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Insights 35: 22 September 2023
Submission: The draft government policy on Land Transport, Dr Eric Crampton
Podcast: Debunking degrowth. Dr Oliver Hartwich in discussion with Gene Tunny
The Australian: The complex arithmetic of NZ voting, Dr Oliver Hartwich

Palaeolithic walruses in the age of reason
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
Here are a couple of highlights from the leaders’ debate last Tuesday evening: 

“That’s a good point, Christopher. Most economists do agree that selectively removing GST from fruit and vegetables is a dumb idea. We’d better rethink that one.”

“Well, Chris, you make a good point too. It looks as if the foreign-buyer tax won’t raise as much as we’d first thought.”

They didn’t say anything of the sort, of course.

Typically, political debate in modern democracies is akin to male walruses fighting over a patch of beach.  Abetted by the media, politics is more of a blood sport than a forum for well-reasoned debate.

It’s a far cry from the hopes of early democratic theorists. They thought that if we could harness the collective reasoning of entire populations, political leaders would make better decisions. During the 18th century Enlightenment, when democratic political ideas began to gain traction, reason was all the rage. 

Reason is indeed a fine thing. But unfortunately, it turns out that we’re not that good at it. Human beings have an array of built-in cognitive biases that tend to subvert clear thinking.

A sound argument is built from defined premises, using evidence and logic, to reach a valid conclusion. But people are actually more inclined to work backwards, cherry-picking evidence to support a preferred position. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in politics.

Noting our susceptibility to cognitive biases, French psychologist Hugo Mercier formulated the argumentative theory of reasoning. According to Mercier, humans developed the capacity to reason, not to do so individually, but so that we can argue with one another.

Mercier observed that people are easily convinced by their own arguments but are much more demanding when they evaluate the arguments of others. So, if we enter into an argumentative dialogue in good faith, we are much more likely to reach sound conclusions than if we reason alone.

For argumentative reasoning to work, the parties must engage with open minds. When people are just trying to win an argument, the error-correcting properties of argumentative reasoning don’t help them.

That brings us back to the leaders’ debate. There was certainly no shortage of argument, but it was not of the kind that produces sound conclusions. The good-faith element was just not there.

Democracy might have come of age in the Enlightenment, but human beings pretty much remain creatures of the Stone Age.

Wellington’s Water Woes
Dr Matthew Birchall | Research Fellow |
The Bucket Fountain in Wellington’s Cuba Mall has long been the capital city’s iconic water feature. However, it seems that new competition is emerging.

Burst pipes and leaks have become a regular part of life in the world’s leakiest little capital. Around 44% of the region’s water supply is currently lost to leaks. That’s the equivalent of 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools down the drain each day. 

Just last week, a burst pipe shut off water around Queen’s Wharf in the CBD, disrupting businesses and forcing many to work from home.

Wellington’s water woes have become so serious that the region was compelled to convene its first-ever Water Shortage Summit on 11 September. With summer approaching, the possibility of stringent measures like two-minute showers and outdoor bans looms large.

Campbell Barry, Mayor of Lower Hutt and Chair of Wellington Water Committee, is blunt about the challenge. “If we have a dry summer ... then we’re staring down major water shortages.”

How did it come to this? And what needs to happen next?

Wellington City Council bears ultimate responsibility. For years, the Council has failed to adequately invest in routine maintenance and renewals – a major problem when some of the pipes in the network are more than 100 years old.

Like all councils, Wellington City Council collects money from ratepayers to cover depreciation of water assets. That money is supposed to be invested back into the water network.

However, as Nikki Mandow has reported, the Council has redirected that funding towards other priorities. In 2019, it spent less than half of that money on water assets. Water NZ data show that this has been going on for years.

We are now witnessing the consequences of deferred maintenance. For example, a 2020 Mayoral Taskforce revealed that 30% of Wellington’s water network has already exceeded its intended lifespan. It also found that around 60% of all pipeline assets will require replacement in the next 30 years.

Not that the Council seems to mind. Pipes and critical infrastructure are all very well, but what Wellington really needs, according to our local representatives, is an additional $6.5 million for cultural adornments to the new library.

It is high time that Wellington City Council focused on getting the basics right. Fancy library refurbishments and urban rejuvenation plans sound lovely on paper, but when the taps don’t work, it all starts to seem a little absurd.

Politics, Actually
Benjamin Macintyre | Research Assistant |
Everyone knows the best rom-coms are built on love triangles. Think of Mark, Juliet and Peter from Love, Actually. Audiences swooned. The premise was that it’s okay to try to get your best friend’s partner to cheat on them as long as you ask using cardboard signs.

Love triangles are a popular trope because they’re dramatic. Who will the protagonist pick? Will it be the sensible man her parents love, or will she go for the bad boy with improbably good hair?

The key to a good love triangle is that all the characters have both flaws but redeeming qualities. Enough to make internet forums explode with arguments about who the main character should choose.

I don’t think anyone will make a rom-com about the love triangle that is about to form the next New Zealand government.

On the one hand, you have dishy David. You know you shouldn’t like him, but he isn’t afraid to say the things you shouldn’t say but that everyone isn’t thinking.

On the other hand, you have whimsical Winston. You know your grandparents would love him, you know he’s the safe option, but you don’t know if you can trust him. He says he’ll love you for real this time, but he said that before running off with your neighbour back in 2017.

And trapped in the middle of it all you have poor old Chris Luxon, who must choose between the younger and more exciting ACT leader or a man with a long career of being the best of a bad set of options.

I do not envy him. It is one thing entering politics in the hope of changing something, even if that something is just the top line on your CV.

It is quite another to be forced into choosing one of two options that the majority of this country is vehemently against.

Whoever he chooses will demand unpopular policies be implemented as a wedding gift. If they can’t agree on them, they might hold the governing National party to ransom. Divorce papers might be filed quicker than anyone can say “I thought the Left was supposed to be the coalition of chaos”.

But that is the choice that Chris must make. The younger, brasher, more radical David Seymour or the run-of-the-mill outrage merchant called Winston Peters.

Is it love?

Well, it’s politics, actually.

On The Record

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