Wednesday 11 January 2017

Happy New Year

New Year's resolutions had always seemed a little silly to me: If something is worth doing, why would you need to make a resolution about it? But publicly proclaiming your intentions to do better can constrain you against doing worse. Others can observe your actions and judge your failures.

New Year's resolutions make it a little bit harder to give into temptation. And those wanting even stronger constraints can always choose them: promising a big donation to the charity of choice for anyone catching you breaking your resolutions can do the trick.

These kinds of resolutions work because there are always friends or family who want to help you to help yourself. Finding ways of breaking the spirit of the resolution while keeping to its letter doesn’t work when someone who knows you well is monitoring things.

As much as the government likes to tut-tut individuals’ private choices about whether to eat, drink and be merry, the government has a harder time than we do in tying its own hands.
From my column in 23 December's NBR (ungated here). I suggest a couple of resolutions the government might consider, and ways of making them stick:
Most importantly, it should resolve to restore Auckland’s housing affordability. Although this is a matter of zoning decisions and infrastructure provision, Auckland Council operates within rules and incentives created by central government – as Mr Key recognised in 2007.

Resolving that the price of the median house in Auckland would not be more than, say, nine times median household income next year, with a declining ratio from there, would be a start. Setting up the infrastructure and zoning policies that would automatically be triggered if housing affordability were not restored would make the resolution credible.

Prime Minister Bill English should commit his government to two further resolutions, both drawing on his experience as minister of finance. His was only one voice of many in the cabinet. If another minister put forward a proposal with a weak regulatory impact statement or poor cost-benefit assessment, Mr English had to pick his battles.

But as prime minister, he could resolve that the cabinet will no longer consider proposals with inadequate support. Ultimately, ministries’ rigour in preparing documentation in support of policies depends on whether the cabinet has any demand for rigour. Providing that demand should be a New Year's resolution against ministerial excesses.

Finally, the government should resolve to embed the changes Mr English started as finance minister: testing the effects of welfare policies to see which work and measuring outcomes against long-term fiscal liabilities.

The Treasury recently put up an excellent Outcomes Catalogue Tool showing the government’s initiatives, the outcomes those initiatives target and how those outcomes are measured. Resolving to make that an annual release, along with the figures showing whether things are on track, would be an excellent way of making these changes last.

We all face temptations. Individuals have lots of ways of overcoming these, even if the government is often a bit too dismissive of our ability to do so. It’s time the government took its own self-control issues seriously and made a few resolutions for a better 2017.
Apologies for the break in posting. I took a Christmas holiday with the family up to Tauranga and then to New Plymouth and didn't bring a computer along. Pokemon Level 32: Achieved. I think one of my Pokemon is still on a gym up there.

I was to have been back on deck this Monday, but came down with some kind of plague Friday night from which I'm recovering. High fever in the middle of the night brings interesting dreams though:
Unfortunately, I woke up before I could tell whether there were really a shinigami involved or just a standard cursed typewriter.

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