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.

Defending social services and fighting the real enemy

A really interesting article on the government’s proposed changes to child protection legislation at Re-Imagining Social Work, looking specifically at the political context and the especially damaging impacts they could have on Māori families:

The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias.

There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling.  Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault.  So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far?  The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.

There’s been some recent comment on the left about the people who work in this environment. And like I said in Don’t despair, I get the temptation to go for the soft targets – in this case, the people who work on the frontlines. It’s easier to swear at the person on the other end of the phone, giving you the bad news about your allowance or demanding more pointless paperwork, than the convoluted system of politicians and processes and decision-making which got you and them here.

But they aren’t formulating these brutal policies, they aren’t deciding where the funding is spent or cut, they aren’t setting the narratives which enable and encourage a punitive culture instead of a supportive one.

In fact, all we do when we attack the public servants at the coalface is play into the government’s hands and make it only easier for them to review, restructure and privatise our important social services into nonexistence.

Again, like I said in that previous post:

We have to remember that a defining part of being on the left and being progressive and believing in social justice is that we have faith in people. We know people are fundamentally good. We know humans are social animals who form communities and friendships and look out for each other, when they’re not being hammered every day with rightwing narratives about bludgers and self-interest and YOUR taxpayer dollars being wasted on those parasites.

I know that the people working in our public services want to do a good job. They want to ensure people get the support they need. Of course they want kids to eat, of course they want families to have homes.

But when this government decides people needing support don’t have consistent case managers who know their background, they deliberately made it harder for people with complex needs to get all their entitlements. When this government chooses to load people up with debt because they need emergency housing and the only thing available is a hotel – because a previous version of this government decided to sell off our state houses – they make it impossible for people to ever get out of a shitty situation. When this government decides to classify solo parents and people with chronic illnesses as “Jobseekers” regardless of their circumstances, they deliberately prop the door open to errors and mishandling and ridiculous amounts of paperwork.

When this government cuts and cuts and cuts and applies “sinking lid” policies to staff numbers even when there’s an economic crisis going on and more people than ever need to access public services, there is only so much the people on the frontline can do. They are working damned hard often for bloody low pay and they’ve got all the worries about rent and the power bill and school “donations” and getting through the week, same as the rest of us.

Let’s focus our anger where it needs to be: on the government which sets the course, and on the rightwing propaganda which justifies it.

~

No apologies for this one – I was a teen of the 90s and a WWE Smackdown fan during the glorious Vicki Guerrero/LayCool era.

QOTD: Owen Jones on overcoming media bias

At the Guardian:

The left is bitterly accustomed to living with almost farcically hostile media in a country where the press is as much a sophisticated political lobbyist as a means of information. A natural response is to become grouchy, to shake fists angrily, or simply boycott the media altogether. It’s an approach that fires up some of the most dedicated leftwing activists, but it’s a strategic mistake. And both [Sadiq] Khan and Momentum show the left can rebut media hostility – and even thrive.

Go read the whole thing!

Lefty book reviews: Don’t Buy It

books

It’s more Post-It than book, at this stage.

Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?

This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.

And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.

That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.

The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.

The point is we’re doing it wrong.

Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.

Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:

We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.

We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …

Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.

It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”

It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”

Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.

It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.

At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.

Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:

Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.

dont buy itFor such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.

Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.

More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.

Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.

How we talk about tax: the shiftless hordes and the hard-working rich

This is how Stuff chose to headline an article about the way income tax is paid in New Zealand:

tax brunt
On the Facebook thumbnail, it was even worse:

tax hordes
(Congratulations, baby, you’re part of a horde!)

There are many ways to debunk the entire premise of “some feckless baby-makers just want to live in luxury off the rest of us”, like:

You could point out that “just counting income tax and not GST” is a Kiwiblog standard tactic as old as the dinosaurs.

You could ask why “an economist at Infometrics” doesn’t understand that literally every country has “a top 1%” because that’s how percentages work.

And you could focus on the comments from Drs Susan St John and Deborah Russell – experts in tax and inequality who understand the world is far more complex than “income tax in, Working for Families out”. Dr St John says:

“We are all in a negative position when you look at what the state provides. If you have an individual on a given income with no children and someone else with the same income and multiple children, they are not in the same position to pay tax. This gives some degree of horizontal equity.”

And Dr Russell:

“Everyone regards superannuation as an entitlement – they think older people are entitled to support because they cannot work any more.

“But why not apply the same thinking to children as well? They can’t go out and earn money. Children do not choose their parents. They are not possessions or commodity items. We need to think in terms of supporting vulnerable citizens – the sick, elderly and children.”

The article redeems itself somewhat with these quotes – right at the end. But what does the headline tell you? Hordes of people aren’t really paying any tax. A small number of good, industrious people are bearing the brunt of tax. When that’s the way the issue is framed from the get-go, it reinforces a terrible set of ideas we have about tax, society, welfare and community: from “people receiving benefits are bludgers leeching off the rest of us” to “the rich are rich because they work hard and don’t expect handouts” to “tax is a terrible thing and wouldn’t it be great if none of us paid it?”

These ideas have become ingrained, reflexive assumptions, thanks to a concerted, decades-in-the-making effort from the right, but also a failure to provide an alternative set of ideas from the left. We oppose National when it promises tax cuts and spins surpluses out of thin air to make them look reasonable, but we also accept that a government must “live within its means”.

We have tacitly supported the idea that tax is a burden, that government spending should be reined in, that we must avoid at all costs getting hit with the “tax and spend” label. We’ve abandoned the good old socialist rhetoric about where wealth comes from – labour – and why government exists – to ensure wealth is distributed more fairly and support everyone in our society to live a good life. Instead we propose minimal-cost policies and fiscally-neutral spending.

It can feel like an insurmountable challenge, I know! The rightwing rhetoric is so pervasive we don’t even see it as a political statement any more, to say “business creates jobs” or “goverments must deliver surplus”. But we can be bold and challenging and forthright about the principles that matter to us.

We can offer an alternative. It’s what people are crying out for.