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So, I was having lunch with someone the other day and I mentioned offhand that entry-level management consultants and investment bankers got almost double what a entry-level public servant gets. My friend tells his friend (who doesn’t know me) that I said it so gleefully because I’m not a big fan of government. The next day, someone asks me… so what’s with all these facebook statuses complaining about the government (and in particular, Barack Obama)?

Hmm… so it looks like I have a bit of an image problem. Yes, yes, I know I’m a big fan of privatisation and of minimising bureaucracy and taxes. Yes, yes, I have a strong libertarian streak to my political beliefs, but I don’t consider myself an opponent of government. In fact, I’m rather a fan of it. It’s the most efficient way of fixing many of the world’s problems. Poverty can’t be fixed by market forces alone because of the poverty cycle. Government needs to work with the market by providing an open and cheap education system to (at least) the majority of the poor that will actually educate them rather than give the pretense of educating them. Government has a role to play in infrastructure development, pushing new societal goals and nudging cultural change where rights are being infringed.

The thing, I guess, that irks me most is that I’m a big fan of Barack Obama. He is the most rational president that America has had in a long time, and he ranks alongside Clinton in believing in evidence-based policies and in the art of the possible. I would probably rank him amongst my three favourite presidents (with Jefferson and Clinton). The problem is, that I disagree vocally with some of his policies and his methodologies. The Economic Recovery Act (ie the bailout and the stimulus package) was absolutely necessary to save America from an even bigger recession but large parts of it were implemented badly. There is increasing regulation reducing flexibility in the financial system that reduces its ability to respond to future crises. One big regulator should have been appointed to oversee the entire system, and that regulator should have been the Federal Reserve. But overall, I am rather a fan of Obama’s response. His decision to extend the TALF to auto loans and student loans was interesting, as was his decision to have a general bailout rather than targetting specific banks (like the UK government did). The latter decision proved the wiser and more effective choice as the UK government tries to extricate itself from both RBS and Northern Rock (and as the US government tries to extricate itself from AIG).

My criticisms are not usually directed at the Obama Administration itself. If I have a criticism, it’s that he isn’t taking on the mantle of leader of the Democratic Party and that isn’t coalescing them around him. My criticism is directed at Congress – both houses and both sides of the aisle have failed the American people, and the people of the world. Their inability to reform health care after a year of debate is pathetic. Their attempts to fix the financial system have been tenuous at best. They targetted credit card companies… yes they played a role, but the tiniest ever role in this crisis. Why haven’t you fixed the giant hole in your regulatory system? Why haven’t you reinstated Glass-Steagall yet?

So, what I want to do in this post is to state (broadly) what I think of the major governments in Australia:

  • The Rudd Federal Government:
    • Generally, a very competent government. It’s stimulus package is probably the best designed in the world and the most effective (and not merely because of its relative size). It hasn’t done as much as he promised… but he has done a lot. He’s ratified Kyoto and apologised to the Aboriginal people. He’s done some reforms of the financial system (like removing certain powers from the ASX and given them to ASIC), but let’s face it – our regulatory system was pretty good to begin with. He’s been trying to fix two of the other major promises he made during the last election. He gave a good go at passing an Emission Trading System and he’s now attempting to reform the vertical fiscal imbalance in the health care system.
    • His ministry is generally top-notch (unlike most Labor governments where factional hacks are rewarded with high positions). There are big exceptions, the obvious one being Peter Garrett. Garrett has a superb record of being sub-par. His failings as a shadow minister got half his portfolio stripped from him before he even became minister. His inability to make any headway with the Japanese on the whaling issue has seriously damaged foreign relations with one of our biggest trade partners. I don’t know why he wasn’t promptly demoted after the insulation controversy. How can we sleep when the beds are burning? The other incompetent is Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Censorship of everyone but Telstra. He was meant to be splitting Telstra in half and implementing a National Broadband Network yet no progress has been made on the first front and he failed to table a major report on the second front.
  • The Federal Opposition (Abbott)
    • I’m actually not as negative on Abbott as you think I might be, considering he’s well known as a Catholic pugilist and rabid social conservative. He reminds me a lot of Scalia – a bit thin on theory, but a stalwart ‘intellectual’ of the conservative wing of the Liberal Party. And Abbott is not dogmatic about most things – his takeover of Mercy Hospital in Tasmania showed a radical departure from both common sense and Liberal principles of federalism. Even in his personal life, he hasn’t always stuck to Catholic doctrines (say, the illegitimate son he had which turns out to have been someone else’s illegitimate son?). Overall, I think Abbott looks at the evidence, and tries to come up with the most practical solution to the problem. Even if that means overturning sacred cows like Federal-State relations or the Constitution. I think he makes a useful contribution to the intellectual debate in Australia… as long as he does it from Opposition.
  • The Federal Opposition (Turnbull)
    • This paragraph exists as wishful thinking on my behalf that Turnbull could ever return. He’s possibly the most competent and practical person the Liberal Party has had for a while. It was also great to see a Liberal leader who actually believed in classical liberalism and the individual. The problem was that he was never a team player, and it was his ultimate downfall. He would have done spectacularly as a President. Perhaps that’s why he pushed so hard for a Republic.
  • The NSW Labor Party (or as I call them, the ‘evil Labor Party’) is grossly incompetent on every front. They fail to meet my lowest standard for a government in power which is the ‘lump of coal’ test. If a lump of coal does better than you do, you fail. In every area of policy, the Labor Party has either done nothing, or has implemented a policy which makes things worse rather than better. I cannot think of a single policy which I even broadly agree with since Bob Carr left office. They would be the strongest candidate for last place on my ballot form if not for the existence of the Christian Democrats, Family First, One Nation, the Shooters Party, the 4WD Party, the Greens….
  • The NSW Liberal Party has the unique distinction of being even more incompetent than the NSW Labor Party. With corruption, personal scandals and incompetence abounding on the other side, still too few voters have heard the name ‘Fatty O’Barrell’. Or Barry O’Farrell… whatever his name is. Every time a scandal comes along, there’s always some bland-faced shadow minister trotting out some standard line about how you can’t trust NSW Labor. Goddamit, if I were Opposition Leader, I would be soaring to victory right now in the polls… but it seems the public is trying to figure out which side of politics it hates more. They would be the strongest candidate for last place on my ballot form if not for the existence of the Christian Democrats, Family First, One Nation, the Shooters Party, the 4WD Party, the Greens….
  • The Queensland government (Anna Bligh):
    • I’m not too familiar with the politics of other states, but I get a solid sense of competence from her government. Which, I think is rather novel, don’t you think?
  • Arnold Schwarzennegger:
    • I am very impressed by Arnie. He probably has a tougher job than even the President because the stupidity of the US Congress is theoretically fixable, but the stupidity of the California Congress is mandated by the state Constitution. Arnie took over the reigns from Governor Grey Davis just after another financial crisis caused by energy deregulation, and he seems to have steered the state back into a half-way reasonable shape before the GFC wiped it out again. He did this despite a hostile Congress which wanted to fund everything and everyone but he fought them off with the sharp use of his Veto pen. I guess the pen really is sharper than the sword, eh Conan? All the while, he’s helped fashion some of the most groundbreaking environmental regulations in the US (or even the world) and pushed a reasonably liberal social agenda too. There have been several embarassing backdowns, like his solemn pledge to remove the car tax… then his even more solemn press conference to announce the return of the car tax. And the fact California’s public education system has plummetted from hear first to last in so short a period of time. But that’s caused by guaranteed funding to public education (due to the Constitutional proposition process) and the evil Teacher’s Unions, rather than Arnie. If I weren’t such a strict legalist, I would push for a constitutional amendment to let him run for Governor again. But unfortunately for him, I am, and I’m not eligible to vote anyway…

In short: big fan of President Obama, Kevin Rudd and Arnold Schwarzennegger. I would say that I hate US Congress and the NSW Parliament but both of them provide me far too much mirth for that to be true.

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