To Be Perfectly Frank | The Smart economy

Last year I bought a Smart car. The reason? Well, out of consideration for the environment of course (when emailing, this is where you enter the smiley face). And perhaps just a little out of consideration for my own pocket. The government had, after all, finally seen the light (or a minute portion of it) and reduced taxes on small, energy-efficient cars. So not only would I be doing my bit for the future of the planet and coming generations, I would be encouraging the authorities to take an even more flexible attitude towards taxation. How good is that? The fact that it is a second car, I reasoned, did not really enter into the equation, as the very act of using it would save me money. This was no luxury but a cheap and practical tool to get us around town, where a small car is easier to park, and even further afield. And for that reason I bought the most basic model.

My only indulgence was to order some alloy wheels as a sop to my finely-tuned aesthetic sense (another smiley). I had firmly expected that the car would be delivered with the new wheels fitted with the original tyres. But no! It arrived fitted with alloy wheels all right, but complete with their own tyres. The original wheels, still with their tyres, were in the back of the car, and that takes some doing in a Smart! The explanation was that it ‘didn’t pay’ to take the tyres off one set of wheels and put them on another.

Well I know that incomes are high in Denmark, and that service costs are accordingly high, but I didn’t really realise the impact of this until I took my set of winter wheels and tyres to the local petrol station to be changed. Up on the lift, zip zap zoop, and 15 minutes later I had a new set of wheels on the car – and a bill for 400 kroner! I immediately went out and bought a jack and a wheel-nut wrench (Smarts don’t provide these).

And is the vehicle business a one-off in this respect? Apparently not. A few weeks ago I bought a new wash basin for the bathroom from an internet site. They sent the wrong one. I rang them, they apologised, they sent the correct one and – wait for it – told me I could keep the original one! I suppose it ‘didn’t pay’ to have someone collect and return it. I don’t know what their price was for that particular basin, but the Ifö catalogue lists it at around 2,000 kroner!

It started me wondering how on earth we came to be in such a position. We’ve been discussing, debating and complaining about the ‘throwaway society’ for decades. But up to now we’ve been throwing away ‘broke stuff’ as some of our American cousins so quaintly put it. The stuff I’ve mentioned above ain’t even broke! So what we’ve got ourselves into is a circle, vicious or otherwise, in which people are paid more and more to produce more things that people buy in order to employ more people to earn more and buy more. Wow! Sounds terrific, doesn’t it?

The problem seems to be that everyone expects to be part of this ‘ideal’ consumer society where we all have enough money to buy what we want (or ‘need’ as we like to think of it). But it becomes increasingly difficult to afford any kind of service that means employing people to do something, because they would have to be paid too much. Am I wrong, or does this not mean the end of the recycling ambition? If we can’t, for example, pay anyone to take away and do something with the ‘broke stuff’, then we’ll drown in a sea of potentially recyclable things that it ‘doesn’t pay’ to do anything with. One solution would be to create an alternative economy, an underclass if you will, that is only too pleased to take care of the stuff that the official economy finds uneconomical. In this country, that usually means breaking the law, but there are always other, cheaper countries, aren’t there?

The official way of managing the situation is to levy high taxes in order to pay for services, which is all right in theory but simply forces people to pay for things that they might have no use for or prefer to do without. And if you think I’m just talking about income tax, you’re wrong. A huge amount of the taxation we’re subjected to is indirect: from a whopping 25 percent VAT to the increasing trend towards levying a charge (gebyr) for using a service. Not necessarily a service that benefits the user, I hasten to add. My bank, for example, used to charge me 30 kroner for the privilege of receiving my pension each month – until they were persuaded it was illegal.
IÂ’ll just leave you with this depressing news: somebody in this country (an expert on the subject, so we should rest assured itÂ’s well thought through) has just suggested a gebyr on cash payments, since they are so costly to process! IÂ’ll say no more Â…

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