this new, relative, stability. For 'stability' in social housing is always shaky. A full range of adequate services must surround people to encourage them to deal with social, psychological and emotional issues. From here they can be supported into the job market.

This is no easy process. It is a road strewn with evidence of human failing. Yet, if this truly is a new epoch, the imperative to act is here, now. The imperative is to bring more people into a market that has provided so much — not simply materially, but socially too. More leisure time, communication, choice and flexibility.

Markets must be judged on the support they provide, not to abstract ideas, but to individuals throughout the world. Governments must be held responsible for ensuring these markets are open as well as transparent and well regulated. They must also be held responsible for providing the opportunities and benefits of these markets to all their citizens.

My friends on Smith Street want to start buying and selling cans again. There are many like them who, with the right infrastructure and support, would jump at the chance to engage in employment and consumption in the market from which so many have benefited. The cross bench parties must continue to demand the provision of these opportunities from Rudd and his government.

Julian ButlerJulian Butler is a third year Commerce/Law student at the University of Melboure. 

Topic tags: julian butler, global financial crisis, gfc, aluminium cans



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Existing comments

Poignant and highly relevant article. The author has allowed us to understand the urgent need for sustained govt social& economic policy for all, in these turbulent times. Using concrete examples from the Smith street soup van brings it down to such clear everyday understanding - well done!

mary storey | 18 February 2009  

It is ridiculous that Australia cannot make aluminium products that are needed for the home market for sustainable living. Not even at the crafts level?
In an empty factory not too far from Smith Street?

valerie yule | 18 February 2009  

Loved the story, Julian, but dubious about the market.

It's great for the people of Smith St to be able to buy and sell and connect with one another. But that’s not a wrap for the market as people speak about it. The market is a metaphor to describe a variety of human relationships from their commercial aspects.

But then that partial and abstract description is regarded as real and normative. Workers are regarded as costs, competition is idealized, and people are commodified. The economic individual who can be predicted to act out of self-interest is a pernicious fantasy. Why would anyone want to take all that seriously?

The lesson of the story is surely not that we help people to enter the market, but that we shape society in a way that reflects what matters in human life, including the personal satisfaction work can give.

That means working from concrete human relationships, including economic ones, and not canonising a metaphor and enslaving people to it.

Dan McGonnigal | 18 February 2009  

Encourage NSW Government to put a deposit on cans, cartons and bottles. In SA the deposit has been raised from 5 to 10c per item. A great way o supplement a limited income, keep fit and help the environment

J Lowe | 18 February 2009  

You are a blessing Vannies. Your love for, and engagement with the people in need is what will strengthen their hope and resilience to get through these troubles.

Rollo Brett | 22 February 2009  

This article by far exceeded my expectations. I liked how it explained effects of the global recession that most people would not have thought about.

Tom G | 22 February 2009