Over at The Economist blog Democracy in America, M.S. is in awe of the way in which Dutch political parties present very detailed electoral programs, laying out how exactly they plan to cut the deficit by cutting spending and/or raising taxes. He compares this to the American situation, in which politicians generally claim to want to cut the deficit, but don’t present electoral programs, or give details about budget numbers.
Yglesias agrees, but wonders why Dutch parties even bother, since they have to form coalitions after all.
Also, M.S. admires the way in the Central Planning Bureau (CPB) scrutinizes every party’s electoral program for the effects on purchasing power and so on.
If there’s an area where Americans should feel out-competed by foreigners, I’d say we should feel out-competed by the transparency and responsibility of Dutch democracy. American politicians generally claim they want to cut the budget deficit. When a Dutch political party says it wants lower deficits, it actually outlines an electoral programme with details about how it plans to cut spending and/or raise taxes. For example, the most economically laissez-faire Dutch party, the VVD or “Liberals”, wants to slash 34 billion euros out of the budget by 2015, and it lays out how it will do this: limiting unemployment insurance to 12 months, raising the retirement age to 67, freezing educational spending on special-needs children, and all kinds of unpopular stuff. The Labour Party wants to cut the budget by 15 billion euros, including raising the retirement age to 66 and cutting defence spending by 1.6 billion, and raise business and environmental taxes while cutting taxes in a progressive fashion on individuals, ultimately coming out with 500m euros more in revenues. The Christian Democrats want to cut spending by 21.4 billion euros and cut taxes by 2 billion euros. Most importantly, all these details I’m providing come from the Dutch Central Planning Bureau, which evaluates all the parties’ electoral programmes and assesses how much they would save compared to baseline assumptions. It would be like American parties and candidates submitting their full programmes to the CBO for an assessment before the elections, so you could decide who to vote for.
I’m not so sure about this. While I agree that it is good that a party gives a detailed program, and, in general, also that the CPB evaluates all the programs, I do think we have seen in the election campaign of the past few weeks that it has led to far too detailed, number-crunching, untransparent debates.
First of all, I think far too much weight is given to these CPB projections, especially since the electoral programs this year were made in a hurry. These are projections, after all, not objective truths. Second, I think debates about such subjects as the mortgage rent rebate, unemployment benefits and the retirement age have become far too technical for the average (or non-average) citizen to follow, obscuring their judgment. Third, I think this Dutch obsession with purchasing power and policy details leads to a move away from a debate about the big issues: how to maintain a welfare state in the age of globalization, how to deal with the integration of minorities in Dutch society, and so on. While I don’t like politicians talking vague, I do think the Dutch politial debate would benefit from somewhat grander visions on the future than the effects of slashing some tax on the purchasing power of a married fireman with a handicapped kid in 2030.