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: Felix Marwick on the OIA and John Key’s hats

I missed this earlier in the week: an update on Felix Marwick’s long-running attempts to uncover the extent of John Key’s communications with bloggers (i.e. Farrar and Slater). The last two paragraphs are spot-on:

What my use of the OIA shows is that leaks and surreptitious acquisition of evidence is the only way you are going to get political material of this nature that is in the public interest. The Official Information Act won’t overcome political self interest as long as politicians are allowed to determine what hat they’re wearing when they’re using public information for their own political ends. Being a Minister and a Prime Minister is a full time job. Politicians shouldn’t get to finagle the system just so as to protect their political manoeuvring. Governments wield immense power so there need to be adequate checks and balances on those that exercise that power.

The other thing you can deduce from a three year battle over access to correspondence is that the most senior politician in the land probably had something to hide.

John Key’s “well I was wearing a different hat at the time” obfuscations were quite literally straight out of Yes, Prime Minister. We’ll probably never know the full truth – especially given Key’s totally-not-suspicious tendency to delete all his text messages – but we can absolutely conclude that he was up to shenanigans he didn’t want the New Zealand public to be aware of, and we need better systems to ensure it cannot happen again.

We can fight this horrible darkness

Something a bit more inspiring for your Monday: images from the weekend’s airport protests across the United States, where hundreds of ordinary people turned out to voice their opposition to the Trump administration’s brutal, unfair immigration ban:

refugee-airport-protest

More at The Guardian; further reporting from Al Jazeera. Unfortunately some organisations like Uber chose to be on the wrong side of the resistance – and their subsequent backdown shows they know it.

Together, we can resist this. Ordinary people coming together and making a scene and standing up to the powerful and donating what time and resources and spoons we can and remembering to look out for each other. Love trumps hate. Trite but true.

Quote of the day: Wellington City Council on the Taxpayers’ “Union”

Hats off to Richard MacLean of Wellington City Council for nailing the time-wasting pointlessness of the National Party’s most shameless astroturfer:

Mr MacLean said Mr Williams’ comments say more about the Taxpayers’ Union that it does about anything else.

He said the amount of time and money spent responding to the union’s truly pathetic requests is an enormous expense.

‘One day we’ll have to sit down and cost out how much their useless approach to official information requests is costing the ratepayer’.

Doesn’t Jordan Williams have anything better to do, like try to get footage of drunk MPs for his mates or breaching women’s confidentiality?

My plea to the New Zealand left: don’t get cocky

Well. That was a hell of an announcement, wasn’t it? A massive cause for celebration: no matter how true it is that being Prime Minister involves a hell of a lot of hard work and time away from your family, we all know that no one ever resigns, unexpectedly, on the eve of election year, out of selfless sacrifice.

The New Zealand left have spent a good eight years hating John Key. Whatever the reason he’s going, and however little it has to do with anything we’ve actually done, our enemy is vanquished.

And yet, a tiny voice cries out. It belongs to the cynical part of my brain, the bit that, sharklike, never stops working. Because I’m a millennial nerd, it speaks in the voice of Han Solo.

han-solo-dont-get-cocky

The question many people will be asking Andrew Little now will be “So do you think you have 2017 locked down now?” That’s a bit of a trap. Labour has to look confident, but not, you know, too confident.

mean-girls-really-pretty

What encourages me is that so much of the feedback you hear from the Mt Roskill by-election is about how hard Michael Wood and his team campaigned there. There was no taking Roskill for granted, even when up against a gaffe-prone exemplar of the National Party’s “terrible candidates running in theoretically winnable seats” finishing school.

But we have to keep that momentum going.

We – the left, the progressive movement, pick your own label – now have our best chance in nearly a decade. Not just to win. Not just to get comfy in the back of a Crown limo or find out if the seats really are greener on the other side of the House. We can get a Labour-Green government which plans for the future and rebuilds New Zealand into a country which cares about people, leads the world in our response to climate change and growing corporate power, and promotes strong, progressive values over the nasty, cynical individualism of the right.

We aren’t going to get that if we let ourselves think, “Well, Key was National’s greatest weapon; now he’s gone, guess that whole election thing’s in the bag.”

i-take-a-nap-right-here

Now we have to work even harder, because it will be too easy to assume victory is assured. We have to be even bolder, because if voters do want “a change” they’ll have one in the form of a new PM – especially if it’s a woman or, should Bennett or Bridges take the crown, our first Māori PM (commiserations to @LukeTipoki).

People aren’t stupid. They know that our country is being run for a greedy few, not all of us. The change National offers now may only be superficial, but it might be enough for them, unless they’re given a genuine alternative – not just a few decent policies and a good-sounding slogan, but a whole new way of looking at the world, underpinned by serious, progressive principles (these ones are a pretty good start).

It shouldn’t be that big a challenge. Labour has the proud history of standing up for what’s right. The Greens have the cred of always looking to the future and coming up with good policies ten years before they become mainstream received wisdom. In some ways it shouldn’t matter who the Prime Minister is – because we should be setting our own agenda, not just reacting to the government’s and letting them dictate the terms of the battle.

But we need to show determination and vision. We won’t be allowed to sleepwalk to victory. Key’s resignation is a huge opportunity – and it has to be taken, not taken for granted.