Archive for the ‘referendum’ Category

Energy policy and referenda

December 1, 2018

I feel the need to rant about referenda today.

 

So what the hell is Taiwan’s energy policy supposed to be now?

 

Last Saturday, voters passed the referendum #16, commonly labeled as “go nuclear to go green” (my clumsy translation), which deleted a clause in one of the laws setting the phase-out date for nuclear power. (At least I think that’s what it did. I’m actually not sure, which, eventually, is the point.) They also voted overwhelmingly against the Shen-ao coal-fired power plant project (which the government had already cancelled). And Taichung voters elected KMT candidate Lu Hsiu-yen in a landslide, partially because she campaigned on the poor air quality caused by the huge coal power plant. She further promised to stop sending electricity generated in Taichung to northern Taiwan.

But while those are the most recent results, we also have to think about previous lessons from public opinion. Five years ago, the government wanted to have a referendum on whether to open the fourth nuclear power plant, but it was so unpopular that KMT legislators weren’t even willing to vote to propose the referendum. Also, after the KMT lost the 2016 presidential election, Eric Chu singled out increases in electricity (and propane gas) prices as one of the major reasons that the public rebelled against the Ma government. Finally, let’s remember how much outrage there was last summer when an accident at one power plant caused one day of blackouts over much of the island.

To summarize, the voters don’t want clearly coal. They definitely don’t want nuclear, or maybe they do. They don’t want any power plants in their neighborhood, and they definitely don’t want electricity generated in their neighborhood to be sent elsewhere. They want low prices, and they absolutely demand a stable supply of electricity.

It should be easy to satisfy all those demands simultaneously. I’m glad we used referenda to clear up this entire matter.

 

I have three big objections to this attempt to use referenda to decide energy policy. First, voters are not forced to consider trade-offs. None of the proposals suggested that cutting coal power might be possible if an increase in electricity prices spurred less electricity consumption. Voters in central Taiwan were not asked if they supported refusing to send electricity generated in central Taiwan northward even if it resulted in companies in the Hsinchu Science Party (read: Taiwan Semiconductors) being forced to cut production. Trade-offs are exactly what governments do. The Tsai government restarted nuclear reactors that had previously been offline over the protesting screams of its anti-nuclear wing because it was much more afraid of blackouts. Taiwan could cut pollution by using higher prices to suppress demand, but that would be unpopular. It could also cut pollution by retrofitting some of its older coal plants, but that is extremely expensive and it would take a few years. None of the options are ideal. You can’t have everything you want; you have to make trade-offs. Referenda almost never present the question this way.

Second, energy policy takes years to implement. Five years ago, the Ma government bowed to public pressure and shuttered the fourth nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, this left Taiwan’s energy reserves precariously low. The Tsai government has invested heavily in wind power, which is starting to come online now, and it is planning a natural gas facility in northern Taiwan. However, in the meantime, the choice was essentially getting more electricity out of the existing coal plants or the existing nuclear plants. In fact, the government had to do both. It’s a reasonable stopgap measure, given the long-term strategy. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s referendum law has a short-term orientation. Under the December 2017 revision, the thresholds for proposal and passage are ludicrously low. A successful referendum doesn’t necessarily reflect a deeply held consensus in society. It can just as easily reflect a short-term blip in public opinion. A few years ago, nuclear was extremely unpopular. Now, that has faded somewhat, so maybe this year coal is the villain. What if we do this next year and find that public opinion has shifted again? Are we supposed to fundamentally shift energy policy every two years just because 29.8% of eligible voters said yes to some unintelligible question on the ballot?

And that brings me to the third and most basic problem: information. Referenda place extremely high demands on voters to become educated, and there is very little evidence that voters are up to the task. I’ve been reading Democracy for Realists by Chris Achen and Larry Bartels, and they make this point forcefully. Voters simply do not have the time, capacity, or desire to become fully informed on any given question. We all have better things to do. At any rate, division of labor is a hallmark of modern society. Why should we think that society is better off if everyone neglects their other responsibilities (that is, the things that they are good at) and spends months learning about energy policy? That’s crazy. Instead, people find shortcuts. There are usually plenty of people who are happy to advise them how to vote, but that isn’t necessarily good advice. The people with the strongest incentive to give advice are the people who will directly benefit from the outcome. Not surprisingly, referenda tend to favor the wealthy. The promise of referenda is that voters can bypass the disgusting politicians and go directly to the people. Unfortunately, the people have to rely on an even more disgusting set of people (who are actually also politicians in a different guise) for advice.

Achen and Bartels cite a couple of stories vividly illustrate these problems. In one, many counties in Illinois adopted a requirement that any increase in taxes to fund fire departments had to be approved by referendum. In other counties, the local administrators and councils made this decision. Predictably, voters refused to pay higher taxes, and the quality of fire departments in the referendum counties declined noticeably. Training was neglected, equipment became outdated, staffing was thinner, and response times were longer. Wait, maybe that’s what voters wanted. Maybe they were willing to accept worse fire protection for lower taxes. It seems unlikely; most people also want better services, especially when those services involve life and death. However, they did not save money. They paid lower taxes, but they paid higher fire insurance rates. The county administrators understood this, but voters did not. Poorly informed voters made self-harming choices, and this problem, unlike national energy policy, was fairly easy to understand. Voters are ALWAYS underinformed.

But what if some voters could be fully informed? Would other voters defer to them? In Canada, the province of British Columbia tried to find out. There was a movement to reform the electoral system by putting in some form of proportional representation. The provincial government took a large group of citizens and basically gave them a college class for a few months. Various experts came in and taught this group all the pros and cons of the various proposals. Eventually, the group formed an overwhelming consensus for a specific proposal which was put on the ballot. The voters rejected it by a decisive margin. The voters apparently weren’t impressed by all the study that the select group had done. Average voters made their decisions based on their own limited knowledge rather than assuming they, like the people in the select group, would see things differently if they were more fully informed.

Remember at the beginning when I stated that I wasn’t exactly sure what referendum #16 did? Of course I don’t! I’m underinformed. I’ll bet you are too. I want experts who have spent their careers thinking about the details and tradeoffs involved to sit down with politicians who have spent their careers thinking about how to balance the aggregated demands of society and figure the damn thing out. If I try to set energy policy, I’m probably going to overlook something very basic and end up with expensive, dirty, and unreliable electricity. I might even end up burning my own house down.

Referenda are a terrible way to make public choices.

Election summary

November 30, 2018

I wrote a short recap of the election for Taiwan Insight.

I have a lot of work on my desk right now, and I probably won’t write too much more about the overall result. If I do write anything, it will probably be about the referenda. I’m not so interested in the outcomes of these ten votes as in the process. Theoretically, referenda do not necessarily create better policies or deeper democracy. Empirically, referenda tend to favor rich people over poor people. They do not sidestep politicians; they simply empower a different set of political elites. As such, I’m not crazy about referenda in the first place. Ideally, the chaos created by this year’s ten referenda would be an inspiration to abolish the Referendum Law, to forbid holding referenda on the same day as a general election, or, at the very least, to raise the thresholds for proposal and passage. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that this will happen. More likely, politicians will try to “solve” the problem by using “better” technology: someone will decide that digital voting is the way forward. I don’t have the time to go into it now, but this is a TERRIBLE idea. The current low-tech system is fantastic. It is transparent, accurate, fast (when not swamped by numerous referenda), trustworthy, highly resistant to vote rigging, and completely unhackable. When the CEC says that Ko Wen-je won the Taipei mayoral race by 3000 votes out of over 1.4 million cast, no one doubts this. No one doubts that the people who voted all had the right to vote, that they only voted once, that they each made a choice without coercion, and that their preferences were accurately counted and recorded. That is a fucking miracle. Putting a touchscreen voting machine in the middle of it might seem “modern,” but it is not more trustworthy, it might be less accurate (since some people will not know how to use the new machines), and it is almost certainly more prone to breakdowns. It is also much, much more fertile territory for conspiracy theorists as well as actual hackers.

Is this plan B?

January 5, 2014

So the government is apparently just going to go ahead with testing at the 4th nuclear power plant.  They even have plans to insert fuel rods.  Didn’t they promise to ask the voters before doing this?  Does this mean that they have abandoned the referendum idea?  Did I miss that press release?  I thought that the promise of a vote was one of the core premises of Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s cabinet.  I’m a bit confused.

 

[Edit: One day later, the Liberty Times is asking the same question.]

Disobedient KMT legislators?

September 24, 2013

Here’s an interesting bit of news.  KMT legislative party whip Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池 announced that the legislature will not take up the nuclear referendum this session.  Lin explained that the Ministry of Economics has not yet produced a safety report, and the legislature cannot be expected to act before that report comes out.

This is interesting to me because my working assumption is that the current KMT political struggle is all about the executive branch demanding that its party members in the legislature toe the party line and pass the executive’s legislative agenda.  According to all accounts, there are three big items on that agenda: the services trade agreement, the nuclear referendum, and the annual budget.  Lin has just told the executive that Santa isn’t giving them everything they want for Christmas this year.

This comes after Ma announced the KMT would rearrange the coordinating meetings between the party, executive, and legislature by replacing Speaker Wang with Party Whip Lin.  Apparently, before the first meeting in which the president, premier, vice-president, and party secretary-general would have told him what to do, Lin pre-empted them by publicly announcing what he would not do.

Ma’s inner circle may have thought that Wang was behind all the obstruction in the legislature and that things would move much more smoothly once his power was hollowed out.  However, if the underlying problem was that many KMT legislators don’t want to be associated with unpopular executive proposals, Ma may be in for a rude awakening.

KMT proposes referendum on nuclear power

February 27, 2013

The KMT has announced that it will support holding a referendum on whether to start operations at the 4th nuclear power plant (4NPP).

This is a stunning turn of events, at least to me.  They are venturing onto treacherous ground.  There are lots of ways this can go wrong for them, and only one way that it can turn out well.

Nuclear power divides along the traditional blue/green lines, though there have been defectors from both sides.  I recall one budget fight in the late 1990s in which the KMT demanded party discipline from everyone except for legislators from Taipei County, who were allowed to vote with their constituency.  Similarly, the DPP was not monolithically anti-nuclear either.  The polarizing moment came early in Chen’s presidency when he stopped construction on 4NPP.  Chen had won the presidency with 39%, and the DPP had roughly the same share of seats in the legislature.  The newly emerging blue camp had a clear majority, and nuclear power was the test case to see if the president or the legislature would dominate the government for the rest of the term.  Whatever deviance from party positions had previously existed was quickly overwhelmed by the partisan struggle for power.  Eventually, the KMT won out and the DPP was forced to resume construction on 4NPP.  If it wasn’t already clear, this episode indelibly branded the KMT and DPP as pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear parties.

The project has had a bumpy history, to put it mildly.  There have been numerous cost overruns, safety problems, construction delays, and various other snafus.  Of course, the site is near the Taipei metropolitan area, vulnerable to tsunamis, on an earthquake fault, and even sits atop a not-quite-dormant volcano.  The fact that Taiwan has three other (much older) nuclear power plants (with not entirely pristine safety records) has done little to qualm fears about whether 4NPP will be safe.  Fukushima sharpened all these concerns and forced Taiwanese to rethink whether nuclear power was a good idea.

During the 2012 presidential election, the KMT tried to take the nuclear issue off the table.  It promised to decommission the three existing plants on schedule.  4NPP would be opened, but not until it had been rigorously tested.  At the end of its scheduled life, Taiwan would be nuclear free.  Somehow, these verbal gymnastics allowed Ma to claim that he was simultaneously for (a) opening a new nuclear power plant and (b) making Taiwan nuclear free.  The DPP position was more straightforward.  They would not open 4NPP, and they would hasten the decommissioning of the old plants.  I think the KMT strategy largely worked.  Nuclear power did not seem to be a central issue in the 2012 campaign.

I have not seen specific polling data on support for nuclear power, but it is my impression that public opinion is shifting, perhaps decisively, away from the KMT.

 

Why is the KMT so politically committed to nuclear power?  Most importantly, they have committed enormous piles of money to this project over the past two decades.  They cannot simply walk away with nothing to show for it.  The DPP would beat over the head relentlessly for years and years.  How many schools, hospitals, roads, public housing, MRT lines, or flower festivals were sacrificed for 4NPP?  It would be strong evidence that the KMT had a flawed vision for the future and had stubbornly insisted on imposing that flawed vision on an unwilling population.  The KMT has been attacking the DPP for a decade over the 2001 showdown.  When the DPP stopped construction, they broke numerous contracts and had to pay heavy financial penalties.  Of course, the project was then resumed, so that money was just wasted.  However, if the plant never opens, this argument gets reversed: the DPP tried to save Taiwan an enormous amount of money, and the KMT wasted 10 more years of construction budgets.  For the KMT, reversing course is simply not an option.

There are also other reasons the KMT wants nuclear power.  One way to understand the KMT regime is as a construction state, much like the LDP’s Japan.  The ruling party hands out lots of construction contracts and turns these contracts into political support.  Some aspects are legal, some are hazy, and some are outright illegal.  However, it is pretty effective.  4NPP has been a 20 year gravy train of contracts to hand out.  (I hope I’m wrong about this.  Contracts used for this purpose often lead to shoddy public works.  This prospect terrifies me.)  Many manufacturers support nuclear power.  To be clear, they don’t care where the electricity comes from, but they can’t stomach the prospects of insufficient or unreliable power.  Many of the exporters that drive Taiwan’s economy want 4NPP opened because they believe it will provide steady and reliable electricity for the next few decades.  The KMT also listens closely to Taipower, the state run electricity company.  Taipower is deeply embedded in the KMT’s power structure.  The Economics Minister is a former Taipower executive, and the head of the Taipower workers’ union is a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee.  Taipower wants 4NPP.  It can be pushed and prodded to reluctantly try out the odd alternative energy project, but 4NPP is Taipower’s crown jewel.

 

If the KMT is so deeply committed to nuclear power, how is it possible that they can accept a referendum?  Admittedly, I didn’t think it was possible until they announced it.  I fully expected that they would make a big show of safety tests, have a blue ribbon commission pronounce the plant safe, and use their majority in the legislature to push away any remaining obstacles.  Apparently public opinion is shifting enough that they don’t feel this strategy is tenable.  We have seen several prominent blue camp supporters ask the KMT to reconsider its stance.  The one that struck me was the foundation associated with Fubon Financial Group.  If even powerful people in Fubon, which is betting heavily on further integration into the Chinese market, are willing to speak out against nuclear power, anyone in the blue camp can.  The pressure from within the blue camp coalition must be intense.

One thought is that the KMT is using the referendum as a mechanism to back away from nuclear power.  If the public votes against 4NPP in the referendum, the KMT will have a rationale for changing its position.  The public will be responsible for the economic consequences of the decision, not the KMT.  I don’t think this is correct.  (Or if it is, it is a terrible strategy.)  If the public repudiates 4NPP, they will effectively be saying that the policy the KMT has been doggedly pursuing over the past 20 years was not just wrong, it was so wrong that voters are willing to stomach wasting billions of dollars to reverse it.  Don’t think that voters will simply forgive the KMT for all that money.  The KMT insisted on spending it.  Just as a government reaps political benefits for doing things that turn out well, they are penalized for making poor choices.  The KMT might hope it can foist off that responsibility onto the people, but one of the axioms of democratic politics is that the voters are never wrong.  Someone has to take the blame if 4NPP never opens, and that someone will be the KMT.

Moreover, if President Ma loses a referendum this summer, he might as well just tattoo “lame duck” across his forehead.  He will be politically neutered.

No, the KMT cannot lose this referendum.  They have to win it.  The only way this turns out well for them is if a clear majority of voters vote against not starting operations at 4NPP.  This means that the KMT will have to fully engage the debate.  President Ma will have to commit completely and publicly to this project; he won’t be able to prevaricate the way he did in the presidential campaign.  The KMT will have to convince the electorate that nuclear power is safe, efficient, clean, reliable, and desirable.

Don’t assume that Ma will fail.  His biggest advantage is that there is an information asymmetry.  The government will have all the details about 4NPP and Taiwan’s electricity needs.  When they need to know something, they can simply make a phone call.  Opponents will have to satisfy themselves with publicly available data, which is far less thorough.  Because of this, the KMT will usually have more convincing evidence for their arguments than the opposition will.  They also have all the resources of the state at their disposal to publicize their arguments.  In the ECFA debate, we saw lots of advertizing touting the advantages of ECFA.  Every government press release was infused with a pro-ECFA message.  Heck, even our electricity bills had a pro-ECFA message on them.  Get ready for an even more intense campaign.

The anti-nuclear camp also has to worry about this turning into a straight blue/green fight.  Dissatisfaction with the Ma administration is high, but there are a lot of people who will grit their teeth, curse bitterly, and vote for him rather than support the DPP.  The anti-nuclear camp needs to make sure that blue camp supporters who are against nuclear power feel that nuclear power is not just a proxy for feelings about China.  Given that the two big parties are clearly aligned against each other on this issue and will be leading their respective camps, that might be challenging.

 

This will be unlike any previous referendum.  We really haven’t had true referendum yet.  All prior cases were really just exercises in mobilizing voters in a general election campaign.  The questions were always designed to be as uncontroversial as possible.  “Do you favor a competent national defense?”  “Should we have high economic growth?” “Are you against pedophilia?”  (Ok, maybe those weren’t the exact questions…)  This question will be designed to resolve a public policy issue, not to mobilize voters for a different election.  While the government will phrase the question in as advantageous a way as possible, this question will inevitably split the electorate into two clear sides.

One thing opponents don’t need to worry about is turnout.  In the past, one side mobilized and the other side boycotted.  Since referenda need 50% turnout to become binding, all failed.  The question will be phrased in the negative, something like “Do you favor not beginning operations at 4NPP?” so technically the KMT could ensure the failure of the referendum by boycotting.

However, the KMT needs to win politically, not legally.  Consider if turnout is 40% and 90% of the votes are “yes” votes.  What that demonstrates is that there are a lot of voters who are against nuclear power.  It does not demonstrate that anyone actually supports it.  If the KMT felt passive support were enough, they would have been better off just pushing 4NPP through the normal legislative process rather than asking for a referendum.  The KMT needs active support.  It needs more “no” votes than “yes” votes.

The DPP will lead the charge against nuclear power, and the KMT will have to lead the demands for nuclear power.  With both sides fully mobilizing, turnout will not be so important.  I expect that 50% will not be a problem, but even if turnout is only 48%, if one side wins by a clear margin, that will be decisive in the political battle.  If the KMT wins, they will, of course, go forward.  If they lose by a clear amount, the party will not be able to stomach flagrantly defying public opinion.  (President Ma might, but the politicians who still have to fight future elections will not.)

I’m still stunned that the KMT has chosen this path.  However, they have cast their lot, and we are in for an interesting spring and summer.