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Posts tagged ‘democracy’

Follow the majority that agrees with me, part 2

The Greens continue to make up principles of democracy as they go. Why can’t they just stick to the real arguments on military deployment?

In 2013, amid polls showing 70% public opposition but majority support in Parliament, Russel Norman criticised the government loudly about its lack of respect for public opinion on state asset sales. Dr Norman refused analogies with the 2007 smacking bill (which enjoyed some 90% public opposition but majority parliamentary support), citing the “overwhelming majority” in Parliament with which the latter passed, but he never articulated a criterion for when a public majority should be heeded.

Now, on the deployment of New Zealand defence personnel to Iraq, Dr Norman is proposing yet another mode of democratic accountability. This time, Dr Norman does not propose a referendum. Rather, he (and Labour’s Andrew Little) suggests that Parliament should get to vote on the matter. Dr Norman, again, criticises John Key for making the decision “without a mandate”.

Yet a parliamentary mandate was not enough for Dr Norman to be content with asset sales, nor was an overwhelming parliamentary majority enough for his party in 2001 to support the (Labour) government’s decision to deploy personnel to Afghanistan. And while Dr Norman makes reference to the public in his speech, he’s clearly much more obsessed with Parliament’s right to weigh in on this matter. What gives?

It’s fairly obvious how Dr Norman is choosing which mandates to talk about, just as it’s obvious why Mr Key will not run a parliamentary vote on this deployment, and why Helen Clark was happy for Parliament to vote on the 2001 decision. Mr Key knows he would lose this vote; Ms Clark knew she would win that one. Dr Norman is pressing on mandates whenever he happens to be in the majority—just as I pointed out when writing about asset sales in December 2013.

In other words, everyone is running or advocating whichever procedure will favour them.

Where does the power actually lie?
It’s worth saying that the vote in 2001 was not a vote of authorisation. It did happen, but the resolution was that the “House declares its support” for New Zealand’s contributions to the coalition. It was a symbolic vote—a nice feel-good for the government, but not a necessary one.

Constitutionally, the power to make military deployments (and declare war) is part of the royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister (ref). Parliament doesn’t get any sort of veto right (unless it passes legislation to give itself one). It does, of course, have the role of holding ministers accountable for their decisions and there are a range of means (questions, urgent debates, debates after ministerial statements) to do so.

Dr Norman knows this, of course: notice his rhetoric is about “mandate”, not “authority” or “power”. And one might advance a good case for why the power to commit military personnel should lie only with the legislature, not the executive. But that’s not the system we have today, and until that changes, we shouldn’t pretend it’s how things work. A system that people kept having to second-guess to get right would collapse pretty quickly.

Just make the argument
Parties are entitled to be opposed to military deployment, just as they are entitled to hold stances on any other issue. And there is no obligation to be part of the majority, or to advocate the stance held by the majority, or to implement it. If there were, the Greens would be a very different party: most of their views, after all, would place them in the minority of the New Zealand public.

But the reasons the left should be using are the actual reasons they oppose military action: because they think it is more likely to inflame the situation than help it, or because they think New Zealand lives aren’t worth risking, or perhaps something else. That is, in itself, a substantive debate, and—credit where it is due—one that Dr Norman and the Greens are duly engaging in. It would just be nice if that’s what their rhetoric focussed on, rather than some moving goalposts about when the government should care for which majority.

To avoid doubt: Astute readers will have noticed that (a) this post spares Andrew Little from the same criticism, because while he moved for a vote, that detail was not his emphasis, and (b) this post did not advocate a position on the substantive case for or against deployment except to say there was one.

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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.

Marriage equality: why the attention?

People have been unusually mobilised on marriage equality. What makes this issue different?

The political mobilisation brought about by the marriage equality bill is seldom seen. Social media has been buzzing, more than typical for political issues. We don’t yet know how many submissions were made to the committee, but Campaign for Marriage Equality alone claims to have received over 10,160 submissions via its website to pass on. That’s just one organisation, on one side. I would speculate that the total figure could double that.

For comparison, the Alcohol Reform Bill received 8,822 (including 7,175 form submissions following a template); the bill setting up state asset sales this April received 1,489; legalising prostitution 222; the ultra-fast broadband initiative (one of National’s main 2008 election policies) just 37. People who are normally content to be silent, or to rant only at the dinner table, have somehow been galvanised into action. Is there something about marriage equality that trumps every other issue of the day?

Impact? Not really
The frenzy is hard to explain in terms of importance. On any level, the practical impact of the bill is virtually zero. The marriage rights of heterosexuals aren’t affected. Those of homosexuals, who can already join in civil union with mostly equivalent rights, change only in name (though, arguably, this bill might legalise adoption for them).

Day-to-day lives will not really change. The impact is symbolic rather than consequential. While that doesn’t make the bill unimportant, it’s hard to see how it’s more important than policies that do affect everyday lives: national standards, income tax rates, the rights of defendants or the euro zone crisis, for example.  (While national standards and income tax legislation, passed under urgency, didn’t take public submissions, from what I’ve seen public discussion has been much more active on gay marriage.)  Importance does not correlate with attention.

The simple effect
The better explanation is that the issue is perceived to be simpler than education, justice or economic issues. It takes less work to have an informed opinion because, well, there’s not much to be informed about. Either you think gays should be able to marry, or you don’t. Maybe you’ll refer to equality or tradition, but there’s no real need for evidence-backed premises. No arguments about whether league tables distract schools from teaching, no need for analysis on whether the inquisitorial system is prone to bias against defendants, no complicated economic models weighing up the various effects of austerity.

Whether the issue is actually that simple is of course another question, as I’ve indirectly pointed out before. What matters is that that’s how it’s seen. People are less likely to publish their opinions (all submissions are public) if they’re not confident they can back them. People are less likely to be confident if they know that they don’t know much about the topic.

Assuming our perceptions of complexity are correct, is that a good or a bad thing? It’s good that we have a self-regulating filter to allow informed voices to naturally rise to the top. But the corollary is that people tend not to engage in policies that are more consequential but are seen as more complex. In reality, that’s most topics. Still, for those with little faith in the wisdom of the masses, it’s probably a good thing.

(Photo credit: 3 News)

Anti-EFA brigade overreacting to warning to website

Resistance to the Electoral Finance Act (EFA) is not without reason—posts in this blog have been critical of it—but opponents must now realise the line between reacting and overreacting.  The Electoral Commission’s warning to webmaster Andrew Moore did not concern the EFA’s most controversial clause.  On the contrary, it concerned quite possibly the only reasonable requirement of the new law.

The website has a self-explanatory title “Don’t Vote Labour” and breaches the Act by not having the name and address of the publisher on it.  It is a requirement that has always been, one that has existed for years for billboards and print adverts without public complaint, before the internet became widespread.  Times have changed, and the law has to keep up by demanding the same standards of what is now an equally influential medium.

The point here is not about the name-and-address requirement, but that in their desperation to find something to criticise, the anti-EFA activists are promoting a double standard.  They must apply the same rules to campaign websites as billboards, print and broadcasting: either they all should require a name and address, or none of them should.  If the latter applies, why weren’t they campaigning to repeal that requirement before?

EFA opponents must conduct themselves with a sense of rationality if they are to succeed.  They need to argue with the facts, rather than with random statements.  Whaleoil’s claims that t-shirts and bumper stickers will breach the law and that webmasters have to “register” are symptomatic.  Even Helen Clark would admit that t-shirts and bumper stickers don’t “encourage or persuade voters”, as in the EFA’s definition of election advertisement.  And webmasters don’t have to register unless they spend more than $12,000, they only have to print their name and address on the website.  By publishing such hopelessly misleading statements, EFA opponents risk falling from the moral high ground, just like the Labour Party did after the 2005 election.

The law is right to excuse personal political expression in blogs, for the simple reason that the common citizen should not need to worry about regulation.  The Don’t Vote Labour, though, is not just political expression, it is a full-on campaign.  Like donators, campaign leaders should not fear identification if they truly believe in what they are doing.

The warning to the Don’t Vote Labour website is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than seize on the small stuff, EFA opponents are far better off waiting for more meaty cases.  Cases of ordinary citizens, not deliberately trying to flout the law, but getting caught up in a maze of regulation nonetheless.  It’ll happen.  The EFA is a mess and will turn out messy cases—but it has yet to do so.

Related Links
Earlier related posts (in my other blog)