With the election campaign turning into almost five months of Same Old Hillary and Dangerous Donald, it’s time to look elsewhere if you want to talk about actually accomplishing something, and doing something good, in politics and government.
In October of 2014, I wrote a post entitled “Making Government Work Better – Something Everybody Can Agree On, Right?” That post talked about assessing laws against what they are supposed to achieve and rewriting them so they work better. I got the idea from New Zealand and said that it seemed to me to be “a concept that both right and left should be able to unite behind.”
Let me do some more of that, once again with an example from New Zealand. The National Party is heading a center-right government in New Zealand. The Finance Minister of that government, Bill English, has been talking about, and is actually starting to implement, something he calls “social investment.” The idea originally came from a review of the state-run Accident Compensation Commission in 2011. Back then it was called “forward liability investment approach,” and it “was applied to getting beneficiaries into paid work and keeping them there, thereby avoiding paying a lifetime’s benefit to them.”1
Some members of #NeverTrump are now ripping on House Speaker Paul Ryan. Even though Speaker Ryan has publicly criticized Donald Trump’s appalling complaints about the judge in the Trump University case and is working hard to develop a detailed House Republican program representing real Republican principles, Speaker Ryan has said he will vote for Mr. Trump and that puts him beyond the pale for many #NeverTrump-ers. George Will, for one, did it in his column on Monday.1 [See UPDATE below.]
I certainly understand Mr. Will’s views on Donald Trump, and I will not be voting for Mr. Trump myself. However, that does not mean I am going to accuse Speaker Ryan of, in effect, selling his soul to the devil (whether the Faust version or “Damn Yankees”). It is easy for columnists like Mr. Will (or bloggers like me) to act morally superior to politicians like Speaker Ryan for the choices they have to make. It’s easy to say #NeverTrump when it won’t affect your life or what you are trying to do in it. But for people such as Paul Ryan, who are in the battle and see some potential to actually do something good at some point, it is not so easy. And it is not for me to criticize the difficult choices they have to make – especially because it is sometimes not so easy to know which decision today will turn out to be the best one ten or fifteen years down the road. Let me give an example. From New Zealand (of course).
I recently read a book by Russ Roberts1, in which he talked about the importance of trust in life, both to make life nicer2 and to make economic life easier (and better). Our experiences in renting a car in Mexico (we went to the Yucatan peninsula in January 2015) and in New Zealand (in 2014) are a good example of Mr. Roberts’ point.
When we were in New Zealand, we took the ferry from Wellington to Picton, at the top of the South Island. We were going to pick up a car at the ferry terminal in Picton. There was a long line at each rental agency (a lot of people had taken the ferry). We were renting from Avis. When we got to the front of the line, the people at the desk just gave us the keys, told us where the car was, and said to come back if there are any problems with it. When we turned the car in three weeks later at the Christchurch airport, it was much the same: Here are the keys; send me the bill; good-bye.
The process in Mexico was very different. The line at the Avis counter in the airport in Cancun was much shorter, but it took much longer. Part of that may be that things go at a little slower pace in Mexico, but most of it was due to a lack of trust. It took the guy ahead of me a long time to return his car because they had found a small scratch they said was not on the car when he picked it up and he hadn’t purchased the insurance.
I have started a new blog/website. It is called “A Different New Zealand” and, perhaps not surprisingly, it can be found at www.adifferentnewzealand.com.
I have been interested in New Zealand for twenty years. Once I retired, we went there for six weeks. We saw a lot of things not on the usual tourist itinerary. This blog talks about them. Several posts are already up. More will be coming in the next few months. I hope you enjoy it.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email scandal (or brouhaha, whatever you want to call it) is being talked about all around the world. It came up in New Zealand over the weekend in connection with an investigation there as to whether text messages are official documents that need to be retained.
Since we are only dealing with e-mails in the U.S., as opposed to texts (or Instagram photos and videos1), New Zealand is clearly ahead of us in trying to figure out how to handle their records. New Zealand is also ahead of us in that there is an official investigation by the chief archivist as to whether Prime Minister John Key’s text messages are official documents that should not have been deleted.
Instead of John Key just saying the texts he deleted were personal and expecting everybody to accept that, New Zealand is having a real, independent investigation of the facts. That is a concept that seems to be foreign to a lot of people in Washington (or wanting to get back there).
Perhaps more interesting, however, is this article from The New York Times last Friday (Saturday’s print edition). It is not so much what the article says about former Secretary Clinton’s emails that is interesting, however. It is the description of how the federal government as a whole deals with emails – which shows it doesn’t do it well. There is clearly no effective government-wide policy on how e-mails are to be handled, just a mish-mash with each department and agency doing its own thing.
Peter Schuck, a professor emeritus at Yale Law School, has written a book called Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better. Not surprisingly, the book has received a lot of attention on the right, much of it from the “government-is-bad-and-this-proves-it” school, and very from the left.
Both of these are unfortunate. On the right, even if you think government shouldn’t be doing very much, you should still want the government to do what it does do as efficiently as possible. Mitch Daniels put it this way:
“As practitioners of limited by active government, we try not to let our skepticism about Big Government become contempt for all government.”*
There are things government needs to do, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t do those efficiently and effectively.
While one can see why some on the left might instinctively dislike a book with the title of Professor Schuck’s book, it is actually the left who should be most interested in what the book says. If you believe in government and if you want it to do more, then you ought to want government to be effective. When government fails at something, it gives government a bad name, which makes it easier for the right to argue that government should do less. If you think government can be a force for good, why wouldn’t you want to figure out how government can succeed more and fail less?
New Zealand has an election coming up this Saturday. Given the way the United States (and Illinois) spends money, I thought this political ad from the National Party* was interesting:
Look again at the first two promises in National’s economic plan:
“One, we’ll live within our means. Two, we’ll start paying off debt.”
And the amazing thing is they mean it. In the early 1990s New Zealand’s gross government debt as a percentage of GDP was around 60%, slightly less than the United States. By 2007, under both National and Labour-led governments, the level was cut to 20%. Due to the global economic crisis, debt levels increased back above 30% since 2008** (here and here), but the government is projecting a slight surplus in the current fiscal year and actually paying down debt thereafter (here and here).
It’s amazing. It shows what a country can do when it wants to, both its voters and its politicians. Unfortunately, it seems that the United States (and Illinois) has neither the politicians nor the voters who care about this.
One final point: New Zealand is a small country. (It has slightly fewer people than Louisiana) If it needs money, it has to borrow it. It can’t just print money. Actually, I suppose it could print money, but after a very short while who would take New Zealand’s money to buy things from overseas? A small country in a global economy has to run a sound economic policy and a sound budget. At some point, it will be necessary for the United States (and Illinois) to do the same. The longer we wait to start to get our budgets in shape, the harder – and more painful – it will be when we finally have to do it. ---------- * The National Party is currently heading up a center-right coalition in New Zealand. New Zealand has a mixed-member proportional representation system very similar to Germany’s. The result is that almost all governments are coalitions.
** Comparable figures for the United Sates would be a little over 60% in 2007 and 100% today (here and here).
The Chicago Tribune had an editorial Monday, “To fix Obamacare, start here,” putting forth “[t]he case for removing the employer mandate.” But it wasn’t the question of whether or not to eliminate the employer mandate that caught my attention. Rather, it was all of the confusion and uncertainty that has revolved, and continues to revolve, around the mandate for employers. Consider:
Last year the mandate was temporarily suspended for some employers for one year. For employers with 100 or more employees, it now kicks in next year. For those with between 50 and 99 employees, it’s not until 2016 – unless it gets delayed yet again.
Businesses are trying to figure out if it’s better to provide coverage or pay penalties or keep the company small enough (and/or workers’ hours short enough) so that the law doesn’t apply.
As the Tribune said: “The ever-shifting rules and delays have left employers guessing.”
It was with that (and a lot of other rules being proposed by the Obama administration) in mind that I read the comments made by Bill English, New Zealand Finance Minister, after the government there proposed its budget for the next year:
“Governments need to create an environment of stability and good incentives for [businesses] to grow the economy. Businesses need confidence the rules will not shift and the Government is not one of the risks they have to manage.”
The concept is so obvious, and yet so far from the way things are in Washington (or in Springfield, for those who unfortunately live in Illinois), that it is stunning.
“Government should not be a risk business has to manage.” Yes, right. But that’s not the way it is. Laws are being passed. Regulations are being issued. There is always some new requirement, and its often unclear what it says or means. Maybe this is one of the reasons the recovery is so slow. Maybe it’s not the Fed; maybe it’s the government. Maybe we need a government that is not a “risk” that “has to be managed.” For any of us.