Home > Economics > Tony Windsor says thinking is too hard

Tony Windsor says thinking is too hard

November 20, 2010

Tony Windsor doesn’t think we should have a benefit-cost analysis on the NBN. His reason? According to Paul Kelly:

First, he told the ABC the nation had “fiddled round with this long enough” and had lost the best part of a decade. It was time to get cracking. Second, cost-benefit analysis was difficult and if done on the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme then probably “it wouldn’t be a viable operation”. Third, the NBN offered great benefits for the country and his constituents and, not surprisingly, he had no objection to the cross-subsidisation taking place.

This string of anti-intellectual excuses deserve to be looked at more closely, so let’s go through them one at a time. The first reason to ignore proper policy analysis is that the government needs to act quickly. The amazing thing about this is that Windsor seems indifferent to whether they should quickly do something good or quickly do something bad, so long as it’s quick. Surely even a few moments of reflection would lead people to conclude that the most important thing to ensure is that government policy is *good*… not just that it’s quick. And that requires some analysis.

The second justification is that public policy analysis is hard, and so we shouldn’t do it. That leaves Windsor in a very difficult position, because if you’re not going to analysis public policy to check whether it’s good or bad… on what basis do we judge public policy? Flipping a coin? Divine inspiration? Opinion polls? Just support everything?

It is certainly true that public policy analysis can be difficult, but it is also important. Politicians tend to judge policies on what is immediate and what is clearly visible, and they neglect the consequences that are long-term or subtle. This can sometimes lead to bad policies. The consequences of bad policies aren’t just some wasted money. Lives can be destroyed. As George Washington said, the government is “a dangerous servant and a fearful master”, and so it is the responsibility of all decent politicians to make sure that government policy is doing more good than harm. The question we face now is whether the NBN is good public policy. Amazingly, Windsor’s answer is “I don’t care, thinking is too hard”.

Finally, his third excuse for opposing a proper benefit-cost analysis is because the NBN has benefits. Well, of course. Clearly if you spend $43 billion then you’re going to help somebody… but the important question is whether the benefits are bigger than the costs. That is why it’s called a “benefit-cost analysis” and not a “benefit-benefit analysis”.

So in conclusion, Windsor seems to be proudly saying that thinking is too hard, so he just wants the government to do anything that has any benefit to anybody, irrespective of the costs… and he wants it done quickly. And for this brilliant contribution to society, he is getting $136,640 (+ perks) of taxpayers money every year.

Here’s my alternative suggestion. Instead of avoiding thought, and promising a plethora of pointless and painful policies full or pork… somebody in politics should stand up for evidence-based policy and rigorous analysis. The burden of proof rests on the people who want to spend our money and control our lives… so unless they can show that their policies clearly have a net benefit to Australia, it should be scrapped.

Categories: Economics
  1. ML
    November 20, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    John, the sad reality is this.

    The Rudd government used to carry on about evidence-based policy but rarely if ever carried through with that notion. Ditto the Gillard government which is perhaps worse. From what I understand from second hand reports, the Canberra public service is also lacking good analysts and perhaps even a fair bit of spine. As for Tony Windsor, I think the most common word used to describe him would be lazy.

    I do not expect any of this to change while Labor-Greens-Independents remain in power. It will be up to the Coalition (mmm), the press (ha!), the public (zzzz) to relentlessly call this government to account.

  2. TerjeP
    November 21, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    A more generous reading of Tony Windsor is that he thinks the NBN has more benfits than costs but also that it is highly debatable and hard to prove. From that vantage point he sees a formal cost benefit analysis as one more opportunity for things to get bogged down in political debate. A form of paralysis by analysis. In support of his thesis we need only consider the consequence of a cost benefit analysis. If it finds favourably for the NBN then there will be opponents that question the methodology, assumptions and detail and use these concerns to continue opposition. And if a CBA finds against the proposal supporters of the NBN will do the same. A CBA may be a good idea but neither side will give up if a CBA finds against their preferred position. Just look at the climate debate and the inability to resolve that debate once and for all via referal to special expert analysis.

    Rather than believing thinking is too hard, I suspect that Tony Windsor has concluded that endless debate is too easy.

  3. November 22, 2010 at 1:23 am

    I don’t understand your need to defend the indefensible. If he thinks that the NBN has more benefits than costs then he should be happy to have a benefit-cost analysis. All you have to do is estimate the benefits, and estimate the costs, and compare the two numbers. It’s called “evidence-based policy” and it is much better than the alternatives of “opinion-poll-based policy” or “make-it-up-as-you-go policy”.

    You are quite right that people need to check the methodology, assumptions and details of analysis to ensure that it is correct. But surely that is a good thing. You are talking like “getting it right” is an irrelevant after-thought and the first priority is to act, irrespective of whether the actions are good or not. That seems to be Windsor’s attitude, and the attitude of most government apologists, but it should be an embarrassment for anybody who cares about the concept of good public policy.

    Here’s the rule… the government should act if, and only if, they can show a clear net benefit from their actions. Otherwise, leave us alone.

  4. TerjeP
    November 22, 2010 at 7:23 am

    John – I was explaining not defending. I don’t think Windsor is of the view that thinking is bad. He seems to me to be of the view that debate is bad if it delays action that he thinks has already been justified.

    I want tax cuts. If I had the power to deliver decent tax cuts today or to instead do a CBA evaluating the costs and benefits of tax cuts and then debate that CBA with tax cut opponents for 18 months before implementing them then I suspect I’d go with the first option.

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