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Insights 27: 22 July 2016
Read the speech that everyone is talking about
Signal Loss: What we know about school performance
Register for the Auckland semi-final debate: Monday 15 August

Dodging the bigger-is-better bullet
Jason Krupp | Research Fellow |
Last year, the residents of the Hawkes Bay region dodged a bullet. They were not the only ones. Northland and Greater Wellington also had a close shave with this regulatory projectile.

The name of the bullet was amalgamation.

That is one of the main take-outs from the Initiative’s latest report The Local Benchmark: When Smaller is Better, which profiles local government in Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

It is the Montreal case study that reveals just how lucky our bullet-dodging regions were. 

Quebec’s provincial government looked at the city’s municipalities and got concerned that their fragmented structure was dragging on competitiveness. From its higher perch, the plethora of municipalities certainly looked wasteful, with 28 town halls, 28 mayors, and 28 sets of councillors.

How much easier, cheaper and efficient would it be to have one authority make all the decisions and provide all the services? Plus, there would be economies of scale and savings aplenty from headcount reductions. And so in the early 2000s Montreal’s 28 municipalities were merged into a “super city”.

Only it turned out the city was not that super. It cost C$473 million more to run Montreal in 2005 than it did in 2001. Over this period the merged city added 400 people to its workforce instead of delivering on the promised 1,700 headcount reduction. 

What went wrong? The answer is amalgamation destroyed municipal competition.

Where before wages were kept in check by individual negotiations with each municipality, now unions could focus their efforts on one set of officials. And where municipalities used to decide their own service levels, such as library hours, now they were set by the inner city.

This is the competitive part of local government that officials often overlook when prescribing bigger-is-better policies. They focus on the small costs at the expense of large benefits.

We at the Initiative believe that local government can be more efficient, and that the sector can help improve New Zealand’s economic competitiveness - but only if we embrace competition, instead of trying to systematically eliminate it. 

We know it works because we have seen it firsthand in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and increasingly the UK.

But for details you will have to wait for Monday, when our report is released in a keynote address at Local Government New Zealand’s annual conference. Expect bullets to fly.

Enlightenment and the burka ban
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
If you are German, it is a little tricky to talk about one of Germany’s greatest philosophers. At least if you’re talking about him in English.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), is not one of the easiest philosophers to read. His sentences are long, his thoughts complicated. Fortunately, he lived before the invention of Twitter.

Why do I mention Kant? Well, because I thought of his most famous legacy in the context of one of our upcoming events, the Next Generation Debates 2016.

On Monday 15 August, two student debating teams will face each other on the moot ‘This house would ban religious symbols in public’. The event will be hosted at Auckland University’s Business School, and expert commentary will be provided by Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy and former TV journalist Lindsay Perigo.

So what is the link to Kant? Well, even if you know next to nothing about his philosophy, you may have heard about Kant’s categorical imperative. In its simplest form, it states “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

When it comes to religious symbols in public, it is not hard to guess what Kant would have said. Kant would not object to people choosing to display religious symbols in public as long they allowed others the same right to display their own symbols if they wish to.

But is it really that simple? What about religious subcultures that prescribe clothing rules which members of their community may find impossible to ignore for fear of being socially shunned otherwise? What about members of society who feel confronted by the sight of, say, a burka and regard it as a symbol of oppression?

Banning religious symbols may be incompatible with the values of a free society. But does that mean that all religious symbols are automatically compatible with it?

For our student debaters, this will be a tricky topic to handle. We look forward to an enlightening debate.

By the way, according to Kant enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”

Which probably means there will be much to talk about. Please join us for this event.

‘This house would ban religious symbols in public’ will be the moot of this year’s Auckland semi-final of the Initiative’s Next Generation Debates 2016. The event will be held on 15 August at the Auckland Business School. To hear our student debating teams and expert commentators Dame Susan Devoy and Lindsay Perigo, please register here.

Trump and the rise of nihilism
Jenesa Jeram | Policy Analyst |
Some New Zealanders might have trouble grasping international affairs without the domestic spin, so here it is. Donald Trump is Winston Peters with money. Make no mistake, we need to take the rise of populism seriously.
Ok, this thought is probably just as original as Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican convention. And really, the world could probably do without another Trump think piece.
But the similarities in Trump’s and Peters’ populism are too striking to overlook.
Populism is public policy devoid of principles. It is nihilism dressed up as conviction. It panders to peoples’ emotions and biases – no matter how misguided.
Last week, Rachel Webb wrote on immigration policy, and the importance of evidence-based thinking over reactionary scapegoating of immigrants.
When voters are dissatisfied with their lot in life, it is easy to direct their anger towards immigrants. Sure, the anger is possibly misguided (is it possible for immigrants to simultaneously steal all our jobs and sit around bludging on unemployment benefits?). But if enough people believe it, and vote for policies accordingly, fluorescent orange heroes can swoop in to give voters what they want.
Related to this are perceptions of inequality. Let’s set aside for the moment that income inequality has not risen in the last twenty years.
When people do not see their own incomes rising, and fulltime working parents struggle to feed their families, redistribution seems like an attractive choice. Likewise, those with a concern for the less well-off might believe that redistribution is the only answer.
Donald Trump – and to a lesser extent Winston Peters – has been able to tap into an aspect of the voter psyche that is deeply cynical that they will prosper under free markets and free movement between nations.
That cynicism needs to be taken seriously, but policies based on misguided beliefs are not the answer.
Political parties across the spectrum need to tap into the source of voters’ concerns: how do parties create an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper? What are the barriers to a thriving society?
But just as Melania Trump needs to dump her speech writer, voters need to dump the idea that prosperity is a zero sum game. 
Or in Melania’s own words* “As a nation, we don't promise equal outcomes, but we were founded on the idea everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed.”
*Not her own words

On The Record
All Things Considered
  • Graph(s) of the week: Incomes across the distribution.
  • It's not just German philosopher's names that are confusing to English ears: Read Mark Twain's classic 'That awful German language'.
  • Food safety warning: We all know how dangerous too much salt in our diet can be.
  • Sheepview 360: Could New Zealand use this innovative idea from the Faroe islands?
  • Bad moods: The other global migration problem.
  • Beaches, Hobbits and coffee: Why Americans might move to New Zealand if Trump is elected.
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