Blog Bits

August 8th, 2008 at 2:47 pm by David Farrar

Four interesting blog pieces – all from “professional” journalists also. First off is Nick Stride, editor of The Independent:

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen was on even shakier ground when he tried to paint National leader John Key’s debt raising and infrastructure investment strategy as a ruinous policy designed to hide borrowing to fund tax cuts.

If memory serves, it wasn’t so long ago Labour was attacking National for the speed with which it was pushing national debt levels down to 30% of GDP.

Now it’s on the attack over plans to lift that ratio from 20% to 22% a rise so insignificant it will barely register at the sovereign rating agencies.

The fact is, New Zealand ranks high among OECD countries in terms of its debt-to-GDP, and in the bottom half in terms of its infrastructure. It therefore makes perfect sense to allow the two to come a little closer together, to everybody’s benefit.

It’s true, as Vernon Small points out in his column on page 24, there’s no free lunch; the extra debt envisioned by National will have to be serviced, reducing the amount government can spend elsewhere.

But it’s not a zero-sum business in which a dollar spent on infrastructure is a dollar that must be taken from health or education. According to research conducted in 2004 by Macquarie Research Economics, every 1% rise in infrastructure spending can be expected to lift GDP 0.5%.

This is what the debate should be about – whether the return on the capital and the interest on borrowing is a good investment – will it lead to higher economic growth. Instead we have had a near Taliban like mentality – that any extra borrowing is madness and Muldoonism.

The Dom Post’s Vernon Small also blogs on this issue:

Yes, National’s plan to increase gross debt to 22% of GDP is conservative. But maintaining it two percentage points above Labour’s target does bend the party-political continuum.

Since when did centre-right parties run a looser fiscal regime than centre-left ones?

It is somewhat ironic. My non serious answer is since Labour started believing in tax cuts. My serious answer is that centre right parties see a difference between borrowing and expenditure on social spending, and borrowing for expenditure on capital works.

No, National cannot credibly say it is raising $750 million in borrowing only for infrastructure and not for tax cuts. Residual borrowing is the net impact of a complete revenue raising and spending programme, though there are good accountability reasons why politicians should explain how new programmes affect the mix.

Finance Minister Michael Cullen is also happy to let debt rise over the next few years, driven by a tax-cut programme. So it is a relativist, not absolutist, debate. They may as well argue they are borrowing to cover the impact on government revenue of the current recession.

Yes if National is borrowing for tax cuts, so are Labour. As I did a long winded post on last weekend, you have a current account and a capital account, and the cashflow funds both those things.

He isn’t a blogger but Keith Rankin writes in support of infrastructure spending:

Helen Clark and Michael Cullen are describing National’s proposal to borrow in order to fund infrastructure projects “incredible”, meaning foolhardy and irresponsible. (“Key unveils plan to borrow, PM dubs it ‘hilarious”‘ – NZ Herald August 4, 2008.) All Clark and Cullen are doing is showing how out of touch they are with economic reality.

Financial crises happen when lending slows down significantly in financial markets. The problem usually is a lack of credible borrowers. This is precisely the time that borrowers such as governments funding infrastructure need to step up to the plate.

Governments need to spend more and borrow more precisely when the private sector is spending less and borrowing less. This was the most important lesson of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Ben Thomas writes on the so called secret agenda:

All of which is a roundabout way of saying the scandal that did erupt – the audio files of English and the Smiths, Lockwood and Nick – was outrageously overplayed by the media and National’s parliamentary opponents.

The story was as follows: an unknown person, who claimed later to be unaffiliated with any political party, attended the Friday night social event posing as a National Party member and engaged the three senior MPs in conversation around left-wing touchstones: state ownership of Kiwibank, nuclear power and Working for Families.

The conversations were recorded and played on the broadcaster as evidence suggesting that National had a “secret agenda.”

Fine. Except the recordings disclosed no such thing. They were evidence of absolutely nothing except a slightly looser verbal style than MPs would present in a formal media interview or Parliament. This is a story about language.

The Smith & Smith conversations especially were hyped up massively. They were quite unexceptional.

At it’s most basic, there is syntactic precision: there was little effort made in the media to differentiate a secret recording of a conversation (as in this case) from a recording of a secret conversation (which may have yielded something much more interesting).

A useful point.

English conceded he would eventually prefer to sell off Kiwibank “but not now.”

In fact absolutely nothing in English’s comments was inconsistent with National’s declared policy. Lockwood Smith was accused of revealing the hidden agenda when he said “Once we have gained the confidence of the people, we’ve got more chance of doing more things.”

He even said, “We may be able to do some things we believe we need to do, perhaps go through a discussion document process – you wouldn’t be able to do them straight off.”

In other words, National may have a secret plan to, er, consult with the community and gauge public opinion before implementing new policy.

Yes, how a public policy consultation process is proof of a secret agenda, I do now know.

The reality is the secret agenda meme is all about trying to associate a negative brand with a party. I will touch more on this next week, but is is the equivalent of the “Have you stopped beating your wife” question.

There is a very relevant example of a major political party in government pursuing a deeply unpopular policy in the face of public opposition, and refusing to abandon it despite repeatedly being told it is not what voters want. It is the Labour government’s push for state funding for political parties.

Labour has never campaigned in an election on this policy but it is a fond wish of the prime minister and her party.

It’s also a policy that is widely detested by the public, and has been soundly rejected every time its prospect has been floated either through official comments or strategic leaks.

Labour’s secret agenda for state funding – indeed. They don’t have the guts to make it a manifesto promise, because they know it is as popular as anthrax.

Finally back to Vernon Small again, who asks where the dividing line is between bloggers and journalists, with the catalyst being my accreditation as media at the National Party conference. It is an interesting issue (especially to me), but somewhat academic. This is the fourth or fifth National conference I have attended as media. I’ve also been in budget lockups as media, attended tax conferences, spoken on media panels at media conferences, and get invited to cover conferences and seminars on a very regular basis.

I’ve commented over on Vernon’s blog on a couple of issues he raises.

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