Escaping the beartrap: good policy costs money

I wrote a while back about Metiria Turei’s 2016 state of the nation address, and my reservations about the idea of an “independent” policy costings unit. I said:

I want to like the idea of a policy costing unit. But we have to let go of the myth Treasury is an independent, non-ideological body. Look at the endless arguments about how we measure unemployment, poverty, economic growth. “Objective truth” doesn’t exist in politics.

What this means – even if you could get half-a-dozen economists in a room who could actually agree on a simple numerical breakdown of policy cost, even if money were the only thing that matters in policy – is that a central policy costings unit would have zero real effect on political debate. And as long as we’re bringing “my facts are the best facts” to a “my leader is the coolest leader you’d have a beer with” fight, we’re going to lose.

But there’s another fundamental issue at stake (which is why I’m not feeling too awkward raising this weeks later, when the policy has already made its ripples and been drowned out by the TPPA, Waitangi Day, and yes, that novelty cock-and-balls.)

This is the great millstone around the neck of the left: we keep buying into the idea that money is the most important thing in the political debate. So we keep making reassuring noises about balancing the books and delivering a surplus and careful management of the economy.

How’s that working for us so far?

Labour’s tertiary education policy is “fiscally neutral”. That was emphasised in its announcement. Did that stop the first question, from every journalist, being “what will it cost?” No. Does it mean that we would only be getting two years’ free tertiary education if the numbers didn’t add up? I hope not.

We’re trying to avoid the bear-trap of being labelled profligate spendy lefties without realising it’s already got our legs, it’s had them for thirty years, and it’s not letting go. And yet we drag it along, agreeing with National that public spending must be reasonable and public servants mustn’t be allowed nice things like a bit of pounamu or a hair straightener in the bathroom.

When we attack any “overspend” – staff gifts or Christmas parties, new fixtures in the bathrooms – we may grab headlines, but we also reinforce in the public mind that government spending is wasteful.

People don’t hang around to get to the second part of the argument – this spending is ridiculous because of the context in which so many public services are being ground away into nothing.

They’ll accept that letting health funding stagnate is a bad thing. Everyone knows we need more doctors and nurses. Everyone has a hospital horror story. But as long as we’re waving hair straighteners in their faces, all we’re saying is: the rest of it is rubbish. We’re not showing that what’s needed is a massive increase in public spending – on health, on education, on social support, on infrastructure.

“Just take away the hair straighteners”, they’ll say. And the Tories will cackle into their merlot as we make it even easier for them to say “right, public servants don’t get pay rises or hot water, gotta tighten those belts some more” next time they’re in power. (Shortly followed by, “we told you the public service was useless; better privatise the police force!”)

But it’s not sustainable. You can’t keep slapping duct tape on the broken waterpipe forever. It might hold for a while, it might save you in the costs of a replacement for now, but eventually the whole thing has to be properly fixed, and it only costs more the longer you wait and the more damage you let happen.

So we have an difficult decision to make. We can smash the beartrap. We can start making the argument that public spending is a public good. That the only downside of massively increasing our health and education budgets is that Kiwi kids will be a healthy little pack of nerds and the accountants will get sulky. That we might put the books in the red, but that’s because we have to repair the foundations to rebuild the New Zealand we all dream about.

Or we can keep doing the same thing. We can try to reason with the beartrap, telling ourselves that if only we show it enough graphs about Labour government surpluses it’ll change its mind and let us go, and the nation’s political editors will stop yelling “tax and spend!!!” every time we blink.

You know what I’d pick. I’m all about bold, unapologetically leftwing politics. How ’bout you?

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