We’re getting towards the end of the feedback period on Policy Progress’s draft work programme
– tomorrow (26th March) is the last day.
Much of the feedback to date has been pretty approving of my original suggestions, which I’ve been elaborating upon in this blog over the last few weeks. I have however received a couple of more challenging contributions, which I want to highlight and make an initial response to in this post.
Firstly, reader Zooey questions the overall balance of the proposed work programme:
Hi! Suggestion for a topic: “nanny state” issues and progressive government. The aim to lift families out of the dark ages of children “seen not heard” and physical punishment, with excellent resources such as SKIP – where does that stand now, considering the backlash we experienced about corporal punishment? How does a progressive government want to interact with society / community – is there a good case for better “social engineering”? Post-post-modern Feminism and “women’s issues” (the childcare debate…)
I hope you will have a slot for childcare / family / education-related issues. Must say so far the website has been a bit “male” (science, money …). Thank you for your time.
I think Zooey makes a reasonable point. In fact, this has been a slight nagging concern I’ve had about the balance of topics for a little while now, as subscribers to the e-newsletter and followers of the Facebook page will be aware.
On the other hand, I think three topics in 2010 is the maximum workload manageable, so if we added something in the childcare / family / education area, we would need to drop one of the ones I’ve previous proposed (Progressive Path to Prosperity, Theoretical Foundations or Fiscal Record).
I have suggested one other topic of more of a social policy orientation, and that’s child poverty and cycles of disadvantage. But I was proposing to do some initial work and thinking on this in 2010 before developing it into a full theme for 2011. In practical terms, that means there would be a number of blog posts this year but no formal report on this topic until after March 2011 when the current work programme finishes. Moreover, that topic is quite a bit different from the one Zooey was proposing, although both move away from the kind of science, money etc concerns Zooey saw as dominating.
Another consideration is the Theoretical Foundations topic. I think I may have created the impression that this is largely about the logic for whether to be economically interventionist or not. But it also applies to the separate but connected argument of when, how and on what basis to intervene in the social policy sphere as well. I’d been thinking about that mainly in terms of welfare state services and support, but the more I think about it, the issues around interventions in support of socially-desirable behaviours would be fascinating to cover as well. (And on a related note, I’ve got a guest post in the pipeline on the role that ‘choice architecture’ can play in that . . . )
What do you think about Zooey’s general point about balance, and specific suggestion? Might the Theoretical Foundations topic as clarified above address one or both of those? Or should we drop one of the previously proposed topics, and if so, which one? Leave a comment below!
Source: Ministry of Economic Development, Economic Development Indicators 2007, Figure 2.1, http://www.med.govt.nz/upload/53549/Indicators-Report-2007.pdf
The second bit of challenging feedback came when I outlined
the various barriers to economic success that I saw as being the focus of the Progressive Path to Prosperity topic. I got the following comment
from Big Cake, the sobriquet of the author of the bigcake.co.nz
website, which is focussed on similar ‘NZ growth challenge’ issues:
. . . the big issue I think with your approach – and with the current Government’s – is the lack of vision. In a way it’s cart before horse.
We need to ask ‘what future do we want?’ and then work back from there.
Prevous economic-reform minded governments I think have come unstuck on this because the reforms they have put in place are often not politically sustainable long-term.
The current Government’s tax reforms and mining in national parks process look to be falling into this trap.
BigCake’s ‘growth sceptics’ who believe past reforms have failed to deliver so have no faith in current ones remain a force to be reckoned with.
We need to follow the track of Ireland and establish a consensus. Difficult if not impossible in the current circumstances.
This ‘cart before the horse’ criticism was echoed by regular commenter Achela who questioned whether pursuit of endless GDP growth should really be the default option.
I’ve given these challenges a bit of thought over the last day or two. I think Big Cake and Achela both raise important issues but I’m not convinced I should radically rethink this work programme topic in response.
I think Big Cake is planning some sort of project to address the “what future do we want?” question on his own site, and I wish him well with that. But I don’t feel that the Policy Progress think-site is really well-suited to tackling that task.
Partly this stems from some doubts I can’t shake about how tractable such an endeavour is. My progressive heart wants to believe it can and should be done, but my policy-analyst head remains to be convinced. (Self-professed non-progressive Nik makes an argument that recent attempts in this area have been fundamentally misguided; without necessarily accepting his argument in total, the experience with Knowledge Wave/GIF/Economic Transformation does probably contain some cautionary lessons.)
Moreover, I’m certain that there are a number of respectable progressives out there who would strongly argue against the government and/or society trying to envisage a particular model of our future economy. I would envisage phrases like ‘picking winners’, ‘manpower planning’ and ‘centralised decision-making’ would crop up a lot.
Therefore, I think the best service that Policy Progress can perform for the “what future do we want?” project is to try to establish (whether there is) a strong theoretical basis for the approach of having a particular economic vision and then taking action to achieve it. In other words, once again the Theoretical Foundations topic seems the appropriate place to address this gap (hat-tip to Achela for suggesting this).
If that’s the horse, what about the cart? Should Policy Progress hold off on identifying (and thinking about how to address) the issues holding New Zealand back economically, until we know where we want to go? I would argue, no.
As the graph above reminds us, New Zealand’s current current economic standing appears pretty dismal – even the low per capita GDP we current attain is only achieved by working more hours than just about everybody else. Yes, we might benefit from having a clearer and effective economic strategy. But I would argue that there are some pretty generic problems and obstacles that are holding us back whatever particular strategy we adopt. I think it’s worth diagnosing these and thinking about solutions alongside the bigger picture ‘vision’ stuff that Big Cake and others are embarked upon.
I also think that low productive output per hour worked shown in the graph addresses Achela’s point too, to some extent. The problems causing that are probably ones we want to tackle regardless of whether we buy into the economic growth paradigm – if we raise our productivity, that gives us more choices (a point Achela also makes).
Perhaps what these thoughtful challenges remind us is that we need to be careful in the Progressive Path topic to stress that this is just about addressing economic barriers and obstacles that block the path, rather than trying to define the destination.
But I’m interesting in hearing from you – do you agree with Big Cake and/or Achela’s critique? Does the Progressive Path topic need to change? Or do you think my response above adequately addresses their points? Leave a comment below!