Saturday 12 November 2011

Playing the crowd

Stephen Franks sees clearly:
My revulsion is at seeing Phil Goff and other people I know to be patriotic and intelligent New Zealanders trapped into pretending that they believe in dopey policies (like vandalising our efficient GST with piecemeal exemptions) and dopey arguments (like claiming significance to lost dividend streams on SOE shares sold, without admitting that they may be less than the interest cost savings from borrowing avoided with the proceeds of sale).  David Cunliffe pretending that increasing the minimum wage and opposing restoration of a youth wage will have only a "marginal" effect on unemployment is as sick-making as watching Bill English having to pretend that John Key's dedication to the current superannuation policy is statesmanlike.
Labour (and National) are trapped into many policy and  debate positions that you and I may correctly believe to be stupid. But the Leaders are not talking to us. The major parties must now ruthlessly focus on their conversations with the swing voters in the middle. Only their votes matter. And not many of those voters know enough of public affairs to be worth talking to for long or in any depth about matters fiscal, or indeed any other complexity. Elections are won and lost on whether the causes espoused and the arguments used – as boiled down to the 10-15 words on each point that might get through the media filter to nationwide TV -  will make the Leader look like a nice non-scary, familiar and safe person to the 10-15% of voters who swing to vague sentiment. 
I was not surprised to read in a Herald report yesterday morning of the vox pop interview with a woman who will vote for John Key and thinks he leads the Labour Party.  Many of the swing voters would pay less attention to policy and politics than most New Zealanders would pay to World Wide (WWE) Wrestling. Both are now similarly staged.
My revulsion is from watching and listening to smart well-meaning men and women betraying their intelligence in demeaning debate, offering policies and justifications they know to be nonsense, or even worse, bad for their country, because of how they are forced to engage under the dynamics of elections in lazy democracies like ours. It is shared across the english speaking world.
The main exceptions: earnest idealists who ought to know better but don't (the Greens' Gareth Hughes) and those with so little chance of affecting outcomes that they can afford not to pander (ACT's Stephen Whittington, though I expect he'd not pander regardless of his position).

It may be worse than Franks thinks. In equilibrium where voters cannot tell what policy works but can sniff out liars, politics selects not for the panderer but for the demagogue who actually believes his own rot.

I hereby propose that, on election day, TV1 hold a Coronation Street Marathon with special new episodes and new scandalous character developments throughout the day. TV2 can do the same with Shortland Street. TV3 can air highlights from the Rugby World Cup. Meanwhile, we put on a V8 Supercar race someplace sufficiently distant from any polling place combined with nearby classes in spiritualism, healing, and crystals. And, crucially, that all of this be set and heavily advertised now so that political parties can adjust policies to suit the median of those who would still turn out to vote. It's apparently passé to support knowledge tests for voters. But why not raise the opportunity costs for those who would otherwise reduce the average quality of the ballot?

I don't advocate voting. But if you do decide to vote, you have a duty to not reduce the quality of the median vote.


  1. Well said! An excellent idea! This one-man one-vote is rubbish, we'd be better off picking 100 people like we do juries. Ideally we'd be better off removing the compulsion on taxation, then let any perosn in power convince us to pay for his dreams voluntarily.

    Still, getting rid of the dross is the first step.

  2. I had a conversation the other day with a couple of folk advocating compulsory voting. Such a ludicrous idea, yet seems to have a fair bit of traction out there. They didn't seem to understand that compulsion would in no way improve the quality of the votes cast or the outcome of said election. And of course I got the "well, if you don't vote you can't complain about the outcome!" comment. I say bollocks to that.

    Having said that, I like to vote. I'm one of those odd fish who gets a warm fuzzy feeling from participating in the democratic process even though I am fully aware of the relative insignificance of my individual ballot choice.

  3. @Lats: if you enjoy doing it, it's not irrational to do! It's only irrational if you think you're affecting the outcome. You've a duty not to reduce the average quality of the vote, and you wouldn't, so have fun!

  4. @Eric - indeed, and thanks for the compliment.

    I get very frustrated by people who come up with these wacky ideas, but can't think them through to their logical end-points. I had a heated conversation with someone who wanted to get rid of MMP. I asked why, and her response was because it allowed weirdos like Hone Harawera, the Greens, and the Maori Party into parliament. I made the comment that in the case of the Greens at least, a significant minority of the population actually voted for them, and that didn't those 250,000 odd people deserve to have their voice heard in the house? (plucking a figure out of the air there, but I shouldn't be out by too many hopefully.) It turns out she was simply a bigot who objected to anyone who she didn't like being allowed a voice in parliament, so she was pretty happy with the Nats and Labour, but the minor parties were all too weird and radical for her liking, so should be banned.

    Sure, MMP needs a tweak or two to improve it, but I don't want to go back to the old 2 party system where so many of our votes really didn't count. If you lived in a strongly blue or red electorate there really was no point in voting, and only if you happened to live in one of the swing seats was there any reall likelihood that your vote made any difference at all. And yes, I know that individually my vote has little impact on the result, but cumulatively under MMP they at least matter. Under FPP it is theoretically possible for a party to get fewer votes overall but be able to form the government (this happened in 1978), and that simply isn't right.

  5. @Lats: You can make a pretty good argument that, under FPP, the interests of those minor party votes get incorporated into the policy platform decisions of the two main parties. So instead of ACT folks perhaps getting their policy views incorporated into policy by post-election negotiations, ACT voters would roll into the National Party and have some influence on the party's platform-setting. There's some increase in small party influence under MMP, but those voters' influence wouldn't be zero under FPP.

  6. @Eric Possibly, but my preference still lies with a system of proportional representation.