Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

QOTD: Somebody has to prepare that steak

I’m having difficulty finishing Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, the feminist critique of economics by Katrine Marçal. It’s just too real. Every few pages I put it down with a sigh at how true, yet/thus how utterly frustrating, it all is.

So in lieu of a long-planned review, to be completed once I’ve ground my way through the last 30 brilliant, infuriating, vindicating pages, here’s a quotation which nails the key point.

Since Adam Smith’s time, the theory about economic man has hinged on someone else standing for care, thoughtfulness and dependency. Economic man can stand for reason and freedom precisely because someone else stands for the opposite. The world can be said to be driven by self-interest because there’s another world that is driven by something else. And these two worlds must be kept apart. The masculine by itself. The feminine by itself.

If you want to be part of the story of economics you have to be like economic man. You have to accept his version of masculinity. At the same time, what we call economics is always built on another story. Everything that is excluded so the economic man can be who he is.

So he can be able to say that there isn’t anything else.

Somebody has to be emotion, so he can be reason. Somebody has to be body, so he doesn’t have to be. Somebody has to be dependent, so he can be independent. Somebody has to be tender, so he can conquer the world. Somebody has to be self-sacrificing, so he can be selfish.

Somebody has to prepare that steak so Adam Smith can say their labour doesn’t matter.

The only minimum wage is a living wage

The New Zealand government announced an increase to the minimum wage today – up to $15.75 an hour from 1 April. On Breakfast TV, MP and former tobacco lobbyist Chris Bishop praised the decision as striking a “balance” between the needs of business to pay workers as little as possible and the needs of workers to eat food and pay rent.

Not that he phrased it in quite that way. That might lead people to connect the dots between wages and living. Then we might start asking why we’re expected to accept that a person’s ability to put dinner on the table for their family is something to be “balanced”. Like survival is a nice-to-have.

A wage has to be enough to live on. It’s as simple as that.

If I offered you $20 to do something – carry a parcel somewhere, say – but the trip there and back would cost you $30 in petrol, you wouldn’t do it. It would make no sense. That’s not even considering the amount of time it would take you. You wouldn’t even consider it.

(You’d be much more likely to do it for free, as a favour, to help me out, from a sense of community or empathy – that’s something our economic models and the National Party don’t understand. But as soon as money replaces those social incentives, it’s a very different situation.)

You wouldn’t accept that it was fair or just or even rational to be doing a job for a wage which doesn’t cover your costs. And if I complained, “we need to strike a balance between my costs and your costs” you’d tell me to sod off. If I said, “but if I paid you $50 to do the job instead of $20, I’d go out of business!” you’d say, “You’re not very good at business. Maybe you should take up something different, like beetle racing.”

This is where the rightwingers cry triumph, and say “well obviously, if you don’t like the pay, you get a different job.” They’d say my scenario is actually a perfect market in action – you get to walk away from a terrible economic deal, and I face the consequences of my bad business decisions.

Except that’s not how the world works, and they know it. They’ve made sure of it. By driving down wages, by undermining unions and the power of workers to stand together and demand decent wages, by eroding our social welfare system so that people have literally no alternative but to take the crumbs they’re offered – there is no freedom to choose differently. Take the low wages, accept the terrible conditions, do the unpaid overtime, and don’t even think about complaining or, heaven forfend, wearing a t-shirt with an empowering slogan on it. Even if it’s not enough to pay the bills. Even if you’re not living – you’re just surviving.

The world does not have to be that way. We do not have to accept a heartless marketplace logic which says the value of your work is as low as a stingy employer can make it. We can say what we all know is true: the value of work is not nearly as important as the value of people. And a person’s life is worth more than a company’s profits.

If you cannot pay someone enough for them to live on, you aren’t paying enough. The minimum wage you should be allowed to pay is not determined by invisible market forces or Treasury forecast spreadsheets; it’s determined by human life. We do not work for the economy. We do not have to sacrifice ourselves to its glory.

All wages should be living wages. Or they’re just a dolled-up kind of servitude.

QOTD: Max Rashbrooke on public vs private sector

Max Rashbrooke at the excellent Good Society, on the contrasting behaviours of Radio NZ and Uber during the recent quake:

… apart from the ludicrous presumption that tonnes of people would be frivolously using Uber in the middle of the night during a massive earthquake, price is a terrible way to allocate resources because it discriminates against the poor, and because ability to pay is no guaranteed reflection of need.

What would have sorted things out very clearly is a classic public sector process: finding out people’s circumstances, assessing their need based on their overall situation not the size of their wallet, and allocating resources (rides) accordingly. Of course Uber doesn’t do that because it’s not a public service. But that brings us round again to what performs well, especially during tough times – and that, unsurprisingly, is both the public sector’s spirit and its processes.

And while we’re questioning the “efficiency” of the market:

There is no surplus

Radio NZ reports:

Tax cuts could soon be on the way with the Government opening up its books today revealing Crown accounts are tracking along nicely.

“We’ve always said, if economic and fiscal conditions allow, we will begin to reduce income taxes,” Finance Minister Bill English said.

In Year Eight of this National government, the idea of a budget surplus is a joke (and not just because it’s been completely engineered by the catastrophic Auckland housing bubble). They’ve promised it for nearly a decade. They’ve fiddled the books to make the numbers come out OK. They even declared a surplus in the middle of the financial year – that’s how desperate Bill English has been to pretend that everything’s going along just fine in New Zealand.

The truth is, there is no surplus.

When Housing New Zealand says it simply cannot build the houses we need for families who are living on the street and in their cars, how can we have a surplus?

When District Health Boards insist that they cannot afford to deliver safer rosters for junior doctors, or new equipment, or decent pay rises for support staff, how can we have a surplus?

When public schools, built on the promise of free education for every Kiwi kid, have to demand “voluntary donations” from parents in order to keep operating, how can we have a surplus?

When sick people have to run public campaigns ask for donations to fund the medicine they need, because Pharmac has to prioritise which life-saving treatments it subsidises, how can we have a surplus?

When the people who clean the ministerial toilets in the Beehive aren’t paid a living wage, how can we have a surplus?

If you aren’t providing the services you are contracted to do – in this case, maintaining the public services and promoting the welfare of New Zealanders – and declaring a profit, you’re not running a successful business. You’re running a Ponzi scheme.

This surplus isn’t a success for our government. It is a sign of their failure. It shows they do not understand what their job is: to look after the people of this country. To govern us – not bean-count. It shows they do not understand what success looks like, because success should never be measured on a spreadsheet while children are dying of preventable diseases in mold-ridden houses.

There is no surplus – not if you care about people more than money.