Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Double Jeopardy

The Criminal Procedures Bill is about to begin its path through Parliament (Double Jeopardy Debate Begins). Among other things this bill will allow for retrial of aquitted defendants under some circumstances. Civil libertarians may be concerned about this change but knee-jerk responses need to be avoided.
I have always felt the more important issue was whether juries correctly apply the standard of "proof beyond reasonable doubt" in the first place. In scientific investigations a trial investigating (for example) the efficacy of a new drug is considered "significant" only if the statistical probability that it's results could have arisen by chance is greater than 1 in 20, and the drug's efficacy would be accepted only when confirmed by significant results from a number of independent studies conducted by multiple researchers under varying circumstances. Even then few scientists would say that the efficacy of the drug was proven "beyond reasonable doubt".
Juror's are denied the luxury of waiting for further results. It is the prosecution's responsibility to investigate thoroughly before the case comes to trial. A thoughtful juror who judges that the defendant is "90% probably guilty" should demand an aquittal but will come under enormous pressure from other jurors who don't know the meaning of the word, "doubt". This is not helped by the knowledge that a wrongful acquittal can never be remedied coupled with the (largely erroneous) belief that a wrongful conviction can. It would help if all juries were more thoroughly instructed on the meaning of reasonable doubt (any doubt that a reasonable person might seriously entertain) and specifically warned against applying the lesser standard of "balance of damage" ("better to acquit ten guilty men than to convict one innocent man"). It would also help if a "not guilty" verdict were called "not proven" (which is what it is).
Actually I quite like the idea of a two-stage process for criminal proceedings. The first stage would be conducted as at present but the jury would decide whether each charge was "proven" or "not proven". Majority verdicts might be allowed. A verdict of "proven" would then proceed to argument on sentence (just as a guilty plea does now). A verdict of "not proven" would lead to a second stage in which both counsel and the trial judge could resummarise their cases (but not present new evidence). The jury could then (after deliberation) bring in a new verdict of "not guilty" (if they were satisfied that the accused was innocent on the balance of probabilities) or leave the verdict as "not proven". A "not guilty" verdict would then be a positive finding of innocence and would normally entitle the accused to costs and to protection against double jeopardy. The Crown would be able to appeal a "not proven" verdict (and possibly gain a retrial) under more or less the same conditions as a defendant can appeal a "proven" verdict but could appeal a "not guilty" verdict under only very limited conditions.
I'd be interested to hear other bloggers thoughts.

Is this the "Dodgy Dossetter"?

OK, I shouldn't have said that. Nice spirits don't make snide ad hominem attacks on people but some puns are so ripe and juicy one just has to pluck them. TVNZ has run an explosive (estimated yield about half a damp squib) story (see Allegations against Winston Peters, link pinched from David Farrar). Apparently an affidavit from Ross Meurant's former partner, Yvonne Dossetter, held by TVNZ has been mysteriously leaked to parliament. The said affidavit alleges that Meurant told Dossetter that he (Meurant) had received money from Simunovich Fisheries for Winston Peters at the time of the fisheries select committeee investigations.
I was just wondering -
(1) whether there was anything in the affidavit that wasn't hearsay;
(2) whether the "Omnibus Bill" is going to extend spousal immunity / privilege to communications between Ross Meurant and Yvonne Dossetter;
(3) whether an affidavit has any practical significance when spousal immunity makes perjury impossible to prove;
(4) which way Ian Ewen-Street, David Carter and Winston Peters are voting on the Omnibus Bill.
The Grey Shade is no fan of Winston Peters but this allegation was a crock when it was floated up earlier this year and looks like proving an older and smellier crock this time.
Good to see the Speaker's response, though.
.. 'Speaker Jonathan Hunt says that David Carter can't simply write back to him asking him to investigate. He says the MP must spell out the case against Peters, or the select committee he chairs must make a recommendation'
The Bunter, at least, was not born yesterday.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Status Anxiety, The American Dream and the Decent Society

I see No Right Turn has already posted an item on this subject but I was also inspired to write about the Status Anxiety program on TV One last night. The program explored the link between the transition from monarchy to democracy (or "meritocracy") with a growth in unhappiness arising from increased expectations. People living under a monarchy had no or little hope (and therefore no or little expectation) of advancement. People living under a democracy know that anything is possible and that it's their own fault if they don't achieve it. That seems more than a little facile - the logical extension of this belief is that slaves are the happiest of all men. In fact, people living under a monarchy do have aspirations (however modest) and succeeded or failed in meeting them according to their luck or ability. English (or Scots) men who succeeded far beyond reasonable expectations for their social standing include Oliver Cromwell, William Shakespeare, Francis Drake and Robert Burns. Others tried but failed tragically (Wat Tyler, the Tolpuddle Martyrs). In focussing on the USA as the sole example of "Democracy" the program used a grossly non-representative sample.

Is the USA really less class-ridden than the UK? Even in the early 20th century the British aristocracy had little difficulty determining which American heiresses were suitably bred to rejuvenate their flagging family fortunes (Van der Bilt Yes, Simpson No). And what are the odds on the USA electing a humble grocer's son (much
less a grocer's daughter) president.

Are the (unnamed) European democracies more compassionate than the USA only because they remain aristocratic? England and France gave their monarchs the ultimate facelift 127 years before and 17 years after the American Declaration of Independence respectively. The constitutional monarchies in the Netherlands and Scandinavia have values very close to those of the New Zealand "Decent Society" which Jim Bolgier never quite got us back to and to describe them as "class-ridden" or "aristocratic" is bizzare.

Is democracy the only thing leading to increased expctations? What about the role of mass consumerism? Does the bombardment of our airwaves with an endless stream of images promoting unattainable aspirations (the "content breaks" as well as the commercials) have no role in this contagion of discontent? Does the difference between the BBC and Fox account for any of the differences between Britain and America? Are the non-Anglophone Europeans at least partially protected from trans-Atlantic cultural colonisation? Can the New Zealand experience of moving from a BBC model to the most crassly commercial shed any light on these questions?

The main social difference between America and the liberal European democracies is in the nature of their dreams. The American dream is about "success" (ie succeeding at becoming rich, famous ansd powerful). The liberal dream is to be happy and a liberal is not happy with prosperity stolen from the poor, ripped from a ravaged landscape or purchased with a mortgage against our grandchildren's future. New Zealand used to be firmly in the liberal camp and I suspect most of us still are (as individuals) but we have a recent history that suggests a flight towards the conservative economic agenda currently dominant in America (but opposed by many Americans).

Perhaps the hallmark of our dreams is the choice of heroes we choose to look up to. Any country has its share of passing banalities among its heroes but if we look at those that remain after the usual parade of sports stars, rock stars, film stars, beautiful people and TV personalities have passed we may get some idea of a nations psyche. American lists will include Bill Gates (not because he was the father of the PC revolution but because he made more money than any one else) and Donald Trump (because that's how I'll live when I'm rich). The BRT and others frequently bemoan our failure to honour our captains of industry and mutter darkly about Tall Poppy Syndrome but I have never heard a New Zealander try to knock down our genuine achievers (Ernest Rutherford, Kiri Te Kanawa, Edmund Hillary, Peter Jackson) and those such as Hillary, Peter Blake or Fred Hollows who have added service to humanity onto their achievements are universally admired. We do not begrudge the rich their wealth if they have come by it honestly and they may enjoy its fruits with our blessing but we reserve honour for genuine achievement. For the record Greyshade's three most admired people of the twentieth century are Mother Teresa, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.

Friday, June 11, 2004

What are they afraid of?

Had last night's "State of the Nation" program been on the state of street lighting in the Nations inner cities I'm sure Gerry Brownlee and Stephen Franks would have been among the first to point out that "honest citizens have nothing to fear from improved lighting". How strange then that they should react with such vehemence to a program which honestly set out to enlighten us about our country's history and constitution and, in the process, demonstrated as nothing has ever been demonstrated before just how badly we need it.
That being said I would have no hesitation giving Stephen my vote for ACT leader (were I eligible) on the strength of this gem -
"the claim that Maori paid more in income tax than they received in tax funds, when the amounts reportedly received were only cash distributions -- that ignored twice as much in tax-paid services."
In the 2003 fiscal year Cash Benefits paid to all New Zealanders, Total Income Tax Revenue and Total Government Expenditure were 13 billion, 26 billion and 39 billion so when he accuses TVNZ of comparing the Maori share of Income Tax (26b X f where f is the Maori share of the economy) with the Maori share of Cash benefits (13b X f) he implies that the correct target should have been the Maori share of total Government Expenditure (39b X f) and so introduces an almost exactly equal error in the opposite direction. I expect ordinary hypocrisy from any politician but this sort of Precision Hypocrisy requires a certain Chutzpah.

Could this be the start of a beautiful friendship?

National's Simon Power deplores the high effective marginal rates for some families following the budget (see norightturn). Labour's Steve Maharey points out that these effects are inevitable with any targeted family (or other assistance) program and that the budget has merely raised the threshold at which they occur.
They are both more or less right (Simon shouldn't have included ACC deductions since these provide an income-related private benefit but they don't make much difference to his argument) but neither of them say where they stand on making these (and other benefits) universal - which is the only way the problem can be avoided.
It can be done. A (pre-budget) analysis by your favourite spectre indicates that a "Universal Marginal Rate" system whereby everyone pays a tax rate of 39% on all taxable income but receives a "Universal Income" roughly equal to current benefit entitlement (according to family size and location) would cost about 6 billion to implement (5-10 years tax reform at current rates). This would give similar benefits to the budget for middle to higher income families but would extend to any income and eliminate the high marginal rates Simon so rightly deplores. The same scheme can be made fiscally neutral by increasing the tax rate to 45%. This make all high income earner's worse off (compared to the 39% rate) but the couple in Simon's example would need to earn over $200,000 before they received a net tax increase (compared to the current system).
It's not realpolitik to expect this sort of change to be made overnight. The outcry from middle to high income DINKs (Double Income No Kids) - or single-income childless couples who can split their income for tax purposes -is always going to drown out the gratitude of the relatively limited number of taxpayers affected by the high effective marginal rates but, at the end of the day, it's just plain unfair that a single-income family with three dependent kids earning say $100,000 has to pay the same net tax as a single person with no dependents on the same income, or $7500 MORE than a DINK couple earning $50,000 each. Would it be too much to ask for a bipartisan (or multiparty) accord that a universal marginal rate system is at least an ideal to work towards? At least that way we might hope that future changes would advance us towards that goal (as the current budget does but a simple increase in base benefit levels or reduction in nominal tax rates would not). The Greens and Alliance have traditionally favoured universal benefits and United Future could hardly oppose so obviously family-friendly a policy. If National and Labour have also discovered the problems of excessive effective marginal tax rates we could really be onto something.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Taxes and Government Spending

There have been a number of interesting Blog postings on (to name a few) No Right Turn, David Farrar, about Government spending as a % of GDP. Your favourite phantom was inspired to take a closer look at the breakdown of the numbers (to peek beneath the veil as it were) with some interesting findings. The most recent year I could find the detailed figures for was the year ending June 2003. The government's total revenue for that year was 43.7 billion or 34.0% of gdp.

The fact that most struck me is that only 6.2 billion (the "Net cost of Goverment-produced services") was spent on the traditional function of "governing the country". Rather more than one could lay the spectral fingers on at short notice but less than 5% of gdp. Add in another 3.6 billion for "Social Assistance Benefits in Kind" provided by government departments to get the "Final Consumption Expenditure" of 9.8 billion (about 8% of gdp). This figure represents the complete costs of running core government services including the salaries, stationery, accommodation, travel, coffee, red tape and paper-clip budgets of all government departments, courts, judges, police and defence forces, prisons, members of parliament, ministers, parliamentary and ministerial offices and more specifically -

(1) The cost of keeping Ahmed Zaoui in prison;
(2) The cost of operating and manning speed cameras;
(3) Official receptions for VIPs;
(4) Fees, Purchases, koha and other payments made to external consultants, lawyers, accountants, Kaumatua, etc;
(5) CEO expense accounts;
(6) Meal allowances for Security Intelligence Service agents;
(7) Any other pet peeve you wish to nominate.

The remainder of the tax take goes on Interest (2.6 billion), Social Assistance Benefits paid in Cash (13.2 billion), Other transfer payments (13.4 billion - mainly for the health and education systems) and a 4.5 billion Current Account surplus.

In other words the Government did NOT take 43.7 billion from the private sector and tip it down a black hole - it took 43.7 billion from the private sector and -

(1) gave 13.2 billion straight back in cash
(2) spent 17.3 billion on education, health, etc services which would have otherwise fallen on households
(3) paid 2.6 billion interest on public debt (some of it to households)
(4) laid aside 4.5 billion savings for a rainy day
(5) spent just over 6 billion on all core government operations.

The Net aggregate Tax take by the NZ government is actually very modest. The impact of the tax/social spending system has more to do with the facts that -

(1) the 17 billion that the state spends on education, health, etc on behalf of its citizens may not be spent in quite the same way as the citizens would choose to spend it themselves.
(2) the 30 billion paid in (cash or kind) benefits do not accrue to indivual households in proportion to the tax they pay and so the overall system leads to a redistribution of income between households in the private sector.

I'm not convinced that the first of these two (the loss of personal choice in spending) is that important. No one chooses to be sick, most people take private health insurance (and thereby abdicate their future spending choices to the insurance provider) whenever state provision is not available and the large increases in tertiary education fees have not prevented increasing number of New Zealanders from taking up tertiary education (often with large student loans).

Some people (particularly on the right) may object to any form of income redistibution but I suspect most New Zealanders approve of a reasonable, fair system of redistibution which appropriately balances need, ability to pay and preservation of incentives to work harder (or otherwise increase gross income). There is a good argument that we could have a much fairer and effective redistribution regime than we presently have but let's focus on those issues rather than spurious red herrings (NZ is overtaxed, inefficient Government expenditure is throttling growth, individuals are denied choice by State provision of health and education) or by a mindlessly bleated chorus of private spending good, state spending bad.