Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

Lefty book reviews: Don’t Buy It

It’s more Post-It than book, at this stage.

Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?

This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.

And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.

That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.

The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.

The point is we’re doing it wrong.

Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.

Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:

We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.

We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …

Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.

It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”

It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”

Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.

It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.

At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.

Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:

Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.

dont buy itFor such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.

Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.

More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.

Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.

Metiria Turei’s state of the nation

It’s state of the nation season, which as far as I can tell is a really recent development in NZ politics. It certainly doesn’t have a patch on the utterly theatrical production which takes place in the US every time this year.

The Greens were first off the block with Metiria Turei delivering the Green state of the nation yesterday. The full text of her speech is here, and the heart of it I think is this piece:

Imagine if the Government stopped seeing state homes, and the people who live in them as a burden, a problem better shifted out of sight so out of mind. Imagine if we had a Government instead that worked with the people that lived in those communities to design beautiful new homes and neighbourhoods that people actually want to live in. Michael Joseph Savage made that real once before. We see a future where all New Zealanders live in warm, dry affordable homes. Where children are no longer at risk of dying simply because of the home they live in.

The repeated nods to Michael Joseph Savage – especially right there in the very first English sentence – are always going to inspire a lefty like me.

What concerns me is the policy announcement which played the central role in the speech. I tweeted thus:

I want to like the idea of a policy costing unit. But we have to let go of the myth Treasury is an independent, non-ideological body. Look at the endless arguments about how we measure unemployment, poverty, economic growth. “Objective truth” doesn’t exist in politics.

I worry about the framing. Does this mean accepting that cost and “fiscal responsibility” are the most important measures of policy?

And ultimately does it matter? I know us pols nerds love our deep detailed analyses but do those ~average voters~ give a toss?

Or am I overthinking it? Is it a canny play to show the Greens are a party of integrity & thoughtfulness, as National would never go for it?

I really gotta finish reading [Anat Shenker-Osorio’s] “Don’t Buy It” and then review it for y’all. One of her key points when she was out here talking to the CTU is that “evidence” is incredibly useless in shifting political debates.

So that’s where my scepticism about a policy costings unit arises: I don’t see one more “independent” voice making a difference. We have all the evidence we could ask for about National’s economic mismanagement, over decades. But we still have a National government. People *just believe* National are better governers. They *just believe* Labour are useless, the Greens are hippies, & Winston is sensible. We cannot shake those beliefs by yelling “but have you looked at our spreadsheets???” at people.

We CAN provide counter-beliefs. And that’s why the Greens are going “look at our sensible, rational, fiscally-responsible approach.” It ain’t costed, it ain’t detailed, but every headline is going to say: the Greens care about independent cost-checking. That’s the win.

It’s hard to get into all this detail on Twitter, but we have a real problem in the progressive movement. We know our beliefs are objective and correct, and we’re convinced (just like everyone on the right) that we’ve formed these beliefs on the basis of evidence and rational consideration. Logically, presenting the evidence to other people will bring them to our side.

Unfortunately this is rubbish. Yet we insist on hammering people over the head with facts and evidence and write them off as “sleepy hobbits” or similar when they don’t react well to being lectured.

What this means – even if you could get half-a-dozen economists in a room who could actually agree on a simple numerical breakdown of policy cost, even if money were the only thing that matters in policy – is that a central policy costings unit would have zero real effect on political debate. And as long as we’re bringing “my facts are the best facts” to a “my leader is the coolest leader you’d have a beer with” fight, we’re going to lose.

Key’s state of the nation is today. I don’t expect much.

Andrew Little’s is on Sunday. What’s in it? Ideas I’ve heard (on Twitter/comments at The Standard) include a definitive statement about the TPPA, or a centrepiece policy for 2017 to inspire the troops. But I’ve no inkling myself!

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say once all is revealed.

Applying lessons: the way we talk about the TPP

Anyone who knows me in offline life has heard me raving about the awesomeness of Anat Shenker-Osorio this week. She was on Q&A yesterday (video requires Flash, sorry) and she’s been talking to a lot of union folk about how we communicate our ideas and what we need to change.

One of her messages is that facts aren’t enough. Evidence doesn’t work. Consider how the overwhelming evidence, across the world, is leftwing governments = economic prosperity and rightwing governments = economic bad times. If people voted based on evidence, our job would be done. They don’t. There are more factors in play. (And as the left, we really shouldn’t be surprised that people aren’t pure rational economic automata.)

I’ve been thinking about this and reading reactions to the TPP announcement. We’re worried because we don’t know the detail. We’re concerned because the estimated returns are so damn low. We have plenty of evidence that this is going to be bad for New Zealand. So why is it considered inevitable that it’ll be ratified without much fuss?

It illustrates a wider challenge for the left: re-tooling our thinking away from the surety that we’re the good guys and people are rational and therefore telling them the facts about how good we are will work!

will ferrell science

But facts alone don’t sway people. And even if they did, facts aren’t immutable, objective things. We’re all political nerds around here and gods know we love to have arguments about whether mean household income or median weekly wage is the technically-best way to sell the issue that people are underpaid. Your average voter, who doesn’t have time nor inclination to get knee-deep in gritty statistics, won’t engage with that.

Your average voter – who doesn’t understand GDP (*I* don’t understand GDP and I’m way nerdier than average) who doesn’t have perfect recollection of all our previous trade agreements (*I* barely remember any of them) and who probably operates on the basis that our leaders must at least sorta know what they’re doing – isn’t going to erect barricades in the streets over a disappointing Treasury forecast.

The It’s Our Future campaign has done a great job mobilising and organising opposition to the TPP. They’ve done it by saying this is a secret deal which will hurt New Zealand, our environment and Pharmac (I’m willing to bet most people don’t know how Pharmac works either, beyond “it’s a system that pays for my medicine”.) They’ve appealed to our gut – secrecy sounds sneaky; corporations don’t have our best interests at heart; we’re a special little nation and we have to protect our future.

There’s detail in there as well, but the core statements aren’t about plain, arguable facts. Yet a lot of us are hung up on them. And so people see Tim Groser shrugging, “It’s not perfect but we did our best and we’ll make it better down the line” and the opposition replying “Well the devil’s in the detail.”

Saying “the devil’s in the detail” really only reinforces that overall, it’s a good deal. It emphasises that our objections are nitpicking technical weirdo political nerd objections – not important ones which normal people would care about.

30 rock nerd rage

There are probably reasons for that beyond a simple failure to have read everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever written. There may be disagreements within the Labour Party which make it impossible for Andrew Little to just stand up and say “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this free trade agreement!” There may be people who actively want to encourage a little ambiguity, or hope this issue will go away if they don’t make too much fuss about it. I don’t know, and unlike certain rightwing folk who get columns in the NBR, I shan’t pretend to know.

taylor swift wink

But it’s an interesting study in how we talk about issues that we do genuinely want people to be engaged with. People need a reason to be engaged – and a big pile of facts or a long technical argument won’t do the trick.

Don’t meet the people where they are

It has been a ridiculously busy week, dear readers. On Wednesday we celebrated the launch of E tū, the new union formed from the merger of the EPMU and SFWU. And Thursday and Friday I had the great privilege of attending a workshop with Anat Shenker-Osorio, the author of Don’t Buy It and a thoroughly inspiring speaker on progressive politics and communication.

She’s on Q&A this Sunday, 9am on TV One, and I highly recommend tuning in. Here’s some tasters of her style and thinking.

On trying to capture the middle (which may make it obvious why I’m a fangirl):


On education and the language of investment:


On how we deal with inequality: