Emissions and immigration policy

Just listened to an RNZ interview with National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller, around the silly question of whether or not a “climate emergency” should be declared.  Muller called it symbolism, but symbols have a place –  it is much worse than that, just empty feel-good virtue signalling  (whether or not you think our governments should be more aggressive in doing something to lower New Zealand emissions).

But Muller introduced his comments referring back to a sense as early as 1990 that something needed to be done.  And it reminded me of the single worst policy National and Labour have presided over for the last 30 years, in terms of boosting emissions from New Zealand: immigration policy.

New Zealand’s population in 1990 was about 3.3 million.  Today it is almost five million.  And here is a chart, using official data (which has some weaknesses, but the broad picture is reliable) of the cumulative inflow of non-New Zealand citizens since 1990.

PLT 2019

That data series was dumped last year, but you can add another 60000 or so people in the year since then.    Almost all of them needed explicit prior approval from New Zealand governments –  more than 1.1 million of them.

Over such a long period, the cumulative inflow becomes a little misleading.   It understates the impact.  Of course, over 30 years some of the migrants will have died, but many more will have had children (or even grandchildren).  Those children will (mostly) be New Zealand citizens, but that doesn’t change the fact that their presence –  and their emissions (resulting from their life and economic activity) – results from explicit immigration policy choices.

Those who are made uncomfortable by all this but simply wish to dismiss it will say “oh, but emissions and climate change are a global problem, and it doesn’t really matter where the people are”.  Strangely, this is not usually an argument the same people invoke when they favour (say) New Zealand oil and gas exploration bans, or other New Zealand specific actions that will have either no impact on global emissions, or only a trivial impact.

As you will no doubt recall, it is not as if New Zealand is already some low-emissions nirvana.  Per unit of GDP (average) emissions in New Zealand are among the very highest, and per capita (average) emissions are also in the top handful of OECD countries.    The typical migrant to New Zealand is not coming from a country that has higher emissions than we do.    Rather the reverse.  Of course, it isn’t easy to distinguish (empirically) the marginal and average emissions, but it is simply silly to suggest that the policy-driven rapid population growth has not had a material impact in boosting total New Zealand emissions –  migrants drive cars and fly, migrants live and work in buildings (that often use concrete), migrants have even helped maintain the economics of the dairy industry.  On a cross-country basis, I showed in an earlier post the largely unsurprising relationship betwen population growth and change in emissions over decades.  New Zealand’s experience was not an outlier (except perhaps in the sense of much faster –  policy-driven –  population growth, reflected in the emissions growth numbers.  If anything, and at the margin, New Zealand’s immigration policy has probably increased global emissions.

Of course, there would be a reasonable counter-argument to all this if it could be confidently shown that the high rates of immigration –  highest in the OECD for planned immigration of non-citizens over the period since, say, 1990 – had substantially boosted average productivity in New Zealand.  Then the additional emissions, and associated abatement costs (not small), would simply have to be weighed against the permanent gains in material living standards from the immigration itself.  But even the staunchest defenders of high –  or higher still – rates of immigration can’t show those sorts of productivity gains and (since demonstrating it would be a tall order) can’t even come up with a compelling narrative in which large productivity gains from immigration go hand in hand with the continued decline in our productivity performance relative to other advanced economies.

If the government (or the National Party) were serious about “doing our bit” (or just “being seen to do our bit”) about emissions and climate change, and if –  at the same time –  they really cared much about living standards of New Zealanders (‘wellbeing’ if you must), they would be taking immediate steps to cut permanent immigration approvals very substantially.  Not only would that lower population growth and emissions growth relatively directly, but it would result in a materially lower real exchange rate, which would greatly ease the burden on competitiveness that other anti-emissions measures are likely to impose over the next few years, would ease pressures on the domestic environment (and might even, thinking of my post earlier this week, ease the economic pressures on the dairy industry, while providing margins to deal directly with the environmental issues around that industry).

For the country as a whole –  New Zealanders –  it would be a win-win.   That isn’t to pretend there would not be some individual losers –  we’d need fewer houses, potentially developable land would be less valuable, and some industries (particularly non-tradables ones) that have come to rely on migrant labour would face some adjustments.  But, and lets face it, there is no sign the existing model –  in place in some form or another for several decades –  has worked well for the average New Zealander –  the productivity performance has been lamentable, and we’ve created a large rod for our own back on the emissions front.

But our political parties – every single one in Parliament, based on words and on their records in government –  would prefer to pretend otherwise, and keep on with the failed, corrosive, immigration policy, which hasn’t worked for us, is unlikely to ever do so (given our remoteness etc) and is so far out of step with what the bulk of advanced countries do.

 

More data on our feeble economic performance

The media coverage of the outgoing Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon’s political ambitions prompted me to dig out a post I wrote a year or so ago, inspired jointly by the Prime Minister and her Business Advisory Council (which Luxon chairs) and by an old article by Paul Krugman, “A country is not a company”.    As he ponders what to do next, I hope Luxon takes the time to read Krugman’s piece.  Of course, it is fair to note that the current crop of politicians –  across all parties – is generally so unimpressive, accomplishing so little for New Zealanders, that I wouldn’t want to be thought of as suggesting that retired CEOs would be any worse than (say) crown prosecutors, political advisers or whatever.

Also yesterday, the latest quarterly national accounts data were released.  The headline numbers seemed to be a touch higher than those who forecast these things in detail had expected, but not in a way that really changes the underlying picture: it has been a weak recovery (now eight or nine years into it) and whatever supported moderate growth appears to have been fading.

In that post from last year, I quoted a speech by the Prime Minister on the economy, including launching the Business Advisory Council.  I wasn’t that impressed, but did quote some of her aspirations.

Yesterday morning the Prime Minister gave her promised speech on the economy.  It was, frankly, astonishing how little there was there.   There was some mention of the problems

Our overall objective is to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy.

On each score we have some way to go. When it comes to productivity, the OECD has said we are “well below leading OECD countries, restraining living standards and well-being”

and

We need to transition from growth dominated by population increase and housing speculation, to build an economy, that as I said, is genuinely productive, sustainable and inclusive.

and

First we want to grow and share more fairly New Zealand’s prosperity.

That means the gap between the highest and lowest income and wealth deciles reduces, real per capita income increases; the value and diversity of our exports grows and home ownership increases.

In particular we want to build our exports and have export led growth.

Which is all well and good, but there is nothing –   nothing –  in the speech about what the government proposes to do

Another year on, how are we doing?

On productivity, shockingly poorly.  Recall that we start with labour productivity levels barely 60 per cent of those of the leading OECD countries (US and various northern European countries).

Here is a chart of labour productivity growth since just prior to the last recession. (As ever, I here average the two GDP measures and the two hours measures.)

GDP phw mar 19

The orange line is the average for the last five years.

Since the current government took office, total growth in labour productivity has been 0.2 per cent.  But there is quarter to quarter noise, and as the chart illustrates whatever is going on was in place well before the current government took office.   There is no sign this lot are doing anything that is producing new and better results, but since the start of  2012 total productivity growth has been not much more than 1 per cent.  That is over seven years.  It is a shockingly poor record.

What about that talk of “building exports and export-led growth”?  No doubt the PM and her ministers are repeatedly fed lines about how successful New Zealand’s strategy of signing up preferential trade agreeements with all manner of countries has been. There are certainly lots of documents, but here is a chart showing exports and imports as a share of GDP, starting from the same point as the previous chart, just prior to the last recession.

ex and im

The numbers bounce around a bit with fluctuations in commodity prices and in the exchange rate, but broadly speaking the share of our economy accounted for by foreign trade has been shrinking, not expanding.    That isn’t a good sign (those with longer memories will recall that the previous government once had a specific goal of raising the export share to 40 per cent).   There are much more important issues –  than busy, busy trade agreements –  that simply aren’t even being addressed, or (it seems) even recognised.

I don’t have a chart for it, but everyone recognises that nothing has yet been done that would make any material difference to the housing price disaster that successive waves of central and local governments have inflicted on us.

It isn’t clear that, on matters economic (which have real implications across numerous dimensions of “wellbeing”) this government is really any worse than its predecessor.    But what a low bar that would be.  Neither main party –  or, as far as one can tell, any of the minor parties –  seems interested in getting to grips with creating a climate that generates materially better economic outcomes.    Easier, I suppose, to just pretend.   That way, among other things, you don’t need top-notch economic advisers and institutions.  But what a betrayal of New Zealanders.

 

 

 

Recessions and revenue

Just a quick post today, prompted by yesterday afternoon’s about the change in the formulation of the debt target foreshadowed by the Minister of Finance.

My proposition was that, with a target range 10 percentage points wide, governments will be expected to stay within that range (more or less) all the time.  And that will means that in normal times –  proxied by when the output gap (perhaps adjusted for the terms of trade) is around zero –  the government will still have to hold pretty closely to the 20 per cent of GDP target midpoint.  They might be able to safely fluctuate between 19 per cent and 21 per cent (or thereabouts) but anything much beyond that would run a material risk of moving outside the target range –  prompting either procyclical fiscal adjustments or the abandonment of the target – the next time a reasonably significant recession hit.    That risk is compounded by the fact that output gaps –  and detrended terms of trade –  are only really best guesses in the first place.  When we think the output gap is zero, hindsight might reveal it to have been +2 per cent of GDP –  increasing the probable revenue losses when the economy next takes a hit.

I noted in yesterday’s post that New Zealand government tax revenue had fallen by around 6 percentage points of GDP in the period from the peak in the years just prior to the recession to the trough in the years just after.   Not all of that was cyclical –  there were some tax cuts just prior to the recession, and again in late 2010 –  but much of it probably was.  And whether or not the revenue loss was the automatic stabilisers at work or discretionary policy changes, a debt target would have constrained choices (on the tax side) that governments of the day had thought appropriate.    And my more general point was that a couple of years in which taxes/GDP were a couple of percentage points lower than normal –  adding to the debt –  shouldn’t be thought exceptional.

But I thought I should check that, and so I dug out the data on government current revenue (mostly taxes) as a per cent of GDP, to see what had happened in other countries in and around the 2008/09 recession.   Here is the change by country (lowest year just after the recession less highest year just prior).

rev

New Zealand –  which did have a pretty severe recession –  had the fourth biggest reduction in revenue as a share of GDP.  I guess that was exaggerated by the effect of the discretionary changes.

But what really interested me was that I noticed a number for the euro-area as a whole.    Revenue as a share of GDP had barely changed, in aggregate across the whole area.  The whole area, of course, had monetary policy adjustment open to it, but individual countries that are in the euro-area did not.

But the median fall in the share of revenue to GDP for OECD countries not in the euro area was 2.9 percentage points.  On the other hand, the reduction for the median euro-area country was only 0.7 percentage points.   I guess that was a mix of crisis countries, indebted countries, the Maastricht fiscal rules, or whatever.  But given the limitations of monetary policy, it hardly seems like an optimal adjustment: automatic stabilisers (in mostly quite high tax countries) should probably have generated more of a fall just on their own.

Anyway, it left me pretty comfortable that my ad hoc suggestion that the government needs to plan around its fiscal target on the basis that a serious recession could easily knock a couple of percentage points of GDP off revenue for a couple of years at least, which in turn would add to the debt.   If they don’t do so, they could find themselves engaged in pro-cyclical fiscal adjustment, which will be even more problematic in the next recession, given how much closer to the limits of conventional monetary policy we (and other countries) are likely to be.

A useful but modest step forward on fiscal management

A year ago the Minister of Finance gave a pre-Budget speech in which he restated the fiscal rules Labour and the Greens had campaigned on.  Among them

We will reduce the level of net core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years of taking office.

Here was what I said at the time

In general, debt targets –  with relatively short time horizons to achieve them –  aren’t very sensible as operational rules.   Such a rule can mean that a few fairly small, essentially random, forecasting errors in the same direction can cumulate to produce a need for quite a bit of (perhaps unnecessary) adjustments to spending or revenue.  More seriously, recessions can throw things badly off course for a while, and risk pushing a government into a corner –  either abandon the target just as debt is rising, or fallback on pro-cyclical (recession exacerbating) fiscal adjustments –  even though, in across-the-cycle terms, the government’s finances might be just fine.  No one looks forward to a recession, but governments (and central banks) need to work on the likelihood that another will be along before too long.   Natural disasters –  the other shock the Minister mentioned –  can have the same effect.

I see I omitted to mention that other pro-cyclical fiscal risk that a (point) debt target exacerbates: the temptation to spend up further in good times to keep debt from undershooting the target.

And so I am pleased see reports today of another pre-Budget speech from the (same) Minister of Finance, in which he said

The Government will scrap specific debt targets in favour of moving towards a target range, Finance Minister Grant Robertson has announced.

The current target, part of Labour’s Budget Responsibility Rules, is to reduce net debt to 20 percent of GDP by 2021/22. When that target is achieved, it will be replaced with a debt range.

Robertson did not specify what this was, but said Treasury had provided him with advice.

“At this point we are looking at a range of 15-25 percent of GDP, based on advice from the Treasury,” Robertson said.

Does it create risks?  Yes, it does, and that is why I would still favour dropping debt targets altogether.  There will be increased pressure for more spending up front.  But, operated responsibly, the proposed new debt-range provides only trivially greater amounts of flexibility.    Why?  Because no one ever expects the government will keep debt/GDP at a constant point every single year, but if they take the new range seriously people will expect them to keep within the sort of range all the time.  It is wide enough, it should be able to encompass the effects of most booms and busts, but only if in normal times debt/GDP is kept close to the midpoint of the range.  You probably give yourself a degree of freedom to have debt fluctuate between 19 and 21 per cent in normal times, but you always have to remember that a recession could be along any time.  A couple of years in which revenue is 2 percentage points of GDP below average and you will be on course for the top of the debt target range pretty quickly if your starting point is anything much higher than 21 per cent.  Tax revenue as a share of GDP fell from 31 per cent in the year to March 2006 to 25 per cent in the year to March 2011, and (a) while the economy started from a materially positive output gap, and (b) there were some tax cuts, a fall of a couple of percentage points of GDP is easy to envisage, and necessary to plan around.

My own preferred approach, without a debt target, is as I outlined it last year.

Personally, I would be much more comfortable with only two key quantitative fiscal rules:

  • a commitment to maintaining the operating balance in modest surplus, once allowance is made for the state of the economic cycle (cyclical adjustment in other words) and for extraordinary one-off items (eg serious natural disasters), and
  • something about size of government.    Simply as an economist I don’t have a strong view on what the number should be, although as I’ve noted previously it is curious that the current left-wing government, arguing all sorts of past underspends, was elected on a fiscal plan that promised spending as a share of GDP that undershot their own medium-term benchmark (that around 30 per cent of GDP).

The suggested fiscal surplus rule isn’t an ironclad protection (any more than a real-world inflation target in a Policy Targets Agreement is).  There are uncertainties about the state of the cycle and how best to do the cyclical adjustment, and incentives to try to game what might be counted as an “extraordinary one-off”.   That is why the fiscal numbers and Budget plans will always need scrutinising and challenging.  But if followed, more or less, such a rule would be sufficient to see debt/GDP ratios typically falling in normal times, and to avoid things going badly wrong over a period of several decades.  That is probably about as much as one can realistically hope for.

The focus would be on the first of those, the structural balance rule.

Part of the necessary scrutiny and challenge would be provided by that fiscal council the government consulted on last year, but about which nothing has been heard for months.

Big business

I’ve been following the views of Tyler Cowen for almost 30 years now, since he spent some time in New Zealand doing a review for the Business Roundtable of the (then) new Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act.    These days he is a prolific and prominent writer –  columnist and blogger –  and a professor of economics at George Mason University, all supported by (apparently) voracious reading.   There is almost always something stimulating and fresh in what he has to say.

But he doesn’t always get it right.  Back in the very early days of the Trump presidency, he ran a column on parallels between Donald Trump and our own Sir Robert Muldoon. I begged to differ, and mostly I reckon my argument looks stronger now than it did in early 2017.

A few days ago he had a column in the Washington Post (extracts here) drawn from his recent book “Big Business: A love Letter to an American Anti-Hero”.  In his column he argues that (so-called) progressives in the United States should embrace big business and see it as an ally in the causes they champion.   On some of the specific issues he lists, there is probably something to what he says (and I’m with him in pushing back against the Elizabeth Warren approach to capitalism and business), but as a general proposition (which is what he makes it out to be) what he claims –  that companies are a source of social and political good, going beyond merely the production they facilitate – is at very least arguable.

Thus, we are told that various large US companies “offered health care and other legal benefits for same-sex partners well before the Supreme Court legalized gap marriage”, and that these moves “put a mainstream stamp of approval on the notion of same-sex marriage itself”.   Some will have regarded all that as a good thing – certainly (which is Cowen’s specific point) the so-called progressives will have.   And in that case, one person’s additional remuneration doesn’t directly impinge on anyone else’s.

One could take the argument further.  There are papers around illustrating the way in which companies operating buses or street cars in the segregated American South championed the cause of bus desegregation.  That wasn’t because the owners were necessarily any more “enlightened” than the rest of the white populace, but because having segregated facilities cost them money.  Desegregation was cheaper and more profitable.

More generally, one of the arguments against the idea that there is some sort of meaningful gender pay gap, arising out of discriminatory practices, is that economic incentives are pretty powerful and should contribute to eliminating any such substantial differences –  if equally productive female workers can be had more cheaply than male ones, there are expected returns on offer to firms that focus on recruiting those women.  In the process, wages for women are bid up and, over time, any excess returns are eliminated.   In apartheid South Africa, it was the white unions not the mining companies that had a compelling interest in preventing the employment of blacks in skilled or supervisory positions.

So a competitive market economy probably is quite good at taking out any differences in remuneration based on employee characteristics that are irrelevant to the production process itself (the relentless tendency towards wage=marginal product), and it is also good at chipping away at regulatory and other barriers that impede the ability of shareholders to maximise risk-adjusted returns.    Street-car segregation might be a positive example of the latter, but it isn’t hard to think of less-positive examples (and as someone who favours low taxes on business and light-handed regulation of the financial system I’m not even going to those “progressive” favourites).  One could think of all manner of corporate welfare programmes that many firms fall over themselves to champion and defend (and which anyone who rejects using them can find themselves pushed beyond the margins of profitability), or incentives around environmental regulation, or financial system bailouts, firms that attempt to portray their corporate interest as the same as the national interest (eg those championing tariffs), or whatever.

And we could revert to Tyler Cowen’s example around attitudes to homosexuality.  He argues

The larger the business, the more tolerant the institution is likely to be of employee and customer personal preferences. A local baker might refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple [celebration of a their “wedding”]  for religious reasons, but Sara Lee, which tries to build very broadly based national markets for its products, is keen on selling cakes to everyone. The bigger companies need to protect their broader reputations and recruit large numbers of talented workers, including from minority groups. They can’t survive and grow just by cultivating a few narrow networks as either their workers or customers.

And yet it is Rugby Australia, pressured by large corporate sponsors, which is attempting to sack Israel Folau for quoting the Bible on his own social media accounts on matters quite unrelated to the production of rugby services.  The idea that large firms are generally tolerant of employee preferences and views seems hard to credit these days –  perhaps, on average, they are individually more tolerant of some differences than individual small firms, but individual small firms have much less market power (more places for employees to choose to work).

What is probably true is that big corporates don’t care who they sell to (there is a dollar in it) but are –  and perhaps always were, but on different issues –  quite intolerant of employees with a mind, or conscience, of their own.  The Colorado baker managed to get the backing of the Supreme Court for not being willing to bake a cake explicitly for the celebration of a gay “wedding”, but if an employee of a major chain had attempted to exercise the same freedom of conscience, most likely they’d have been out of a job.   Again in the US context, Brendan Eich was forced out as CEO of Mozilla for having made a modest donation to a campaign against legalising same-sex “marriage”.    In the last few weeks, a major tech company sent out a message to all staff, apparently cautioning that if staff weren’t totally onside with the corporation’s “diversity and inclusion” programme, it could affect their pay or even their future employment.

Now, in many respects those examples go to Cowen’s point: much of US big business is very much of the same ideological hue as the political “progressives”, at least when it comes to social issues.

But here again there is another side to the issue.   When Wilberforce was leading the fight to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire in the early 19th century, it wasn’t big business interests that were right behind him –  indeed, when slavery itself was finally abolished, it was only possible with large compensation payouts to those who had enriched themselves on maintaining in slavery their fellow human beings.

Or nearer to our time, take attitudes to the People’s Republic of China and the way that evil regime represses its own people (generally) and systematically persecutes various minorities (Muslims in Xinjiang, Falun Gong, Christians, human rights lawyers and so on).  It is business interests that quake at the very thoughts that political “leaders” in countries like our own might even speak up and speak out against such evil, business interests that sully themselves (but presumably don’t see it that way) by continuing to trade with the regime.  Fund managers continue to buy shares in Hikvision and similar companies.  And none of this is new –  foreign companies operating in apartheid South Africa might have wanted to be able to use labour more efficiently, but they had no interest in upsetting the regime; various US companies remained actively involved in Nazi Germany right up to December 1941, and few German companies displayed any great moral courage or leadership either.

This isn’t intended as an anti-corporate or anti-business post.  Private businesses are the form through which much or most of the staggering material wealth we enjoy today is realised.   But businesses are owned, staffed, and run by human beings, and are unlikely to be consistently any better than those human beings.   If anything, and around the limits and taboos that societies might seek to establish and maintain, they will often be worse –  even as they remain very narrowly efficient in marshalling inputs and generating outputs.  Why?  Because of the impersonality of the (widely-held) corporate form and the impersonality of the pressures on them. Widely-held firms are prone to pressure from the mob – on issues that mob has focused on in that particular moment – and, on the other hand, people near the top of a firm can detach from any strong personal ethical sense –  having perhaps a lot to lose individually –  under the guise of excuses like “everyone else is doing it”, or “fiduciary responsibilities”, or a focus on the share price.  Widely-held firms have no particular interest in any values or interests that don’t work to lift the firm’s own bottom line (thus no particular commitment to democracy, or transparency, or whatever, or about the character of those with whom they trade, so long as they honour contracts).   That can have positive elements to it –  the firm just gets on and uses resources efficiently – but stops doing so when firms themselves become political players.  We don’t let firms vote, but we do allow them to donate to political parties, and (more importantly) we give their bosses and boards access and influence in the corridors of power, in ways that aren’t always aligned that well at all with the values and interests of citizens.

So count me sceptical of paeans to big business.  We probably need to be almost as sceptical of them in many circumstances as we should be of big government.

 

 

 

Lawless Police

One shakes one’s head in wonderment that multiple guns could be stolen from a city police station in broad daylight (and chuckles at the suggestion I saw that perhaps Police could be prosecuted for failing to store firearms safely).  It isn’t, I guess, the direct responsibility of the government, but somehow it seems symptomatic of just how badly off course the government’s so-called “year of delivery”, transformational change etc, is.   The public sector can’t even get the basics right, even as the bosses parade around (in the Police case), advancing trendy political and social causes, asserting the right to carry firearms in all circumstances, and (wildly inappropriately for a supposedly neutral public servant) offering public adoration and praise of the Prime Minister.  How anyone can still have confidence in the New Zealand Police is a bit beyond me.

This is the same organisation which appears to simply choose to ignore the law when it suits.   Let me illustrate.

In mid-March, a reader drew my attention to an article in a Police magazine, gushing over the appointment of an Assistant Commissioner (formerly the police person in our embassy in Beijing) as a visiting lecturer

at the People’s Public Security University of China – the first foreigner to hold such a role.

The university is where China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) trains the elite of China’s police. …..

I wrote a post expressing astonishment that Police could think this was in any way appropriate, given the (official) PRC disregard for the rule of law, and the active part played by Ministry of Public Security in (for example) the large-scale repression and persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang (or any of the other systematic repressions the PRC prides itself on).  Political loyalty to the CCP will be a key consideration in recruitment, and in helping the Ministry, New Zealand Police buttress the agencies of a regime responsible for so much evil.  Mr McCardle though seemed quite chuffed at his appointment.

He says the university appointment is an endorsement of the healthy state of the New Zealand-China bilateral relationship, and “underscores the idea that New Zealand has values and ideas worth considering in the Chinese context”.

It also aligns with the aims and values of the New Zealand-China Friendship Society and the pioneering work of New Zealander Rewi Alley who fostered a life-long friendship with China from the 1930s.

As I noted

And what about that weird stuff in the final paragraph of the quoted excerpt?  The New Zealand-China Friendship Society has been around for decades and long-served as a Beijing front organisation in New Zealand, right through the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and on to their total silence today about repression in Xinjiang.    And Rewi Alley?   Well, he lived a fairly comfortable life in Beijing after the CCP took over, navigating this way through the thickets of changing CCP politics, reaching new lows when he published a jointly-authored book near the end of the Cultural Revolution defending the regime at its worst.  What possesses our Police to think these are “aims and values” to champion?   Why not, for example, the aims and values of the Tiananmen protestors, the Falun Gong movement, or the (underground) Catholic church?  But that wouldn’t fit the narrative I guess, of prostrating the New Zealand system before Beijing.

I wondered what thought, or analysis, went into the decision to accept this appointment, including whether relevant ministers had been aware in advance (and thus complicit).

And so I lodged a couple of Official Information Act requests, one with Police, and one with MFAT.    The request to Police asked

Please provide me with copies of all information relating to the appointment of Hamish McCardle as a Visiting Professor in the People’s Republic of China (as described in [the article])  Without limitation, this request includes any consultation with or advice to other government agencies, or government ministers (or their offices).

I had a response from MFAT fairly promptly, within 10 days or so of lodging the request.  MFAT noted that they were aware of my separate request to Police and responded that

MFAT 1That was useful information in its own right: presumably there had been no internal discussion at MFAT, and no briefing to, or consultation with, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

And what of Police?  I had an automated acknowledgement of my request, and the MFAT response confirms Police were aware of the request.   Under the Official Information Act, agencies are required to respond as soon as reasonably practicable, but within no more than 20 working days.     That deadline has now long since passed and I have heard nothing at all from Police.

Given the other stuff going on after 15 March, I wouldn’t really have been surprised if Police had got in touch to explain that they needed an extension of time.  In the circumstances, I wouldn’t have been particularly bothered.   Agencies do it all the time, in much less compelling circumstances.  But I’ve heard nothing at all from the Police.  Earlier this week I even got in touch and pointed out that I had heard nothing, in case a reply had simply fallen through the cracks. I noted that if I had heard nothing by the end of the week I would be lodging a complaint with the Ombudsman.    As I now will be.

You might have hoped that Police would more scrupulous than any agency in ensuring that they, and their staff, complied with the law, letter and spirit.    But perhaps they’ve been imbibing some of the lawless values of the People’s Republic of China, whose repressive apparatus their Assistant Commissioner is now helping out, and with which they associate the once-honourable name of the New Zealand Police.  Opportunism not honour, just doing whatever they choose and think they can get away with, now seems to be the order of the day in the Bush-led New Zealand Police.

Police should start complying with the law, and releasing the relevant material under the Official Information Act.  Beyond that, they should rethink this appointment, and ministers should insist that McCardle withdraw from the appointment.  But, of course, there is no hope of the latter, as our government (and Opposition) fall over themselves to show who can do more to defer to the interests and preferences of the PRC.  And that, of course, is why the foreign interference inquiry Parliament’s Justice Committee is undertaking (submissions closed last night) has very little credibility: like foxes taking responsibility for investigating security on the hen house.

UPDATE: The PRC approach to policing and the rule of law –  the disappearance into custody, without charge or trial, of the (PRC) head of Interpol (as reported in a substantial article today in the Wall St Journal).  The sort of thing our Commissioner and Minister of Police are happy to associate with?

 

Polling marijuana

There was an interesting new poll out the other day on public attitudes to marijuana and the possibility of law reform (on which there is to be a referendum at the time of next year’s election).  The results certainly took me by surprise.

For the record, I don’t have very strong views on the law around marijuana.  A couple of years ago I’d got to the point where I’d probably have voted for full liberalisation, but since then I’ve swung back somewhat in the other direction (influenced in part by reviews of and extracts from this recent book, a copy of which I’m expecting in the mail any day now).  In an up/down vote today I’d probably vote against full liberalisation, but as to how I will actually vote next year, a lot might depend on the specific question.  One thing I really don’t like is a law on the books that isn’t generally enforced, but which leaves our untrustworthy Police free to use it when it suits them.

But I’d been under the impression that New Zealand public opinion was pretty favourable to substantial liberalisation of “recreational” use of marijuana.  So I wasn’t expecting this result.    Asked “which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on cannabis?”, responses were as follows

mar 1

The margins of error get quite large quite quickly once the results are broken down, but young people are probably more favourable to liberalisation than old people, poor people probably more favourable than better-off people, and National voters much less favourable than Green voters (but only 53 per cent of the latter favoured liberalisation of recreational use, as posed this way).

The poll was commissioned by Family First who have been opposed to liberalisation of recreational use.  In itself, that doesn’t invalidate the results (probably almost anyone likely to be polling in this area in New Zealand is likely to be motivated in one direction or the other) but it is worth thinking about whether the questions posed are especially likely to skew the answers one way or the other.

One problem is this area is the array of possible options.  As someone without an intense interest in the topic, I struggle to remember the difference between, say, decriminalisation and legalisation, and as Family First notes the poll deliberately didn’t focus on either of those more-technical terms, asking instead about “lifting restrictions”.  In principle, you can lift restrictions partially or fully, and when I first looked at the question my immedate reaction was that it encompassed both. But perhaps many of the interviewees took “lifting restrictions” as removing all restrictions and penalties?  If so, that might help explain why support for recreational liberalisation appears so low.

Perhaps there is also an issue with posing both the medicinal and recreational options in the same question.   While lifting (in part or in full) restrictions on recreational use would seem to encompass freeing up medicinal use, it doesn’t actually say that.  Perhaps some people who care quite a bit –  or want to go on record as caring quite a bit –  about medicinal use plumped for that option, even if they actually favoured recreational use liberalisation, to ensure a resounding explicit vote on medicinal.  Presumably that won’t be the way next year’s referendum will be framed?

Some of the other results in the poll were also interesting.  There were six questions, and the questions on policy preferences is the last of them.  The preceding questions might, in principle, (been framed to?) influence how people answered the final question.

The first question was

mar 2

I’d have answered “increase” too, and I don’t think that result should be too surprising.  Reduce the effective price and, all else equal, consumption is likely to rise.  Note that the question is framed around “reducing” restrictions on use of cannabis, not about more specific choices, and that seems fine.

The second question was more puzzling

mar 3

I don’t know (and probably would have said so), but it would probably be rational for them to do so (the possibility of a new substance to market, and perhaps undermining restrictions on tobacco).  But one might wonder why the question was asked?  To prompt people to associate liberalisation with “big tobacco”?

What about question 3?

mar 4

This seems to be a pretty widespread concern (among serious opponents of liberalisation) so not an unreasonable question.  But note the “can” –  which is a possibility, and thus more likely to get a positive response than, say, a “does”.  Even 95 per cent of Greens voters –  people who end up favouring recreational liberalisation –  ended up saying “yes” to this one.

And then question 4

mar 5 Again, it is an argument you see around (including reviewing the experiences of US states that have liberalised), and actually the question doesn’t seem posed unfairly (both “more likely” and “less likely” are explicitly mentioned), and there is an overwhelming vote for “more likely”.    Of course, there might be a selection issue at work: respondents might think people likely to take marijuana were also already younger and less responsible (more risk-taking perhaps) so they might not be directly asserting causation.

Perhaps the same issue arises with question 5.

mar 6

Even 46 per cent of Green voters said “less likely” to this one, but again it isn’t quite clear what will have been going in behind the responses.  Some people will have been thinking ‘well, many firms have drug tests, and if you take drugs you will fail those tests and not get a job”.     Others will have been reflecting views on the potential work ethic of those who might take jobs.   Others again will have been worried about the potential mental illness effects (see earlier questions).

I don’t have too much of a problem with asking any of the questions that led up to question 6 (views on liberalisation itself).  After all, when the referendum comes people won’t be voting in a vacuum but will face a plethora of arguments, evidence, and pseudo-evidence on both sides.   Of course, if one wanted totally disinterested poll results –  wouldn’t that be great –  one might have wanted some other questions interspersed reflecting some of the arguments of those who favour liberalisation.  Perhaps “do you think people should be free to choose what they inject or inhale, without state restrictions?” or “even if you personally would never consider taking marijuana, do you believe Police should have discretionary power, often not exercised, to prosecute those who do?”, or “do you think current marijuana law encourages or discourages criminal gangs” or the like.

In the end, I’m not sure quite what to make of the results.    No doubt, the questions could be asked, and framed, in ways that produced higher numbers in favour of reduced restrictions on recreational use, and I doubt that –  in any real sense – only 18 per cent of New Zealanders favour some liberalisation of recreational use.  But I’m still left a bit surprised that, even on the questions asked on this poll, the support numbers weren’t higher.

Perhaps the result of next year’s referendum really will depend a lot on the specific question asked.  It would be good if, before long, the government were to give us some specifics on that, and on the whole associated regulatory or tax regime they are proposing.