Monday, October 19, 2009

policy development and the "grassroots"

With Danielle Smith as leader of the Wildrose Alliance, I believe the time and effort spent on ensuring that the party adopts sound policy is likely to be rewarded with the party assuming the responsibilities of government at some point in the future.

In the coming months, I intend to advocate for the following policies:
1) cut the provincial corporate tax rate from 10% to 3% and income tax rate from 10% to 5%, making up the difference in revenue loss with a VAT that excludes all capital inputs. Empower an independent overseer to enforce the revenue neutrality of this reform.
2) adopt an innovation agenda that draws on endogenous growth theory
3) adopt a hedging program for natural resource related revenues

I had originally assumed that after consulting with economists and assorted experts with respect to details and the possibilities of securing their endorsements for these policies, I and like-minded entities would be lobbying the membership with calls, mailouts, and social media efforts prior to the next AGM at which time the policies would be voted on by the membership.
But according to my conversation with the VP Policy yesterday, one or more policy conferences are likely to be held. And from what Danielle said, it sounded like this would happen in both November and March.

This could either help or hinder in terms of my view of the party's direction. If Jack Mintz, who appears 9200 times on, were invited to speak at the policy conference to whatever reform he thinks ought to be highest priority, it could help (a lot). If Nadeem Ismail, who appears 407 times on, were invited to give his presentation about the need for more private healthcare to the party membership for the third time this year, well, no offence to Mr Ismail or his research, but given the opportunity cost of not hearing on another topic, it could hinder.

The reason we've heard from Mr Ismail repeatedly is obviously because one or more persons on the party executive is sympathetic to the idea of more private healthcare in Alberta. Which is, of course, an entirely permissible view. Mr Ismail's contention that Canada spends 22% more per capita on healthcare on a demographic adjusted basis than the OECD average and that Alberta spends a further 22% more than the Canadian average is a contention in need of dissemination, particularly in the context of negotiations with the unions. But who exactly is behind Mr Ismail's invitation? Nobody outside of the party's inner circle really knows (although I have my suspicions). If a widely cited university or government employed economist gave a presentation there needn't be any doubt that, whether Brian Dell had the power to make that happen or not, I liked the idea because of the sweet love I display here in the cybersphere for the scholarly (as a general rule, these people are much less likely to serve a special interest than someone from an organization calling for specific government interventions or spending, somewhat less likely to serve a special interest than a person representing industry exposed to general tax and regulatory constraints, and slightly less likely to serve a special interest than a think tank person).

My ax to grind, if you can call it that, had long been for transparency. My enthusiasm for secretive types in politics is most definitively limited. I'd rather have no vote in a state where the machinery of government and machinations of the decision makers were totally transparent than regular ballot opportunities in a state that was opaque. Why should China's leadership be so interested in censorship when the people can't vote them out anyway? Because it is the control of information, not ballot casting, that constitutes real power.

Given the way I have attacked populism in the past, readers are forgiven for concluding that I believe the secret of government is saving it from the daily mob. But I would like to suggest that there is a reasonable concern for authenticity here. "Output democracy" is basically how people vote in real life. It's why Premier Stelmach is in political trouble now instead of when he should have been in trouble, which was 2 years ago. While I was involved in the Wildrose Party, much was made of being more grassroots than the PC Party, when the real problem with the PC Party was a lack of the information sharing that would have facilitated wider participation. If decision makers like Dave Hancock were to, say, operate a real blog instead of a propaganda blog that provides no substantive information, the PC party membership could discuss policy in an informed fashion and know which personalities at the senior levels are the primary advocates for or obstacles to various policies. As it happened with the Wildrose Party, the party's first announcement on the royalties issue was made by the executive. When validation was then sought from the membership at the AGM, two experts were brought up from Calgary to advise the membership that the right move was to oppose a royalties increase. Not a few Edmontonians were skeptical and demanded to see the reports by financial analysts and other evidence that the experts were citing. The Party membership ultimately voted to endorse a policy of opposing a royalty increase, and, as far as I'm concerned, the party executive managed the situation quite rightly. But let's call it what it is, namely, representative democracy as opposed to what is normally assumed by "grassroots democracy." As for the Alberta Alliance, again, for all the talk about being grassroots, many of the important policy stands were effectively dictated by one person: Randy Thorsteinson.

Another way to think about this is to step back and think about how important the vote for the leader would be if the party was truly "grassroots." It ought to make next to no difference at all who the leader is in that case. After all, it is bottom-up, not top-down, right? Yet we know that the leader does matter.

So to all the Wildrosers who are feel a little uncomfortable about whether my blogging serves the interests of the party, my excuse is that what Albertans really want is transparency and the most ethical is not the one who insists on his own virtue the loudest but the one who conducts as much of his business as possible in the public eye. For my part, I am a little uncomfortable with idea that the "grassroots" concept is in the interests of the party. The idea of the self-determining, self-informing sovereign individual is not, in fact, a conservative concept since conservatives appreciate how the decisions of the conscious mind are influenced, framed, and constrained by the unconscious and by a whole slew of antecedents ranging from culture to the myriad connections that tie us not just to each other but to the very earth itself. What emancipates us is not the grant of an illusory choice, but consciousness of what constrains us. I am of the opinion that the conservative view of human nature is the most authentic, and if there is any one phrase that describes a conservative, it is a person who sees the world for what it is. Grassroots democracy strikes me as wishful thinking, while "output democracy" is the real thing, like it or not. In the end, we can both be right, since whether it is my disclosure or it is "grassroots" policy making, what matters is the details.


Anonymous said...

Some points as a fellow Wildroser:

Could you please offer some more details as to your prosals, I am intrigued but not an economist and thus I need some more explanation if possible. Especially in terms of the tax policy changes you suggest.

I reject your general rules regarding academia outright. As you conclude, what matters is the details. It's time to drop the assumptions and focus on the facts and details.

Brian Dell said...

I'll go into details over the coming weeks and months. The main ideas are to encourage more savings and investment throughout the economy, not just by government (which cannot be relied on to save), and make it more difficult for the government to overspend, since making it difficult to raise taxes is no real assurance against overspending. The next generation ought to be able to demand that an Albertan-owned financial or physical capital asset be in place in a province that is exhausting its nonrenewable resources. To date, that financial asset in particular isn't there.

re academics, I understand where u are coming from. A lot of them are leftists who don't live in the real world. My point ought to rather be that there needs to be some commonly recognized transparent rules for how the policy debate will be conducted. Academics have rules such that certain kinds of research procedures are considered more likely to lead to authoritative conclusions. My concern is that certain unknown people in influential positions will decide policy and then arrange the policy conferences to support a certain outcome.

In theory, Stelmach's leadership review next month is a free membership vote, but in practice it is rigged in a variety of ways not entirely clear to the general public. This is very typical for politics where "grassroots" ends up being a cover story for what would otherwise be naked power plays.

I am all about evidence based policy. It sounds like I am making it about me and what I want when what what I really want is not certain conclusions but the most sound way of arriving at those conclusions. I am certainly prepared to change my views in the light of new evidence. We need scientific government, in my opinion. That would overlap some with academics in government but it is true that it is not the same thing.

Brian Dell said...

I am reminded of a tactic sometimes used in child-rearing: "do you want to go to bed in this place or in that place" instead of "do you want to go to bed now?" It's "illusory choice", and I don't presume for a moment that the current party executive intends to treat the membership like children. It's rather that empowering ordinary people ought to consist of consciousness raising as opposed to giving them choices that must inevitably be given within a "choice architecture." They could be getting illusory choices without the people granting the choices understanding how the choices are illusory as well.

Brian Dell said...

Another thing about academics is while they may not be tied to a special interest, that doesn't mean they can't be the most ideological.

Amongst academic economists, there are some bias issues but nothing like what one would get from an "economist" working for a union.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Brian, I look forward to your further discussions.

And I agree very much with what you have fleshed out here in the comments. I also know we all have our biases and personal agenda's, but having a clear and transparent framework for a policy discussion and development is critical.

But, of course, the very most important thing is to have intelligent and passionate people (such as yourself) involved, and that is where we are ahead as the Wildrose Alliance.