Category Archives: political philosophy

The only way to save the democracy is to destroy it

Or so says this guy in the Herald Sun…

Now I don’t know who he is or what his deal in, but  (big surprise) I disagree.

The problem? For starters, who decides what a good outcome is? It could be economic growth, it could be environmental protection, or greater income equality, or more opportunities for the disadvantaged, or it could be more substantial rewards for personal effort.

These are all reasonable debates. Disagreements our democracy allows, and that are be worked out right now through our state and federal parliaments. The committee whatshisname is suggesting would stifle that debate and attempt (unsuccessfully I believe) to find some kind of pseudo-objective consensus where none exists.

Would the committee (lets call it the Committee of Public Safety,* for arguments sake) be rewarded for building a new freeway, or punished for not reducing car dependency and increasing public transport patronage?

Would our Comité de salut public (I’ve made it French for extra flair**), which increases the use of renewable energy, be lauded, or punished, if this meant slightly higher power prices? And if they are to be given incentives for good decisions (how we objectively decide these good decisions, I do not know) who decides how they get the incentives? And how do we ensure these incentives encourage better decision making of currently Parliamentarians?

Now, I know I’m banging on about the same issue about (two of the last seven posts have been on some derivation of this issue). However, one upside is it gives me a chance to make some sweet graphs. For instance, the figure below shows voters attitudes towards immigration (as measured in the Australian Election Study) conditional on their occupation.

Why might we care about this? Because how people view policy outcomes (for instance, whether more immigration is good or bad) will depend on their life experience. As we can see below, voters with professional and managerial occupations are more likely to have positive views on immigration. From 1990 to 2010, 20% of professionals  and 15% of managers said the number of migrant arrivals had not gone far enough, compared with 11% of voters in general, 10% of those without employment and 8% of those in manual occupations. Conversely, 34% of professionals and 41% of managers said immigration to Australia had gone too far over this period, compared with 49% of the electorate in general, 54% of those without employment and 62% of those in manual occupations.

 

The relationship between attitudes towards immigration and occupation, 1990-2010. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents in six occupational categories who responded to the question “The statements below indicate some of the changes that have been happening in Australia over the years. For each one, please say whether you think the change has gone too far, not gone far enough, or is it about right? The number of migrants allowed into Australia at the present time”.

The relationship between attitudes towards immigration and occupation, 1990-2010. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents in six occupational categories who responded to the question “The statements below indicate some of the changes that have been happening in Australia over the years. For each one, please say whether you think the change has gone too far, not gone far enough, or is it about right? The number of migrants allowed into Australia at the present time”.

 

Why might this be? There is some evidence the benefits of immigration may flow disproportionately to the owners of capital and higher income households. This potential distribution of the benefits of immigration reveals itself in public opinion, with voters in professional and managerial occupations (generally higher income jobs) tending to hold more positive attitudes towards immigration.

A technocrat could look at the objective evidence, but on many policy issues we deal with in politics – from immigration to redistribution to something else – the data is open to interpretation and objectivity is thin on the ground. So while immigration may boost GDP growth, for instance, that boost in growth may mostly accrue to the immigrants themselves, and certain segments of the population, and have more limited benefits for other groups. The research is not conclusive on that, but that’s the whole point: you’re not necessarily going to find some sweet spot in the middle everyone agrees on. That’s why we have politics and parliament and elections; so the contentious issues that divide us can be thrashed out. We might not all like the outcomes of this contest all the time, but it’s better than someone deciding outcomes without the accountability that comes with elections.

*Prize for the person who gets the reference.

** A second hint. Come on, it’s easy.

The idea contentious political issues can be solved with common sense…

… ignores the reality of politics.

Last week, current Reserve Bank board member and former Australian Industry Group CEO Heather Ridout announced ($) she would like to form a ‘Normal People’s Party’.

I’m not entirely sure what a normal person is, but Ms Ridout claimed her party would be able to support such a person. She provided some clues as to what this would mean: the party would advocate for commonsense across a range of policy areas, it would attempt to take a centrist position and it would not be run for the benfits of vested interests.

Now this all sounds laudable, but misses the whole point of democratic politics.

As I discussed the other week, the idea that there us a sensible common sense solution to policy problems, or that we can somehow get everyone to agree on important issues, completely misunderstands why we have a democratic system.

Values can never be taken out of politics, and politics can never be taken out of policy. What we believe makes good policy is ultimately defined by our politics. Who decides what a good outcome is? It could be economic growth, it could be environmental protection, it could be greater income equality, it could be greater opportunities for the disadvantaged, or it could be greater reads for effort.

These are all reasonable goals to emphasise. If you talk to 20 people, though, you will find at least one in that group that will pick one of those, or several other options, making consensus difficult. Luckily, our democracy allows for these kinds of disagreements, which are worked out through our state and federal parliaments.

For instance, looking at how Australian voters respond if they are asked whether the government should cut taxes of increase spending on social services, you get a range of opinions. For instance, in 2010 approximately 36% thought there should be more spending on social services, whilst an almost exactly equal number, 37%, thought taxes should be cut instead. Not only do voters hold a range of opinions at any one time, these graphs also show that opinions change significantly over time (no doubt due to the actions of governments and other external effects). This shows how difficult it can be to find a ‘common sense’ solution to policy problems: quite often people will see entirely different outcomes as being ‘common sense’ answer to the question.

 

Attitudes towards taxes social service spending by occupation. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents who gave as their response to the question “Do If the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do, reduce tax, spend more on social services, or it depends?”

Attitudes towards taxes social service spending by occupation. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents who gave as their response to the question “Do If the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do, reduce tax, spend more on social services, or it depends?” Responses were divided by occupation. Data were taken from the Australian National Political Attitudes Survey (ANPAS) and Australian Election Study (AES).

 

The view of Heather Ridout and others like her may be shaped by their exposure to a limited socioeconomic slice of Australia’s population. I suspect that exectuves like Ms Ridout, as well as many journalists (particularly business writers), and many politicians and other business people, probably tend to mix with a similar group of people: high income, well educated managerial types. Among this group they may meet many like-minded individuals who tend to have similar ‘common sense’ views. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than this.

Whilst among the general public only 37%, thought taxes should be cut in 2010, among managers it was as high as 50% whilst among those without a job it was 32%.

Looking at the alternative, 36% of the electorate and 41% of which without jobs thought social spending should increase. In comparison, only 24% of managers agreed.

 

The relationship between attitudes towards taxation and spending on social services, and major-party voting.

The relationship between attitudes towards taxation and spending on social services, and major-party voting, 1967-2010. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents who provided their first preference vote for the Coalition rather than the Labor Party conditional on their response to the question “If the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do, reduce tax, spend more on social services, or it depends?” Data were taken from the ANPAS and AES surveys.

 

There are many different views on what makes good public policy. Our life experiences, our level of education and our material well-being all shape what we think politically. As the second graph shows, these views are related to how we vote. The idea of a ‘Normal People’s Party’ ignores this simple fact.

Why Andrew Robb should replace his speech writer(s)

Or, on how the Coalition sucks at communicating its philosophy.

I teach on Wednesdays, and it has become a tradition to do something after classes finish. Last night (I started this post late 2014) we decided to attend a talk by Andrew Robb at the State Library of Victoria (do you have a better way to spend a Wednesday night?).

One of the thoughts I came away with was that Mr Robb, and the current Coalition government in general (and perhaps pretty much all Australian politicians) are terrible communicators. Now, before anyone (in my readership of three people) comes back and says “but Abbott demolished the previous Labor government with his 3 word slogan skillz”, I mean talking about complex ideas (which are an inherent part of governing) and not reciting talking points, which are the debating/communications equivalent of training wheels. I think more recent event help prove the point that a successful government needs to retain the ability to communicate in ways more complex than three word slogans.

From listening to Mr Robb (and my other observations), I do believe there’s a coherent philosophy behind a lot of the Coalition’s policies. Robb mostly spoke about trade policy, but also touched on wider economic matters. Their governing philosophy was there, under the surface, but he was largely incapable of pulling it together and making it clear. And I think that is the main problem with this government (and perhaps Australian politicians in general): they are largely incapable of discussing complex policy and political philosophy. If it comes to more than three word slogans and talking points, or a laundry list of policies, they really struggle. That doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t there (I think they mostly are), but they can’t or won’t talk about them. What I write below is not necessarily an endorsement of these policy positions, but how the Coalition could explain them to make (what I believe is) their underlying philosophy clearer. At present their underlying philosophy is largely opaque.

The deficit

For instance, early in his speech the Minister mentioned Australia was currently spending more than $1 billion each month on interest payments. And left it at that. I think for most listeners this figure would be largely meaningless, and the comment would have little effect.

If he had wanted to make that statement to mean something, he needed to say something along the lines of “Currently Australians are spending $1 billion each month on federal government interest payments. This is $1 billion each month we don’t have to spend on schools, or hospitals, universities, nursing homes, or infrastructure like new roads, railways  and bridges. This is $1 billion that could be used to invest in the future, instead at the moment it is $1 billion we’re spending on interest. We need to pay off the debt so in the longer term we have the money to spend on our country’s future.

Did he say any of this? Nope. Provided the $1 billion per month figure and left it hanging. Opportunity missed.

Cars, tariffs and all that 

Another topic Robb touched on that he flubbed (in my opinion) was saving the automotive industry. He pointed out (correctly) that if they had provided the car makers with a bailout, or raised tariffs to reduce their competition, it would have ultimately been paid for by other Australians.

However, once again he failed to connect this policy position clear with the lived experience of most Australians. He left it abstract and difficult for most people to grasp.

The smart thing to talk about would have been that cutting tariffs on imported cars would make the new car needed by a single mother to drive her children more expensive to purchase (and eventually the higher prices would flow through to second hand cars, too). That if they had subsidised the car makers, it would have been thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars spent on each job saved (probably temporarily). That this money would have come from other tax payers, or from money that could have otherwise been spent on schools, hospitals, universities etc. That, unfortunately due to a range of factors (high costs, small markets) Australia doesn’t seem to be able to make it’s own cars at an affordable price.

Basically, the opportunity cost involved in propping up the car makers could have been better explained.

Free trade

The biggest missed opportunity was on free trade, though. Mr Robb was asked at the end whether Australia should pursue free trade with countries like Bangladesh, where working conditions are often quite poor. Although this was possibly his strongest performance, it was still not good enough.

The obvious answer, to me at least, is that if we stop trading with Bangladesh, the workers there won’t have better working conditions, they’ll have higher unemployment. The alternatives to crappy jobs in crappy sweatshops for many Bangladeshi’s aren’t better jobs, but (even worse) poverty. As has been shown again and again, through examples like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and now China, the way to improve working conditions is to improve the affluence of a country. The wealthier a country gets through trade, the more options workers have, and the less likely they are to accept sub-standard conditions. If we want to improve the lives of Bangladeshis, we need to trade with them more, not less. Sure, shame those companies that take cost savings too far, but don’t lobby for them to close their operations in Bangladesh down completely. That will do more harm than good.  

My final points

What I wrote above is not an endorsement for any of these policies. I’m not saying there are not alternative arguments to the points above. All I am saying is that they were stronger than the arguments Andrew Robb made last night (several months ago), and than the government has generally been making about their policy positions since being elected in 2013. I personally believe there are real philosophical arguments being made by our political parties. Unfortunately, neither the Coalition nor the Labor Party are very good at making them, or appear willing to really communicate those differences to the electorate in a strong way.

Our democracy is poorer as a result.