Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Su Chia-chuan's 400 Dollars and Su Tseng-chang's 400 Million Dollars

Su Chia-chuan's 400 Dollars and Su Tseng-chang's 400 Million DollarsUnited Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
August 11, 2010

Election season has arrived. The candidates are issuing blank checks left and right. In Taichung, Su Chia-chuan promised that if he was elected, he would increase old age benefits from 1600 dollars to 2000 dollars. Other old age benefits would also be increased proportionately. Su Tseng-chang blasted Taipei City's garbage collection policy. He called for a stop to the sale of prepaid garbage bags, and vowed to distribute garbage bags for free.

DPP politicians have a penchant for issuing blank checks. It is among their nastiest habits. They have engaged in bidding wars over annual pensions and farm subsidies, and raised the ante on a whole range of benefits targeting selected voters. These will undoubtedly liven up the elections. But they will also turn democratic elections into a populist vote-buying contest. Over the past decade, the public has gradually begun to see through the "vote-buying via policy" racket. But the practice continues, unabated.

When Chang Wen-ying was in office, Taichung City issued old age benefits amounting to 2000 dollars. When Jason Hu came into office, as part of a larger effort to balance the budget, he reduced it to 1600 dollars. He reduced the amount by 400 dollars, but it was still 600 dollars more than the 1000 dollar amount for Taichung County. The amount was still high, but not without reason. Su Chia-chuan refuses to address the overall budget. Instead, he insists on increasing the ante. What is this, if not a calculated attempt to buy the senior vote, at 400 dollars per vote? The problem is, suppose he is elected and actually begins fufilling his campaign promises? Out of whose hide does he intend to extract his pound of flesh?

Su Chia-chuan has raised the ante for old age benefits. For Su, "cash is king." Whether his strategy will work, depends on the wisdom of Taichung citizens. Su Tseng-chang's proposal to eliminate prepaid trash bags in Taipei also reeks of short-sighted opportunism. From a policy perspective, it is a grave mistake, and reveals his superficial understanding of real life garbage collection methods.

Taipei City charges for garbage collection on a per bag basis. The city earns less than 400 million dollars a year from the sale of garbage bags. Su Tseng-chang argues that if one day the reduction of garbage volume reaches a point where the cost of garbage collection exceeds the income derived from the sale of garbage bags, the system will no longer be able to pay for itself. Therefore, Su reasons, garbage bags should be issued to the public free of charge! Su Tseng-chang's mistake is seeing only the city government's 400 million dollar income from the sale of garbage bags. He fails to see how the per bag charge mechanism provides a powerful incentive for citizens to engage in the proactive separation of garbage and reduction of garbage volume.

Ten years ago, before the implementation of prepaid garbage bags, Taipei City produced more than 3,000 tonnes of garbage per day. Ten years later, the amount of garbage produced per day is less than 1,000 tonnes, a 67 percent reduction. Such a huge change is almost magical. This is what the prepaid garbage bag regime can achieve. In order to reduce their own garbage collection expenses, each household makes an effort to separate their garbage and reduce the volume of their garbage. They do everthing they can to get the most use from each of their garbage bags. In other words, a simple price mechanism motivated individual citizens to work toward the greater good of the city as a whole. That is something the government can never accomplish with state power, no matter how much it might spend.

Taipei City's garbage collection regime is a model worthy of universal emulation, Not only has it succeeded in reducing the volume of garbage, even more importantly it has inspired the public to exercise discipline and restraint as it eagerly cooperates with government policy. Without prepaid trash bags, how could one possibly achieve such results? The separation of garbage and the reduction of garbage volume has made our nation's capital cleaner. It has increased environmental awareness among the public. That is why Taipei County and other counties and cities ought to adopt the very same policy.

When Su Tseng-chang was Taipei County Chief, he refused to coordinate with Taipei City by simultaneously implementing its progressive garbage collection regime. Su held Taipei County back in a major way. Now he is running for Taipei City Mayor. Lacking a proper understanding of how the garbage collection process works, he is promising to distribute garbage bags to the public free of charge. Does he really not understand that distributing garbage bags free of charge will undermine the financial incentive to do the right thing? That it will undermine public willingness to separate garbage and reduce garbage volume? That it would turn the clock back to the past? Su Tseng-chang considers 400 million dollars chump change. But he has overlooked the collateral benefits generated by the policy. They may well exceed 400 billion dollars. This is the blind spot in his logic.

A political candidate must explain his vision to the public. But targeting specific demographics, attempting to buy their votes by issuing blank checks, is base political opportunism and demeans the value of elections. Su Chia-chuan has raised the ante by 400 dollars. Su Tseng-change has raisd the ante by 400 million dollars. Their proposals may glitter like gold, but up close they are the same old base metal. One can only hope that most citizens in the 21st century have the eyes to see.

2010.08.11 10:27 am










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