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Honestly misleading taxpayers

Act’s “Honesty for Taxpayers” policy sounds nice, but if the objective is clarity, it will be unhelpful or worse.

In America, every government form has a small “OMB Approval Number” in the corner. In line with the Paperwork Reduction Act, all government departments must have all forms approved by the Office of Management and Budget every three years, and show an “estimated burden time” alongside the approval number. There’s probably some benefit to this: perhaps agencies would otherwise have a habit of asking for more than they need. And the direct costs aren’t too bad—less than $10 million (Shapiro 2013). But the irony of creating a bureaucracy to fight bureaucracy seems lost on people. Approval, required to collect any information from more than ten people, takes 60 days including a public comment period, often longer in practice. If the problem is inefficient governments, slowing down the government seems like a counter-intuitive move.

Supporters of Act’s new “Honesty for Taxpayers” policy would do well to keep this in mind. This doesn’t mean that the policy is a net harm, of course, but the equation is not nearly as simple as its leader, Jamie Whyte, makes it out to be.

Why so much spending?
Some of Dr Whyte’s diagnosis is woefully misattributed. He blames the absence of checks and balances for making New Zealand “the fastest spenders in the West.” Perhaps so, but fast isn’t the same as wasteful or opaque, and more dire cases of wasteful spending are found in America, where checks and balances run galore. America’s legislators are notorious for sneaking unrelated clauses into bills that push federal spending towards pet projects in their constituencies. Each line is small in the context of the whole federal budget, but they add up. The second chamber and entrenched constitution don’t seem to help.

Also, Dr Whyte forgets that speed runs both ways. Just as governments can increase spending easily, they can cut programmes—as the current government did with student allowances and the R&D tax credit, much to the chagrin of left-wingers and the tech industry.

Similarly, California’s administrations may have been overspending, but only because they were bound to by direct democracy initiatives. Act might like how, in California, tax increases require a two-thirds supermajority of both houses. But Californian voters also had a habit of approving spending for new programmes in voter initiatives, which means that their legislators get little discretion over the government budget—and hence, the trade-offs they should make when spending starts to run away.

Perhaps Act believes that California would not have voted that way if Act-style income tax warnings had been included in the official guides, rather than just the total costs (though that’s not what they said). Maybe that’s the case. But if they want “honest”, useful information, Act’s proposal is an odd way of going about it.

This won’t mean anything, either
A back-of-the-envelope calculation to derive Act-style income tax figures is relatively trivial, but like the total cost, it’s useless information. In no world without Working for Families would “the 17.5% income tax rate be 12.5%”, because no responsible consequential tax adjustment would change just one tax bracket. Assuming we wanted to keep the tax system equally progressive and non-distortionary, all tax brackets would be adjusted, along with the company and trust rates to follow the top income tax rate. It might be sensible to adjust bracket boundaries as well as rates, and maybe GST too.

In fact, the warnings Act proposes could be dangerously misleading. Someone who understands income tax would realise that if the 10.5% rate drops to 3.5%, that’s (mostly) just another way of saying $980 per earner per year. But one would be forgiven for thinking that WfF comprises close to a majority of the government budget, or that they’d have 7% more of their income. This isn’t stupidity. It’s the natural at-a-glance impression of anyone who, unlike me, hasn’t spent hours musing about taxation. Perhaps the extremity of that example would bring people to their wits, but something like “the 28% company tax would be 25%” would not.

If we applied this analysis to superannuation, which Act strangely forgot about, you could wipe the 10.5% rate completely and drop the 17.5% rate to probably about 4%. [1] There’s a reason Act neglected this: canning superannuation would, unlike canning WfF, be universally unpopular. What’s more realistic is peeling back superannuation: raising the retirement age or means-testing it, for example. Act’s policy doesn’t allow for transparency in the nuances that matter.

Far from being meaningful revelations, Act’s policy would open a new can of worms. How do we determine where the tax burden of a policy lies? Do we assume it’s equally distributed by person, or proportional to the tax they pay now? Some difficulties are by design: an Act-style income tax statement would make no sense for a national highway funded by an earmarked road tax. Some require thought about the counterfactual: would tax cuts for welfare cuts be aimed at the poor, or would welfare be funded by taxes on the rich? (This is a dichotomy: think about it marginally.) And would estimates take into account the impacts on the behaviour of consumers and companies? Or savings elsewhere: say, for a corrections policy, savings resulting from a reduction in reoffending?

Act for honesty, or Act for small government?
There is a more basic tension in Act’s proposal. Act opposes government spending beyond the basics, and said as much in Dr Whyte’s speech. In most cases, the misleading effect of their statements would probably make spending seem more significant than it really is. Supporters of small government are unlikely to complain about this if it means people turn off government programmes that they think are wasteful.

Yet it is difficult to reconcile this with the policy’s stated objective. Dr Whyte says that people “should have a clear idea of the price of [an] agency in their taxes or rates”, that “good decision-making depends on good information.” You would think, then, that the policy is about providing high-quality information. The sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations Act proposes are the precise opposite. And they give themselves away at the end:

Politicians from the big spending parties will oppose this policy. That shows what a good idea it is. The bureaucracy will also resist it, because voters will be surprised to realise that much new spending is generated by bureaucrats.

Their language doesn’t really contemplate the possibility that oftentimes, the cost will be worth it. The information they provide focuses only on income tax rates, and not on all the other factors a policymaker would (and should) take into account when making a decision. Act dresses this up as being about informed citizens, but they are really only interested in certain information that will help achieve the objective they seek.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you might know where I’m heading with this. Demanding the disclosure of information to help voters is a value-agnostic procedural policy. Act is curiously selective about where they apply this principle. You should bear this in mind when reading their rhetoric about “honesty”, “information” and “accountability”. It’s really about something else.


[1] This is an extremely rough estimate based on the Treasury numbers on the effect of changes to tax rates. Crucially, it assumes that the effect of a two-percentage-point change is twice the effect of a one-percentage-point one and so on, which is patently wrong, but should still give a ballpark figure.

Freedom of speech, if it’s me that’s speaking

The Climate Voter initiative wants to think that electoral law doesn’t apply to their campaign. They’re wrong.

There’s been enough commentary on why the six groups comprising the Climate Voter initiative are obviously wrong, so I won’t rehash the analysis here. In a nutshell, Climate Voter disagrees with the Electoral Commission’s opinion that, because their campaign is electoral advertising, they must comply with the relevant Electoral Act provisions. They seem to think being “non-partisan” makes them exempt, but as many have pointed out, that is both dubious and irrelevant.

I don’t have anything to add to those several commentators, except that this feeds into a more general obsession of mine: cases where people claim to support principles “above” political persuasion, like freedom of speech, but in reality only do so when it’s convenient for their cause. I called the anti-asset sales campaign out on this late last year. Their refrain was about electoral mandates. Conveniently, these parties (Labour and the Greens) had already shown their willingness to ignore popular opinion in the smacking referendum in 2009. Journalists had also pressed them on the inconsistency, so there was a wealth of backpedalling comments by them ready to be pounced on.

Matthew Bruenig has commented on this general topic in the American context with respect to free speech and market coercion of opinion. I’m tempted to include sovereignty arguments in the mix too. It’s not strictly a procedural argument like free speech and electoral mandate, but it shares some characteristics. It’s about power, in this case what power a country should “give up” or retain. It comes up often with TPP opponents in New Zealand, who conveniently forget about human rights treaties we sign up to and the loss of sovereignty there. People who make sovereignty arguments do so because they sound generic, but it only seems to matter when they disagree substantively with a policy.

I try not to accuse groups of inconsistencies before I can point to some specific demonstration of it. But I would bet anything that, if there was a pro-business group that ran a “non-partisan”, “issue-based” campaign, Climate Voter supporters would be outraged if they could sidestep third-party electoral advertising laws. On Pundit, Andrew Geddis compares this case to the Exclusive Brethren case that motivated these laws in the first place. Accordingly, I’m cynical about Climate Voter’s concerns about “wider issues” of freedom of speech and “civil society groups”. Of course, they could just say now that they’d be happy for a right-wing (say, free trade) campaign to do the same as them. To my knowledge, despite the point being made by several commentators, they haven’t done so.

Rather, their reaction to the reactions is to claim that “there’s no clear consensus… a real lack of clarity exists”, “it could have huge implications” (relevance unclear) and “it’s a complex issue” (it’s really not). This is odd. Only one of the six commentaries Greenpeace cites argued in their favour. Two who are sympathetic to climate change issues are unequivocal, including Professor Geddis, who “just can’t, for the life of me, see how what the Climate Voters coalition are doing falls anywhere but smack in the middle” of the definition of electoral advertising. Greenpeace and Generation Zero are correct that the decision affects other groups, but that’s not an argument. If there is any lack of legal clarity, they are shy on how it arises.

I should say, I’m glad that at least some commentary pointing out that Climate Voter is wrong is from left-wing commentators (other than law professors) who support their campaign. This makes me happy not because they’re left-wing, but because it shows there are people who really will uphold value-agnostic principles even when their own side is affected. I wish there were more people like this.

To be honest, the point of this post is just to record it in a collection of cases where stances on procedural matters are dependent on substantive opinions. I normally don’t bother blogging if what I want to say’s already been said, but you’ll forgive the exception here.

Why the Greens’ 3D printing blueprint will fail

The Greens’ plans are a textbook example of what the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan warned not to do.

It’s encouraging that the Greens recognise the value of technology, research and development. Their 3D printing blueprint seems well-researched and on first glance is a solid summary of the state of 3D printing. It would make for an excellent corporate white paper. Unfortunately, my praises end around there.

The most basic tension in the paper is their recognition that the rest of the world is investing heavily in it and their claim that 3D printing could be a “niche” that New Zealand could excel at. They seek inspiration from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan (blueprint, page 10), who argued that New Zealand’s best paths to prosperity lie in technology niches: “odd” things that we can do well and lead the world in because the markets are too small for bigger players to care about.

He warned against becoming “mired in fashionable cliché”, citing biotech as an example where we tried to follow and failed. He admired Fisher & Paykel Healthcare’s respiratory humidifiers and Rakon’s crystal-controlled oscillators, being technologies without major investment in bigger countries. He offered this criterion:

If a New Zealand technology business does something that sounds familiar, it will probably fail. If it does something that causes you to ask “what on earth is that?”, it is probably on to something.

Strange, then, to hear from the Greens:

As the late professor Paul Callaghan said, New Zealand’s path to prosperity lies in technology niches, and 3D printing offers a growing economic niche for the country. … Other countries are clearly investing significant sums into this technology and it is important New Zealand does not miss out.

This comes straight after a section explaining how the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and China were all investing in 3D printing. The Greens want us to compete with them. Yet this is exactly what Sir Paul advised against doing. By the Greens’ own evidence, 3D printing is not a niche. It is a technology with significant worldwide attention, enough for The Economist to run a leader and a briefing in 2011, which the Greens cited too. This is a key characteristic of what Sir Paul suggested we avoid.

Our competitive advantage
Perhaps I care too much about this inconsistency. There were few if any public figures of greater inspiration to me than Sir Paul, so to see his ideas misapplied bothers me at least a little. But even if the blueprint had disclaimed his vision, the Greens’ fixation with 3D printing is still troubling.

Most troublingly, while they do an excellent job of explaining the opportunities in 3D printing, they are scant on why they believe New Zealand is particularly well-placed to capitalise on it. They made reference to a few companies who use 3D printing and universities who find them useful. But they are not alone, and the Greens’ constant refrain that other countries are going there too hurts their case: it reduces our competitive advantage.

And in any case, using 3D printing is hardly a sound case for value-add. The technique is attractive because it can offer high customization at low cost, so they’re right to say it’s worth the uptake. But the whole point of the exercise is to reduce the degree of specialization required to manufacture customized parts. If it’s about using 3D printing, this more likely works against us, because 3D printing lowers barriers to entry for others to make the same things. If it’s about making 3D printers, then they omitted why they think we can excel at it.

Less obviously, the other countries they cited are investing in 3D printing alongside many other technologies. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with some government R&D funds going to 3D printing, so long as we’re hedging our bets appropriately. But the Greens’ proposal sounds as if they want most of, or at least a lot of, our eggs in that basket.

~

It’s great that the Greens want to raise public awareness of 3D printing. Its potential impact is huge; it should be on our radar. We should be mindful of how it will impact our existing economy and plan ahead accordingly. The government can and should keep an eye this; it’s a useful (albeit not authoritative) initiator of information-sharing forums.

But when they want us to “embrace digital manufacturing” so wholeheartedly, it is much more concerning. It’s bad strategy to choose a market with as many competitors, or even potential competitors, as the Greens describe. It’s even worse when there’s no existing strength you can use to outshine them. The Greens’ “blueprint for the future” sounds like a great way to run into the ground. I hope they’ll reconsider.

On sovereignty and international agreements

“Save our sovereignty” is a rousing catch-cry, but it’s a useless guide to international agreements.

National sovereignty’s been a recurring theme in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But the assertion rarely gets the examination it deserves, particularly for an argument that works against virtually every international agreement in existence.

It’s easy to see what makes the slogan attractive. There’s a strong, natural and relatively universal impulse to defend our right as a country to decide things for ourselves. This isn’t a bad impulse to have—indeed, I hold it strongly myself.

The problem is that any acceptance of an international agreement necessitates a loss of sovereignty. This includes every trade agreement that New Zealand is currently party to, every treaty and human rights convention. It would have included the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Kyoto Protocol and its successor. Yet most TPP opponents, who happen to align politically left, would surely not believe that any country should have refused to sign those treaties. So what gives?

The difference between the “sovereignty” we gave up in signing Kyoto and what we will give up in signing the TPP is actually very obvious. The left likes what Kyoto binds us to do, but not what the TPP would. But in that case, national sovereignty is not a useful discriminant. The real question is whether the agreement is a worthwhile exercise in the first place.

Of course, that debate is far too complex to address in political rhetoric. As many have noticed, it depends on what’s in the agreement. What opponents probably mean when they talk about “sovereignty” is the tendency for TPP clauses to step on areas traditionally outside the domain of trade liberalisation. Indeed, almost everyone in New Zealand, including TPP proponents, opposes (for example) the intellectual property provisions sought by the United States. The question is whether such hurdles in negotiation should be cause to abandon the agreement altogether.

There’s probably a deeper question: many TPP opponents oppose free trade generally, but for other, better reasons of economic ideology. Still, it’s issues like intellectual property (which affects Pharmac, New Zealand’s drug-buying agency) that are the sticking points. Indications from Wellington and leaked documents are that New Zealand negotiators oppose these provisions. Free trade supporters, then, see it as just a challenge to work through; opponents see no hope.

But what’s sovereignty, anyway?
Would signing the TPP mean giving up our sovereignty? On closer reflection, it depends what we mean. Every time I sign a contract, say, accept a job offer, I’m giving up some self-determination: I accept an obligation to do something for someone else, in return for their commitment to doing something for me. In that sense, countries always lose some right to decide for themselves when they commit to multilateral agreements.

Yet by the same token, one might see it as a sovereign right to choose to enter agreements with other countries. Countries that signed Kyoto did so (presumably) because they figured that, if everyone was bound to cut emissions, progress would be better. If we thought it was a good idea, it was in our prerogative to sign up.

At this point, I’m playing with semantics. What does it mean to be a sovereign country? The problem with the former definition is that it literally prohibits all international agreements. While there probably exist some who would agree with that, I doubt that it describes most TPP opponents. The latter definition, though, renders the concept of sovereignty somewhat useless. By that conception, what agreement would violate sovereignty? Does it require the agreement to be somehow revocable?

Use better arguments
You could dig into this as deep as you like. But if you question an opponent hard enough, no-one actually cares about sovereignty, per se. They either care about specific provisions that it would be stupid to commit to (and make no mistake, in its current form there are quite a few), or they generally disagree with market liberalisation. Neither of those stances are unreasonable, and there’s nothing wrong with some healthy scrutiny. It would just be nice if we stuck to arguments that matter.

Picture credit: NZ Herald

On inequality and education

If inequality is the “real cause” for poor education, does that mean poor education doesn’t drive inequality?

It is the opposition’s job, I guess, to oppose. Sometimes, though, the efforts baffle me. Such an instance occurred after Prime Minister John Key made a major education policy announcement on Thursday. The policy, which would create new positions in which top teachers and principals share best practice with other teachers and schools, was met with uncharacteristic approval from the education sector, including teachers’ unions. But it’s completely misguided, say the Greens:

This poorly thought out policy assumes that a possible improvement in teaching practice will address the driver of declining standards, inequality. […] The policy is not a blueprint to address the real needs of kids in lower decile schools to help them learn.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the corollaries of the Greens’ position. If they believe that the only way to address poor educational performance is to address social inequality, it must follow that any education policy aimed at the education system, as opposed to the economy or welfare system, is a pointless exercise.

Which is a perfectly acceptable stance to take. But it’s hard to keep consistent. For starters, it requires them not to propose any education policy aimed at lifting achievement, for the precise reason that they don’t believe they work: the “real” cause is inequality, not the education system.

But moreover, it requires them to believe that you can’t address inequality through education. Their claim is that only by addressing inequality directly can you hope to improve educational outcomes. So they must not believe even in the potential for education to give poor children the chance to become richer adults. They must not believe that giving schools in poorer areas more funding (i.e., the decile system) will do anything to help those students. Their rhetoric is based on kids being “sick and hungry”, and “living in poverty”—not what teachers and schools must do to help break the cycle.

It might feel like I’m taking their views to the extreme—except that I’m not. Their comments are unambiguous: National’s education policy is bad because it fails to address inequality. “The best teachers and principals in the world can’t feed or heal the hungry and sick kids that show up to school each day.” My general bias is to try to read statements in the best light possible. I’m finding better interpretations hard to find. If they thought there exists a better education policy that is not welfare or economic policy, why didn’t they hint at that?

To be fair, poverty is indeed an excellent predictor for educational underachievement. And the Greens are justified in campaigning to reduce it, just because it’s generally bad. What is confusing is that they would criticise a policy aimed at doing exactly that, for trying to do so by improving education.

There is plenty that could go wrong with this policy. As with any novelty, there are bound to be teething issues; any good opposition will make the most of them. It could yet prove impractical to ferry teachers between schools on a daily basis. Labour at least reiterated its belief in “encouraging quality teaching” and “collaboration with teachers”. The Greens seemed determined to say nothing even neutral, and ended up advocating a principle that will soon prove to be a straitjacket. Perhaps they are excited about becoming the lead opposition party, but they should be more careful to leave themselves room to make policies of their own.

On the Snapchat user info leak/hack

Here’s an attempt to explain what the leak was, what it wasn’t and what it means, without getting carried away.

Following the recent news about Snapchat users’ account info being leaked, I figure it’s worth sifting through the media drama for what appears actually to have happened. It’s not as bad as the headlines make it out to be, though depending on how protective you are of your mobile number and how you chose your username, you might reasonably be concerned.

In case this post propagates further than I intend, readers should be aware that I don’t claim specific expertise in this topic, I have not examined Snapchat myself (except to the extent detailed in an earlier post), and that by training I’m an electrical engineer, not a computer scientist (though I’ve done some work with software). That’s my disclaimer. Obviously I have a reasonable degree of confidence in what I’m about to write, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, but I caution against taking any of this as authoritative, and I’ll make technical corrections if alerted to them.

1. Accounts weren’t compromised. The “hack” was just what anyone can do if they have copious amounts of time.

The leak was the association of mobile numbers with usernames. It uses the same mechanism that you can use through the app to add the people in your mobile’s contacts list. When Snapchat “finds” your friends, it just sends your contacts’ numbers to the Snapchat servers, and the servers send back the usernames associated with them. So if you wanted to find out lots of username–number associations, say to build a database of them, you could (as Snapchat admits) just add every phone number in existence to your contacts list, then “find your friends”.

Of course, that would take forever. But if you can figure out how to pretend to be the Snapchat app, then you can write a script to do basically the same thing, much faster. You don’t need to hack anyone’s account to do this (you can just use your own); you just need to figure out how to trick the servers into thinking that you are the app. That’s what Gibson Security figured out how to do: they reverse-engineered Snapchat’s API and figured out the keys that the app uses to “prove” to the server that it is the app. (It should be noted that GibsonSec says they did not mine the data. Someone else did.)

The flaw is not so much that this is possible (finding your friends from their numbers is a legitimate function) as it is that doing it en masse is possible. Snapchat (according to GibsonSec) hasn’t done rate-limiting on its servers for this function, so you can send millions of requests in quick succession. They shouldn’t really allow this—a normal user should never need to ask for so many.

But it’s also not the end of the world. Specifically, to my knowledge (and I only know what I have read on the internet and seen on TV), the leak doesn’t involve your real name, passwords, snaps (expired or otherwise), or the ability to use your account without authorisation. At least not yet. But GibsonSec’s disclosure (as far as I can tell) doesn’t give any mechanisms for doing so.

So how bad is it? If you’re private about your mobile number, and one can take a reasonable guess at your username from your identity (not guess your identity from your username—guessing your username is probably harder than it sounds, depending on how you picked it), then you will probably be worried that someone can infer your mobile number. If your username isn’t very guessable, isn’t used anywhere else, or if you don’t care about people knowing your mobile number, it’s probably not such a big deal.

2. If you’re outside America and Canada, you’re probably safe, at least for now.

This is just what they said, here and here. Presumably the leakers were too lazy to check numbers other than North American ones. For example, users with a New Zealand mobile number aren’t affected. But if you want to check if your number was affected by the leak, do so here.

Of course, until Snapchat applies a fix, someone else could come along and run the exercise for other numbers. If you’re paranoid about it, just remove your mobile number from your account in the app (this might involve uninstalling and reinstalling the app). Snapchat doesn’t require your number for the app to work; it just means your friends can’t find you unless you tell them your username or add them first, and when they do it doesn’t associate a display name with you (i.e., lots of inconvenience for your friends and none for you, unless your friends do the same thing). You shouldn’t, in my opinion, feel like you need to delete your account.

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When I wrote about Decipher Forensics in May, I criticised them for over-hyping the impressiveness of their claims. No such criticism applies here: Gibson Security’s reverse engineering effort is admirable and their description is reasonably clear. They expressly pinpoint the flaw to a lack of rate-limiting in their disclosure and don’t (as far as I can tell, unlike Decipher) make any unwarranted jumps to conclusions. Also, Snapchat obviously didn’t intend for the secret keys to be found. The keys aren’t user-specific; they’re universal, solely to prevent third parties from pretending to be the app. I presume they’re probably hardcoded into the app somewhere, though I wouldn’t know for sure. Snapchat was perhaps naïve to assume they wouldn’t be found eventually.

But it would help for readers to understand exactly what the “hack” is. Fundamentally, it is the same as adding lots and lots of mobile numbers to your phone and finding all those “friends” on Snapchat—the hackers just found a more efficient way to do it. You should judge the severity of the breach on that basis.

“Resounding”, “emphatic”, “decisive”, “overwhelming”

Bluntly, the result of the asset sales referendum could have been better for its proponents.

These are the adjectives that have been used to describe the result of the asset sales referendum: “resounding”, “emphatic”, “decisive” (twice), “overwhelming” (twice), “great”. Sixty-seven percent is of course a reasonable margin. But in the context of citizens’ initiated referenda (CIRs), it’s not that impressive.

Stack it against CIRs of the past: New Zealand has had four since they were introduced in 1993. In each of those, the proponents claimed victories of 87.8%, 81.5%, 91.8% and 87.9%, respectively (ref). The asset sales referendum missed the lowest victory yet by more than 14 points. That’s more than the entire range of results before it.

The CIR votes all look like decent margins—why? It’s not surprising. It takes a mammoth effort to start one—petitioners must collect the signatures of 10% of all eligible voters in one year, more than 300,000. People don’t sign a petition just because they think the public should “have a say”. They sign it when they oppose the status quo and want that to be known. So unless you have a critical mass that both wants change and cares enough to petition, you won’t hit the threshold.

Finding one in every ten voters up and down the country is hard; many have tried and failed. Now imagine finding one in every nine, or one in every five, if you factor in turnout to the smacking referendum. Presumably actually reaching everyone to sign the petition is not that feasible. So by the time you’ve hit the 10% threshold, you should have a really good victory in store.

Of course, should is the keyword in that sentence. My criticisms of statistical fallacies make it churlish for me to pretend what I’m saying is known to be empirically true. There are probably reasonable narratives the other way; without comprehensive (and mandatory) surveys, all of it is guesswork. It’s tempting, even for me, to try to draw inferences about what the result means. My suspicion is the (relatively) low outcome just indicates that the issue is more polarized (or organized) that most, since probably a greater number of opponents actually signed the petition.

But consider the big picture. There are, at a basic level, three outputs: turnout, informal votes and the actual result. (Okay, maybe the electorate data is useful too.) There are lots more variables that go into voting. Desire to vote, hassle, stance, strength of stance, interaction with “meta-opinions” like the right to govern, opinion on the fact that the referendum is being held, and the impact of each of those on action taken. We can make inferences, but they inevitably require guesses (even if sensible ones) about how those things fit together.

This is not to say that the left should not dance in victory; 67% is not bad at all. And it is true that a majority of New Zealanders oppose asset sales—we knew that long before the referendum. But in the context of New Zealand CIRs, it’s hard to see why they seem over the moon. Compared to other petitioners in recent history, they’ve underperformed. Still a good result, but not as “emphatic”, “overwhelming” or “decisive” as they claim it to be.

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