Archive for the ‘pensions’ Category

Musings on the old and new premiers

September 11, 2017

It seems I don’t get around to blogging very much these days. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace as we move into the next election cycle. In the meantime, I have a few thoughts on the recent cabinet reshuffle.

 

Former Premier Lin Chuan’s 林全 resignation did not come as much of a surprise. After 16 months, it was time for a reset. His satisfaction ratings were not great, but it’s easy to overstate that point. We’ve had several stories in the international media gasping about President Tsai’s cratering satisfaction ratings in the high 20s or low 30s (“worse than Trump!!!!”), and Lin’s ratings were a notch below those levels. However, the Taiwanese electorate is historically much stingier with its approval for national politicians than the American electorate, and ratings in this range haven’t historically heralded disaster. I’ll have more to say on public opinion in a subsequent post. For right now, let’s just say that Lin’s ratings weren’t spectacular.

Taiwanese cabinet members come in two broad prototypes: elected politicians and technocrats. Lin is a classic technocrat, having served in various administrative and policy-focused positions since the mid-1990s. It is somewhat ironic that his biggest failings were technical rather than political. In recent weeks, the KMT has enthusiastically thrown the legislature into chaos protesting the Forward-Looking infrastructure package. They have made some substantive arguments against the package, such as claiming that spending on railways is wasteful, but their first and most effective argument was that the documentation was sloppy and incomplete. The cabinet’s original proposal for the massive eight year package came with a pitifully thin set of documents explaining exactly what the money would used for. In other words, the technocrats had not bothered to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. This is the kind of problem you might expect a career politician – with a focus on power and coalitions – to make, not a career technocrat who supposedly revels in the details of public policy. Lin ran into the same sort of problem in his biggest failing, the revision of the Labor Standards Law that has left almost no one satisfied. The broad and inflexible brush strokes of the new policy are the kind of thing you would not expect from a policy nerd with a detailed understanding of labor markets. They are exactly what you might expect from a politician catering to the whims of a specific interest group and ignoring all the others.

Meanwhile, Lin passed one of the most important political tests for any premier: he could almost always count on support from a majority in the legislature. The DPP LY caucus may not have been thrilled with the amendments to the Labor Standards Law, but they were willing not only to vote en masse for those amendments but even to physically push KMT legislators off the speaker’s podium so that they could vote for Lin’s bill. Likewise, in the fight over infrastructure, the DPP LY caucus allowed the KMT caucus to make noise and express their discontent, but at the end of the day, they passed the cabinet’s plan relatively unchanged. For the most part, the LY had Lin’s back. If you think that is trivial, try talking to former KMT Premier Jiang Yi-huah 江宜樺about whether a majority party in the LY always supports the premier’s agenda.

From a political perspective, Lin also handled marriage equality quite deftly. In the face of strident demands from pro-marriage equality forces to amend the Civil Code and deep trepidation from DPP legislators staring at polls showing substantial opposition to this among back in their districts, Lin simply sidestepped the issue. By interpreting the Grand Justices’ ruling as implying that the language in the Civil Code requiring marriage to include one man and one woman was unconstitutional, Lin decided that there was no need to amend the Civil Code. Gay marriages can be registered under the current law. In this way, Lin did not force DPP legislators into a no-win situation by forcing them to offend either their young voters or everyone over forty.

This is not to say that Lin has been a terrible technocrat and a genius politician. He has had plenty of political failings. For example, somehow the DPP managed to tackle the very thorny issue of pension reform, pass a bill that the KMT didn’t dare try to physically block in the legislature, and still leave the majority of people dissatisfied. What should have been a crowning triumph of Lin’s tenure is instead something that most people think should have been handled better. The technocratic efforts are, by nature, less visible, but it is reasonable to assume that he has quietly launched drives to remake government policy in a number of areas. Still, it is striking to me that his highest profile setbacks were mostly technical in nature.

 

Tainan mayor William Lai 賴清德 is the new premier, and there is a lot of speculation about his next move. Some people think he will run for New Taipei mayor next year, while others think he is planning to run for president in 2020. I don’t think either of these are likely.

The timetable for a mayoral run is very tight. The election will be in late November or early December next year, so he would have to start his campaign (and resign as premier) by May or June at the latest. However, he would have to announce his intention (or “reluctant capitulation” to the intense arm-twisting pressure from the rest of the DPP) to run a month or two before that. In other words, he would ony have a maximum of eight months in office as premier before starting the campaign. In April 2010, Eric Chu 朱立倫 announced he would be willing to run for New Taipei mayor after only eight months as deputy premier, so maybe the calendar isn’t too tight. However, I think premier and deputy premier are fundamentally different positions. The deputy premier isn’t the one in charge of the executive branch; Chu was not the one determining policy directions. When the deputy premier resigns, there is no need to formally reshuffle the cabinet. Mayor is arguably a step up from deputy premier, while it is almost certainly a step down from premier. It just doesn’t make sense for the premier, after only eight months, to claim that he has successfully accomplished everything he wants to do in his current job and is now ready to move on to a new and less important challenge. For the deputy premier, though, that makes perfect sense. Perhaps Frank Hsieh 謝長廷 is a better model for this proposed jump than Eric Chu. Hsieh was re-elected as Kaohsiung mayor in 2002, became premier in 2005, and then ran for Taipei mayor in 2006. However, Hsieh served as premier from February 2005 to January 2006, almost a full calendar year. Moreover, he took over as premier much earlier in the cycle (February rather than September) and he resigned well before the nominations for the next mayoral elections were decided. His calendar was much less compressed than Lai’s. Still, one year is not a particularly long time as premier, and Hsieh did not exactly resign in triumph. This lackluster record as premier probably contributed to his landslide defeat in the Taipei mayoral race. It is hard to see Lai arguing that he was a successful premier with only eight months in office. Running for mayor would probably require him to talk defensively rather than brag proudly about his tenure as premier.

Lai is even less likely to run for president in 2020 than to run for mayor in 2018. For one thing, as premier, he will now be tightly identified with Tsai. His triumphs are her triumphs, and her failings will rub off on him. More fundamentally, there simply is not much demand within the DPP right now for someone to split the party by running against their incumbent president. Tsai is still the leader of the party. Some of the shine may have come off her leadership, but she is still the unquestioned top dog and still on track to win a second term.

Lai’s goal should be for the DPP’s 2024 nomination. He is not necessarily in a great position for this. Premiers tend to have a relatively short shelf life. If he does very well, he might make it to the 2020 presidential election as premier. It is almost unthinkable that he might make it all the way to the 2024 election as premier. Perhaps his best scheme might be to persuade the current VP to yield that spot to him in order to guarantee his survival to 2024. However, it seems highly unlikely at this point that Chen Chien-jen 陳建仁 would want to step aside or that Tsai Ing-wen would ask him to. If we are still thinking of Lai as a presidential contender after his tenure as premier ends, he will have to find some other platform to keep him in the public eye for a year or three until the 2024 presidential campaign begins. However, that is a problem that we don’t have to worry about right now.

 

We are hearing a lot about how Lai is a leader of the New Tide 新潮流 faction, and some people are wondering if the New Tide faction is becoming dominant within the DPP. After all, it now controls the cabinet, many important local governments (Kaohsiung, Tainan, Taoyuan, Changhua, Pingtung), and it has a powerful presence in the LY. This is correct on the surface, but it is worth asking how cohesive the New Tide still is. From the 1980s through the Chen presidency, New Tide was famous for its internal discipline. There were three leaders (Lin Cho-shui 林濁水, Chiu I-jen 邱義仁, and Wu Nai-jen 吳乃仁) who ran the faction. They defined the ideals and policy priorities, built the organizational network, raised money, recruited and trained talent, made deals with other factions, and generally cultivated a tightly disciplined faction. Those three leaders have mostly faded from the scenes. Today’s New Tide is led by a disparate group of local leaders (the aforementioned mayors) and legislators (especially Tuan Yi-kang段宜康). There is no longer any central authority. Chen Chu 陳菊 may be a New Tide member, but she is primarily the mayor of Kaohsiung and her highest priority is on Kaohsiung’s problems. She isn’t going to take orders from William Lai or any other New Tide member. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to think that she has organized her own Kaohsiung-based faction including many people who are not necessarily New Tide figures and who answers to her rather than to any national New Tide leadership. The same goes for Cheng Wen-tsan 鄭文燦 in Taoyuan and every other mayor. In the legislature, the New Tide faction might help win nominations, but I don’t think it exercises quite as much control over its members as it once did. During the Chen-era, we started hearing about the North Tide 北流, Central Tide 中流, and South Tide 南流. These three had very different attitudes about whether to support the embattled President Chen. The North Tide led calls for him to resign, while the South Tide was much more supportive (reflecting difference in the larger population among northern and southern voters). The New Tide didn’t quite fracture, but its cohesion did suffer. I don’t think it has or will ever fully recover. So while it is not meaningless that Lai is a New Tide member, this doesn’t imply that New Tide is taking over everything. New Tide isn’t really a cohesive (unitary) actor with a distinctive set of policy preferences these days.

 

I’m not exactly buying into the hype about William Lai. I think there are a lot of parallels between Lai and Eric Chu. Both were relentlessly promoted by the media as the party’s great savior without having done very much to earn that mantle. Chu was a scholar and Lai was a doctor, both were singled out at a fairly young age and placed into a solidly blue/green district that they could win without much challenge. Both are physically attractive enough, neither is brimming with charisma, and neither has actually accomplished as much as you have the impression they have. Yet, somehow, we all have been led to believe that they are presidential material. In their first forays into cross-straits affairs, they even employed similar strategies by playing superficial word games. Chu tweaked the 1992 consensus, changing one character and advocating One China, both sides with the same interpretation 一中同表. Lai tried to coin a vacuous pro-China, love Taiwan 親中愛台. Both seemed to think that they could cleverly clear away all the obstacles to cross-straits relations by coming up with a better four-character slogan than anyone else. Neither seems to have bothered to think through the implications of these formulae the way Ma, Tsai, or Hsieh did.

In early 2015 when Chu took over as KMT party chair, I wrote that he was now stepping out of the easy aura of a local mayor, in which most every action is reported with a favorable tinge by an accommodating local reporter, and into the harsh light of national politics, where every action would be scrutinized and (fairly or unfairly) attacked if any partisan advantage could be gained. Likewise, Lai now steps into that harsh limelight. Rather than taking credit for the mango harvest or paving a road, he will more likely be blamed for not having a quick and painless solution to a variety of intractable problems such as the low birthrate, systemic youth unemployment, or companies willing to compromise food safety in order to cut costs. Lai just stepped into the big leagues, and the vague hero image that his boosters have so assiduously cultivated won’t survive if he doesn’t deliver the goods.

The parallel to Chu isn’t perfect. Lai has faced and overcome a few more electoral challenges than Chu. Chu won one term in the legislature; Lai won four terms. In particular, Lai survived the 2008 KMT tidal wave even though Ma beat Hsieh in his district. In addition, while Chu had both the Taoyuan and New Taipei mayoral nominations handed to him, Lai won an intense primary in 2010 to secure the mayoral nomination. However, if Lai has a few more substantial victories than Chu, he also has a couple of red flags. Lai has not been able to forge a compromise with affected residents over the rerouting of a rail line. He was also unable to manage a Dengue Fever outbreak.

But most disturbing was his response to the election of a KMT politician as speaker of the Tainan City council. Lai accused the speaker of buying votes and refused to attend city council meetings until the speaker was removed. The speaker probably had bought votes, but that is hardly justification for Lai’s behavior. The mayor does not have the power to assign guilt; that is job of the judiciary. Lai’s certitude in his right to assign guilt and ignore his legal duty to give reports and answer interpellations in the city council belies a stunning moral arrogance. The KMT sarcastically dubbed him Deity Lai 賴神, and, dishearteningly, he has not shied away from that moniker. It is very easy to imagine him refusing to see a flawed decision or even doubling down on it. If he is to have a successful tenure as premier, he will have to show a bit more humility that he has thus far.

 

Pension reform

June 30, 2017

As I start this post, the legislature has just passed the third reading of the civil servants pension bill. It now moves onto the bill for teachers, and the legislature has yet to take up the bill for military pensions. Nonetheless, now that the rules for civil servants have been rewritten, the others should follow along those basic lines. There is a lot of cleanup work still left for the legislature, but the basic fights have already been waged.

We all have a basic understanding that the current system needed some adjustment. There was too much money going out and too little coming in, and the system was going to go bankrupt in fairly short order. Even President Ma recognized the need for reform. (He quickly aborted his nascent reform in the face of a backlash from public servants, who constitute one of the KMT’s most important voting blocs.) The retirement benefits were simply too generous. Civil servants could often retire in their early fifties and collect monthly stipends nearly equal to their full salaries. Since benefits were based on their last month’s salary (ie: the highest they had collected in their entire career), that meant that the state was often paying people more in their retirement than it had while they were working AND their retirements might be as long as their working careers had been. This system may have been defensible when the GDP was growing by double digits every year, the birth rate was high, and civil servants earned a relatively low base salary. However, those conditions haven’t described Taiwan for two or three decades. Things had to change.

Pension reform was one of the three or four most important goals for Tsai Ing-wen’s first term; arguably it is the single most important domestic reform item on her agenda. Tsai has taken a lot of criticism over the past year. People who didn’t vote for her (predictably) think she is doing a terrible job, and they point to things like China’s more antagonistic stance toward Taiwan and the resulting drop in group tourism from China. They are also furious about the effort to nationalize the KMT’s ill-gotten party assets, which they see as a witch hunt (the “green terror”). Many people who did vote for Tsai are also somewhat disillusioned. Her support for marriage equality has been less than strident, her cabinet is full of old men (many of whom have ties to previous discredited administrations), some of the government’s economic policies have been presented and implemented clumsily (labor standards law, infrastructure package), the economy isn’t growing at 8% a year, transitional justice hasn’t been achieved yet, and the world isn’t perfect yet. Against this background, achieving pension reform should be a shining star on Tsai’s report card.

In fact, I’d argue that pension reform has almost perfectly embodied Tsai Ing-wen’s vision of consensus democracy. There were a lot of people who wanted the DPP to present their ideal bill and ram it through the legislature. After all, what is a majority for? Instead, Tsai took the process slowly and deliberately. Tsai’s cabinet included Minister Without Portfolio Lee Wan-yi, whose sole job was to oversee pension reform. The government held a national forum on pension reform, and Lee’s committee held several other hearings. These hearings were somewhat contentious and the opposition did not always participate in good faith. Still, most of the important political arguments were presented, and the committee was able to filter through them. One of Tsai’s stated goals at the outset was not to treat public servants as an enemy. As she put it, they were to be seen as partners in the reform rather than objects to be reformed. The Executive Yuan committee ultimately came out with a fairly moderate bill. At about the same time, the Examination Yuan came out with its own bill. The Examination Yuan members have fixed terms, and over half of them are still left over from the Ma era. As might be expected, the Examination Yuan bill was even more modest than the Executive Yuan bill. Transition periods were stretched out over more years and various formulas were adjusted to be somewhat more favorable to public servants. However, the two bills were surprisingly similar. By the time the Examination Yuan was ready to propose its bill it had become clear that some sort of reform was unavoidable, so the Examination Yuan proposed a substantive reform bill. During the first half of 2017, anti-reform forces were trying to arouse public opinion against Tsai. Various veterans, civil servants, and teachers groups held rallies, but these were generally not well attended. Surveys showed that public opinion was solidly in favor of reform, and this did not soften as a result of anti-reform activism. If anything, public opinion solidified in favor of a more aggressive reform. By the time the bills got to the legislature, the anti-reform movement was largely played out. In the legislature, the pro-reform forces took their turn trying to pass a more aggressive bill. Both the DPP and NPP caucuses demanded changes to various formulae and transition periods. They succeeded in some of these demands, and the law that eventually passed was somewhat more aggressive than the Executive Yuan bill. Nonetheless, Tsai stepped in to ensure that the most radical demands would not be adopted.

By the end of the process, the KMT found itself in a quandary. Public servants constitute a core constituency, and the KMT wanted to speak for them. However, public opinion was clearly against them, and the DPP caucus showed no signs of wavering. As the saying goes, there are two ways to resist in the legislature: civil and military (文、武). The “military” method involves physically occupying the speaker’s podium and disrupting the normal parliamentary procedures. The “civil” method involves using dilatory tactics such as introducing hundreds of amendments to stretch out proceedings as long as possible. In general, if you are sure of your position and your support in society, you go for the military option. If you are on shaky ground, the civil option is the best you can do. For months, I expected we were heading for a “military” showdown. However, the KMT will eventually crumbled. The KMT could not agree on an alternative bill, so the caucus was reduced to supporting various bills proposed by individual members. Instead of occupying the podium or offering hundreds of amendments, the KMT opted for a very weak battle plan. They would have several people speak on every clause, thus taking several days to pass the bills. The DPP was relatively happy to oblige, so the legislature has been engaged in marathon sessions all week. (A minor but telling point: When the DPP made a motion to extend yesterday’s meeting until midnight, it passed unanimously. If the KMT were really trying to resist, it would have opposed lengthening the meeting.) I’ve been sick this week, so I watched a fair amount of these debates on the LY channel. The KMT offered two main arguments against the reform. On the one hand, they suggested that the reform unfairly cut civil servants’ pensions too much. On the other hand, since the pension fund is forecast to go bankrupt in about 2049 (as opposed to in about 5-10 years under the current system), this reform doesn’t really solve the financial problem so there is no point in doing it. Note that those two positions are contradictory. If you want a reform that will be permanently sustainable, you are going to have to cut pensions even more.

In the end, Taiwan got a pension reform that both sides were a bit unhappy with, which is probably a pretty good indicator that it is a moderate compromise. Public discussion was allowed to percolate until some arguments were discredited and others emerged as superior. Opposition was marginalized, with the street protesters painting themselves into an ever smaller box. Instead of forming the vanguard of a public movement against reform, the anti-reformers demonstrated themselves to be merely selfishly interested in defending a system that unfairly privileged them. As they got smaller, their appeals got cruder and further discredited their moral position. (Example: a sign referring to President Tsai’s genitalia is not a smart way to make the case that civil servants are being unfairly discriminated against.)

If you had asked President Tsai after her inauguration when she expected to pass pension reform, I suspect she would have replied that it would take about a year. In fact, it has taken just over a year. One year to study the problem, hold public discussions, allow protesters to make their case, for supporters to reaffirm their insistence on this reform, and to pass a new law. Don’t expect the media to come out with glowing editorials praising President Tsai’s leadership. Democracy is messy, and we have been watching a messy and aggravating process unfold for nearly a year. Moreover, we ended up with something of a compromise, and no one loves a compromise. Nonetheless, I suspect this is exactly how President Tsai thinks democracy should work.