Escaping the beartrap: good policy costs money

I wrote a while back about Metiria Turei’s 2016 state of the nation address, and my reservations about the idea of an “independent” policy costings unit. I said:

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.

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.

But there’s another fundamental issue at stake (which is why I’m not feeling too awkward raising this weeks later, when the policy has already made its ripples and been drowned out by the TPPA, Waitangi Day, and yes, that novelty cock-and-balls.)

This is the great millstone around the neck of the left: we keep buying into the idea that money is the most important thing in the political debate. So we keep making reassuring noises about balancing the books and delivering a surplus and careful management of the economy.

How’s that working for us so far?

Labour’s tertiary education policy is “fiscally neutral”. That was emphasised in its announcement. Did that stop the first question, from every journalist, being “what will it cost?” No. Does it mean that we would only be getting two years’ free tertiary education if the numbers didn’t add up? I hope not.

We’re trying to avoid the bear-trap of being labelled profligate spendy lefties without realising it’s already got our legs, it’s had them for thirty years, and it’s not letting go. And yet we drag it along, agreeing with National that public spending must be reasonable and public servants mustn’t be allowed nice things like a bit of pounamu or a hair straightener in the bathroom.

When we attack any “overspend” – staff gifts or Christmas parties, new fixtures in the bathrooms – we may grab headlines, but we also reinforce in the public mind that government spending is wasteful.

People don’t hang around to get to the second part of the argument – this spending is ridiculous because of the context in which so many public services are being ground away into nothing.

They’ll accept that letting health funding stagnate is a bad thing. Everyone knows we need more doctors and nurses. Everyone has a hospital horror story. But as long as we’re waving hair straighteners in their faces, all we’re saying is: the rest of it is rubbish. We’re not showing that what’s needed is a massive increase in public spending – on health, on education, on social support, on infrastructure.

“Just take away the hair straighteners”, they’ll say. And the Tories will cackle into their merlot as we make it even easier for them to say “right, public servants don’t get pay rises or hot water, gotta tighten those belts some more” next time they’re in power. (Shortly followed by, “we told you the public service was useless; better privatise the police force!”)

But it’s not sustainable. You can’t keep slapping duct tape on the broken waterpipe forever. It might hold for a while, it might save you in the costs of a replacement for now, but eventually the whole thing has to be properly fixed, and it only costs more the longer you wait and the more damage you let happen.

So we have an difficult decision to make. We can smash the beartrap. We can start making the argument that public spending is a public good. That the only downside of massively increasing our health and education budgets is that Kiwi kids will be a healthy little pack of nerds and the accountants will get sulky. That we might put the books in the red, but that’s because we have to repair the foundations to rebuild the New Zealand we all dream about.

Or we can keep doing the same thing. We can try to reason with the beartrap, telling ourselves that if only we show it enough graphs about Labour government surpluses it’ll change its mind and let us go, and the nation’s political editors will stop yelling “tax and spend!!!” every time we blink.

You know what I’d pick. I’m all about bold, unapologetically leftwing politics. How ’bout you?

Costly government

I wrote yesterday about our heartless, penny-pinching government, which emphasises Getting To Surplus at all costs even if that means kids dying in cold state houses.

This is the true irony of National governments. Their entire platform is one of “fiscal responsibility” and “good economic management” yet time and time again they spend money the way I did when I was a teenager: false economies and short-term wish fulfilment which meant at the end of the week I was calling home collect and begging for rides which cost our household a lot more than if I’d just made sure I had enough money for the bus.

Fifteen-year-old-me was pretty stellar at externalising the losses, but I don’t think anyone, especially my parents or me, would relish the idea of her running the country.

National are, on the surface, all about cracking down on unnecessary spending and bureaucratic bloat, delivering value for money, getting proper returns on investment.

And yet, they don’t save us money.

A 2013 report of the National Health Committee on respiratory diseases puts the cost of lower respiratory tract infections like pneumonia at:

The average length of stay was about 3.5 days and the average price per hospitalised individual was $4,700.

According to the coroner’s report, Emma-Lita Bourne was admitted to hospital on 6 August and died on 8 August. Three days; and probably higher than average costs given the complications she suffered.

Making sure her family could afford to heat their home and throw some carpet on the floor wouldn’t have cost $5,000 – and could not only have saved her life in 2014 but prevented any number of future illnesses for her and her siblings.

A 2014 report from UNICEF states:

Every year, taxpayers face a bill of $6-8 billion for additional health needs, remedial education and reduced productivity that result from 260,000 children living in poverty.  This cost is largely due to the fact that children most likely to be in poverty are very young, when the most important physical, mental and social development is occurring.  Furthermore, a large group of children live in poverty for a long time – 7 years – and about ten per cent of Kiwi Kids live in severe poverty.

Six to eight billion. What was the estimated cost of Hone Harawira’s Feed the Kids bill again? $100 million. Estimated cost of Sue Moroney’s extension to paid parental leave? $276 million over three years. Drops in a bucket.

The Greens-initiated housing insulation policy had, as of May 2012, cost $347 million and returned estimated benefits – in reduced healthcare costs – of $1.68 billion. That’s some good fiscal management right there.

And as the fabulous Dr Liz Craig put it a couple of years ago:

… a housing warrant of fitness could improve the condition of rental properties, and although it could increase rents, at the moment all taxpayers are covering the costs of substandard housing through the health system and it’s a conversation the country needs to have.

Emphasis mine.

It’s almost like the radical notion that prevention is better than cure stacks up – ethically and financially. Maybe not on a single year’s balance sheet; but when we’re talking about caring for people from cradle to grave, a single year’s balance sheet is irrelevant.

So if National were truly interested in efficiencies and return on investment – instead of just using those buzzwords to sell their latest erosion of the public service – every state house would be warm and dry. Every kid would get breakfast and lunch. Every parent could give their kids the best start in life with mum or dad at home for those crucial early months.

Sometimes people on the left object to putting things in monetary terms – when the Public Service Association put the cost of domestic violence to business in numbers ($368 million a year) there was criticism: surely we’re motivated to stop domestic violence because it’s a bad thing which should never happen to anyone!

They’re right. They’re also wrong. This is a heartless government. They don’t do things “just because” it’s the right thing to do. Their focus is always on the money: they balance the books, they do the practical stuff, not the wasteful airy-fairy lefty stuff.

So we must, and can, argue this on both fronts. Of course every Kiwi kid should get breakfast and lunch because food is a fundamental part of being healthy and happy. But it’s also not just feelgood. It saves a huge amount of money in the long run, in education, in healthcare, in law enforcement.

It doesn’t mean we accept the frame that everything is about money. We just show very clearly how doing the right thing morally also means doing the right thing financially. The National Party isn’t selling our soul to save dollars; it’s selling our soul and costing us money at the same time.

That can’t be anyone’s definition of “good government.”

QOTD on being “fiscally conservative but socially liberal”

From Greta Christina at Raw Story, Here are 7 things people who say they’re ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal’ don’t understand:

You can’t separate fiscal issues from social issues. They’re deeply intertwined. They affect each other. Economic issues often are social issues. And conservative fiscal policies do enormous social harm. That’s true even for the mildest, most generous version of “fiscal conservatism” — low taxes, small government, reduced regulation, a free market. These policies perpetuate human rights abuses. They make life harder for people who already have hard lives. Even if the people supporting these policies don’t intend this, the policies are racist, sexist, classist (obviously), ableist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise socially retrograde. In many ways, they do more harm than so-called “social policies” that are supposedly separate from economic ones. Here are seven reasons that “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” is nonsense.

If you care about marginalized people — if you care about the oppression of women, LGBT people, disabled people, African Americans and Hispanics and other people of color — you need to do more than go to same-sex weddings and listen to hip-hop. You need to support economic policies that make marginalized people’s lives better. You need to oppose economic policies that perpetuate human rights abuses and make marginalized people’s lives suck.