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.

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.

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

Steven Joyce and policy-by-Twitter

It would be a perfect episode of The Thick of It, but it’s real: today, the Minister of Fixing Things Steven Joyce fundamentally altered government policy by trying to get snarky with the Opposition on Twitter:

Enter the fourth estate:

This may be news to the Minister of Finance.

And voila:

This isn’t just a case of “casually pretend that’s what we were going to do all along”. It’s a literally-radical shift in the government’s approach to public services, away from treating them like cash cows, put under greater and greater strain to deliver dividends (which just so happen to help Bill English reach that all-important surplus.) It opens the door to the idea that public organisations aren’t businesses run for a profit – they’re services run for the people of this country.

That is a conversation which terrifies National. But thanks to Mr Fix It trying to be clever in under 140 characters, it’s now one they cannot escape.

How we got here

When I saw this article about the Takapuna Kathmandu store deliberately destroying clothing, sleeping bags and tents before disposing of them, I started thinking about how the hell we got into this situation.

To give full credit to Kathmandu, they responded quickly on social media saying they would look into the practice and disavowing that it was company policy. But someone, somewhere along the line decided this was an OK thing to do. And as the story spread, people talked about other incidents – shoe stores slashing apart unwanted items, supermarkets discarding perfectly edible food and pouring bleach on it to stop desperate, hungry people from raiding their rubbish bins.

Right now, New Zealand is a country where families are living in cars and kids are going to school hungry. To have retailers destroying perfectly good, but “unsaleable” stock, especially food or clothing, is just unconscionable.

On the other side of things we have organisations like Kaibosh and Te Puea marae providing amazing, inspiring care and support for people in need – but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And it didn’t used to be.

A long time ago in New Zealand we all, through public services run by the government, ensured every family had enough money to feed their kids and a safe house to live in. We used to make people’s jobs secure and support people who weren’t able to work.

We knew some things were too important to leave in the hands of private companies whose first priority was profit. We knew together, as people who are part of a community, we could help each other. And the government, or the state, was the best instrument of that – because it wasn’t driven by making a quick buck, because it was accountable to the people.

We lost that. But we didn’t lose it by accident. It was by design.

Blame whoever you want, the point is that we were told, and began to believe, that the private sector was more efficient that the government. That the motivation of monety – the very reason we had taken these essential services off the market in the first place – would deliver “efficiencies” and “better targeted services” and “more responsive organisations.”

We have case after case showing how untrue this is. Serco. Compass. Telecom. Tranz Rail. Bank of New Zealand. New Zealanders end up paying more and more, either directly or through goverment bonuses, for less and less.

Yet it’s still the received wisdom, ingrained further and further as the National Party undermine the public services we have left, deliberately underfunding and straining them to breaking point so they can triumphantly declare, “See? The government can’t provide these services! Best sell them off.”

The end result? Someone overseas is making a lot of money, and children here in Aotearoa are living in cars, going to school not with empty lunchboxes – with no lunchboxes at all.

And because New Zealanders are caring, compassionate people, we step up. We open our doors and put our hands in our pockets

Imagine if we could pool all those resources across the country and had a single organisation with the knowledge and leverage to ensure every kid gets breakfast and every family has a home. An organisation motivated by providing good lives for people, not payouts for shareholders.

We could call the organisation, “government”. We could call those resources we all chip in, “tax”. We used to know what those things meant, before we got to where we are now. Together, we can decide to go somewhere else.

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Related reading: Simon Louisson at The Spinoff on why the left has to stop being apologetic about taxes.