Skip to content

Confessions of a swing voter

The election’s just eleven days away and I’m nowhere near making up my mind.

I don’t normally give holistic political commentary on this blog. A busy offline life means I post only when I think my points haven’t already been raised, which naturally tend to be very specific points rather than issues in general. But as the election looms close, I’ve had a lot on my mind.

I’ll first say that, as a swing voter, this campaign’s been incredibly frustrating. This tweet explains a lot of the headache:

More than just a spate of upsetting policies though, the partisanship during this campaign has been really painful to watch. Perhaps the internet is amplifying the effect (being in California, this is my only means of keeping up), but it’s becoming hypocritical of New Zealand to snigger at America’s politics for being “polarised”.

The most pronounced manifestation of this was the controversy following Dirty Politics. With exceptions I can count on one hand (by bloggers I follow because they don’t let their biases blind them), reactions correlated one-to-one with party allegiance with virtually no middle ground. This made the criticisms flying both ways hard to take seriously. Opposing commentators engaged, but in superficial ways, the left determined to cast the right as evil, the right to cast the author, Nicky Hager, as void of credibility. There are deep ethical questions about journalism, hacking and the public interest that people seemed interested in only insofar as they could twist them to support or criticise the book.

What follows are some very abridged thoughts on the parties I’ve given any thought to voting for. If you’re looking for a disclosure statement, I’m not a member or supporter of any party, never have been, have voted for both left and right wing parties and candidates (and I’ve only voted in two elections), and to get a feel for my political biases, my Vote Compass result is here.

(Okay, these aren’t really “confessions”, per se. But I had to get you to click on this somehow, and now that you’re here, you may as well finish, right?)

Act
To readers and friends familiar with my obsession with argumentative consistency, it should come as no surprise that I’m a great fan of its new leader, Jamie Whyte. His intellectual honesty and frankness is hard to find anywhere, let alone in politics. For that alone, I think he’ll make a superb contribution to Parliament.

There’s just one problem: I disagree with almost all of Act’s major policies and its basic philosophy of classical liberalism. I’m unconvinced, for example, that dropping the company tax rate so low will be as good for the economy as he suggests. For many reasons I take a very dim view of three-strikes policies, more so for one for burglary. A (lower profile) policy that claims to be about “honesty” fails the value-agnostic test.

Act, then, poses a conflict between my substantive political views, and more fundamental procedural views on how ideas should be contested. I’m not sure how to resolve this conflict. One way to think of it is that I want Dr Whyte in Parliament to ask the questions no-one else is asking, but I don’t want him to win his arguments. But I really care a lot about philosophical integrity, and Dr Whyte ticks that box like no other politician. Can that count as “representing” me if their policy conclusions don’t?

Greens
Despite criticisms on this blog, their early start on announcing policies, some of which were quite well-considered, impressed me. Earlier in the year, I was starting to form the impression that the Greens were in fact ready for the responsibility of government, notwithstanding the occasional ideological blindness.

However, more recent appearances have changed my mind. I was astounded to see left-wing commentators praise co-leader Metiria Turei for being the only “professional” leader in the first two minor parties’ debates. I wouldn’t call her unprofessional, but her snide interjections and dismissive laughter put her far from the most respectful in the room. She has been eager to cast the government as “destructive”, “extremist” and the root of all woes. To left-wing partisans this may resonate, but to an undecided voter, while the government’s record is far from stellar, Ms Turei’s description just doesn’t sit with reality. In the Herald’s Hot Seat, where most leaders welcomed the opportunity for an open discussion, the co-leaders insisted on repeating their election messages. Slogans are important, but to be honest, it’s getting tiring.

Perhaps I’m unfairly penalising them for one half of their leadership. Russel Norman tends to be much more thoughtful in his remarks, and showed as much in the third (TVNZ) debate. But even an average of the two would still represent a huge tumble in my mind.

National
When the government ditched every recommendation of the MMP review that it initiated, I promised myself I would not vote for a National-led government in 2014. That promise, as I quietly suspected, has become very difficult to keep. Until they announced their housing policy (which is problematic), I felt that National was leading for my vote, only because they were the only party on a non-negative score since the beginning of 2014. That is, they were the only party not announcing policies.

I’m still not sure quite what to think of them. John Key performed well in the second (The Press) major parties’ debate, albeit lacking in the first (TVNZ). Getting closer to the election, the rate of policy announcement is starting to raise a little, which might help between today and election day.

Labour
David Cunliffe has struggled, but I’m really not sure why. I don’t feel that I’ve seen any reason to believe he would be a bad prime minister. That said, it’s hard not to count Labour’s xenophobic stances on housing and foreign investment against them (and everyone else who holds similar stances). When American friends ask about the existence of racism in New Zealand (it’s an interesting cultural comparison), I feel obliged to admit that our left wing has started going that way in the last year—and that I know that’s the wrong way round.

I’ve had mixed feelings about their other policies. Some aspects of their “economic upgrade”, particularly ones that single out particular industries, are really concerning. KiwiBuild is marginally better than National’s housing solution, but still seems unrealistic. But the major reasons that drew me to them last election—capital gains tax and raising the retirement age—are still there, albeit not so emphasised. So there’ll be some hefty balancing questions to ask myself here.

Māori Party
Te Ururoa Flavell has been at pains, multiple times, to emphasise that you don’t have to be Māori to vote for the Māori Party. Admittedly, while I know this to be technically true, the perception that they exist to target Māori voters has certainly weighed on my mind as a voter. And to be honest, I’m still not sure why Mr Flavell is right. The party’s policies still unashamedly focus on Māori. In the current context, this is appreciable and has had positive effect, but as far as my priorities go, it’s hard to place this near the top.

United Future
Peter Dunne normally has a sensible approach to things. His legal highs initiative was laudable. But I’m not really satisfied a vote cast here would do anything. If he gets a second MP, would they add anything to Parliament?

Conservatives
Just kidding. There’s no way they’re getting close to my vote. To give him some credit, as I might write in an upcoming post, I think Colin Craig has been admirably consistent in his belief in politicians doing “what New Zealanders want”, even when it doesn’t align with what he wants. But for a multitude of reasons, binding referenda are an exceptionally bad idea, and their foreign investment rhetoric is worse than Labour’s and the Greens’, second only to Winston Peters’.

On another note, despite missing out on my vote, I think (with about two-thirds probability) that the Conservatives will hit 5 per cent. You heard it here first.

A quick note on the Climate Voter judgment

Here is Greenpeace’s and Climate Voter’s press release on the High Court’s decision today. Here is the High Court decision.

According to Greenpeace, “The ruling confirms the core legal argument that the Electoral Act was not intended to capture normal issues-based advocacy.” Here’s what the judge actually said. I’ve tried to pick quotes that are properly representative of the analysis, so if these seem incoherent, read paragraphs 52 through 57 of the judgment.

The application of such nomenclature as “issue advocacy” also does little to confine or clarify the boundaries of the statutory test.

That the advertisement is capable of being categorised as issue advocacy or a form thereof is secondary to the objective test which Parliament requires to be applied to the material in question.

Simply because the public (as opposed to the advertiser) is able to juxtapose that message against what may be the well-known position of a candidate or party is not enough.

Greenpeace and the Climate Voter organisations’ submission that the statutory definition was not intended to regulate issues-based advocacy but only advocacy for or against parties or candidates is undoubtedly accurate. I have little doubt this was Parliament’s intent, but the distinction between issues-based advocacy and encouragement to vote for a type of candidate or party according to particular views or positions inevitably merges at some point.

For the reasons already canvassed, the type of bright line contended for by Greenpeace and the Climate Voter organisations in my view is not able to be applied to the statutory definition to limit the test for election advertisement.

Climate Voter is trying to claim this as a moral victory by saying the Court accepted its “core” argument. In reality, the Court said that it agrees that issues-based advocacy wasn’t the target, but that that observation doesn’t help very much with drawing a line between what is and isn’t an election advertisement.

But here’s the problem. Pure issue-based advocacy was never the question. No-one ever said that Parliament intended for pure issue advocates to be caught in the net. The reason the Electoral Commission concluded their website was an election advertisement is because its homepage included these words:

It means you want real action on climate change and you’re prepared to use your vote to get it. It says you support strategies to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and grow New Zealand’s clean energy and low-carbon potential.

Climate Voter may have been advocating on an issue, but they were also encouraging people to vote in a particular way. They sought to narrow the definition to exclude them, and the High Court rejected that approach.

I’ll admit, I was hoping the Court would go further than it did (para 90) and simply reject the logic that wanting “all parties” to do it means it’s not for a “type of party” in any non-hypothetical world, as Professor Andrew Geddis explained. But it remains that the dispute was always about the facts of this case, not some abstract notion Climate Voter was chasing about issue-based advocacy.

They could, if they had more discipline, be the sort of organisation that Parliament decided shouldn’t be caught up in the select committee stage of the Electoral Finance Bill when it excluded the criterion, “taking a position on a proposition with which 1 or more parties or 1 or more candidates is associated”. But it chose to do a lot more than that and it’s being treated accordingly.

I admire what Climate Voter is doing, but the spin they’re putting on this question of electoral law is astonishing. If I were them, I would proudly say that the issue is important enough to campaign for in the election and behave like a promoter. I’m not really sure why they’ve been so insistent that electoral law shouldn’t apply to them.

My vote for IEEE President-Elect 2015 goes to…

Tariq Durrani. Fred Mintzer is also good. But first, just not Barry Shoop.

This ended up being quite long, so here’s the short, TL;DR version. Barry Shoop was questioned on his priorities, and he said his top priority was “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” This isn’t a credible answer—it’s everything the IEEE does. He wants to prioritize everything, which is the same as having no priority, and he gives no means for how he would achieve everything. His lack of a defined vision for his term is, in my view, alone enough reason to rule him out.

Fred Mintzer and Tariq Durrani are both decent candidates. I think Dr Mintzer’s basic diagnosis on networking and collaboration is more correct than Prof Durrani’s, but his means is wrong. The online tools Dr Mintzer advocates are not properly conducive to networking. In any case, while it comprises engineers, the IEEE as an institution is not well-placed to develop high-quality software. It would be better for everyone if a software start-up or open-source project did this instead.

Prof Durrani has a longer wish list, and I don’t agree with everything he proposes. I have reservations about the usefulness of an advisory panel of CEOs and CTOs. But a few of his core proposals would help. His encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences is welcome. An expansion of the e-learning library to professional development isn’t a perfect solution, but it has some merit. He offers some small steps towards globalization in the IEEE. It’s clear he has put a lot of thought, in concrete terms, into what he wants to achieve as the IEEE’s chief executive.

For those reasons, my vote this year goes to Tariq Durrani. A more detailed discussion follows.

~

Disclosure
I have never met any of the three candidates and I am not involved in any of their campaigns. Two years ago, I wrote in this blog backing Tariq Durrani. Like this post, that one was based on an honest assessment of publicly available material, and I had at the time met neither of the candidates and was involved in neither campaign. After the election, Prof Durrani e-mailed me, and I took the opportunity (as I often do with senior volunteers) to point him to a series of posts I wrote about the IEEE in 2011. That series still reflects my general stance today. In the IEEE, I have been a Student Branch chair, GOLD (as it was at the time) vice-chair, Section secretary, and have been to three Region 10 Student/GOLD/WIE Congresses, one of which I did the program for. I like to think this is a null disclosure, but if you think it taints my position, then, well, I guess disclosure has achieved its purpose.

First, not Barry Shoop
The Institute asked all three candidates for their “top two priorities”. Prof Shoop’s answer, like his position statement: “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” Professor, that’s not a “priority”. That’s everything the IEEE does! When someone asks what you will prioritize, “everything” is not a valid answer.

I am honestly tired of presidential candidates giving a catch-all when asked for their priorities. I criticized Roberto de Marca for the same thing in 2012. Too many candidates for senior IEEE positions don’t seem to have any specific goals in mind. But to be fair, this is Prof Shoop’s position statement, so maybe he just has a very long list of specifics he’d like to accomplish?

Unfortunately not. On his website, he talks about “tailored products and services”, “public policies that support the profession” and “increase IEEE’s influence”. In the abstract, these are laudable visions. But he leaves no idea what any of them concretely mean, or how they would be accomplished. Would “tailoring” mean members choosing for themselves from an unnavigable smorgasbord of  benefits? Do “public policies” mean that IEEE should start advocating to governments outside the US? What are the barriers to IEEE’s influence today? Prof Shoop spares us the details. Evidence that he has any is hard to find.

I make no apology for making this a veto factor in voting. Parts of the IEEE are working well, but a lot of it is broken. Most practicing engineers don’t think they’ll get anything useful from IEEE membership. Continued calls by and to IEEE volunteers to “add value” have so far achieved nothing. Any worthy presidential candidate must be able to lay out in at least some detail what they would do to help.

Readers might be surprised at the bluntness of my advocacy against Prof Shoop. Such scrutiny isn’t typical for IEEE elections, which tend to focus on positive campaigning. This is of course a good thing, but it’s still important to critique what potential presidents have (or don’t have) in mind. Leading the world’s largest technical professional association is a huge responsibility. Avoiding attack-style campaigns shouldn’t mean avoiding criticism.

I really wish I could support the alumnus of my university, and I have no doubt that he is a superb professional and dedicated volunteer. And there are certainly points in his favor. Asked by The Institute about how to engage the next generation, Prof Shoop’s ideas resonate with me the most: only he emphasized that engineers talk too little about their impact on the world. But wanting to prioritize everything, with neither any focus nor any idea how, is a poor case for a chief executive.

Choosing between Mintzer and Durrani
Having eliminated one, choosing between the other two was somewhat harder. Both had enough detail for me to imagine what they mean. While both list four areas, I only took the first one or two seriously: in both cases, the latter ones lack elaboration and seem thrown in there to cover bases. I don’t mind this—I think it’s fine to acknowledge that something should be done, while saying you’ve put a lot more thought into something else. But I really want to understand what change the candidates will personally want to drive in the IEEE.

On Frederick Mintzer
Dr Mintzer advocates “professional productivity and collaboration tools” based on social media. It would support both existing IEEE communities and ad-hoc ones, would support “collaborative research and authoring” and an “opportunity to reinvent publications” with article, discussion and supplements in one.

I would really like to see Dr Mintzer’s vision come true. But I don’t think the IEEE is the organisation to do it. The most fundamental building block for collaboration tools is good-quality software. While you might think an engineering organisation would be capable, the IEEE is ultimately a non-profit organisation, and one without the skill set to develop something genuinely usable.

This isn’t a guess. The IET, the IEEE’s UK-based counterpart, tried to implement almost exactly the same thing in their MyCommunity platform. I met some of the staff who were involved, and their dedication was genuine. But the IET found it really hard to get it off the ground. They sought feedback to improve it, but the sad truth is, tweaks would never be enough. The software is just very poorly designed.

In order for these collaboration tools to be developed by the IEEE to an adequate standard, you either need (a) volunteers experienced in software to commit their spare, out-of-work, time to developing commercial-grade software, or (b) to contract a software firm to do it for you, in return for a lot of money. Neither is likely: volunteers tend to want to organize things, not do more of their day job, and there is too much emphasis on cost reduction in the IEEE for anything of commercial quality to be viable. The only other option I can think of is an open-source effort, akin to Django or MediaWiki. To my knowledge, no successful such effort has originated with a large non-profit whose primary activities are somewhere else.

Rather, if there is really a need for these tools, there should be a market opportunity for it. Engineers and researchers (or their employers) should pay to use it. It should be a fully-fledged software project, with research into customer workflows and requirements. And if there’s demand for it to be linked to geographic communities, as Dr Mintzer suggests, then they will add that feature. I don’t hold this idea for everything IEEE does. But it’s true for tools, like source control, issue tracking, collaborative editing, circuit simulation and computer-aided design. Research collaboration is no different—I believe it will be better for the profession if it is done by a company or open-source project specializing in that activity.

On Tariq Durrani
Prof Durrani’s statement remains largely unchanged from when he ran last year, and two years ago. When he ran against Roberto de Marca, it was enough for me to note that Prof Durrani had some detail. (I didn’t advocate for a candidate last year, partly because I was busy, but partly because Howard Michel and Prof Durrani were equally good candidates.) This year, a comparison with Dr Mintzer demands a more analytical approach.

Prof Durrani has been keen to emphasize his plans to “establish a panel of chief executive/technology offers” to help IEEE better engage with industry. I have reservations. The hardest part of rectifying the disconnect is finding people who aren’t already involved in the IEEE. The people who are don’t know understand why people don’t join or what would sway them. But people who aren’t have little reason to help an institution desperate to welcome them but with nothing to offer. Volunteers will have to use their thinking caps and learn more effectively through informal channels with non-members, not by another initiative to seek advice.

Similarly, a number of his bullet points are empty. It’s not clear, for example, how he would “enhance global visibility of IEEE Standards”, nor how he would “ensure major IEEE role in 21st Century Global Grand Challenges” (whatever those are).

Still, there are promising nuggets in Prof Durrani’s wish list. His plans to expand the IEEE e-learning library for continuing professional development aren’t ideal—I find online courses a poor means of delivering CPD—but it’s not hopeless, and CPD is a core role of professional associations. Support for delivery of in-person courses would be expensive, but a much better return on investment. For this reason, his encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences has more hope. It would be an uphill battle, but real-life meetings are what truly drive networking and learning, and this would do better than most ideas to turn around the IEEE’s academic-only reputation. He also gives some small but credible steps towards globalizing the IEEE, in membership models with progressive benefits and more balanced international representation.

 ~

Dr Mintzer’s fundamental diagnosis, I would argue, is more correct than Prof Durrani’s. There is only one strength intrinsic to IEEE: that it is a worldwide community of engineers, and by mutual education and robust exchange of ideas, they can advance the profession. For this reason, Dr Mintzer’s priority of “networking and collaboration opportunities” is to be applauded. But his means is wrong—online collaboration is a complement, not a substitute, to in-person meetings, and we should stop pretending the internet is our solution.

By contrast, Prof Durrani’s main areas lack Dr Mintzer’s realization. His general manifesto is more service-based, which is not ideal at a high level. His details are more promising though: they point to genuine, specific gaps in what the IEEE can provide to potential members. I hope he drops some of his ideas, but overall, it’s easier to visualize meaningful change with his manifesto.

But my final message is my first one. If a candidate has never said anything you disagree with, he is probably not the best one. You might feel included in Prof Shoop’s catch-all “priority”, but it’s not possible prioritize everything without prioritizing nothing. That is an excellent recipe for getting nothing meaningful done. Based on their websites and answers to questions, Dr Mintzer and Prof Durrani are more likely to achieve something.

On Winston, Wongs, name puns and a sense of humour

Winston Peters wasn’t taking a friendly jibe. He was using humour to make a serious point, and that is how his joke should be judged.

Almost all of the commentary following Winston Peters’ “two Wongs don’t make a right” joke has focussed on respect, historical context, how old the joke is, whether people of the name Wong find it funny, and indeed, whether it’s funny at all.

I’m glad to see ample criticism, but these are all the wrong questions. These commentators talk about his joke as if Mr Peters made some sort of ill-chosen, insensitive punchline, as if he needs better jokes. It was indeed insensitive, but it wasn’t just some error of judgement. Mr Peters wasn’t cracking some light-hearted joke. Mr Peters was trying to make a point—to remind his audience that the Chinese are taking over our country—and he used humour to achieve it.

This should not be a revelation. Humour is a common, and effective, rhetorical technique. Good orators, like Mr Peters, use it well for persuasive effect. In this case, Mr Peters was rebutting the claim that, because Labour once did similarly, National is justified in continuing their relaxed approach to foreign ownership. “As they say in Beijing, ‘two Wongs don’t make a right’.”

The joke is clever precisely because it plays on the racial group that Mr Peters has been targeting for some time, particularly with regard to foreign ownership of property. He was a vocal critic of the sale of farms to the Shanghai Pengxin group, accused the Huka Lodge of selling out to Chinese buyers, and jumped on the bandwagon after the Conservatives’ Colin Craig exposed the Lochinver Station sale. (He was strangely silent on a $1 billion deal involving Canadians.)

Absent that context, the line would have made no sense. Imagine if he had made a joke about a common English or Dutch surname. Whether it would’ve been offensive isn’t the point—it just would have looked completely random. Conversely, if Mr Peters’ crusade against foreign ownership fretted the Canadians, or just the world in general, the joke would have come out of nowhere. You would’ve been confused, not amused.

In other contexts, it’s appreciable that the same joke might be made light-heartedly. It’s not surprising that some Wongs are used to it: name puns aren’t necessarily offensive. But name puns only work when the target is actually involved—otherwise it’s not a pun. The pun here is that the topic of foreign ownership is about the Chinese. It’s only funny if you have at least some sympathy for that position. If not, there’s no double meaning to form the pun.

This is the reason the joke is racist. It’s not intrinsically culturally insensitive: as Mr Peters says, a sense of humour is still worth having. And it’s not merely ignorant. It’s offensive because Mr Peters had a genuine political point to make, and he chose his line deliberately to do so. As much as he wants to talk about how he heard it in Beijing and how his companion there found it funny, it remains that he wouldn’t have used it in the first place if he didn’t have the Chinese in mind. And at the point where there’s a specific class of people you want shut out, you’ll have no qualms cracking a joke that makes fun of them.

It’s a good joke—but only if you agree with Mr Peters’ racist stance. I hope that applies to no-one.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,471 other followers