Polity by Rob Salmond


Catch you later

This is my last PA post for a while, as I’ve recently taken on a staff role as Deputy Chief of Staff in Andrew Little’s office. Doing that job requires radio near-silence, which I’ll be attempting as best as my personal weaknesses will allow.

I’ve really enjoyed engaging with you all on PA, and I’m very grateful to Russell for lending me part of his web space over the past year and a bit. Thank you, Russell, for letting me be part of the site.

As a parting gift, here’s a revealing chart about parole hearings. Yes, parole hearings.

Judges, as you know, are charged with putting their own personal feelings and frailties aside in order to make the very best decisions in their job. That's especially important when the decision is about whether to take away another person’s freedom.

But judges, as the chart shows, are terrible at doing that job.

The chart shows the proportion of prisoners who get a favourable parole decision across different parts of the judge's day. The circles represent the first case after a food break. So if you’re up for parole and the judge has a full belly, there’s a better than even chance you’ll get approved. But if you come up for parole and the judge is hungry, forget it.

The authors of the study went through and made sure there weren’t other factors that explained the pattern. Maybe the easy cases are always stacked up at the start of the day, for example. It turns out there aren’t other factors that explain this - the “is the judge hungry” effect on parole decisions is pretty robust.

It’s yet another nail in the coffin of the idea that we humans are capable of making objective decisions, free from irrelevant factors.

I’d stick this study in the pantheon alongside the judges who give tougher sentences, especially to young black people, when their alma mater’s sports team loses badly;the voters who support the incumbent Presidential more when their local sports team winsthe voters who punished the incumbent President when sharks bit people near their housesthe snack-hoarding by randomly selected team leadersthe people who change their minds about retirement savings, organ donation, or censorship depending on whether a box is labeled “tick to opt-in” or “tick to opt-out”; and so on and so on. 

Does this lack of high quality thinking explain Trump? I’d say perhaps it did have a little something to do with it.

But, having said that, this explanation probably only highlights my own low-quality thinking bias in favour of explanations based on low-quality thinking by people I don’t like! 

Enjoy your summer, PA readers, and thanks again for letting me share this corner of the internet with you.


Four thoughts on polling in Wellington’s mayoral election

(Disclosure at the outset: Polity’s clients include Justin Lester’s campaign.)

As readers know, Justin Lester won Wellington’s mayoralty over Nick Leggett by 56% to 44% on the final STV count, with turnout up around five points to 45%.

Now that the final results have been released, and the Wellington City Council has tried to claim credit for a five point turnout bump on the basis of their poster design (!), we can look a little to the data to evaluate what happened.

This is not a post gloating about a victory. Being involved with Labour means I’ve been on the other side of election nights plenty of times, mourning losses rather than celebrating wins. All three top-placed Wellington campaigns ran a professional operation, their candidates would have been highly competent mayors, and they should all be proud of their efforts.

But I do want to make four points about modern analytics in this kind of campaign. They’re all about polling.

Fellow anoraks may recall that two internal polls leaked a few weeks before the election. One was from David Farrar’s Curia, and showed the Lester-Leggett race was neck and neck on first preferences, with Leggett winning out on lower preferences. The second, from a firm called Community Engagement, showed Lester well ahead on first preferences and with a solid lead after preference distribution as well.

As we’ve seen from the official results, the election broadly played out in line with the Community Engagement poll’s predictions. 

Critically, the Community Engagement poll also asked who voters would prefer if the race came down to a Lester vs Leggett runoff, which ultimately it did. (It asked the same thing for Lester vs Coughlan and Leggett vs Coughlan.)

This is the most important question to ask in a multi-candidate STV election.

The table below shows the raw results of that question, the results of that question for decided voters only, and the final Lester vs Leggett round of the election.

As you can see, the poll was within about two points of the final runoff result. That’s a pretty accurate result.

(decided voters)
Final result
(iteration 7)
Lester 41.4% 54.3% 56.4%
Leggett 34.9% 45.7% 43.6%
Unsure 23.7% - -

Four thoughts on this.

First, some people dismissed the Community Engagement poll because it is run by a person known to be sympathetic to Labour. That’s a strange logic, as it would also suggest all David Farrar’s work for National is inaccurate simply because David Farrar likes National. I think Farrar’s work is much better than that.

Second, the National Business Review accused the Community Engagement poll of being “bogus,” and more-or-less suggested the firm was a fiction. So much for the “bogus” part. And on the claim the company is made up, I’d suggest NBR checks with the Victorian ALP, who use Community Engagement a lot. The NBR really needs to learn to think before repeating and amplifying the delusional ravings of Mr C Slater.

Third, it’s worth noting that the Community Engagement poll used automated touchtone polling known as “robopolling” rather than live operator polling. Some think the cheaper technology involved in robopolling can lead to lower quality data, and more inaccurate results. I refer those people to the table above, and also to the fact that many of the top overseas pollsters (eg. ReachTel in Australia) have recently moved towards robopolling.

Fourth, one advantage of Community Engagement’s poll was that it only surveyed the people likely to vote in the election. Turnout in local body elections is normally under 50%, and the half that vote is not at all like the half that doesn’t vote. On average local body voters are a lot older, more female, richer, and whiter than the non-voters.

Because of that, it’s critical to talk to the right people when you’re polling (and also when you’re a political party making voter contacts).

Curia’s poll, on the other hand, surveyed across everyone eligible to vote in the election. In a low turnout election, that’s bound to mislead. I think in this case some lower information folk recognized Leggett’s name from his billboards / bus backs and so on, and told Curia he had their support on the basis of than name-recognition, but were never likely to cast a ballot.

The lesson? Likely voter screens are hugely important in lower turnout elections. In fact, as turnout rates in Parliamentary elections dip into the 70s in recent cycles, they’re becoming ever more important in those elections, too.


Behavioural economics and Hekia Parata

After getting rebuffed trying to increase class sizes in 2012, Hekia Parata is trying to foist them on parents by stealth in 2016. But I think her plan is doomed to fail.

Parata’s latest foray comes in the form of the so-called “global budgets,” where schools get one overall budget allocation to cover everything from teacher salaries to sports equipment, and are free to allocate the funds as they like, subject to collective agreements about salary scales and so on.

This is basically the old “bulk funding” model National tried to roll out in the 1990s with very limited success.

Teachers have responded to the proposal by saying it stinks because it will force schools to have larger class sizes when the government grants don’t keep up with cost pressures. And, when parents express their outrage over all this, the government whose underfunding was the ultimate cause of the bigger classes will be nowhere to be found. “The school made the decision, not us!” they’ll say.

I don’t think global budgets will necessarily lead to that chain of events, because behavioural science suggests it could lead to other harms instead.

To see why, let’s start with two central ideas in behavioural economics: 

  1. People respond to incentives.
  2. Therefore, policymakers should give people an incentive to do the right thing. (This is the central point of Nudge.)

I’ve got in trouble with teachers before for suggesting that they, like others, respond to incentives. I’m unrepentant on that front.

The yawning problem with Parata’s global budgets is that they give teachers a clear, actionable incentive to do the wrong thing, namely to make kids’ education worse outside the classroom.

With a global budget, bigger allocations going to staff salaries increases job security for all current staff, as there’s less pressure to cut people in order to make room in the budget.

And the less the school spends on “cherry on top” programmes for kids, from music to sport to drama, the more is left over for staff salaries, keeping people employed and class sizes down.

But the impetus for cherry on top programs often comes from the teachers themselves. If a school has a jazz band, it’s normally because a teacher put their hand up to coach it, did the research and shopping for the instruments, and so on.

With the global budget proposal, Hekia Parata has given teachers a clear incentive to stop pushing for student enrichment programs, and to oppose any programs other teachers might propose.

The more limited those programs, the more money is left aside for staffing, the more secure is everyone’s job, and the smaller is each class.

If the global budgets proposal comes to pass, I expect you’ll see schools eeking out their materials for longer, reducing investment in extra-curricular activities, and otherwise battening down the hatches.

It won’t be any kind of explicit, Machiavellian plot to screw the kids. I don’t think teachers have that mindset in them.

Instead, it’s a death by a thousand subconscious cuts, as people fail to summon the energy to drive an enrichment project that may help children on the margin, but may also make their jobs, and their colleagues’ jobs, less secure.

The result will be a lesser educational experience for the kids.

Now, to be crystal clear, I think that’s a tragic outcome. I don’t support it or suggest it. And that’s because nobody – nobody – gets what they want.

Behind its generalized patter about choice, National wants bigger class sizes to spring up organically out of global budgets, so they can’t be blamed for it. But teachers will thwart that.

Parents want all the school’s energy to go into enlightening their children and enriching those kids’ lives, and they won’t get that, either.

Teachers want to do right by kids, which they’d prefer to do both through smaller classes with more personal contact, and through great enrichment programmes.  Sadly, the Global Budget proposal forces them to choose between the two.

In 2010, David Cameron put together a “Nudge unit” to advise on government policymaking from a behavioural point of view. Methinks its past time John Key followed suit.


Burgergasm the second

Wellington On A Plate, the capital’s citywide culinary festival, ended on Sunday. And once again the city’s burger competition far outshined the more refined offerings in terms of popularity.

This year I faced strong domestic advice to avoid last year’s eleven-burgers-in-a-fortnight gastrothon, so I sponged off the collective judgment of others around the Labour setup to design a “surgical strike” on five top prospects. I also relied, mouth watering, on their assessments of some I’d missed.

While our consensus was that nobody quite hit the highs of the Five Boroughs stroke of genius from last year, there were some truly excellent burgers on offer. 

Sterling is a brand new restaurant in a high-risk location on The Terrace, run by the same people responsible for the delicious Egmont St Eatery, last year’s winners. Sterling’s burger had plenty of hallmarks of Egmont St’s effort last year. Buttery brioche bun. Intense beetroot-themed relish.  Great twist on the cheesy topping with an almost fondue of smoked cheese and sauce, dotted with little spears of juniper-scented celeriac. I never thought I’d like celeriac in a burger, but it was super good, with brightness and acidity mellowing out the creamy dairy. It filled the same role as pickle, but with a quite different texture and flavor profile.

The one critique I’d make of Sterling’s offering is that the venison patty didn’t come with the lean gaminess you’d normally expect of venison. It’s was juicy, like beef. Now I like a juicy patty, but it just didn’t seem like I was eating deer. Along with some subtly truffled fries and a craft beer, it’s an almost perfect cut-above burger and fries night out.

Cuba St café Olive was a hit, too, as its cheeseburger combined “some of the smokiest bacon since forever” with a sweet mead-based sauce that cut through the smoke without becoming too dominating itself. The end result was both perfectly balanced and filled with bold flavor.

Perennial contender Charley Noble had a super idea for a burger. It was a bacon cheeseburger with top quality everything and two extra special sauces – chimmichurri and truffled mayo. The problem with that was there was so much mayo, and it was so truffly, that it drowned out the garlicky-herb sharpness of the chimmichurri.  Chimmichurri is yummy, and I wanted to taste it, but it may as well have not been there in my one. That same combination of ingredients would have been better with the pungent mayo on the side, for dipping the fries Belgian-style.

Yes, I know “too much truffled mayo” is very much a first world problem. But last I checked, having a competition over who can most successfully charge $25 for a burger is a pretty first world thing to do, so I say it counts.

Also, on behalf of the We Want Plates movement, I’m assessing Nobles an extra penalty for serving a burger on not only a wooden board, but on a novelty-board-with-a-giant-pretend-mousetrap-at-one-end. It’s not whimsy, it’s wanky. We. Want. Plates.

Five Boroughs went with an amusing-but-high-risk “turducken down” this year. Although I’m a big fan of turducken, and have made one myself, I just couldn’t bring myself to order a deep-fried poultry loaf when there were so many great choices on offer.

However Five Borough’s new upmarket tapas offshoot, Five and Dime on Cuba Street, served up a really adventurous trio of mini burgers centred on a round of steak tartare. I love steak tartare pretty much any time, and I loved it on this burger. Yes, there were some marginal OTT trappings, like the parmesan foam and the mustard shmeared on the plate with a paintbrush, but the overall effect was as delicious as it was different.

Another bouquets this year goes to Ministry of Food’s bravery in entering salmon in a burger competition, which is a bit like entering the Olympic 100m with your shoes tied together. Laundry, Egmont St, and Seize also won some fans.

T minus 350 sleeps to go until Burgergasm the Third, where I believe a burger mocks Samuel Johnson about his newfangled dictionary...


Key peddles cynical “interest rate avenger” fantasy

This week in Parliament, John Key repeated one of the lines that looks to be central to its election campaign in 2017. As we’ll see, that word “lines” probably has one too many n’s in it. Anyway, here it is:

Rt Hon JOHN KEY... One of the ways we have seen [more people being able to buy a home] is that interest rates have halved under the National Government's leadership. They are now 5.4 percent…. So if we were under Labour, those people would be paying $16,000 more after tax.

 Later, Metiria Turei pushed Key on the brazenness of this claim later in question time:

Metiria Turei: Surely the Prime Minister is not trying to take credit for low interest rates, when they are happening all over the world because of weak real economic growth, both here and overseas?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: One of the reasons why interest rates are coming down in this country is that the Government has done a good job of getting the books back in order and of managing inflation expectations.

Now, interest rates are certainly lower in New Zealand than they were ten years ago. But that’s got almost nothing to do with the New Zealand government, despite Key’s adamant, repeated claim of credit.

In fact, interest rates are lower here because interest rates are lower everywhere, due to things like, you know, the GFC. 

Here’s some evidence I’m right and Key’s wrong. I pulled historic OCR figures from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and also historic Fed Funds rates in the US. They’re shown, since 2000, in the chart below.  

The pattern is unmistakable – interest rates rose though the heart of the noughties in both places, then dropped hugely around the time of the GFC. Since then, both places have had low, steady rates.

And the vertical gap between the two interest rates is reasonably steady across the period, too. Yes, there are little 1-2 year blips you can explain with regional-specific events (eg. aftermath of Asian Financial crisis, 9/11). But the broad trend is pretty clear – New Zealand and US interest rates move together.

In fact, we can calculate the average difference between New Zealand and US interest rates across the current government’s term and the previous Labour government’s term. Any change in that difference might be interpreted as the impact a local government, either here or there, might be having. Ready?

Since 2009, under National, New Zealand interest rates have averages 2.845% higher than the US Fed Funds rate at the same time. 2.845%

And under Labour? From 2000 to 2008, New Zealand interest rates were 2.842% higher than the interest rate in the US. 2.842%

2.845% vs 2.842%. In practical terms, there’s no difference at all.

That, using actual data and evidence, shows exactly how much difference John Key has made to New Zealand’s interest rates, and therefore how much difference he’s made to a person’s mortgage bill.

So much for Key’s central lie that: “if we were under Labour, those people would be paying $16,000 more after tax.”

Instead, the best estimate from the evidence says if we were under Labour, those people would be paying $0 more after tax.

Key, more than most, knows this full well. But he chooses to peddle economically illiterate nonsense to the country anyway. People will draw their own conclusions as to why.

Key is treating New Zealand’s fourth estate as if they were innumerate fools. He’s making self-glorifying claims he knows to be false, gambling that nobody will call him on it.

He’s gambling nobody will speak the truth to his power.