Archive for the ‘pensions’ Category

the state of (out of date) public opinion

September 26, 2017

I’d like to take a look at the general state of public opinion in Taiwan these days. I’m not really interested in exactly what it is right this moment. After all, the next election is still more than a year away, and by then no one will care whether Tsai Ing-wen had a 27% or 29% approval rating 14 months ago. I’m more interested in taking stock of the general trends over Tsai’s first year and a half in office. Over the past few months, we have seen headlines screaming that Tsai has a lower approval rating than Donald Trump or that her administration is sinking fast as it loses popularity. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who assume that the KMT is doomed and that continued DPP rule is inevitable, unless the New Power Party replaces it.

Public opinion is always a bit murky, but right now it is murkier than usual. To put it bluntly, reasonable people can see whatever they want to see in the data. None of the trends are sharp or clear enough that you can’t easily explain them away with other readily available numbers. It’s like staring at clouds: maybe it’s a duck, and maybe it’s a train. Not only that, but the person who thinks it is a duck can see the duck clearly, while the moron who thinks it is a train can’t see how anyone could look at that train and see a duck. I think that one interpretation of public opinion is more correct, and I’ll argue for that one. However, keep in mind that the other interpretations aren’t necessarily stupid or misguided.

I’m relying on data from the Taiwan Election and Democratization Studies (TEDS). TEDS is the main academic project for political surveys. The surveys are done by academic institutions (mostly the Election Study Center, NCCU) for scholarly purposes. They are not contracted out to private survey companies, nor are they designed to make a splash in the public discourse. Questions are designed by committees of scholars with all political stripes, so a leading question designed to make one side look good or the other side look bad will simply not make it onto the final questionnaire. We all have lots of questions that we want to ask, and space is severely limited. Only items that can be rigorously defended from an academic perspective make it through. You might wonder why you have never seen a media report trumpeting the latest finding from a TEDS survey. The reason is simple. TEDS doesn’t hold press conferences to announce its newest results. In fact, it doesn’t release results immediately at all. Data usually are only released several months after the interviews are completed. For example, I am using quarterly surveys in this post. These surveys are only released when interviewing for the next survey begins. For example, TEDS just released the data for the June 2017 survey, but we currently have a small army of students doing calls for the September 2017 survey. Who cares about the June 2017 results? We want up-to-the minute information! When the June survey was done, pension reform hadn’t passed, the brouhahas over the infrastructure plan were still in the future, Mayor Ko was still planning for the university games, and Lin Chuan still had a couple more months to go as premier. Everything is different now! Well, it is precisely because the media doesn’t pay attention to TEDS results that they are so trustworthy and valuable. Unlike all the other data you see, you can be confident that these results weren’t produced with the goal of manipulating your opinions. And if you want to know what the state of public opinion is today, I guess I’ll be able to tell you that in three months, even if by then you will no longer care what people thought before Trump’s nuclear attack on North Korea, the Bangladeshi refugee crisis following the massive cyclone, or the upheavals in China following Xi Jinping’s aborted attempt to name his housekeeper’s mentally deranged son as Crown Prince of the CCP.

 

Let’s start with the headline number. Everyone has been talking about President Tsai’s low approval rating. How far did she sink over her first year in office?

請問您對她擔任總統以來的整體表現滿不滿意?

“How satisfied are you with Tsai Ing-wen’s overall performance as president?”

(Chinese question wordings are from the TEDS website: teds.nccu.edu.tw. Some of the English translations are from that website, and some are my own.)

Tsai approval

As you can see from the chart, Tsai’s satisfaction rating dropped quite a bit from June 2016 to June 2017. In the first survey, she was over 50%, the next three surveys were in the mid-30s, and the latest survey was in the upper 20s. That looks pretty terrible. If you want to see the electorate as unhappy with her performance and primed for a change, you certainly can.

It gets worse. TEDS asks about Tsai’s performance in four specific policy areas, cross-straits relations, foreign affairs, the economy, and national defense. These all mirror her overall satisfaction rating fairly closely, except that the trend lines for economy and cross-straits relations are 5-10% lower than the overall trend line. That is, Tsai’s general satisfaction is the optimistic number. As you drill down into specifics, people are even less satisfied.

那您對蔡英文在處理兩岸關係的表現滿不滿意?

那您對她在外交方面的表現滿不滿意?

那您對她在國防方面的表現滿不滿意?

那您對她在促進經濟發展的表現滿不滿意?

Tsai approval areas

We can go further. People are even less satisfied with the cabinet’s performance than with President Tsai’s. Tsai just changed premiers, but most of the unpopular cabinet is still in office. (Premier Lin did slightly better than the cabinet but significantly worse than Tsai.) Ick.

cabinet approval

On the surface, it doesn’t look good. However, I think Tsai’s approval ratings probably mean a lot less than the international media thinks. Comparison with American presidents is especially misleading. Taiwanese are simply more skeptical of their presidents. Unlike American voters, Taiwanese voters historically do not connect expressing satisfaction and intention to vote for a politician. To give a famous example, Mayor Chen Shui-bian had an approval rating in the 70s during his 1998 re-election bid but only got 46% and lost. Looking at presidents, perhaps Ma Ying-jeou’s experience is instructive. Ma had fairly pedestrian approval ratings during his first term, and yet he was comfortably re-elected. In fact, President Ma’s first term approval ratings look shockingly similar to Tsai’s thus far. At roughly this point (August 2009 – February 2010), Ma hit his nadir and then slowly recovered as the 2012 election approached and partisan loyalties reasserted themselves. It probably didn’t hurt that Ma appointed a professional politician who could communicate effectively with the public as premier at about this time. You will also notice that Ma started with a sky-high approval rating. Both he and Tsai had honeymoon periods that quickly evaporated. If you ignore those first data points, the declines for both don’t look quite so dramatic. Somewhere between 25% and 40% approval seems to be normal for Taiwanese presidents. (In contrast, anything below 40% is a disaster for an American president.)

Anyway, I increasingly don’t believe in the predictive value of satisfaction. Lots of the people who are dissatisfied are unhappy that Tsai Ing-wen has been too timid. These people wanted more of her program, not less. Someone who is angry that transitional justice has been too slow or that pension reform wasn’t drastic enough is not itching to vote for the KMT in future elections.

 

So let’s turn to party ID, a much more important and accurate indicator of which way the winds are blowing. Here are the five quarterly surveys from Tsai’s first term:

在國內的政黨之中,請問您認為您比較支持哪一個政黨? (if none, follow-up) 那請問您有沒有比較偏向哪一個政黨?

“Among the political parties in our country, which do you support most?” (if none, follow-up) “Which party do you lean toward?”

party id recent.png

The initial impression is that the DPP is bleeding support and the KMT is gaining. The gap between the two parties has shrunk from about 20% in June 2016 to about 3% a year later. Wow!

Again, some caution and some longer-term perspective is useful. That first survey showing the DPP with 39% party ID is wildly out of line with historical patterns. The DPP has never been near that high in any other survey. Let’s chalk that up as a fleeting honeymoon effect and discard it. Still, the last few surveys show the DPP falling from about 30% to about 25% and the gap between the two main parties narrowing. The KMT is making a comeback!

About that, maybe we should look at a longer time period. The TEDS quarterly surveys started in September 2012, so we don’t have the same sort of regular data before that. Nevertheless, party ID is always asked on every ESC and TEDS survey, so we have fairly reliable numbers going back to the mid-1990s. I’ve started this chart at the end of the Chen era to compare current party ID trends to the relatively stable period during Ma’s first term. As you can see, during Ma’s first term the KMT generally had a 10-15% advantage over the DPP in party ID. During his second term, the KMT hemorrhaged support, going from the mid-30s to the low 20s while the DPP gained slightly, going from about 25% to 30%. Put into that context, party ID in June 2017 doesn’t look anything like party ID in 2009. We are still in the post-Sunflower world in which the DPP is the more popular party and the KMT is in second place. In the chart with only five surveys, it looks like the KMT is making a comeback. In the longer perspective, it doesn’t look like that so much. The KMT is still mired in the low 20s, where it has been since late 2014.

party id since 2008.png

One interesting thing about this chart concerns the DPP’s honeymoon peak. The DPP’s peak comes in June 2016, after Tsai’s inauguration. The KMT also has a massive peak, when it hit 43% at the end of 2011. The difference between these two peaks is that one occurred right around election day. The KMT’s 2012 campaign apparently peaked perfectly, with a spike in support for the party just when the voters were going to the polls. This spike (and the 15% advantage in party ID) produced 51% of the votes in the presidential election. In 2016, the DPP’s spike was well after the election, so it did not translate into more votes. At the election, the DPP had an advantage of just a bit more than 10% in party ID, not the 20% it would have in June. The DPP’s party ID in the low-30s around election day produced 56% of the vote for Tsai.

Historically, the DPP has added more voters to its base of identifiers than the KMT has. If the DPP still has a narrow lead in party identifiers, it probably has a somewhat larger lead in actual votes.

The past two data points are not good for the DPP. However, I’m not ready to proclaim them as a tipping point or the start of a new trend. On party ID, it looks to me like we are still in the same post-Sunflower world. Nonetheless, it is something I’ll be keeping my eye on.

 

If I want to know what will happen in the near term, I look at party ID. If I want to know about the longer and deeper trends, I look at national identity. This is measured using a very simple yet telling question:

我們社會上,有人說自己是「臺灣人」,也有人說自己是「中國人」,也有人說都是。請問您認為自己是「臺灣人」、「中國人」,或者都是?

“In Taiwan, some people think they are Taiwanese. There are also some people who think that they are Chinese. Do you consider yourself as Taiwanese, Chinese or both?”

national id recent.png

Looking at the recent data, it doesn’t appear that there is any honeymoon peak. Rather, there is simply a decrease in exclusively Taiwanese identity and a commensurate increase in Chinese and dual identity. This is wrong. Actually, the June 2016 data point is higher than either 2015 or the rest of 2016.

TaiwanChinese.jpg

A look at the longer trend shows that the decline in Taiwanese identity is not merely something that has happened over the past year. The gap between the lines peaked in 2014, when exclusive Taiwan identifiers outnumbered people with some Chinese identity by about 60 to 35%. Over the past three years, that gap has slowly narrowed to roughly 56 to 40%. This is not merely a statistical blip. These data points in the ESC chart combine data from numerous surveys; each data point represents over 10,000 respondents. There is a real decline in Taiwanese identity over the past three years; the only question is how we should think about it.

Many smart people think that 2014 was a real inflection point, and the historical trend toward more and more Taiwanese identifiers has now reversed. They expect that Chinese identity will continue to increase over future surveys. I have not yet heard a convincing explanation for why this might happen, but then I don’t have a airtight explanation for the last three years either.

For now, my working hypothesis is that long-term drivers of Taiwanese identity are still in place. Younger people identify more strongly as Taiwanese than older people, and this is driven by education and real-world experiences in which China clumsily continually reminds Taiwanese that they are a different group of people. If the fast-growing China of a decade ago couldn’t attract Taiwanese youth, I don’t see how the slower-growing and more oppressive version of today will win over many hearts and minds.

For the time being, I am considering the peak in 2014 to be the outlier. My guess is that after the dramatic upheavals of the previous few years, many respondents who would have normally been on the fence were inspired to describe themselves as exclusively Taiwanese. As things calmed down, those people may have drifted back to their more “normal” dual identities. There is a rapid growth in Taiwanese identity from 2011 to 2014, and I suspect at least some of the people who changed their minds then have changed them back again. If you look in longer terms, the basic trend line over the past two decades still looks like it fits the current data.

It is also important to note that, even with the changes over the past three years, we are still not back in the world of 2008, when Taiwanese and Chinese identities were roughly equal. Exclusive Taiwanese identifiers still significantly outnumber people with Chinese identity, and the current trends will require several more years to close that gap. However, if my interpretation is correct, there may not be many more wafflers to convert back to Chinese identity. Closing the gap much further will require some fundamental change in the relationship between China and Taiwan to make Chineseness more appealing to Taiwanese youth. Perhaps that has already happened, and I am simply oblivious to it.

Regardless, this is an important indicator to keep an eye on. It is not at all an overstatement to say that Taiwan’s political future depends on the distribution of opinions about national identity.

 

The TEDS quarterly surveys mostly ask the same questions each time, but they also stick in one or two questions on topical issues each time. Some of these are illuminating.

In September 2016, respondents were asked a question on the recent Illicit Party Assets bill:

立法院在今年7月通過「不當黨產處理條例」(全名: 政黨及其附隨組織不當取得財產處理條例),請問您對政府在處理不當黨產的表現滿不滿意?

“In July the legislature passed the Illicit Party Assets Act. Are you satisfied with the government’s performance in handling illicit party assets?”

35.0% of respondents said they were either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied, while 42.0% said they were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the government’s handling of this issue. The easy interpretation might be that the public sides with the KMT’s insistence that the DPP is conducting a vengeful, unjustified, and undemocratic witch hunt against it. However, digging a little deeper casts doubt on that interpretation. 26.0% of people who self-identified as DPP or NPP supporters also expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of illicit KMT assets. Of course, we can’t know exactly what each individual was thinking and every individual thinks something slightly different, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine that the overwhelming majority of these people were dissatisfied because they thought the efforts to recover illicit KMT assets were not aggressive enough. If you want to know how much support the KMT has for its position, you probably need to subtract the vast majority of these people – 9.9% of the full sample – from the 42.0% who were dissatisfied. Similarly, a considerable chunk of non-identifiers were probably also dissatisfied for the same reason. What starts out looking like a good result for the KMT is probably actually nothing of the sort. People might be dissatisfied with the Tsai government, but this does not necessarily mean they are jumping over to the KMT.

 

Both the March and June 2017 surveys had a question on pension reform. Note that the June survey was conducted about two weeks before the legislature passed the pension reform bill.

In March, the survey asked about the preferential savings rate:

有人說: 「公教優惠存款(十八趴)的廢除對退休公教人員不公平」,請問您同不同意這種說法?

“Some people say, “Abolishing the preferential savings policy (18%) is unfair to retired public employees.” Do you agree or disagree?”

Agree Disagree
All 30.2 58.7
KMT identifiers 45.3 44.2
DPP + NPP identifiers 21.8 72.7
Public employees 42.7 47.6

This question wording is a particularly strong one for proponents of pension reform. This focuses attention on the most easily understood aspects of a very complex topic. The preferential savings rate has been the horse that advocates have loved to beat for years, as a guaranteed 18% interest rate on savings deposits is far out of line with anything a normal person could hope to obtain. In fact, nearly twice as many people disagree with the statement as agree with it. Even among KMT identifiers and public employees, the two groups most hostile to pension reforms, nearly as many people disagreed as agreed with this statement.

In June, TEDS asked a very different question:

整體而言,請問您對政府處理公教人員年金改革的表現滿不滿意?

“Overall, are you satisfied with the government’s performance in handling public employees’ pension reform?”

satisfied Dissatisfied
All 31.7 56.4
KMT identifiers 17.6 77.5
DPP + NPP identifiers 49.9 43.0
Public employees 20.1 75.4

(Remember, this is before the legislature passed the bill.)

By now, you should know how I feel about these satisfied/dissatisfied questions. Taiwan’s population is highly critical. If they don’t get their ideal outcome, they do not hesitate to express dissatisfaction. In fact, the Tsai government moved deliberately and cautiously on pension reform, angering a lot of green supporters who wanted a more radical approach. In this survey, not even half of DPP and NPP supporters were satisfied.

On this topic, I have a little private data. I’m doing a project on fighting in the legislature, and I did an internet survey before and after the pension reform was passed. Now, internet surveys have to be interpreted with extreme caution since they are not representative samples. Our goal was to study how attitudes changed after a brawl, not to make statements describing the Taiwanese population. However, that is what Nathan Batto, rigorous scholar, does with the data. Frozen Garlic, the irresponsible blogger, is going to throw caution to the wind and give you some results that you shouldn’t take at face value.

First, let me tell you that my data are biased. My respondents are extremely highly educated, have too many middle aged people, too many northerners, not enough farmers or homemakers, and too many public employees. KMT and NPP identifiers are overrepresented, while DPP identifiers are underrepresented. In general, all the results in my survey skew much bluer than those of a representative telephone sample.

Unlike the TEDS questions, we framed our question in terms of partisan positions:

在年金改革的議題上,您比較支持國民黨的立場還是民進黨的立場?

“On pension reform, do you support the KMT position or the DPP position more?”

Wave 1 Wave 2
KMT position 20.8 21.1
DPP position 39.9 42.1
Neither/no opinion 39.3 36.8

In this sample, roughly twice as many people preferred the DPP position as the KMT position. Remember, this sample is too blue, so in the actual population it was probably more than a two to one ratio.

Think about this. The general population was generally dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the pension reform, even though it preferred the DPP’s position over the KMT’s position by a large margin. Taiwanese people are not easily satisfied! Nevertheless, even if the general public isn’t happy with the DPP’s performance, the pension reform issue is definitely not a winner for the KMT.

 

How about marriage equality? TEDS has questions from March and June 2017:

有人說: 「應該修改民法讓同性可以結婚組成家庭」,請問您同不同意這種說法?

“Some people say, “The Civil Code should be amended to allow gays to marry and form a family.” Do you agree?”

 

This question wording presents a stricter test for support of marriage equality than a less specific question, such as “Do you agree that gay should be allowed to marry?” Amending the Civil Code is the strongest version of marriage equality. There are people who support a weaker version of marriage equality, such as enacting a special law but not amending the Civil Code. Nonetheless, the degree of opposition to amending the Civil Code is striking.

agree Disagree
March 2017 39.1 52.1
June 2017 33.7 57.0
Breakdowns of June sample
KMT identifiers 21.9 69.4
DPP identifiers 37.5 54.3
NPP identifiers 64.6 32.3
Taipei City 40.3 44.8
Age 20-29 71.1 21.1
Age 30-39 50.0 40.5
Age 40 and up 18.6 72.1

KMT identifiers are overwhelmingly against amending the Civil Code, while DPP identifiers also have a clear majority against it. NPP supporters are clearly the outliers. Geographically, Taipei City sticks out. While Taipei residents are split evenly, every other place has 60-70% against amending the Civil Code. When Taiwanese sarcastically talk about Taipei residents living in a bubble (天龍國), maybe this is part of what they are talking about. There are dramatic differences by age. People in their 20s are overwhelmingly for marriage equality, while people in their 30s are somewhat for it. However, most eligible voters are over 40, and these people are overwhelmingly against amending the Civil Code.

In May, the Council of Grand Justices ruled that the current law is unconstitutional and gave the government two years to change it. Looking at these numbers, you can see why the Tsai government is not eager to push through an amendment to the Civil Code, regardless of President Tsai’s personal sympathies. I don’t think the very vocal supporters of marriage equality have yet realized that the government is on their side. (Don’t forget, Tsai appointed most of the Grand Justices.) With these numbers, the only realistic action is a special law, which the activists don’t want. Instead, the government has chosen a third path: wait for the two year period to expire and then simply consider the Civil Code to allow gays to marry. At the cost of a two year wait, the marriage equality activists will get their most favored outcome while not inflicting enormous political costs on a sympathetic government.

 

The final item to consider echoes newly elected KMT chair Wu Den-yi’s proposal that Taiwan should revert to the 1992 Consensus. This was asked in the June 2017 survey.

在處理兩岸關係上,有人主張我們應該使用九二共識與中國大陸協商,也有人主張我們不應該再使用九二共識,請問您比較支持哪一種看法?

“On cross straits relations, some people say the we should use the 1992 Consensus as a basis for negotiations with mainland China, other people say that we should not use the 1992 Consensus again. Which side do you support?”

use Don’t use Doesn’t exist
All 41.8 29.4 3.7
DPP + NPP identifiers 21.6 52.9 6.9
Exclusive Taiwan identity 26.0 41.4 5.6

I have to admit, I was quite surprised by this result. 42% of people were in favor of re-adopting the 1992 Consensus, while only 33% were against it. (I’m counting the 4% who refuse to admit the existence of the 1992 Consensus as being against using it.) I guess Wu Den-yi’s position is more popular than I thought.

Let’s take a minute to think about polling and the 1992 Consensus. For years, the Ma Ying-jeou government would shove reams of polling data showing a solid majority in support of the 1992 Consensus in the face of any journalist willing to look. Many eagerly and unskeptically repeated the government numbers in their stories. It wasn’t just journalists, though. I’ve heard academics reference the Mainland Affairs Council survey numbers. Here’s the problem. The MAC was producing survey results in order to justify – not to inform – its policies. The typical MAC question wording was both leading and confusing. (Is it possible to be both leading and misleading?) Here’s a footnote from one of my recent papers on this point:

“For example, a July 2014 survey asked, “The government’s position on the 1992 Consensus is that the ‘one China’ in ‘one China, each side with its own interpretation’ refers to the ROC. Do you support this position?” 52.3% expressed support, which was a fairly typical result. Sometimes the MAC preceded this question with other leading questions or employed even more loaded question wordings. For example, a May 2015 survey asked, “Some people say, ‘Since 2008, the important result of the government’s mainland policy has been to maintain cross-straits relations and a stable peace.’ Do you agree with this statement?” It then asked a loaded question on the 1992 Consensus: “Since 2008, on the foundation of the 1992 Consensus – One China, each side with its own interpretation, One China means the ROC, the government has steadily promoted cross-straits negotiations and exchanges. Do you support this position?” 53.9% expressed support.”

Note that in all of the MAC surveys, the formula is spelled out in its strongest version, emphasizing “each side with its own interpretation.” This matters a lot. The more you spell out the parts of the formula that the PRC doesn’t agree with, the more support there is. In these questions, they further emphasize the constitution and confusingly (at least to me) allow people to think they are agreeing with the statement that the government’s position is that One China refers to the ROC (and not the PRC), and so on. That’s how you get over 50% for this question. When TISR asked the questions in a more neutral manner two years ago, they got about 40% support for “one China, each side with its own interpretation”, 30% for “1992 Consensus,” and 20% for “one China, both sides with the same interpretation.”

Nearly two years later, support for the 1992 Consensus seems to have risen a bit. The 1992 Consensus gets 42% support, even though the wording does not include the phrase “each side with its own interpretation.” Moreover, this item has a response category for opposition, not just for support. 42% support turns out not to mean 58% opposition. In fact, 33% is not anywhere close to 58% opposition. A large chunk of the population is ambivalent on this question. Like many people, I interpreted the 2016 election result as a death sentence for the 1992 Consensus. I still think the chances of the Tsai government ever accepting it are between razor-thin and zero, but, in light of this result, I can see why Wu Den-yi and the KMT are holding out hope that the 1992 Consensus can still be the basis for a winning election campaign.

 

To sum up, I think these data suggest that the DPP is still on track to win another term in 2020. There are some encouraging numbers for the KMT, but they are easily exaggerated. Overall, I think these data are at least as discouraging for the KMT as for the DPP. I think we are most likely going to have something like the previous Japanese election in which a somewhat unpopular government easily beat an even more unpopular opposition.

PS: If these results trouble you in any way, don’t worry. They’re all horribly out of date. Everything is probably completely different now.

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.