How to win

In the car with my son today, I started a political lesson by saying “this is going to sound cynical, but I promise I am trying to tell you something true, without cynicism.” Then I proceeded to explain a scheme that’s so deeply cynical that anyone who even tries to analyse it is tainted just by association. It’s how you win elections as a stock conservative, at least as much as I’ve seen happen in the United States and New Zealand. The grand strategy is simple to explain, and it works, and yes, it’s deeply cynical. But that’s their fault, not mine. I’m trying to be fair and reasonable, even if they’re not.

Here’s the strategy: you cut taxes and cut programs. If you’re out of power, you talk about wasteful spending. If you’re the party in power, you talk about how we can’t afford to go back to the old “tax and spend” ways. That’s the entire strategy, and it works. Cut taxes and cut programs. Easy.

To be clear, we’re in a democracy, so if more people vote for your plan, it is better, by definition. There are other definitions, like if your policies help society in the long run, but all that comes later. In the heat of a political campaign during an election season, your only goal is to get more people believing in your vision. A great vision means nothing if no one votes for it. The worst vision in the world can’t reasonably be described as worst if more people vote for it than the alternative. So I am sympathetic to the “cut taxes, cut programs” approach, purely on the merits of how often it works. But I do hate it as a policy because I’ve watched it fail many times.

Here’s a metaphor. Rebecca the homeowner says her house needs repairs. One contractor comes by and gives her a quote for repairs. Other contractor comes by and offers her a $500 voucher. She takes the $500 voucher, and then returns home to discover that the contractor removed the roof off her home in exchange for the voucher. In this metaphor, the left is the contractor quoting for repairs. Fixing society’s problems costs money, after all. In this metaphor, the right is the contractor offering a voucher to steal your roof, leaving you worse off. It’s nice getting $500. It’s nicer to have a roof over your head.

This is why the most important thing, if you’re trying to push the $500 voucher approach to government, is to never talk about the roof you’ll be stealing. You need to explain, at great length, how great the $500 will feel in your pocket. How those greedy contractors that are trying to “fix problems” for “long term benefit” are just grifters that can’t be trusted. How they’ve never done anything right anyway, and hey, did we mention $500? It’s $500! Hire us! Who doesn’t want $500?

You must never, under any circumstances, explain the specifics of how you’re going to hand over that $500 voucher. You can’t talk about taking the roof, because people like their roof. You can’t mention gutting the plumbing or stripping the copper from the electrical system. That’ll just freak people out. No, you just have to talk over and over about “efficiency” and “cutting costs” and that sort of thing. Everyone wants to cut costs. They just don’t want to lose their roof, so you don’t mention that part until later, when it’s too late.

I live in New Zealand, and the party on the right (here they’re called National, in America they’d be called Republicans) is about to win the upcoming election and take over the government from Labour (in America, they’d be called Democrats) and they’re following the same old playbook. They’re saying the government is charging too much, and that everyone deserves a hefty tax cut. But a few days ago they made a rookie mistake by actually admitting how they’ll pay for their plan. And the thinking is just as magical as Trump or George W Bush.

They are going to raid the budget for $14 billion dollars. To pay for it, are they asking for a capital gains tax, which most other developed countries adopted long ago? Of course not. They’re paying for their $14 billion tax cut like this:

  • $2.356b in “bureaucracy savings”
  • $2.119b in “closing Labour programs”
  • $1.6b in “contractor savings”
  • $2.228b from the “climate dividend”


You should notice a few things here. First, those total $8.3b, which is only 59% of the number they need to reach for this to be revenue neutral. Second, those first three are meaningless. They’re just swinging a magic wand and saying “Shazam! We’ll discover $6 billion if we just put our mind to it!” Which, sure. They will. They’ll metaphorically sell the roof off the house, but they certainly don’t want to admit that yet.

Which brings us to the “climate dividend.” It turns out this plan is so underhanded and wrong that both the far-right (ACT) and the far-left (Green) parties are both equally angry about it. The climate dividend is money put aside after charging big business for polluting. The spirit of the fund is to either distribute the money back to people, as a way of saying “We are working to address climate change by billing polluters, and here’s your share of those profits” or by simply taking that money and directly making investments in green energy at the government level. Both would be fine, but National is choosing a third option. They’re just taking that cash, adding it to the general government fund, and using it to power their tax cuts for the rich. Gross.

I’ve seen this movie before. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I could be naively optimistic that giving everyone a $500 voucher wouldn’t mean we’re selling the roof of our house. But I won’t be fooled by this again. The country’s mood will eventually pivot from being frustrated about how Labour hasn’t done enough to how National has made everything worse. But in the meantime, hey, a $500 voucher! Everyone grab yours! But bundle up, the roof is gone and winter is coming.