Saturday, 16 May 2015

Proportional Representation and New Zealand

Politics is about vision. Every single person has their own particular vision, even if they cannot articulate it. This is the same as how everyone has a philosophy, a world view or a favourite film... in general, people are much better at talking about what they like about something someone has said than they are about their own positions/beliefs/visions. This is one aspect of why direct democracy is a bad idea. While it would theoretically capture an individual's vision most perfectly, it doesn't have the same prompt that representative democracy does. However, representative democracy does have what I term the vision gap.

The vision gap is a way of thinking about the fact that no-one is able to vote for someone who perfectly represents their (usually incompletely articulated) vision... there are always differences of opinion, often these are substantial. It follows, then, that a good electoral system is one that reduces the aggregate (i.e. national) vision gap as much as possible, whilst not being a direct democracy (which is impracticable and undesirable, although this is another argument). The only way to do this is through proportional representation (PRep).

The principle behind PRep is that the end outcome in the election should match, as closely as possible, the actual vote. If, say, 10,000 people vote for Party A across four electorates with the split 2000, 4000, 2000, and 2000 while only 8,000 people for Party B then Party A should have 5 seats for every 4 that Party B does. However, a system like First Past the Post (FPP) could allow Party B to win this imaginary election with the split: 2200, 1400, 2200 and 2200. That would be three seats to Party A's one. To my mind, Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is the best way to improve this. 

Under MMP, as adopted in NZ, an individual voter has 2 votes. The first is for their electorate MP (for instance, Judith Collins, Phil Goff or, most recently, Winston Peters) who will represent their "local" area. The second is the party vote (e.g. Greens, National or ACT). Electorates are won by a simple majority system and the party votes are used to determine the popular vote (what we determined, above, was 10,000 for Party A and 8,000 for Party B). This popular vote is then used to determine  how many list seats each party should get. Imagine that in our example, the allocations are identical for the electorate seats and we get 10,000 party votes for A and 8,000 for B. Also imagine that there are 10 seats in total now. As B has 44% of the vote they should get one list Member of Parliament (MP). A's 56% of the vote means that they should get 4 list MPs so that each party has roughly as many seats as share of the party (or popular) vote. 

This is an improvement on FPP but we are still left with this idea of the vision gap as the PRep example we have here has simply reduced the tension that existed between the popular vote and the electoral outcome. The vision gap is reduced more through reducing the "risk" of voting for a minor party. That is, people are afraid to waste their vote on candidates or parties that haven't got a chance to win. Because this fear is evaluated, we get the vision gap because people compromise even more than usual. The cost of voting is the voter's opinion of the chance that an option won't make it into parliament... PRep reduces this cost and, thus, minimises the vision gap (and, so, the wasted vote). The trouble is that New Zealand has a 5% threshold.

The Threshold is a very troublesome concept. 5% of 121 is 6.05, or 6 seats, which is more than National's current partners (all three of them) managed individually or collectively. That is absolutely insane. Especially given the Conservatives got just a touch under 4% in the last election. The threshold's current size is more than sufficient to reintroduce significant risk: especially for parties which have no prior experience as parties inside parliament. Essentially, the threshold scares people into voting for two large parties, two medium-sized ones and the electorate scam parties (Maori, ACT and United Future). However, reducing the threshold to 0% would imply that .826% would be enough to enter parliament. I think that this is a bit too low for the interests of stability so I suggest that 2 or 1.5% be used instead.

I suppose we should now touch on the aforementioned electorate scam parties. Those  three parties have been in coalition arrangements with Nation since the 2008 election and their entire rationale is that National will either not seriously contest certain electorates (in other words, the likes of Epsom are currently Rotten Boroughs) or take advantage of the fact that only Labour and Maori (and a non-Dotcommed Hone Harawira) can win the Maori seats.* I used the term "take advantage" due to the coat-tail provision whereby a party with an electorate seat can bypass the threshold (this is another issue with the threshold), and could, as such, theoretically bring in more MPs. However, as Maori would only get 1.6 seats with no threshold and no electorate and the other two performed even worse in terms of the party vote, this didn't happen this time around. The coat-tail provision is a distortion of democracy in a similar fashion to the threshold. It really needs to go and it needs to be replaced with a lower threshold. 

Finally, we should just mention that coalitions are a very powerful tool. One of the issues that people bring up when trying to criticise democracy is the idea of the tyranny of the majority. This cannot happen if people are able to express their values (as opposed to their risk assessments) and, as a result, major parties must consider the values of the smaller ones. It gets a bit dubious when you have a party like Thatcher's Conservatives (despite being from a non PRep system) or Key's National which are going to win and everyone knows it, in part because of disarray among the opposition. In such circumstances, the coalition parties are robbed of any real power to induce thoughts from the big party. And you will also get policies like Charter Schools sprung on you. That was something Key's lot wanted, ACT was never going to disagree with and it was always going to be unpopular, thus it was attributed to ACT to shift the risk... that's moral hazard. But this is more likely to happen when you have a system that is distorting what should be a good democratic outcome such as NZ's thresholds and rotten boroughs.

New Zealand is in a much better place, in terms of democracy, than the largest two English speaking nations. I would also argue that we are in a better place than the closest one that isn't us. However, we should be even better and the only thing stopping us is a government more interested in Brand Key and flag change than fixing some of the issues that have helped them storm home (even though they were always going to win the last two elections). We have gone very far but we still need to get rid of our Rotten Boroughs and reduce that damn threshold.

*Maori seats probably shouldn't exist given that: they were intended to be temporary; Maori achieve representation in the same way that everyone else does; and even if you insist that the sum total of Maori is that they are Maori and thus can only be represented by Maori, there are Maori MPs who aren't in parliament due to Maori seats. In short, Maori seats are anachronistic and paternalistic (unlike, say, NZ's being a constitutional monarchy although they are like the arguments for NZ's being a republic which argue, falsely, that NZ is not independent).

Monday, 11 May 2015

NZ Herald Reports on Scholarship Fee Changes

More than a year ago that bastion of good journalism, TVNZ's website, reported on the scholarship fee changes that will affect Schol candidates this year. Just under a month later, I provided some commentary on that article. Today, much of the way through the school year, the NZ Herald has opted to get in on the game and has also covered this breaking story. 
NZQA divisional manager Kristine Kilkelly told the Herald that the fees change would enable the authority to better plan the necessary number of exam booklets, markers, and exam supervisors.
As if this was some good work by the Herald. You could have found this out, for instance, by reading TVNZ's article.
Many students signed up for scholarship early in the year, then realised how difficult the curriculum was and decided not to sit the end-of-year exams, he said.
"We still have to print the papers, contract a supervisor and a marker and then, when students don't turn up, it becomes very costly."
Naturally, the Herald, if the people it talked to suggested any alternatives, did not mention them. I stand by my remarks in that post:
User Pays systems are something that we expect and have come to terms with in New Zealand, but there are cases where it's inappropriate to impose what basically amounts to a socio-economic punishment: Scholarship (Schol to students) is one of those. What should happen, instead, is that a cost-plus system is used for no-shows. Costs of printing, shipping and compensation plus, say, a 10% penalty.
Adopt a penalty system NZQA. Do not disadvantage those from low socio-economic backgrounds any more than they already are. 
Now, the article's not all old news. Chris Hipkins (the Labour spokesman that they interviewed) did mention some stuff about problems with the systems in place to deal with inequity that were important to the broader point that I made (and he also made) that I did not know about. But, I feel, as if this is tempered by the face-value reporting of the principal of Edgewater College:
Secondary Principals' Association chairman Allan Vester, principal at Pakuranga's Edgewater College, said he did not think $30 was a major barrier, and was confident top students would be supported by their school if necessary.
Okay, yeah, $30 isn't too bad but, as I said before, it's generally going to be more like $60 or $90 as pupils seek to test their mettle in all their good subjects. The really top ones will probably try basically everything and will feel as if their investment is less risky. That's the bit that the NZ Herald should have been a bit more critical with.

The school assistance is, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Why? Well, it really depends on the school itself and how much it's got floating around for such purposes. Furthermore, in my experience, school administration is pretty crap. As an anecdote, a friend of mine fell in a dead-zone... too many credits for one stream of English and too few for another... but really wanted to do that subject, was happy in the lower stream for a while and then the school decided that, no, he could not do either. The experience was, in my eyes, created firstly by the stupidity of the dead zone's existence, secondly by unfeeling administration that preferred that he drop out (which he did because of this; and there weren't any behavioural issues either) and thirdly by a failure to account for the popularity of English (he was not the only person in this situation; another friend of mine basically wagged until they put him back in it). I believe the dead zone is now gone, but the point remains. And, also, what if it wasn't a top student but one who wanted to grow as a person?
"NZQA are correct - lots of student enter and then some/many don't turn up. There might well be a temptation to enter just in case you decide to give it a go and certainly Mum and Dad might be pleased with you for entering."
There you go, he acknowledges that it is not just top students who are affected. The reason for the non-attendees is probably related to the Standard Not Attempted concept. A lot of pupils get it into their heads that it is better to not try at all and get recorded as an SNA than risk failure and get a Not Achieved recorded on their record. I don't have that mentality and, in fact, have absolutely no sympathy for those who do/did, so I cannot really shed any light on why this happens. Indeed, I actively attempted to maximise the number of things I sat and failed one thing as a result (due, in my eyes, entirely due to its being an unfinished essay rather than any academic inadequacy on my part). But, while this is a blog, enough about me... back to the point. The SNA is, in my view, one of the big remaining issues with NCEA, along with the deeply related withdrawn from standard/optional standard issue. Most of NZ's college pupils are used to NCEA and are exposed to these ideas (which are, shall we say, not uncommon among pupils or staff), so I believe that it is reasonable to extend the thinking to the optional Schol exams (which are sat during the normal exam period as well, so studying for Schol comes at the cost of studying for other exams in many instances*).

But, I don't have entirely negative comments to make. Mr Vester's interview yields the remarks that allow the NZ Herald article to end on a meaningful note:
"Staffing and time tabling is much easier in large higher-decile schools, as is staffing the extra scholarship sessions that help the candidates. That might well be a factor in the concentration of scholarships in a small number of schools," Mr Vester said.
 "Schools might well argue that their success is attributable to the great programmes they run, but I don't think there is any question that economies of scale can assist.

"In schools with smaller numbers...staffing and timetable constraints make that much harder. Students may still get scholarship, but that would have to be an add-on to an existing timetable and involve teachers running most of the support in addition to the normal class."
I have spoken about these ideas as well:
In my experience at a mid decile state school (as opposed to a high decile or private school where a factory like approach to Scholarship is taken -- this is partly why so many of the top awards come out of the same schools year in, year out), those who do Scholarship are those who put their hands up to do it.
What Mr Vester described is exactly what happened. As far as I recall, the people who wanted to try Scholarship English worked in a group during lunch/after school but certainly in their own time. That was probably the most structured approach my school (with around 1800 pupils, so not, in my eyes, small) took with my cohort. Calculus, as far as I recall, had at least one meeting during lunch. With Economics we had a couple of meetings and Classics we had a couple more. The Classics ones were, in some sense, probably the most helpful. History was half-arsed. I basically asked my teacher what it was like, got an answer and then was left to my own devices (as, indeed, I felt was the case with one of the normal external standards so take what you will from that).

Now, I would say that those schools are right to discuss programme quality. Scholarship is, in my eyes, not something that can be learnt by rote (hell, classics takes flair into account when it's being marked) so I think that there absolutely must be quality in the programmes. However, Vester is also correct. The mere existence of structured programmes, especially if represented (as he seems to suggest) through different streams of classes, is a big boost that a lot of schools, the one's most likely to cater to pupils affected significantly by the schol fees. can't provide. So, my factory doesn't refer, so much, to rows and rows of pupils studiously taking in notes and outputting exams but instead to the existence of formal, structured programmes (like the difference between a production line in a tin-shed versus a modern industrial factory). I would also agree with Vester that this is a larger problem with the Schol system. Schools outside the current core of frequent Schol success ones should be able to get more support for dealing with scholarship. This would require money from somewhere, so would probably require a change in government priorities to happen.

I think we can also discuss the scholarship class programmes in terms of a different manifestation of inequality. That is, the lecacy of inequality whereby those from poorer backgrounds tend to not be as academically able on entering college, thus secondary schools face this:
[Lower and mid-decile schools] [...] have to be far more focussed on passing. That's as opposed to building on success. Two big reasons are internal and external pressures to get good pass percentages. One of the flaws with school choice is that parents won't send children to schools when they think their children won't get a decent chance to succeed. New Zealand's approach school choice has been a half in, half out thing. Many lower decile schools don't have zones or have very large ones because they have very few pupils. This is largely because parents have some ability to get their children into other schools (whether through private options, out of zone applications, lying about where they live or moving house). As a consequence of this, and tables published by the likes of Metro, there is a fair amount of pressure on schools to get good results in things like NCEA that is external. Naturally, within a school you're going to be generating pressure to help pupils pass (without resorting to unethical actions) anyway. This is particularly true if many of the pupils are marginal or behind... as is quite likely when you're in a school system as inequitable as New Zealand's. This adds up to environment where the majority of resources are focussed at trying to bring people up to where they should be, rather than trying to bring them up to where the pupils (hopefully) would like to be.
So there's that as well. But, basically, the scholarship fee issue can be summarised like so:

  • By introducing a fee, the inequities in NZ's education system are increased.
  • However, there is a problem with people putting their names down and then not turning up.
  • This is likely caused by the same mindset as that which creates a preference for SNAs over trying (can we relate this to an increasing interest in introducing mercy rules in youth sport?).
  • Therefore, a fee doesn't address the root problems (Infosys 110's problem trees are lacking in NZQA, methinks) and creates inequity.
  • This is in contrast to some sort of penalty system that would only punish those who don't show up and, thus, also introduces some financial pressure to show up.
  • This has the same flaw of not addressing the causes but minimises the impact of the other flaw. This is, logically, better (and there are many ways to implement a penalty system)
  • However, scholarship fees are not the only issue around inequality in the scholarship exam system.

I would not be surprised if the Herald writes/publishes some sort of opinion piece in this week on this issue. Although, I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't either. What I do know is that I take issue with the way that this article seems to present itself as new news. And I do know that I have, in this blog post, created something that takes a broader view of the issue. Is that not better?

*One of the reasons why I didn't try Calculus Schol, when I was choosing which three to attempt, was that it fell on the same day as one of my other more sizeable exams. Economics was on a day when I had another exam but it had only two standards in it. Also, calculus looked hard but I believe I would have tried it were it on a day when I had no other exams. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Achilles Question

In a previous post, I talked about flag change and John Key's interest in his historical legacy. It's something that is almost certainly very big for him. No politician whose politics is as intrinsically linked with their personality and personal reputation can't be. That's probably something that people won't puzzle over. What they might question is the label I used to describe this idea: Achilles Question.

John Key and David Cunliffe?
Achilles is much like John Key. Seemingly invincible and nigh invulnerable. Where failing to be able to hammer in a nail and an incident with a pony-tail have troubled Teflon John, Achilles, famously, had a vulnerable heal. However, the Achilles question is broader than this and actually stems to before Troy. Really, it's all about why Achilles was at Troy in the first place. John Key is, thus, a distraction. Anyway:
Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies. . . 

That's from Spark Notes, who, helpfully, have an explanation:
 Achilles also fears the consequences in store for him if he remains in Troy. His mother, Thetis, has told him that fate has given him two options—either live a short but glorious life in Troy or return to Phthia and live on in old age but obscurity. As he confronts this choice, the promise of gifts and plunder—cattle, fat sheep, stallions—doesn’t interest him at all. Such material gifts can be traded back and forth, or even taken away, as his prize Briseis was. In contrast, the truly precious things in the world are those that cannot be bought, sold, seized, or commodified in any way. These include glory and life itself.
The point that I take from this episode also ties in with the idea of the three deaths (which, I believe, is a Mexican tradition). Anyway, it follows:
The first death is the death of the body. The second death occurs with consignment to the earth. The third death is when your name ceases to be spoken.
The version that one of my local politicians quoted at our local ANZAC Day memorial was better, though. But, back to the point.

What does all the above mean? Well, the Achilles Question in the Illiad basically relates to whether or not one would prefer to me remembered at the cost of a shorter life or enjoy a longer but obscure life. I take this more generally to mean: glory or obscurity. Furthermore, in my philosophy (such as it exists*), the existence of the legacy is very important. My answer to the Achilles Question is, in some sense, eternal memory please. Although, as death means nothingness, I'd much rather be alive and content in knowing that there will be memory of me later on. In some sense, this is a case of never dying: the only possible sense of immortality lies in being remembered.

In the case of myself, this also relates to the idea that one is one's works. In general this means that what you have done, that blog that you started four years ago and wrote one post on, that poorly maintained Twitter account, all those trollish posts in Facebook arguments and your insane forays in Youtube comments are, in a very meaningful way, who you are. In other words, one's memory depends on what one has done. That is, in the context of the Achilles Question, what you do is how you get remembered. This is pretty obvious.

I have no issues with what I see as John Key's interest in his memory. I commend him for having at least some concern for day n+1 (which National politicians, as a rule, do not have: which is disastrous socially, economically and environmentally). As I made clear in the previous post, I do have issues with the approach.

It is worth bearing in mind, though, that the Achilles Question is made interesting by its cost. My generalised view takes away that interest: the bite. Once you have to start making tradeoffs, you get something quite different. Although, arguably, just as suitable for the 1am blogger.

*Like most people (everyone has a philosophy) it is pretty much unspoken.

New Zealand's Flag Change

Oh, I mean, wow. What ning-nong decided that this was a good idea? Oh, yeah, John Key. It's not something which people wanted. It is not something that people want now. Frankly, I don't think it's something that people will want in the future. New Zealand seems increasingly comfortable in its own skin, you see.

But, hey, there is a debate in some people's mind. There are two main contentions. Firstly, there's the idea that our flag is too similar to those of some other countries. Well, that's nonsensical: heaps of countries have visually similar flags and no-one cares. Besides, our flag is older (in design) than Australia's. Secondly, there's the more important contention that this badly drawn cartoon critiques.

Sadly, the above is not strawmannish. That is their argument and it really does grossly exaggerate the nature of our flag's relationship to Britain and, in fact, ignores the stars altogether. Naturally, that particular argument finds something that specifically orientates New Zealand as being far away from Britain is extremely problematic. It also does nothing to deal with the fact that this flag is our flag, was our flag and has meaning as our flag.

Flag Change is nothing more than an attempt by John Key to alter/control his own legacy (in the absence of any apparent talent to write tomes and win Nobels for doing so). That is, it has become clear to Key that no-one cares enough about the return of titles (which, for reference, I agree with); that NZ has  underperformed economically and environmentally since 2008 (i.e. mismanagement of NZ by Key's National); that National's victory last year was simultaneously decisive, crushing and devoid of any ideas beyond "surplus!"; and that something positive that did happen (i.e. marriage equality) won't be attributable to National's efforts, for Key to come away with the sort of legacy that he wants. John Key may be a fool in public but he's not a stupid man. He is very likely acutely aware that when history looks back at the 2008-2015 span it will wonder at NZ's apathy to multiple scandals in areas related to corruption and that it will pay more attention to the economic cases for sustainable transport than National's ideological and reflexive rejections. In short, John Key knows that changing New Zealand's flag is his one big shot to have an historical legacy of which he is in control. Flag Change is a personal crusade of one man from on high.

The ordering of the referenda is also screwed up. Firstly, establish if there is a mandate for change (what happened to Key's National that was so keen on mandates?). Secondly, having discovered that there isn't, choose a new flag. It's a cynical attempt to deceive the less politically aware (a lot of NZ's voters) that will achieve nothing more than the expenditure of several million dollars ($26 million) that could be spent elsewhere. It could help fix (i.e. ease) NZ's numerous social problems, environmental (esp. biosecurity) issues, or economic efforts (such as our productivity, being a low wage economy etc). But, for Key, these worthy goals are too difficult, too hard... too risky.

Also, for many, they can't help but shake the feeling that changing the flag is the idea of some fool child that they left behind in their past... after they grew a bit older and understood a bit more.