Eaqub on NZ policymaking

Shamubeel Eaqub’s column in yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times got me thinking.

The column is headed Policy flip-flopping on the road to progress although Eaqub seems to lament two quite different things.  The first is what he suggests is a tendency for policy to reverse course depending on which party is in office.

On tax, we have seen little leadership. The Helen Clark-led Labour government raised income taxes for high income earners, because they wanted a progressive tax system.  The John Key-led government then lowered those taxes, as it took its turn at the policy-making helm.

This kind of turn-based policy making which favours ideology is bad. It creates instability and loses sight of the long-term issues governments should be dealing with.  Instead we need a long-term and deliberate approach which can overcome this kind of policy yo-yo.

And the second is something about failures of New Zealand policymaking more generally

Bad policies often hang around like weeds, because we don’t have a good system to review past policies and undo them if necessary.

The demands for action and leadership are justified. But we should not be so hasty to deride collaborative and transparent approaches to policy development.

They are a good counter to the current way that has allowed big social and economic issues to accumulate over decades.

I’m not convinced on the first score.  For decades now, the similarities between our two main parties have been much more apparent than the differences.  Even in the brief periods of radicalism, Labour briefly wrong-footed the National Party in the mid 1980s, then National had its own brief spurt of reforms in much the same general spirit, and then before long both parties had settled back to doing not very much at all.  In many ways, the similarities aren’t so surprising –  there is plenty of political science and economics literature to predict that sort of clustering to the centre.

There are exceptions of course –  such as the maximum marginal tax rate example Eaqub describes.   Another example might have been the 90 day trial periods promised (and implemented) by National in 2008, and being partially unwound now.   And the exceptions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  We do, after all, live in a democracy, where parties compete for your vote.  One likes to think that at least some of that competition might be based around different visions, and differences of the best practical ways to achieve even agreeed outcomes, not just on (say) who has the cutest kids or makes the best pizza.  Reasonable people will, at times, take a quite different view on (a) priorities, and (b) mechanisms (not just what “works” but what is “socially acceptable”).   The hankering for “a long-term and deliberate approach which can overcome this kind of policy yo-yo” has disconcerting similarities to the talk of the alleged superiority of the approach adopted in the People’s Republic of China: one party, and now one leader, indefinitely supposedly facilitates good long-term reform.  None of that pesky competition of ideas, interests, and individuals.  Shame about the outcomes there.

So which party is in office is supposed to make a difference –  and not just to the faces on the covers of the women’s magazines.

But I’m much more sympathetic to Eaqub in his concern about longer-term policymaking and associated advisory capability.   And that probably does spillover into Eaqub’s concerns about some of those short-term initiatives parties promise to win elections

Too many policies are populist, turn-based or just ill-thought out

Eaqub laments the state of the public service.

The civil service has a role here, as the generators and repositories of policy ideas, rather than just the delivery mechanism of ministers’ ideas that it has become.

Beaten into submission over decades, our civil service is more likely to say “more research required” on a problem, like an academic, rather than offer a well-formed recommendation.

In some respects it is hard to disagree.   Observing the quality of the analysis and advice coming out of The Treasury and MBIE instills no confidence whatever.  But while ministers have not often not welcomed, and at times actively discouraged, free and frank advice, the problem isn’t only with politicians.  The Treasury’s continued failure to have a compelling narrative of why our economic performance continues to lag behind isn’t really Bill English’s fault –  it is the failure of the institution itself (more interested, apparently, in well-being studies) and perhaps of those –  the State Services Commission –  that appoints heads of government departments.  Sir Robert Muldoon –  no great fan of The Treasury –  didn’t prevent The Treasury being well-positioned in 1984 with ideas, analysis and energy that helped facilitate the reforms of the following decade.  But that was probably an historical exception, and perhaps it is unrealistic –  even in a small country –  to really expect the public service to lead in ideas-generation around desirable reforms.  Apart from anything else, the incentives are all wrong, and the inevitable constraints militate against it.

Perhaps we have bigger weaknesses than our public service?    Think-tanks are few –  and our most consistently fertile one (the New Zealand Initiative, and is predecessor the Business Roundtable) tends to be located towards a libertarian end of the spectrum where very few likely voters are.  And in many areas, the contribution to policy-related analysis and debate from university academics is pretty thin, or often almost non-existent.  There are understandable reasons –  the PBRF ranking/funding model prioritises refereed journal articles and academic books, and recruitment policy (no doubt for good short-term economic reasons) often prioritises cycling through young foreign academics with little knowledge of, or interest in, the specifics of New Zealand.   Whatever the reasons –  and some of them may just be the limits of a small country – the policy-related inputs are often pretty thin.

But I wonder if the bigger issue still isn’t the lack of demand for anything different.  After the ructions of the 80s and early 90s there seemed to be both a shared elite consensus that reforms had been done pretty well, and it was only a matter of time until we saw the fruit.  And when the fruit (mostly) didn’t show up to the extent hoped for, there was a shared reluctance at a political level to risk more change –  perhaps particularly on the left (where the Labour Party had split).   For many people, life in New Zealand isn’t too bad at all, so why risk rocking the boat –  memories (and folk memories now) of the 80s and 90s.

And the “policy elite” (whether or a broadly-left or broadly-right persuasion) still mostly tend to hold some views that probably haven’t served New Zealand that well.  For example:

  • the broad-based low rate (BBLR) tax system, which keeps getting praised (including abroad) but typically isn’t imitated.   We tax returns to savings materially more heavily than most countries do, and that is increasingly true of business investment too,
  • the deep-seated belief that high levels of immigration are a “good thing” –  generally, and for New Zealand (even as the proponents are unable to produce evidence of those benefits for New Zealand).  The belief might be rooted in history (settler societies and all that), general economics literature, and the dread fear of being accused –  eg by the NZ Initiative –  of “racism” or “xenophobia, but whatever the reason, it no longer serves us well,
  • the endless deference to the People’s Republic of China, and the narrative that has somehow been allowed to grow up that somehow our fragile prosperity depends on keeping on side with the PRC,
  • the indifference to the fact that New Zealand has had consistently the highest real interest rates in the advanced world (and amomg the slower rates of productivity growth) –  the rhetoric for a long time (again a legacy of past decades) was that such differences can’t persist, unless they are risk-based,
  • a shared belief in the importance of technology and the tech sector, and more of a desire to belief than a willingness to ask hard questions about the likelihood of such industries developing, and remaining, here,
  • the implicit belief that our physical location doesn’t matter much (occasional talk about “costs of distance” notwithstanding) and thus an implicit view that analysis fit for small northern European countries is just fine for a really remote South Pacific one,
  • a largely shared indifference to the persistence of a very high real exchange rate.  Some of this indifference no doubt relates to the memories of controlled exchange rates past, or to journal articles characterising exchange rates as random walks, but again whatever the reason, it holds people back from seriously engaging with this symptom of our problems.

Of course, there are other issues on which the “policy-elites” are on the side of the angels –  there is probably a pretty strong consensus on raising the NZS age and even age-indexing it in future –  but there are high political barriers.

And other issues like house prices – perhaps even family breakdown –  where New Zealand’s policy failures aren’t much different from those in many other parts of the Anglo world.

Probably it is much easier to do reform, and even craft some sort of elite support for it, when the issues look like ones that involve converging towards what everyone else is doing.   That was, more or less, the story we told in the 80s and early 90s.  Even when the details of things done here were sometimes world-leading, the overall narrative was one in which we had failed to open up and reform in a way that other countries had, or were doing.  We just need to catch-up, and in the process could do some innovative stuff.

But what of now?  No country anywhere is doing much to do structurally with house prices –  and for most people in most of the rest of the world, those successful parts of the US without the problem seem to be treated as little more than a curiousity, of which most are barely aware.  No one is fixing the “family breakdown” issues either, and so we drift like the rest.

And addressing our economic underperformance looks as though it might require stepping away from some of the OECD rhetoric.   That can be hard to do (perhaps especially for officials), absent some compelling figure with an alternative narrative and the political skills to take people with him/her.

To get back to Eaqub’s article, he began by noting that

When a new government forms, there is usually a flurry of studies, task forces, working groups and advisory panels.

That has been right, at least with recent governments.  But perhaps what is most notable about many of those groups is the typically limited resources and limited time they are given.  He cited the Jobs Summit –  done over a couple of months, culminating in a one-day jamboree –  or the 2025 Taskforce (so under-resourced the one foreign appointee couldn’t really believe it). But he could have mentioned the current Tax Working Group too, which is operating on pretty tight deadlines, with limited specialist expertise.   Some of these groups, even with limited time/resources, have produced some useful material.  But they are often more about political management than about actually getting to the bottom of some serious and knotty problem.

This post has been pretty discursive, probably more useful for clarifying my thinking than for anyone else.  I think my bottom line is something along these lines:

Political flip-flopping is the least of our problems.   And the public service –  while quite degraded in its policy capabilities –  is perhaps not a body one could ever hope for much from on a sustained basis.  Our university and think-tank sectors are weak, when it comes to policy analysis and associated innovation.  But perhaps the biggest obstacle to change –  whether around the issue this blog most often focuses on, productivity underperformance, or most others –  is the absence of any political (or, presumably, public) demand for different outcomes, buttressed by “policy-elites” who seem to share assumptions and presuppositions that might have looked fine 25 years ago, but which –  on my argument – don’t do so now.  Without alternatives –  that might go over well at the OECD, the IMF or the like – it is just easier to hold on to those presuppositions, and the comfortable life most enjoy.       It is a recipe for continued drift, which is of course what we saw under the last two governments and what we seem set for under the current one.   It isn’t obvious what, or who, might credibly lead us to something different.