On the long term view of government responsibility and ivory tower philosophies

This is a two parter, the first part is on the responsibilities of government in the long term, the second part is on philosophy and ideology detached from reality.

Part the first.
I was thinking about the merits and disadvantages of democracy, how I considered the main advantage being that you couldn’t get a complete lunatic as your leader, but this turned out to be untrue at the last election, however, at least the term is brief.

But that got me thinking about government in the long term, and that got me thinking. Democracy is sort of like having a schizophrenic dictator, where every few years the leader has a complete change of personality and everything that was right and good becomes bad and wrong. Things that were valued overnight become waste, long term projects get scrapped or changed on the whim of the new personality in charge. Laws are repealed, new ones are introduced at odds with what merely a week ago was considered an inalienable right.

This is not a very responsible form of government, and that’s not a reflection on any particular party. New governments come in declaring a mandate and their vision for Australia, as though they plan to be in power for the next 50 years, which will never happen. The previous government also had a mandate, was also voted in and had public support for their vision. Do they really believe that the public are truly so inconsistent that their values completely backflip every few years?

It seems to me that governments of all creeds have a responsibility to moderate their visions to a longer view and compromise. If you believe government should not play a heavy role in public infrastructure projects and should be privately funded, then by all means, facilitate private funding of projects you plan, but that doesn’t give you the right to undo everything the previous government did or privatise their projects simply because you’re now in charge. The public didn’t agree with you when that project was funded, your ideology does not apply retrospectively.

There needs to be some mechanism for these sorts of changes, but I don’t think it should be up to a single party. I think something like 85% of the parliament in support would be more appropriate, but this presents another problem- the adversarial nature of the system.

To me this is a major problem with our system. The parliament is set up as a government and an opposition, whose role is to be contrarian and little else. Is this really in the public interest? Or should the parliament be trying to discuss solutions rather than playing party line games?

I remind people that the entire parliament was elected to represent their constituents, not just members of the government. Every single sitting mp should be contributing.

Long term stability requires a middle ground view, curbing all the extremes rather than swinging wildly between them.

Part the second
Which brings us onto ideology, philosophy and the problems of holding to a philosophical ideal without relating it to reality.

Last night I watched Tim Wilson, commissioner for human rights, speak on freedom of speech on the ABC show “Q and A”. He values certain universal rights above all else, which is why he opposes racial vilification laws at least in their current form. I understand his position. I value freedom and hold it in high regard, however, the flaws in his philosophy were pointed out to him on the spot, that such freedom to say what you like, is an inalienable right and that on private property especially no one has the right to tell you not to. The issue pointed out to him is that this favors the wealthy and powerful over the disenfranchised targets of the vilification, they do not have the means to respond, despite having the right. The right also doesn’t give them the arena in which to respond. Essentially, Wilson’s philosophy supports freedom in principle, but not in reality, in reality only those with means have rights, and those that do not have the resources are entirely at the mercy of those that have power. Technically everyone has the same rights, that’s equality and freedom in principle, but in practice if is not. It is, in reality, an oppression of free speech and the favoring of one group over another, fundamentally against the very principle of freedom he supposedly holds to.

And that’s really the point to take away from this second part, an ideology that you don’t have to relate to reality is not an ideology to live by in the real world. This goes for all philosophies. Facts and how your ideology plays out against it’s aims matter.

The Abbott Government- a threat to the economy

The new Australian Government has big ideas about economic growth, deregulation, the cutting of red tape and letting business get on with business. Unfortunately for them, and indeed the whole country, their absurdly idealistic and unrealistic views are not supported by reality. The reality of their ideas is merely that they do not wish to take any responsibility – they are a government opposed to governing.

When Mr Abbott have his speech in Sweden to world leaders and economists, his ignorance of economics must have been obvious to everyone in the room.

Imagine it: An economic nobody fortunate enough to inherit a strong economy and host privileges for a global summit of world leaders swaggers onto the stage in the European Union to tell the people in the room who have just endured a global recession and having heavily praised his predecessor for the best economic management in the world, that they’re all idiots, that the previous government were terrible economic managers and that it’s ok now, because he’s here to fix it all.

Besides the obnoxiousness of bringing national politics to the international stage, there’s also the simple fact that his policies are the tried and failed policies of most of the nations he’s preaching to. The governments to which he is waxing lyrical of the benefits of deregulation and free trade are the countries who know much more about free trade, austerity and deregulation than Mr Abbott has ever read through their experiences alone.

He talks of the failure of climate policy and the huge costs incurred by renewable energy to countries with economies run on 40% or more renewable energy production- successfully.

And this is the crux of the issue- Abbott talk with nothing to back up his claims- worse- he talks to people with evidence against his claims, with no interest in the reality of the situation.

On the national stage, he looks to industries that were growing during the lead up to the global financial crisis- to rapid growth and the export of resources as the future of Australia completely ignoring the change in direction of the countries he wants to export to, in the process tearing up years of work by industries to adapt to the new market with sustainable resources such as sustainable timber and funding major growth in coal exports to countries moving rapidly to renewables. If Abbott were a CEO, his company would collapse due to bad decisions and totally misreading the market, but he’s not, he’s just the prime minister of Australia.

He speaks of the previous governments as illegitimate (they weren’t, that’s factually wrong and for a politician to believe that, which I suspect he doesn’t, would imply a total lack of understanding of Australia’s political system.), as financially irresponsible (wrong, they produced a leading world economy and win international praise and awards for economic management) and claims that they were saved by the responsible economic management of the Howard Government’s surpluses.

So let’s examine that.

Let’s say there was a man with a family. He’s in a little debt, but nothing he can’t afford to pay off with his high paying job. The thing is, this man thinks debt is irresponsible, that spending money is pretty bad and irresponsible, so he starts to save money. Well, how do you do that? He has a brilliant idea. He saves money by buying the cheapest, lowest nutritional value food, he saves money by never taking his kids to hospital or a doctor or sending them to school, so he doesn’t have to pay any school fees. His wife gets a job, it doesn’t pay much, but it’s a job, so he now claims that bills are now her responsibility, despite knowing full well that she doesn’t make enough to cover them. That’s her fault though, even if they are his bills.

So what’s the result? A household full of poorly educated, malnourished, sickly people who are barely making ends meet. But his bank balance is looking incredibly healthy and he’s debt free.

Does this sound like good economic management to you? That’s what the Howard Government did, leaving us with failing infrastructure and a stunted economy, but lots of money. Not as much as we’d have if they’d kept everything running properly and boosted growth through proper structural support, but a lit of money.

When Howard lost to Rudd in 2007, the new government had to repair all the things that Howard had left unfunded while offering no alternative methods of funding to them, none that were sufficient to make up the difference anyway. On top of that, the global financial crisis hit and the Rudd government made a pretty obvious observation. The best way to keep an economy running is to have money flowing through it, rather than letting it shrink. So what did they do? They provided stimulus and encouraged business to grow. That money circles through the economy, getting taxed as it travels, returning it to treasury while boosting consumer confidence and economic security.

It was a massive success, saving Australia from the economic recession sweeping the world. The treasurer, Mr Swan, won an international treasurer of the year award and economists world over praised the good sense of the Australian government. I would like to note here that there are two Australian treasurers who have won this award, Mr Swan and Mr Keating, who was Howard’s predecessor.

You’ll note that Abbott’s idea of responsible economic management does not win any sort of international recognition for good management. There’s a good reason for that. The economy is not the bottom line, it’s everything that happens above that line.

I’d also like to note at this point that during Mr Abbott’s time as health minister the Australian hospital system suffered prolonged shortages of beds and a lack of doctors.

If this method of governmental hands off is so good, why doesn’t it produce good results?

Then there’s the environmental side of things. Abbott’s view is very much a Victorian attitude to the environment. The natural world is nothing but a set of resources there for the exploitation of man (“man” used deliberately to reflect his archaic view of the world).

Not only is this view outdated, it isn’t even economically reasonable. It has been over a century since people started to realise in the developed world that rampant industrialization and land clearing has serious environmental consequences that damage your economic growth and availability of resources.

People like Abbott think that the environmental movement is merely one of sentimental hippies that want to protect trees because trees are pretty green things you can hug.

Ask any environmental scientist why it matters and they’ll tell you that it’s because damage to the environment is more economically costly than the benefits you get from the exploitation, and we do not have the capacity to easily replace the systems we destroy. This is what environmental protections are really for, not for sentimental reasons, but the protection of resources, public health and assets. Abbott sees this as unnecessary inhibitors of development, when in reality they make such things viable.

Then we have the deregulation, which is especially topical today. Abbott wants to repeal unnecessary red tape. Much of it brought in in response to problems in industry collapsing and damaging the economy, taking down individuals, businesses, industries and banks because someone got greedy and made a bad decision with other peoples money. Usually to resign and take the rest as a payout to themselves for the trouble of being bad businessmen. Again it’s about “personal responsibility” and deflecting responsibility off government- a refusal to govern.

This is why the Abbott government is bad for the economy, their short sighted views are not just outdated, but demonstrably counterproductive to their supposed aims.

Conservative economics: public funding is bad!

Two blogs in one day. Madness I tell you.

So I was just in a brief conversation that sparked some realizations about conservatives and public spending.

Basically it boils down to “things cost money. I don’t like things to cost money, I object to paying for big things that aren’t exclusively mine.”

Pretty silly all in itself, but when you look at the things that get them really worked up, such as the National Broadband Network. Blowouts. The horror! Blowouts!

The idea that something in reality might actually end up costing a bit more than originally estimated because reality is actually affected by things that happen, where a balance sheet is not.

But let’s think about this on a smaller, every day scale rather than billions of dollars, thousands of kilometers and a few years.

Let’s reduce it to say… A week to week thing. Let’s just say fuel for your car.
Today you got all green lights, straight through, skipped all the traffic. Perfect and smooth. Minimal fuel use. Awesome. If only every day were like that!

The next day you hit a few red lights and got stuck behind someone going a little slower. Bit of extra fuel use, hardly noticeable. Oh well, it’s not going to set you back much, it won’t even make you stop in for a top up.

Your average week will be made up of something around these, which gives you a weekly rough estimate of fuel costs that is generally accurate, give or take a few cents (not taking into account fuel price variability, we’ll say you’re already factoring that in and buying at roughly the same rate.

But next day there’s a traffic jam. It’s hot, you got the aircon on, you’re crawling along eating slowly into your fuel. It’s not a massive amount, but it’s enough to mean you have to put that extra bit of fuel in this week.

Guess what? You just had a blow out! Dun dun dunnnnnnn!

The only difference is we’re talking a few dollars over a few days rather than billions over a few years on something much larger in scale.

For infrastructure the response is to scream about bad management and it costing extra money! The horror!

Do they do the same thing with their car? Say “fuel cost more than I expected! Time to get rid if the car! I’ll outsource and catch taxis everywhere now!”

Of course not. If they did, you’d think they were a complete moron. But that’s exactly what they do for large public projects, which is ironic given how much the exceedingly rich- most vocal- avoid paying taxes through loopholes.

Now some of you might be thinking “but we’re talking BILLIONS of dollars! Not just a few!”

It’s a matter of scale. Proportionally, an extra dollar on your fuel bill can be about the sane, depending on factors.

The fact is with major infrastructure that not every eventuality can be predicted in advance, you just need to take it on the chin, particularly if the benefits of what you’re building are large or necessary. Particularly when a cheaper alternative means expensive replacement sooner. Then you’re just paying MORE in the long term for an inferior result. How does THAT make economic sense?

It’s somewhat like caf├ęs and restaurants buying domestic grade china. Sure it’s much cheaper, but it breaks fast, so you’re replacing it on a weekly basis. Or you could buy done commercial grade china for a bit (or a lot more, depending how high grade you wanna go) and replace it far less often, freeing up more money in the longer term.

I already covered much of the other conservative issues in the libertarian barbarians post to do with privatisation, so I won’t go into detail about that, I’ll just reiterate that private enterprise does not necessarily come up with the best solution, often it just gets you the fastest return, not the best return for your money.

That’ll do for today. Congratulations for reading this far. You win an undisclosed number of Internet points.

Libertarians: personal responsibility means freedom FROM responsibility

In our last random and spontaneous episode, we (well… I) discussed the backward olde world ideology of libertarians. Today’s topic is the odd notion of “personal responsibility” and “user pays” according to libertarians… Which is to say “freedom from responsibility” and “user pays if they feel like it, and only what they think they should pay for, not for what they actually use”.

Actually you can stop reading there if you like, that pretty much sums up the rest.

Look at environmental issues such as Australia’s carbon price (called the carbon tax, despite being a price) the purpose of the tax is to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, to attribute a cost to the production of this pollutant (in high volumes in our atmosphere and oceans at least). The fixed price is merely a starting price, to be variable when trading is established. You need to actually establish a market before you can trade something. Shocking, right?

But to the economic conservatives and libertarians, this is a bad thing. Government intervention! That’s right, the establishment of a free market solution to a problem the free market has failed to address on it’s own is a bad thing. Apparently they’re not so fond of the free market after all.

They’ll give you a long spiel about how this sort of environmental responsibility is bad for business or should be voluntary etc, how it will drive up prices, make us non competitive etc. I’m sure if you’re reading this you’ve seen all the arguments before.

The libertarians will then talk about the glories of modern technology and industrialization being the answer to save everything. You’ll also see arguments that our emissions are minuscule compared to somewhere like china, so why should we do anything if china isn’t going to?

What they havn’t taken into consideration is that we have all of those things in places like china, imported to us. Our carbon emissions, the ones for our goods, the ones we but and consume, are emitted in china. Those ARE our emissions.

They also, with a lack of compassion erring on the sociopathic, fail to consider that the emissions we are responsible for (with good we produce, consume, import AND export) will have a much larger impact on vulnerable, poorer nations more than on the wealthy countries.

The things that happen there through climate change are things WE are responsible for. The libertarian view is not one of personal responsibility or user pays. It is one of “someone else’s responsibility, someone else pays, just give me the cheapest deal”.

Not only does this view lack an awareness of the world around them, it ignores the economic and health impacts of the damage done by climate change.

So remember next time- we are the users, we are the consumers and the responsibility of climate change EVEN in the developing world are our responsibility.