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.

Werewolf on leftwing misogyny

Two stonkingly good posts over at Werewolf this week – both superficially about the ongoing tantrums of Martyn Bradbury, but more fundamentally about the direction for the left and the role of women within a leftwing movement.

Anne Russell writes on the misogyny at The Daily Blog:

Meanwhile, we need a Left to take care of the sick and wounded; women, people of colour, disabled people, sex workers, the queer and trans community, all those who know that their battles are at the centre of the fight rather than a distraction on the margins. A brilliant article on weareplanc.org about the emotional conditions of capitalism argued that contemporary leftist resistance needs to correspond to capitalism’s current emotional stage: that of making everyone very anxious and overwhelmed. The article argues that the Left, at least internally, has to be kind to its members, offering a haven from the angry and overstimulating world of neo-liberalism-cum-fascism. As I wrote last year, this approach is not incompatible with outward anger against the state, cops, the prison system, corporations or any other oppressive institutions and forces. Rather, it will help replenish our energy to do that work.

And Gordon Campbell the day before said on Labour’s candidacy troubles:

Bomber’s message is the one that women on the left have been hearing since time eternal ie, that they should keep quiet, remain patient until victory is assured, and – in the meantime – make sure their concerns and modes of expression don’t antagonise the heroes of the proletariat. Besides everything else, this looks like a failure of imagination. Is the Winston Wing of Labour’s support base – those heroic, hand-calloused members of the white working class that Bomber Bradbury and Chris Trotter always bang on about – really so immune to policy arguments pitched any higher than Greg O’Connor’s face on a campaign billboard, or Willie Jackson on the mike?

Martyn, who among his many well-nourished enmities has a strange grudge against Werewolf’s antecedent Scoop, will see these two posts (and this one) as proof of some grand conspiracy against him by the BlueGreenSocialMediaMillennialHipsterIdentityPolitics Stormtroopers. Doesn’t stop them being bang on the money, and doesn’t mean the broader problems they describe aren’t very real obstacles to real progressive change in New Zealand.

[edit: called it. It’s apt that Martyn describes Gordon Campbell as a “purveyor of violent sexual abuse revenge fantasies” even though it was Anne Russell who mentioned the case of Mervyn Thompson. Obviously women can’t have their own opinions in the absence of a man.]

Updated: doing the math on the Labour list

Back in November I posted about getting more women into Parliament – particularly, through the Labour Party’s list process.

Now there have been a few key candidate selections which shift the math a little.

Here’s where we were in November:

  • Labour holds 27 electorates and has 5 list MPs (Little, Ardern, Parker, Cosgrove, Moroney).
  • 12 of the 32 Labour MPs are women – 37.5%

Since then a few key events have taken place:

  • The Mt Roskill byelection doesn’t change the balance
  • Women’s representation in electorate seats took a blow with Annette King stepping down and Paul Eagle being selected unopposed in Rongotai – this should be cancelled out with Jacinda Ardern taking Mt Albert on 25 February
  • Deborah Russell was selected to run in New Lynn following David Cunliffe’s retirement
  • Greg O’Connor has got the nod in Ōhāriu. This should absolutely be winnable given his public profile, Dunne and Hudson splitting the right vote, and building on Ginny Andersen’s hard work to get the majority down to 700.

My assumptions remain static for the sake of easier math, but feel free to leave your own variations in the comments! So: let’s assume Labour shouldn’t lose any currently-held seats (and I will flag here that there’s a lot of rumour and discussion going on about the Māori seats, but that’s well outside my political expertise). Some good hard campaigning should deliver Duncan Webb in Christchurch Central, too.

So on electorates, post-2017, we end up at:

  • 29 electorates, 12 of which are held by women, plus the top list position going to Andrew Little – that’s 40%
  • At this point, at a minimum, Labour has to win 30% of the party vote to bring in six more list MPs, literally all of whom have to be women, to get a 50:50 split.

However, add in Willie Jackson “in the single digits” with Trevor Mallard and David Parker ahead of him and Labour will require 35% of the party vote, with every single other list MP – 9 in all – being women, to achieve parity.

That’s, fair to say, a pretty substantial bump on Labour’s recent party vote results, and it’s hard luck for any other Labour dudes, if the moderation committee is genuinely dedicated to parity.

So even with an unwavering commitment to putting the talented, well-connected, dedicated women you hear about like Willow-Jean Prime, Liz Craig, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Janette Walker, or Jo Luxton high on the list, the math doesn’t look great. And that’s a real pity.

The easy excuse is “oh, but not enough women stood for selection in safe seats” and its nonchalant cousin, “oh but too many safe seats were held by men, what can you do?”

But those are cop-outs. The fact is, you can’t just magic equal representation out of thin air. And no one expects you to. Overcoming ancient, ingrained systemic discrimination demands action and will and planning, not a last-minute panicked search down the back of the sofa cushions looking for spare sheilas. As I said in my previous post:

We don’t set gender equity goals because women need help. We set them because our institutions need help, to step out of the past and be fit for the future. It’s nothing to be frightened of. It makes us stronger, not weaker, when we acknowledge the problems of the past and take action to rebalance the scales.

Doing the right thing isn’t easy. But that’s not the point, is it? You do it because it’s the right thing to do. And maybe in 2017, it’s simply mathematically impossible for Labour to reach gender parity. The question is whether the party will take a lesson from this, and get a lot better at promoting women, and people from other marginalized groups, and truly representing the diversity of New Zealand. That’s how the left wins, after all. The alternative is, well, a little bleak.

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.