Thursday 14 July 2011

Offering the other kid’s bat.

“Offering the other kid’s bat” is a metaphor I use in my welfare economics class for a certain type of government policy. The reference is to an experience I had way back when I was in Standard 3 (translation for younger New Zealanders, Year 5; translation for North Americans, 4th grade). We used to play schoolyard cricket at lunchtimes. The two key things to understand about our version was that, like real cricket, there were two players batting at any one time, and that, unlike real cricket, the way you get to bat was by being the person who made the decisive move in getting a batsman out, by taking a catch, effecting a run-out, or bowling the ball that hit the stumps. In this meritocracy, those of us who were not well endowed with sporting talent rarely got to enjoy the sought-after activity of batting. But I did get my chance one day when a ball got hit irretrievably onto a classroom roof and one of the boys who was batting at the time offered to let me bat if I let them use a ball I had brought to school that day. There was no cost to me from this trade, so I thought it more a generous act of social welfare from the boy making the offer rather than a market trade. To my horror, however, he promptly went over to the other boy who was batting, wrenched the bat out of his hand gave it to me and continued batting himself. (To my embarrassment, I have to admit that I accepted the stolen property.)

Many years later, I noticed how often public-policy rhetoric, particularly in election years, plays out essentially the same exercise of offering the other kid's bat: Group A are asked to demonstrate their commitment to social justice by agreeing to take from Group B to give to Group C.
I am reminded of this whenever I see calls for a higher minimum wage. Forget the debate about whether the minimum wage is an effective anti-poverty measure (probably not), or whether there are offsetting employment effects (probably true, but probably generally small), what is the morality of placing the burden of anti-poverty measures only on employers?
And I see echoes of offering the other kid’s bat today in the Labour Party’s tax policy, which according their leader is “bold”, will allow the government to “keep our assets, pay off debt, and create a stronger economy”, and yet will see “the overwhelming majority of kiwis paying less tax not more”. As far as I can see, this combination is not the result of a rosy scenario projection of the impact of the policy on growth, but rather an indication of the expected tax increases on the underwhelming minority.
Note that this is not a comment on Labour’s tax policy per se. I happen to think the policy is awful (more on that in later posts), but each of the component pieces can be reasonably debated on its merits. It is the packaging of the policy with the word “bold” while saying that the majority are getting a tax cut with no downside that is grating on me. And to be fair to Labour, the offering the other kid’s bat rhetoric is not unique to them but is a universal feature of political discourse. But it still makes me grumpy. (So grumpy that I am reduced to starting consecutive sentences with a conjunction!)

No comments:

Post a Comment