The Dim-Post

June 28, 2012

The whisperer in darkness

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:43 am

Vernon Small writes about David Shearer’s recent showing as Labour leader (‘a work in progress’) and argues that he’s quelled doubts about his leadership due to improved performance.

On TV just being himself, in shows like Back Benches or Would I Lie to You, he has been a revelation; relaxed, funny and engaging.

In the House he is still far from electric, but far more fluent. Press conferences are still a challenge, though.

Some hesitancy has gone, and his briefing lines come to him more easily.

But when a question comes from left field I swear you can hear the cogs whirring as he seems to go through a sort of internal interrogation. What is our policy? Is this an elephant trap? Where does the caucus and the party stand? Am I sticking my neck out?

And his answers are often mushy and unconvincing on key economic and financial issues.

I haven’t seen the TV shows or press conferences Vernon refers to – actually I haven’t seen much of Shearer at all, recently. My impression is that Labour has moved to an informal co-leadership model, and while I still have no idea what Shearer stands for, and suspect he was made leader far too early in his political career, I don’t have any doubts  about Grant Robertson’s convictions or his ability to put together and run a very high caliber government in 2014. My only real criticism of the party as it stands is that it seems absurd not to give Cunliffe the Finance portfolio, given the standard of his recent speeches on the state of the economy, National’s dire performance in this area and Labour’s inability to get traction on the issue despite everything.

June 26, 2012

Dual mode government and diminishing returns of crushing

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:47 am

Our current National government operates in two different modes. There’s their real, substantive agenda – asset sales, increased exploitation of the environment, slashing the public service (sacking teachers, gutting ACC) etc – most of which is unpopular with the majority of voters. So to distract the electorate they have their gimmick based agenda: cracking down on boat people when we don’t have any boat people, Paula Bennett announcing that she was going to do ‘something’ about child abuse, Key’s latest stunt in which he’s vowed to do ‘something’ to get 20,000 people off the unemployment benefit. (Still no word on when these clowns are going to do ‘something’ about our balance of trade deficit or net external debt.)

The epitome of the gimmick based agenda was Judith Collins’ car crushing scheme: a policy designed solely around the PR possibilities of a Cabinet Minister compacting some teenagers’ car in front of a media scrum. This finally happened a couple of days ago and the TV news shows duly lead with new police Minister Anne Tolley dancing around on top of the flattened wreck.

But my totally unscientific impression, gleaned from talking to non-politics junkies and eavesdropping on strangers on the bus is that this PR gimmick misfired. For most people a car is the most valuable or second-most valuable thing that they own. They can understand confiscating cars and auctioning them – but for the government to destroy them and then have a senior Minister dance around on top of them in heels in the midst of our current age of austerity doesn’t seem to sit well with Joe and Sally public.

Which makes me wonder how long National can keep selling their gimmick, distraction based agenda. Surely you can only announce plans to reform the welfare system or fight child abuse so many times before the public notice that you’re not actually doing anything, other than making a lot of noise while quietly implementing policies they really dislike.

June 25, 2012

A prediction

Filed under: psuedopolitics — danylmc @ 4:39 pm

National’s third term will just consist of Key, Paula Bennett and Judith Collins standing at the podium in the Beehive media room announcing ‘plans’ to get tough on criminals and/or beneficiaries and/or teenagers, in rotating eight hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day for three years.

First do no harm

Filed under: economics,education — danylmc @ 8:33 am

Maui Street has a piece by Kelvin Davis summarising John Hattie’s research on 138 possible measures for improving education, which is the work that National and Treasury – supposedly – based their education reforms on:charter schools, league tables, performance pay, larger class sizes, improving teacher performance.

Charter Schools have an effect size of 0.20, or the 107th out of the 133 strategies that have some positive effect. Charter Schools are therefore an extremely pointless and expensive strategy.

There are still 40 strategies that are deemed pointless, but, are still more effective than Charter Schools.

Quality of teaching is 56/138. Professional development for teachers was 19/138. Teacher League tables and performance pay simply don’t register in Hattie’s research.

(I should also point out that very few of the studies in Hattie’s meta-analysis were conducted in New Zealand. And we have a very unusual education system: it performs better than most OECD countries, even though we spend less money on it. So things that might be ‘low hanging fruit’ that yield great gains in other education systems might have no effect here, because we’re already performing at a very high level.)

I was also interested to see that Hattie’s measurement of class size – the much vaunted claim that ‘it makes no difference’ (106/138) was in regards to classes that reduced in size from 25 to 15. National planned to change the range from 23-29 students/teacher to a set ratio of 27.5 students/teacher. They still think it was the correct thing to do, even though the very research that they cite fails to endorse this view.

But maybe they’re right! Who knows? Well, we have this amazing way of figuring out if things are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – it’s called the scientific method. You come up with a theory, test it and see what happens. If I was the Treasury Secretary, or the Minister of Education and I wanted to find out if these things did make a difference I’d run right out and set up some small scale trials in some classrooms, and measure the results, comparing them to normal classrooms in the same school. Seems to work? Let’s implement it across a bunch of different schools across the country and monitor them, and so on.

That’s how every other scientific discipline works, but for some reason (most) economists don’t roll like that – especially not the ones we have running our Treasury. When it comes to economics and public policy, the procedure is that economists come up with a theory, assume that they’re correct, even though they’ve made some really, really stupid mistakes in the very recent past and try and impose their theory on vital social infrastructure like the national education system without any empirical evidence whatsoever.

Unless we see a lot more humility, and a lot more actual science – in terms of empiricism and falsification – we should simply stop listening to those people.

June 24, 2012

Didn’t we learn anything from the finance company debacle?

Filed under: finance — danylmc @ 12:16 pm

The Herald on Sunday commissioned a poll showing that 64% of the country oppose asset sales, but that 60% of the country would purchase shares in those same assets if they had the money.

This is something that’s always bugged me about the whole ‘mum and dad’ investors trope. ‘Ordinary mums and dads’ shouldn’t buy shares. They especially shouldn’t buy shares in a bunch of companies that all do the same thing, ie power companies.

They should invest money into their KiwiSaver accounts, in which the government will stake them a thousand dollars and partially match their contributions. If their provider’s analysis shows that the assets being sold are worth the purchase price of the shares, they’ll buy them (without the cost of the transaction fees mum and dad have to pay when they trade) and reinvest the dividends across a broad range of equities based on mum and dad’s risk profile. They’ll also monitor the company’s performance and sell down if they aren’t happy (if, say, the companies are so badly mismanaged the shares become worthless, something that isn’t too unlikely given that we’re talking about the New Zealand business sector here).

June 23, 2012

The last piece in the ACC puzzle

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 11:01 am

Via Adam Bennett in the Herald:

The proportion of long-term ACC clients moving on to benefits has surged since the corporation adopted a tough new stance, which has fuelled allegations that they are being forced off compensation before they are rehabilitated.

. . . figures show that the proportion of long-term claimants leaving ACC and going on to health-related, unemployment or domestic purposes benefits rose sharply from early 2009.

In the five years to 2008, the proportion going on to benefits was 12.1 per cent, but during 2009 that rose to 16.4. In the first five months of 2010, the most recent data held by ACC, the proportion rose to 19.4 per cent.

National likes to portray itself as ‘fiscally responsible’, bringing ‘real world’ skills and business acumen to government. Well this is as fiscally irresponsible as you can get. ACC claimants who transition back into work become taxpayers: an asset to the state, while beneficiaries are a fiscal liability.

But under National, ACC aren’t incentivised into transitioning people back into work – they’re only incentivised to get people off their corporation’s books, and its easier for ACC staff to move people onto welfare and collect a nice bonus than it is to transition them back into paid work.

Since they came into government National has spent a LOT of time and energy ranting about getting touch on beneficiaries and reforming the welfare system to reduce benefit dependency, while at the same time they’ve retooled ACC into an organisation that increases the number of beneficiaries.

Update: Adam Bennett from the Herald comments on his story:

The reduction of 3,644 long term claimants is a net figure. There were, according to the figures I got from ACC, just under 9000 “1st time entries” over the period. Therefore somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 long term claimants left ACC over the period.

The second thing is I don’t think you can assume that if these people didn’t go on benefit they went into employment. Based on emails I received in response to this story some folks didn’t get work and for whatever reason weren’t eligible for a benefit. Suffice it to say they weren’t particularly happy about this state of affairs.

June 18, 2012

Logical disjunction watch

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 10:23 am

Via DPF, Labour are hot on the trail of John Key’s ghost twitter followers. Clare Curran links to an analysis of Key’s twitter account, comparing Key’s followers to those of other MPs and concludes that many of them are ‘ghosts’, ie they have no avatar picture, no tweets, no followers etc. Other MPs like Curran, Russel Norman and David Shearer have about a 26% ‘ghost follower’ rate: John Key’s is up around the 57% mark! Is the Prime Minister buying twitter followers?

I doubt it. The problem with this comparison is that Key has way, way more followers than any of the people he’s been compared to. Key has >50,000 followers; Clare Curran has <2,500. Maybe once you attract a high number of normal followers you start to get a high ratio of spam and monitoring accounts following you? I note that Piri Weepu has ~52,000 followers, and scrolling through it looks as though a high ratio count as ghost followers. You really need to compare the PM to people like him, or other heads of state. Although there’s still a control problem – how do we know that Piri Weepu hasn’t paid money for Twitter followers???

(I would do this myself, but Twitter has changed their authentication API, and I don’t have time to mess around with their new format. Anyone else wants to crunch this I’ll be happy to post the results.)

June 14, 2012

The vision vacuum

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 2:23 pm

I’m not sure why National are in government. Or, at least, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to think they’re doing in government. Their election vision statement was ‘a brighter future’, wed to fixing the economy – but once re-elected Treasury assured them that the economy was going to be awesome anyway, so they didn’t need to do anything. Bill English now mutters about helping business by recalibrating the microeconomy. (I assume this is code for smashing the unions and lowering wages.)

In the past few days Treasury has tweaked their forecasts a bit – instead of robust economic growth we might be headed for a depression. Bill English concedes we may be in for ‘fifteen years of grumpy growth’. The Reserve Bank has lowered its growth forecasts and thinks English’s all-important surplus in 2014/15 will be a two billion dollar deficit. Apparently John Key’s financial genius doesn’t extend to growing the economy when its not growing anyway.

National’s other great task is the re-organisation of the public service to make it more ‘efficient’, which mostly seems to involve sacking as many public servants as possible and replacing them with Paula Rebstock. I’d argue that the budget debacle in which Treasury and the Education Minister accidentally(?) sacked most of the country’s intermediate teachers, then backed down while insisting it was ‘still the right thing to do’ has destroyed their credibility on this issue.

But I still don’t see a coherent critique of the government from either opposition party. They’ve been on the offensive and gaining in the polls, because how could they not – but it still seems very piecemeal. My sense is that this government is vulnerable to attack on the issue of ‘corporate cronyism’ – that almost of their policy ideas involve sweetheart deals with (usually foreign owned) corporations to increase their profits by transferring costs and/or risk onto the New Zealand taxpayer. (Today’s leaked TPP document is just the latest manifestation of this.)

And we still don’t know what Labour’s alternate vision is. David Shearer gave two ‘state-of-the-nation’ speeches which were so dire they prompted speculation of a leadership coup, so he’s been very quiet recently which seems to be working well for him. David Cunliffe is still giving leadership speeches, most recently to the Kensington Swan Insolvency function (metaphor?). And, via Jordan, I see that Chris Trotter and Josie Pagani are locked in battle over whether Trotters pre-1970s ideals or Pagani’s 1990s Blairite real-politik are the best fit for Labour in 2014.

I think National will lose the 2014 election, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Labour’s turn-out slumps still further, because no one knows what the hell they stand for, and National get back in with a plurality and form a government with New Zealand First and the Conservative Party as partners.

June 12, 2012

The approved spam comments thread

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 9:50 am

I thought it would be pretty funny to set up a thread in which the spam comments all get approved. (Note: this might not actually be that funny.)

What next?

Filed under: Politics,polls — danylmc @ 9:15 am

Peter has modified the tracking poll script a little, using an adaptive smoother, with the comment:

It gives slightly more credible results (at the cost of some oversensitive end-effect weirdness)

The page is here. Rob Salmond has also updated his poll o’ polls.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. I think we’re about to see National’s bid to change the conversation, win back the political initiative, set the agenda, all that good stuff – coming at us in the next few days. This may consist of the standard diversion tactics: ‘cracking down’ on whoever, provoking a fight with the unions or Maori or civil liberty groups, or announcing that they’re considering something crazy which they won’t actually do – but I suspect we’ll see something more substantive.

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