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Posts tagged ‘procedural arguments’

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.

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.

Follow the majority, except when they disagree with me

It’s really easy to make up principles of democracy to suit your opposition. It’s far harder to keep them consistent.

The opposition hasn’t relented on their claim that the government lacks a “mandate” on asset sales. The majority of New Zealanders oppose it—even the government acknowledges so—so the government shouldn’t do it. In populist politics, this claim is appealing. As a principled claim, it deserves more examination.

The Greens have shown as much already when pressed on how this applied to their support of the anti-smacking bill. As I said at the time, I think the smacking referendum question had logical issues. But empirically, it was still clear that the vast majority of Kiwis wanted the law repealed. The Greens say that it was correct to ignore this because the bill had an overwhelming majority in Parliament. This is rather farcical: essentially, direct democracy is called on only when representatives are evenly divided. I’m not a fan of direct democracy, but insofar as one likes it, that principle is very belittling of it.

Of course, there are also plenty more circumstances where Parliament’s been evenly divided, that haven’t been subject to “mandate” criticisms. So more generally, under what circumstances should the government abandon its own election policy in favour of topic-specific polls? The left has been shy on exactly what their criteria are, so it’s hard to tell. So I admit this is reading between the lines. But here’s my best effort at inference so far:

  • It’s fine when much more than 50 per cent (say, maybe 70 per cent) of Parliament supports it.
  • It’s fine when the amount of public opposition isn’t much more than 50 per cent (say, less than 60 per cent).
  • It’s fine when it doesn’t concern a long-term economic decision.
  • It’s fine when it’s not something “built up by generations of New Zealanders“, or I suppose something with a similarly long history.
  • It’s fine when the public isn’t very vocal about opposition. By “the public”, of course, I just mean political parties with lots of media time.

The weird thing about these principles is that they carve out criteria for a lack of a mandate. Conversely, to have a mandate, only one of the criteria has to hold. Logically, it is necessary to do this to avoid the inconsistencies inherent in the Greens’ and Labour’s record.

Intuitively, it’s stupid. Each of those planks implies a different principle. It’s impossible, in this framework, to devise a single consistent conception of what “mandate” means. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the left has been making up as narrow a set of exceptions as they need to, so they can harp on about democracy for this one issue.

Let me suggest a simpler principle: The government should follow the majority view when and only when it happens to agree with my view. This is convenient: you are free to oppose whatever you are opposed to. It’s also empirically true. Being in the minority has never stopped anyone from arguing that a policy shouldn’t be enacted. It certainly hasn’t stopped the Greens, who are in the minority for most of their core policies.

Of course, the problem with it is that it doesn’t sound very nice. But when would this principle ever give a different outcome?

If the fact that a view is held by a majority can’t change your view on that policy, then it’s not a very useful discriminant and it shouldn’t be used as if it is.