Is political cynicism poison for the left?

I offered this comment in a LinkedIn discussion, and thought I might ‘put it out there’ as my daughter says. In the process I edited and played around with it a little.

One of the things that the last few years have shown I think is that rank cynicism plays much worse for the left than the right of centre. Cynicism isn’t such a problem for a right of centre government because one of the reasons you’d vote for one is that you think the world is a pretty average kind of place and that any grand ambitions to make it better are naive or – well an even higher form of cynicism dressed up as altruism, or perhaps a bit of both. Just writing it down makes it rather compelling actually ;)

In any event, when Howard wheels out a carbon pricing system having said he wouldn’t, when he ‘clears the decks’ of potential policy losers before an election, gets rid of petrol excise indexing for instance, it works for him. I remember thinking that ‘clearing the decks’ of an easily exploited policy promise – to price carbon – may not have been good policy, but it was probably good politics. How wrong I was. Julia has made one mistake after another of that kind. The way she shafted Wilkie was simply shabby and seen to be so.

Hawke would have done the same, but would have telegraphed a whole narrative for some time beforehand about how he was wrestling with the moral issue of whether to pursue quixotic policy or shaft Wilkie, and how hard it all was but . . . “Well thanks for your question Alan/Kerry/Maxine/Leigh. It’s been a tough time for me. On the one hand I had an obligation to Alan and I’m not the only person in this country who admires his courage and integrity, and on the other, I realised that it couldn’t be got through the Parliament. So I had to make a tough call. Some people will disagree with me. I don’t blame Andrew for being mad at me. If I were him I’d be mad too, but as PM I have higher responsibilities etc etc”.

Julia’s basic message was “Andrew had outlived his usefulness and so you can find his body somewhere over there.” Likewise the ‘carbon tax’ which is actually more or less what was on the table, even if it came with a community assembly first – carbon pricing with an introductory period of fixed price permits. When challenged about her breaking a promise Julia showed a remarkably ill judged mix of candour and dissembling. She needn’t have admitted it was a carbon tax, but she did need to say that the policy had changed and she needed to justify it in all the circumstances. She did the opposite.

She came out and told us how honest she was being and admitted it was a carbon tax (when neither she nor Rudd, IIRC, had admitted the previous temporary permit system was a carbon tax) and then when she was challenged on breaking her promise not to introduce one said aggressively “look at all the words I used”. Well Julia you’re responsible for all of them and you’ve broken a promise. You had good reason to, so admit it and explain it. Alas that happened weeks later when her minders explained that she’d never actually put the case for breaking the promise, and eventually she did so – when it was way too late.

She did the same over grabbing the leadership. She’d managed to be a loyal deputy and then grabbed the job – which I thought at the time was the right thing to do in all senses. But all she could say was via a cagey euphemism “the government had lost its way”. She failed to challenge the obvious narrative of ambition and treachery. Yet it would have been easy to do – Hawkie or Peter Beattie would have lapped it up. See my proposed words for Hawkie above and remix as appropriate.

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john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Actually what does ‘left’/ ‘right’ mean (if it means anything much ) these days?

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago

Is the cynicism of the political process bigger than the influence of the individual these days?
I wasn’t around in the Hawke,Keating,Howard eras but were they leading the party to a greater extent than currently occurs?

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

murph

All three were powerful alpha type personalities the answer to your question is yes.

Alan
Alan
9 years ago

I suspect people can accept policy changes, even drastic policy changes, if they can believe a leader is trying to act in the public interest. That does not seem to be what people can believe of the present prime minister. There is also, I think, some hint of a growing feeling of a leader who, in the immortal words of Francis Urquhart, likes to ‘put a bit of stick about’.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

In short, Gillard’s a shit communicator and there isn’t anyone with any profile in the current labor party who can communicate to save themselves.

The real point being that when the media pulls the friendly rug it wove under Rudd out from under them, they all come tumbling down.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Suggest that the problem is more like : “they just do things”, “they just get everything arse about”.

Glen
Glen
9 years ago

Very good post Nick. I laughed very loudly at Julia’s basic message was “Andrew had outlived his usefulness and so you can find his body somewhere over there.”

What’s not clear to me is whether it’s actually harder for the left to be cynical or whether this government just hasn’t sold it well. As you say, Hawke or Beattie could probably sell it so it wouldn’t look like rank cynicism. I think you could probably say the same of Bob Carr as well, and since he now has a seat at the table, probably worth listening to.

But there is a higher bar for the left. I’m of the politicans are highly constrained and usually have to make the best of a bunch of bad choices school of thought, but even this stuff with Slipper and Thomson exceeds my tolerance. I don’t think there was a person in the land who believed Slipper and Thomson were jettisoned because they’d finally had a think about it and decided it was a bit grubby. You might get away with it if it wasn’t a whiplash inducing change of direction.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

This government has a history of doing things without enough thought, going Opps and then hastily doing something without enough thought an…..

Last year Malcolm Frazer said that whilst this government is not corrupt , it was in his opinion ” the most incompetent government Australia has ever had”.

Personally I think of them as a Epimethius sort of government. He was married Cassandra …the only thing left in the governments box is hope.

Alan
Alan
9 years ago

Nicholas, if you governance from politics in that way you need to think about the future of the carbon price. The media is awash with commenters muttering ‘excellent policy, lousy politics’. They are broadly right. Sadly Gillard’s record of opposing a carbon price and then supporting it has destroyed the significant popular support a carbon price once enjoyed.

The carbon price will be repealed by a Coalition government within weeks of tis election. The current electoral standings would give the Coalition a majority in both houses. The main deal a prime minister must do is with the electorate and Gillard has not come anywhere near closing that one.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I think the price part of the Carbon Price was to blame for it’s unpopularity, not the communication.

Although I wouldn’t want to understate the impact of Rudd’s Copenhagen clusterfuck in making the ’till-then comfortably gullible electorate realise that we really were going out on a bit of a limb with this. I actually think that until then most people broadly swallowed the Rudd/media consensus that the whole world really cared (in a ready to pay for it sense) about this, and not just a quite narrow elite.

Alan
Alan
9 years ago

I don’t want to earn the ire of this blog’s hosts by relaunching a climate change thread. Without getting into the whole climate change is a myth or conspiracy argument it is is easy to establish that claims that we are going out on a limb are simply untrue.

The Stockholm Environment Institute, in research commissioned for Oxfam, found:

The emission reductions of China, India, South Africa and Brazil – the BASIC countries – could be slightly greater than the combined efforts of the 7 biggest developed countries – the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia by 2020.

As Garnaut comments in Chapter 4 of his review, if we don’t want to build a carbon-free economy the Chinese will be happy to build it for us, at a price,

The out ahead of the world argument was untrue at Copenhagen. It is even less true now. Really, it is no more than a poor little rich country talking point.

Ken Parish
Admin
9 years ago

“To paraphrase Willy Nelson, they don’t seem to have the slightest idea of when to ‘holdem, and when to ‘foldem’.””

I think it was actually Kenny Rogers …

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

If I can propose that there’s a more meta level to this, it is (and I am paraphrasing a half-remembered article by a former Republican staffer) that the left have a dual task – first of all, to enact their policy agenda, and secondly to propagate the state-as-agent political model; whereas the right, if they are not in a position to win on a given policy front, can just throw turds all over the political process and they win by default. A disengaged electorate is a victory for the right in general and neoliberalism in particular.

(The article was more elegant and succint, IIRC.)

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
9 years ago

Yes Ken and both as bad as each other.

It is amusing to hear that we have an incompetent Government.
Do we have a wage break-out? Is Spending out of control? ( This government actualy cut spending in real terms one budget back and will do it again next financial year. Howard never ever did that! Well then perhaps we endured a recession then?
I could go on but you get the picture.

In fact it is a pretty good government . It just lacks anyone with political smarts at all.

I think this is typified by the ETS. Badly advised to say it was a carbon tax when it clearly isn’t and then unable to even show people how in the hell can an
ETS which will pull in less than five times the revenue of a GST have a greater effect on the economy than the GST.

We need to wait until July to see how people react to this before making any forecasts on future politics.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Alan on May 7, 2012 at 4:41 pm: as it turns out, you happen to be exactly on-topic. This thread is about political cynicism after all.

You might have to ask the Indians for details, but it require an awful lot of Iranian oil to reduce emissions so effectively.

Cynical? Meh?

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

‘excellent policy, lousy politics’. = incompetent. Government is about politics and the achievable. Policy is one thing, making it move is another.
For example
If they had asked just a few tradesmen they would have known about roof spaces in older houses( and fuses made of fencing wire) if they had thought about they would have realised that a requirement for Co-contributions for the pinkbatts would have discouraged rorting.

And if they had thought about it, helping to undermine Turnbull when you needed him to get the carbon scheme through was dumb…. incompetent.

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
9 years ago

John is another who has never read the Hawke report.
I find a lot of people who claim incompetency make unsubstantiated claims and then faced with the truth deny it.

Maybe it will be the same with the ETS?

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Actually I did but skim the report .
As far as deaths go what happened was roughly this-
prior to the scheme there was (from memory) a rate of about 5-6 non industrial electrocution deaths per anum in Australia, most in Queensland and in areas with a lot of older houses, these deaths were mostly of home DIY types in ceilings and on roofs.
The scheme transferred these deaths from DIY housholders to employed people.
The two tradies that we have employed on and off for years would never get in a unknown roof without turning off all the power first- The fencing wire fuse is a true story.

Competency is about the details not the policy.

Ken Parish
Admin
9 years ago

Homer

A man with your deplorable taste in puns is in no position to cast aspersions on country and western singers.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

In the area that I know best; the commercial, Indie, visual arts, this governments policy’s have been a disaster especially for indigenous art . It will take years to recover , and much is gone for good.
I do not believe that this was the governments intention- hence “incompetent” rather than “malicious” – the problem was that they failed to consult with people who knew anything about what reality was like.
I am unusual for an artist – I am lower case, liberal conservative by nature- virtually all of my colleagues are very Labor by nature , virtually all of them have written this government off as a incomprehensible joke .

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
9 years ago

Ken,

A person is put to death for saying country and western is music!!

what next Abba, Neil Diamond?

John ,
There was an extensive program put in place following the NZ evidence.

That is why safety dramatically rose compared to what happened in the industry previously.

At least one death occurred under the auspices of a qualified electrician others ignored safety guidelines.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Ps Jacques the Link embeding code is not working all that well.

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
9 years ago

I am glad you mentioned school halls.

The BER casts it in a pretty good light. with so many buildings one was bound to get a few ones not up to standard.

It happens in the private sector too you know.

Both episodes show up how this Government cannot sell a beer on a hot day.

you know you even have people believing we could have avoided a recession without spending any money at all!

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

JB

Of course .
Its (as always) a timing ‘way of moving’ issue .

Most of the stuff was provably up to standard -thought it takes time for some problems to surface, the wrong mesh would have caused the slab to eventually fail.

At a relatively local level a lot of it looked like this : paying 50K to install a commercial kitchen in a school that has little need for a commercial kitchen hard to understand. s\Spending nearly 1 million on about 6 Ks of bicycle path looks extravagant. And accidentally paying 90% of the purchase price of a run down weatherboard “arts” center (under a program that required significant community co- contributions) for use by a very small group of elderly persons -persons who literally do not know what they want to do with it- , 18 months after that program ended looks careless.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

PS
JB

Do not question that Australia has come through the past few years in pretty good shape…… I think having a reserve bank that is truly independent might have more to do with it than our pollies would like to admit.

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
9 years ago

John,

Perhaps you need the BER task-force report.

Believing monetary policy helped to overcome the GFC when it was all about credit markets freezed up is very much in line with what this article is about.

m0nty
m0nty
9 years ago

I am disappointed in this post, Nicholas. You seem to have fallen into the same trap as John Quiggin, in that you are letting petty political machinations sway your judgement when in your role as an economist of some influence, your job is to look at the legislative and fiscal achievements of the government. We come to you as an expert on the latter, and the latter only. You and Quiggin should be focusing on the things that the government is actually doing to the economy and wider society, as opposed to the gossip that fills the papers.

If you’re looking for a narrative, it is that the government is quietly racking up a list of achievements that will last long after it is voted out of office. The obvious analogy is Whitlam, very few of whose reforms Fraser repealed. Abbott shows every sign of following the Howard era blueprint of shelving any meaningful policy, feeding the chooks with middle-class welfare, and reaping the rewards of previous Labor reforms. That’s the sort of cynicism that works against Labor as a party, but for its agenda.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

I worked on the Stimulus Achievement chapter of that report. The BER was fine macroeconomic policy, regardless of what else might be said about it (and really the volume of complaints was pretty insignificant).

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

I understood that The root causes of GFC had something to do with monetary policy in the US and EU between about 1996 and 2007 am I wrong ??

As for reports /policy the voter on the street sees concrete things (and mostly does not complain… whats the point) . When we complained they, the next day ,simply retrospectively altered the spreadsheet. And suggested a FOI approach.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

John – the root causes of the GFC were a confluence of factors. If I had to sheet it home to one thing, I’d say massive and uncorrected trade imbalances over almost 40 years. But there are a myriad of other variables that fed into it.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

m0nty

Whitlam knocked up the Australia Council in a few months . It is one of the longest lasting and worse achievements of that government. People have been trying to fix the mess ever since but even Keating was defeated by it.

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Dan so the idea that the repeated bail outs of successive bubbles :dot com, enron and so on under Bush underlies the CFC is not true?

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

“massive and uncorrected trade imbalances over almost 40 years.” could you elaborate?

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Nicholas Thanks
‘Austrian’ explanation’ ?
Have you read ‘this time its different’?
Personally , the idea that humans are even vaguely reasonable about free money is irrational … just go to any pokie parlor.

Wasn’t much of it in both the Us and EU what Galbraith once called the “bezzle” .

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Ta

john walker
john walker
9 years ago

Is this a ‘Austrian’ explanation?

“In many ways the effect of the crash on embezzlement was more significant than on suicide. To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes. Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter. Weeks, months or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.) At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in – or more precisely not in – the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye. The man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest until he proves himself otherwise. Audits are penetrating and meticulous. Commercial morality is enormously improved. The bezzle shrinks.”

Alan
Alan
9 years ago

This may be the first occasion in the history of economic thought where Galbraith has been propsoed as an advocate of Austrian economics.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

NG, Peter Beattie is the strong evidence against your claim. Surely one of the most cynical politicians in my experience. And have you read “No-one left to lie to”?

My next quibble is that nothing done by the previous govts of my recollection matches the current dicks for bald-faced policy reversals. Hawke might have come closest with the means testing of pensions and some other early changes, but I’d have to check the time line. Howard nearly lost the govt putting the GST to an election. You can make an argument that work choices was a departure from expectations and he failed to survive it. His ETS policy was also put to an election.

It doesn’t matter what you think of the policies they’ve put in place. I think it is true that the govt has managed some policy achievements (but I don’t like most of the policies). I think that was no great shakes because most of those policies were part of the deal that put them in govt. The Rudd policy “achievements” were easy ones like the apology, signing Kyoto and the FWA.

As for whether they do cynical well, how more revoltingly cynical can you be than to keep expressing your confidence in the member for Dobell. I think they are now finding out that some achievements are not worth the price you pay trying to hold a turd by the clean end.

Thompson should have been pushed out when the allegations first surfaced as it was pretty obvious that he is a really bad guy. Now they are going to have the Thompson story running right up to the election. I reckon that even Homer knows in his heart of hearts that the ALP leadership is not really surprised by the report and so I ask all ALP supporters, what do you think; should they have supported Thompson or dumped him ages ago?

So, NG, I think you are wrong. It’s not that the left doesn’t do cynicism well, just that the current mobs are F-wits.

Alan
Alan
9 years ago

@Nicholas

Smith was also a stern critic of usury, which could well trouble the sleep of quite a lot of those who pray to his icon each night before bed.

The legal rate…ought not be much above the lowest market rate. If the legal rate of interest in Great Britain, for example, was fixed so high as eight or ten per cent, the greater part of the money which was to be lent would be lent to prodigals and projectors [promoters of fraudulent schemes], who alone would be willing to give this high interest….A great part of the capital of the country would thus be kept out of the hands which were most likely to make a profitable and advantageous use of it, and thrown into those which were most likely to waste and destroy it.

When the legal rate of interest, on the contrary is fixed but a very little above the lowest market rate, sober people are universally preferred, as borrowers, to prodigals and projectors. The person who lends money gets nearly as much interest from the former as he dares to take from the latter, and his money is much safer in the hands of the one set of people than in those of the other. A great part of the capital of the country is thus thrown in the hands in which it is most likely to be employed with advantage.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

John@1:01pm – no, please read my comment again. There were numerous causes, but my pick for the daddy was the US twin deficits. Bear in mind that deficits and surpluses really are zero-sum; and since 1972, with the dollar as global reserve currency, the US has felt no inclination to tighten its belt. $2bn of liquidity rushing to Wall St every day – what else would you expect other than financialisation and with it, risk?

It’s what Paul Volcker described as ‘a controlled disintegration of the world economy’. That was in 1980. In 2007 the disintegration showed signs of reaching completion.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Nicholas at 4:54pm – the Austrian school is deeply pessimistic and in a sense I recognise them as kindred spirits (my own orientation is institutionalist, and Galbraith is my favourite economist). In a sense the Austrians said nothing really works a treat in the real world; the least worst option is to leave economic decisions with the market mechanism. Institutionalists on the other hand say, no, we can and must do better than that, but agree that basically the choice is between the unpalatable and the disastrous, to just-about-quote Galbraith.

Neoliberalism, on the other hand, waved away the dismalism of the above heterodox schools by cheerfully asserting axiomatically that markets moved towards equilibrium. The glass-half-full take on the Austrian approach, and as history would have it, far more damaging.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Austrian_Business_Cycle_Theory

That’s probably as close to Cannon on ABCT as you are likely to get, but unfortunately a bit long winded to isolate a nice pithy quote. The Austrian theory is that interests rates, and prices in general serve a purpose to communicate intentions between buyers and sellers. If interest rates are driven by force to a significantly different value than the value that the market would naturally set, then this jams the signal and encourages malinvestment of capital (i.e. starting long-term high-commitment projects that are in fact not useful but seem to be useful at the time, based on incorrect information). This is made worse because the inflationary “free money” that washes into the system due to artificially low interest rates doesn’t wash evenly… it tends to flow to people who get themselves into the right place at the right time (if you know what I mean), thus Cantillon effects further encourage malinvestment.

Nick’s argument above is that a “rational decision makers” should be able to circumvent the jammed signal and collect information in other ways, in order to correctly second-guess the situation. Let’s presume that a typical entrepreneurial, speculative long-term project is running up against a lot of unknowns anyhow, and probably the small team at the helm aren’t fully 100% rational (everyone makes mistakes) and don’t have 100% information available w.r.t. where interest rates are going (the Reserve Bank is not well known for telegraphing their interest rate moves). Beyond that, the business needs to know not only the direct effect of interest rate changes on their own financial situation, but also the indirect effect it will have on their customers, their suppliers, their workers, etc.

“Would you still buy our product if the RBA increased rates by 1%?”

Not the sort of question you see on a typical market survey. Most households wouldn’t answer accurately anyhow.

Even if there are some CEOs out there who correctly understand exactly what will happen, might only be an incentive to pick the right time to pump, dump, and skedaddle then claim plausible deniability later.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

Nicholas, I understood you to mean pollies doing serious policy changes that they had not gotten a mandate for, which I think happened in first Hawke govt and which gained him a big fright in 1984. I’ve said before that the Hawke Keating govt has a great record. In 1996 I think the Libs were reacting to 1993 and they clearly were hiding a light under a bushell, it was the govt’s bushell.

Beattie was pretty cynical about his apologies about various problems the govt allowed to fester to the point of near catastrophe, but perhaps I’m a curmudgeon as the main part of the electorate seemed to lap it up.

I thought your thesis was that the current govt’s woes support the claim that the left can’t do cynicism and my view is that the only big cynicism of the Howard govt was work choices.

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
9 years ago

Bad politicians can’t get away with cynicism.

Bad politicians can’t even get their lines right like Gillard on the ETS.

A little tale on 1996.

In the December 1995 RBA bulletin the RBA estimated an underlying deficit for the budget. Yes it was a deficit and some naive people actually faxed it to Costello’s office to ensure he realised the true nature of the budget.