Monday, June 11, 2018

Economists: male, upper class, out of touch

Could there ever be a shortage of economists? And if there were, would that be a bad thing?

At the risk of being drummed out of the economists’ union, it wouldn’t be a big worry of mine.

What I do find of concern is the decline in the number of students studying economics at school and university, as outlined by the Reserve Bank’s Dr  Jacqui Dwyer in a recent speech.

Why should people study economics? Well, as the world’s greatest female economist, Joan Robinson – a contemporary of Keynes – famously said, “the purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.”

Too true. But Dwyer offers a more positive sales pitch: “Economics is relevant to us all. Every day our lives are affected by economic decisions – ones we make personally and ones that are made by others.

“Economics is about how individuals and societies choose to allocate their limited resources to meet their needs and wants. It’s about how we respond to incentives, make trade-offs, weigh up costs and benefits – and how we decide what is efficient and [sometimes] what is fair.”

I’ve been known to find fault with the performance of economists on the odd occasion, but Dwyer is dead right to say economics “contains some powerful concepts and useful frameworks”.

At its best, economics “can help us better understand the choices involved in many personal decisions we make, and better understand the economic conditions and policies that affect our lives”.

If economics is relevant to daily life, and economic literacy brings benefits to society, how widely is it studied at school and university? Short answer: much less than it was.

Dwyer says that year 12 enrolments in economics have fallen by about 70 per cent over the past 25 years. In NSW the decline has been greater, beginning in the early 1990s when economics was displaced by the introduction of business studies, a subject Dwyer diplomatically refers to as “less analytically demanding”. The name of a Disney character comes to mind.

In 1991, economics was the third most popular subject choice in NSW, surpassed only by English and maths. It was taught in nearly all high schools. These days, it’s taught in less than a third of NSW government schools (many of them selective schools) and a little over half of non-government schools (particularly independent schools).

Back in the day, there were roughly equal numbers of males and females, whereas today males outnumber females roughly two to one. Dwyer says this gender imbalance is worse even than for the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.

“So over the course of a generation, there has been a pronounced fall in the size and diversity of the economics student population at Australian high schools,” Dwyer says.

At university, Dwyer’s figures are, on their face, better news: the number of economics enrolments have been fairly constant since the early 1990s, falling only slightly since 2001.

But this isn’t so reassuring when you remember that, over the 15 years to 2016, total under-grad and post-graduate enrolments have grown at the average rate of more than 3 per cent a year.


The average annual rate of growth in enrolments has been about 3.6 per cent for banking and finance, 2.75 per cent for management and commerce, and even about 2.5 per cent for STEM, but a small negative for economics.

It’s not known whether this decline represents reduced demand for economists in the job market. But for those who are economically literate, a clue is that graduate starting salaries are higher for economics students than for those taking business-oriented subjects.

I wonder if the apparent decline in economics is partly just the unis’ greater marketing emphasis in naming their degrees. “Finance”, for instance, is actually a specialisation within economics. And banking, management, commerce and accounting are so theory-light that many such degrees would be beefed up intellectually with a fair bit of economics (as was my own commerce degree).

One strange fact is that of the many fewer unis still offering economics, more than half of those that do are in NSW and the ACT.

But the biggest cause for concern are the signs of diminishing diversity among uni students of economics. The proportion of females has fallen to about a third. And well over half of uni economics students are in the top quarter of socio-economic status, with only about 10 per cent in the bottom quarter. It’s similar, but not quite so extreme, for high school economics students.

If you rank the relevant uni degrees according to the proportion of students from high socio-economic status families, economics comes well ahead of banking and finance, then management and commerce, which is well ahead of STEM.

Oh, dearie me. This may explain a lot.
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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Sorry Scott, it's not clear the economy now has lift-off

It’s been the week of an economic miracle. Three months’ ago we were told the economy’s annual growth was a pathetic 2.4 per cent, but this week’s news is it’s now a very healthy 3.1 per cent. And wasn’t Treasurer Scott Morrison cock-a-hoop.

This is the vindication of everything he’s ever told us. It’s the proof the government’s plan for Jobs and Growth  is working a treat.

Last calendar year saw the strongest jobs growth on record, with more than 1000 jobs created on average every day.

Like a favourite footy team, Australia has “climbed back to the top of the global leaderboard”, growing faster than all seven of the biggest rich countries.

“Importantly,” he said, “today’s results validate our budget forecasts and confirm the strengthening economic outlook we presented in the budget just a few weeks ago.”

Sorry to rain on ScoMo’s parade, but each of those happy claims is misleading.

The national accounts for the March quarter, issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week, showed that real gross domestic product grew by 1 per cent during the quarter and by 3.1 per cent over the year to March.

Trouble is, initial quarterly national accounts come in two kinds: “not as bad as they look” and “not as good as they look”. Three months’ ago they were the former and now they’re the latter.

For the past two years they’ve had an almost perfect pattern of implausibly weak one quarter and implausibly strong the next. The problem is that it’s almost impossible for the bureau to measure the economy’s growth from quarter to quarter with any accuracy.

This is why sensible people – which excludes the media, the financial markets and many macro-economists – take the bureau’s advice and focus on its “trend” (or smoothed) estimates.

Three months’ ago they showed annual growth of 2.6 per cent (since revised up to 2.7 per cent) and now they’re showing 2.8 per cent – which is probably as close to the truth as we’re likely to come.

What ScoMo says about employment growth in 2017 is perfectly true and genuinely impressive. About three-quarters of the extra 400,000 jobs created were full-time – one in the eye for those supposed experts who depress our youth by telling them the era of good jobs is over.

But 2017 is receding into history. And in the first four months of this year, the average rate of job creation has slowed from more than 1000 a day to nearer 600.

As for our economy growing faster than the bigger developed countries’ economies, it’s not hard when our population’s growing faster than theirs. Our population grew by 1.6 per cent over the year to March, which explains why growth of 3.1 per cent in the economy turned into growth of 1.5 per cent per person.

As for the latest figures validating the budget’s optimistic forecasts out to 2019-20 (let alone its power-of-positive-thinking projections out to 2028-29), that’s a big call.

The budget forecasts growth in real GDP in 2017-18 of 2.75 per cent. You may think growth of 3.1 per cent over the year to March puts achieving that forecast beyond doubt, but you’d be bamboozled by the different ways of measuring growth.

It’s 3.1 per cent “through the year” from March 2017 to March 2018, whereas the budget forecast is for a “year average” of 2.75 per cent (that is, the whole of 2017-18 compared with the whole of 2016-17).

By my figuring, and assuming no further revisions, real GDP will need to grow by another 1 per cent in the June quarter for the budget forecast to be reached – which is possible, but unlikely.

Similarly, the budget forecasts that the increase in the wage price index will quicken to 2.25 per cent through the year to June 2018. But the figures for the March quarter showed it treading water at 2.1 per cent.

Turning to the detail, about half the 1 per cent growth in real GDP came from a surge in the volume exports, though increased imports cut the contribution of net exports (exports minus imports) to 0.3 percentage points.

Trouble is, part of the surge was explained by a catch-up after production problems in the middle of last year, and part by a new natural gas export facility coming on line, suggesting exports are unlikely to continue growing so strongly.

Growth in public sector spending contributed 0.4 percentage points to the overall GDP growth in the March quarter, with strong public consumption spending (probably mainly the roll-out of the national disability insurance scheme) in the quarter, plus state government spending on transport infrastructure explaining the strength of public investment spending in earlier quarters.

New housing construction made a small contribution to growth in the quarter, but it’s clear the housing boom is waning and so is likely to make little further contribution.

Business investment spending made only a small contribution to quarterly growth, with a fall of 6 per cent in mining investment (and 16.4 per cent over the year) largely offsetting the 3.6 per cent growth (and 14 per cent over the year) in the much-bigger non-mining investment.

So business investment is slowly recovering from the end of the resources boom as we’ve long hoped it would, but the biggest worry in the accounts is the lack of good news on the single most important driver of GDP growth, consumer spending.

It grew by a reasonable 2.9 per cent over the year but, after strengthening in the December quarter, grew by a pathetic 0.3 per cent in the March quarter.

And that required a further fall in households’ rate of saving, from 2.3 per cent to 2.1 per cent of their disposable income, with that rate down from a peak of 10 per cent after the global financial crisis in 2008.

With household debt already so high, not many families will want to borrow more to boost their consumption. And the falls in Sydney and Melbourne house prices mean no encouragement to consume from the "wealth effect" - the higher value of my home means I can afford to spend.

The big problem is the absence of real growth in wages to drive consumer spending. It may or may not come.

Apart from ScoMo’s boundless optimism, there’s no certainty we’ve now achieved lift-off.


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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How we could revive faith in democracy

How much is our disillusionment with politicians, governments and even democracy the result of our pollies’ 30-year love affair with that newly recognised mega-evil “neoliberalism”?

To a considerable extent, according to Dr Richard Denniss, of the Australia Institute, in the latest Quarterly Essay, Dead Right.

I’m not sure I’m fully convinced by his argument, but it’s a thought-provoking thesis that’s worth exploring.

Like “globalisation” in the 1990s, neoliberalism has become the all-purpose political swearword of the 2010s. Anything economic that you don’t approve of can be condemned as neoliberalism.

But Denniss provides some more specific attributes. “The intellectual core of neoliberalism is the idea that the profit motive of companies, combined with consumers’ ability to choose the product that suits them best, will result in the best possible social and economic outcomes,” he says.

Implicit in this is the belief that government intervention in markets is always suspect and should be reduced to a minimum, just as taxation is an onerous “burden” which must be reduced if we are to prosper.

Dennis argues that neoliberalism hasn’t just involved much deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing of government services and cuts in government spending, it’s also changed our culture – the way we think about politics and political issues.

Its focus on the individual has sanctified selfishness, releasing people from the restraints of solidarity with the rest of the community and legitimating the lobbying mentality. We’re all free to press our own interests on the government, and if that means I extract more than you do, that just proves I worked harder than you.

But the greatest cultural change, according to Denniss, is the belief that economic issues outweigh all other considerations. “The trick of neoliberalism was to convince the public that it is the economic dimension of big issues that we must focus on,” he says.

“Past generations . . . did not see the need to delay all significant debates about the shape and direction of their society until tax and industrial relations policies were optimised according to specific principles understood by a tiny proportion of the population.”

Denniss says we no longer talk about the inherent value of educating our children, but of the increase in skills and productivity that their education will bring to the economy.

A big part of this is the obsession with maximising the growth of the economy – or, in Malcolm Turnbull’s more enticing packaging, Jobs and Growth.

“After 27 years of continuous economic growth, it is inconceivable that the thing Australia needs most is to ‘grow our economy’ some more.

“What we really need is to rebuild trust in our institutions and confidence in our country. We need to debate far more specific and important national goals, and then show ourselves that when we work together we can make things better. We have done it before and other countries are doing it right now.”

What if Australian parliaments stopped trying to fix the industrial relations system or the tax system for a few years, and focused instead on things that Australians really care about?

“For 30 years Australians have been told that what is good for gross domestic product is good for the economy, and hence for the country. But that is like saying that the more money a family earns, the happier the children will be.

“It is the shape of our economy that determines our wellbeing, not its size. Spending $1 billion subsidising the Adani coalmine will create economic activity [and jobs], but so will spending that money promoting Australian tourism or improving Sydney’s pubic transport.

“The important question isn’t whether a project will ‘create activity’, but whether a project will make Australia a better place or not.”

Like waiters in a restaurant, says Denniss, politicians and bureaucrats are not there to tell us what we must order, but to show us the menu and explain the specials.

So one of his proposals is to replace the Productivity Commission with a national interest commission, to provide both governments and the public with broad advice on the advantages (as opposed to benefits) and disadvantages (as opposed to costs) that, say, a major project or a universal basic income, might entail.

The opposite of the narrow economic agenda of neoliberalism isn’t a progressive economic reform agenda, Denniss says, it’s the re-establishment of a broad debate about the national interest.

“After 30 years of hearing that politicians, government and taxes are the things that ruin the economy, it is time for the public to hear and see that politicians, government and taxes are the foundations on which prosperous democratic nations are built.”

There are dozens of popular things that state and federal governments could get on with that would make Australians happy, make Australia a nicer place to live and, most importantly, show the Australian public that the decisions made by parliament do make a difference.

Such as? “Bans on political donations, the establishment of strong anti-corruption watchdogs, reform to parliamentary entitlements, higher taxes on annual incomes over $1 million, closing loopholes that allow companies to pay billions in dividends and nothing in tax, legalising marijuana, banning poker machines, and preserving all existing parks from property development.”

The world is full of alternatives and choices, Denniss concludes. “Neoliberalism’s real power came from convincing us that we had none. We do, and making them is the democratic role of citizens – not the technocratic role of economists, nor that of any self-serving elite."
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Monday, June 4, 2018

Turnbull changes tune for a lower-taxes election

Q: When is a move to increase tax collections not a move to increase taxes? A: When it’s an “integrity” measure.

The overwhelming purpose of this year’s budget has been to portray the Turnbull government as committed to lower taxes – not like those appalling Labor Party people, who want to whack up taxes everywhere.

Hence Scott Morrison’s seven-year plan to cut personal income tax at a cumulative cost of $144 billion over 10 years.

The government’s determination to push on with cutting the rate of company tax for big business is further proof of its commitment to lower taxes.

Trouble is, Malcolm Turnbull’s true conversion to the Down, Down Taxes Down party is rather recent.

Go back to his previous pre-election budget, in 2016, and he was busy increasing taxes to help pay for his 10-year phase-down in company tax.

If you remember, that budget copied Labor’s plan for four years of huge increases in tobacco excise, introduced the Coalition’s version of Labor’s major cutbacks in super tax concessions to high-income earners, introduced its own version of a tax on multinational tax avoiders and a “tax integrity package” establishing a tax avoidance taskforce.

Turnbull also explored the possibility of doing something to match Labor’s plan to curtail negative gearing, but finally decided that doing nothing would make easier to portray Labor as the high-taxing party.

Coming to last year’s budget, the government stuck with its company tax cuts, but still needed revenue. ScoMo announced a new tax on the five major banks and, from July 2019, an increase in the Medicare levy from 2 to 2.5 per cent of taxable income, to cover the rapidly rising cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

This budget included another tax integrity package, which extended the special reporting requirements on payments to contractors and improved the “integrity” of GST payments on property transactions.

Now this year’s budget. This time a “black economy package” involving “new and enhanced enforcement” and further extension of reporting requirements on payments to contractors.

That’s not to mention a once-off draw-forward of duty on tobacco, “better targeting” of the research and development tax incentive, “ensuring individuals meet their tax obligations” and “better integrity over deductions for personal super contributions”.

All told, these “integrity measures” are expected to raise almost $10 billion over four years – though remember that when the tax man (or Centrelink) estimates that a new crackdown on the crackdown will raise $X billion, we have no way of knowing whether that guess proved to be too high, too low or spot on. Hmmm.

That $10 billion compares with the first-four-year cost of the personal tax cuts of $13.4 billion. But something the media has judged far too conceptual to adequately report is the decision not to go ahead with the 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy.

Deciding not to do something you hadn’t yet done adds to zilch, doesn’t it? Not if you’ve ever heard of opportunity cost. Nor if you know how budgets are constructed. The change of tune worsens the budget bottom line by $12.8 billion over four years – almost doubling the budgetary cost of the actual tax cuts.

It’s not hard to see why Turnbull lost his enthusiasm for securing the funding of the disability scheme. Bit hard to claim to be the champion of lower taxes when, with the other hand, you’re putting ’em up. (Just as long as the punters don’t notice your third hand adding to the tax system’s “integrity”.)

Equally debatable is ScoMo’s claim to be the scourge of bracket creep. Since the disaster of its first budget cured the government of any real desire to cut government spending, its main strategy for returning the budget to structural surplus has been to sit back and wait for bracket creep to do the job for it.

Had the government been travelling better in the polls that might still be its budget-repair strategy, rather than throwing the switch to fanciful fiscal forecasts.

But with bracket creep pushing up tax bills every year since the last tax cuts in 2012, beware of ScoMo playing a three-card trick: cuts that should be regarded as the partial restoration of past bracket creep being packaged as protection against future creep.

As ScoMo’s three-step, seven-year tax plan now stands, the huge proportion of taxpayers still earning less than $87,000 a year would get a tax cut of $10 a week to compensate them for all the bracket creep they will have suffered during the 16 years to 2028-29.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we should be paying higher taxes to cover the ever-better public services we unceasingly demand. The actions of both sides of politics say they agree with me. It’s just their words you shouldn’t believe.
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Saturday, June 2, 2018

We have debts to pay before we give ourselves tax cuts

How much should we worry about leaving government debt to our children and grandchildren? A fair bit, though not as much as some people imagine.

The central claim of this year’s budget is that we can have our cake and eat it.

We can award ourselves personal income tax cuts worth $144 billion over 10 years, but still halt the growth in the federal government’s net debt at $350 billion by the end of June next year, and then have it fall away as the proceeds from successive, ever-growing annual budget surpluses are used to pay off the debt.

I’ve devoted much space to explaining how Treasurer Scott Morrison was able to conjure up this seeming fiscal miracle, by staging the tax cuts over seven years and by resorting to overly optimistic forecasts and projections.

So how worried should we be by the possibility that the debt will keep growing despite ScoMo’s unbounded optimism?

Well, the first thing to remember is that the federal government isn’t like a household. A household or family has to be careful about how much it borrows because it has a finite life. Eventually, the kids leave home and mum and dad die.

Of course, many families borrow amounts that are several multiples of their annual salary to buy the home they live in. They’ll take 20 or 30 years to pay off their mortgage, but few people regard this as terribly worrying.

Why not? Because the home they buy provides them with a flow of service for as long as they need it to: somewhere to live. It saves them having to pay rent.

Buying your home is an investment in an asset and, provided the family can fit the mortgage payments within their budget, no one would accuse the family of “living beyond its means”.

It would be living beyond its means, however, if it was regularly spending more on living expenses than its after-tax income.

By contrast, the government has an infinite life. It provides services for about 9 million households, who pay taxes that are usually sufficient to cover the cost of those services. As the people in those households die, their place is taken by others.

If the households aren’t paying enough tax to cover the government’s spending, the government can always increase taxes. How many households do you know that can solve their money problems by imposing a tax on other households?

This is why it’s a mistake to imagine the rules that apply to your family also apply to the government. The government’s power to raise taxes means there’s never any shortage of people willing to lend it money.

Even so, there are some valid analogies between households and governments. A government can rightly be said to be living beyond its means if it’s not raising enough tax even to cover its day-to-day expenses.

This happens automatically when the economy turns down, and isn’t a bad thing: it helps to prop up the 9 million households when times are tough. But when the economy improves, the government needs to ensure its income exceeds its ordinary spending so the debt incurred isn’t left to burden people who gained no benefit from it.

And, just as a household shouldn’t be said to be living beyond its means because it’s borrowed to buy a home, so a government that’s borrowed to build worthwhile infrastructure – roads, rail lines, airports etcetera – shouldn’t be thought to be living beyond its means.

Why not? Because, like a house, that infrastructure will deliver a flow of services for decades to come.

If the children and grandchildren who inherit that debt also inherit the infrastructure it paid for, they don’t have a lot to complain about.

So, how much of the net debt can be attributed to living beyond our means while the economy’s been below par, and how much to investing in infrastructure that’s a valuable inheritance for the next generation?

This year’s budget statement four proudly informs us that the financial year just ending is expected to be the last in which the government will have to borrow to fully cover its “recurrent” spending to keep the government working for another year.

The government had to begin borrowing for recurrent expenses (including “depreciation” - the cost of another year’s wear and tear on the physical assets the government uses in its recurrent operations) from the time of the global financial crisis in late 2008.

Updating the figures provided in last year’s statement four allows us to calculate that the cumulative recurrent deficit over the 10 years is roughly $200 billion, although you’d have to add interest costs to that.

In principle, the rest of our total net debt of about $340 billion by the end of this month has been incurred to build infrastructure, which will deliver a flow of services to the present and future generations extending over many decades.

So we need be in no hurry to pay off that part of the debt – it will do our offspring no harm.

But two qualifications. First, though economic theory indicates no level to which it’s prudent to borrow – it’s a judgment call – it is prudent to borrow less than the full cost – say, 80 or 90 per cent – of the infrastructure we build each year.

Second, it’s likely that a fair bit of the federal government’s spending on capital works has been selected more for political than economic and social reasons, and so won’t deliver much in the way of valuable services to the next generation.

If so, we should probably regard it as more in the nature of consumption or recurrent spending, and so pay for it ourselves rather than lumber our kids with it.

All of which says, yes, there is a fair bit of the total debt we should be getting on with paying off – and do so before we start awarding ourselves big tax cuts.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Why we're going slow on climate change

Every time I go to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival I’m asked the same question: since there’s no policy issue more important than responding to global warming, and we’re doing so little about it, why do I ever write about anything else?

I give the obvious answer. Though I readily agree that climate change is the most pressing economic problem we face, if I banged on about nothing but global warming three times a week, our readers would soon lose interest.

But even as I make my excuses, my Salvo-trained conscience tells me they’re not good enough. Even if I can’t write about it every week, I should raise it more often than I do.

I’m still combing through the budget’s fine print, but I’ve yet to remark that its thousands of pages make almost no mention of climate change.

Even the federal government’s latest, 2015 “intergenerational report” peering out to 2055, devotes only a few paragraphs to “environment” and avoids using words starting with c.

I fear that history won’t be kind to the present generation – and particularly not to people with a pulpit like mine.

We’ve known of the scientific evidence for human-caused global warming since the late-1980s. Since then the evidence has only strengthened. And by now we have the evidence of our own senses of hotter summers and autumns and warmer winters, plus more frequent extreme weather events.

And yet as a nation we procrastinate. Our scientists get ever more alarmed by the limited time we have left to get on top of the problem, and yet psychologists tell us that the harder the scientists strive to stir us to action, the more we turn off.

Our grandchildren will find it hard to believe we could have been so short-sighted as to delay moving from having to dig our energy out of the ground to merely harnessing the infinite supply of solar and wind power being sent to our planet free of charge.

What were we thinking? Did an earlier generation delay moving from the horse and buggy to the motor car because of the disruption it would cause to the horse industry?

The biggest mistake we’ve made is to allow our politicians to turn concern about global warming into a party-political issue, and do so merely for their own short-term advantage.

The initial motives may have been short term, but the adverse effects have been lasting. These days, for a Liberal voter to worry about climate change is to be disloyal to their party and give comfort to the enemy.

Apparently, only socialists think their grandkids will have anything to worry about. The right-thinkers among us know the only bad thing our offspring will inherit is Labor’s debt.

Global warming used not to be, shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to stay a right-versus-left issue. In Europe it’s bipartisan. Margaret Thatcher was a vocal fighter for action on climate change, and the Conservative Party is anti-denial to this day.

If you remember, John Howard went to the 2007 election promising an emissions trading scheme. The big debate in that campaign was whether Labor’s rival plan was better because it started a year earlier.

The econocrat who designed Howard’s scheme, Dr Martin Parkinson, was the same person the Rudd government appointed to develop its scheme. The Department of Climate Change was a virtual outpost of Treasury. Indeed, I know of few economists who aren’t supporters of putting “a price on carbon”.

At the time, the Libs’ strongest supporter of action on climate change was a Malcolm someone. I wonder whatever happened to him?

As Liberal opposition leader, Turnbull was offering bipartisan support for Rudd’s emissions trading scheme when he was thrown out by Tony Abbott, who quickly changed his views to become leader of the party’s then-minority of climate change deniers.

I don’t doubt there are many, many Liberal voters who accept that global warming is real and would like to see the Coalition acting more decisively, but feel obliged to keep a low profile and let Dr John Hewson do the talking for them.

The fossil-fuel industry is no doubt generous in its support to any party willing to help it stave off the evil hour, but the attitude of business generally is different.

Initially, it accepted that the move to renewable energy was inevitable. In which case, the government should just get on with it, reducing uncertainty by making the rules for the transition as clear and firm as possible.

But when the Libs succumbed to the deniers, business savoured the temporary relief of doing nothing. Now, however, the electricity and gas industries are in such a mess that business is back to demanding certainty in the inevitable move to renewables.

The Coalition, unfortunately, is utterly incapable of agreeing to anything meeting that description.

Which brings us to the mystery of the seemingly denier-packed National Party. How any farmers or people from country towns can doubt the reality of climate change is beyond me. The National Farmers’ Federation certainly doesn’t.

But we can’t put all the blame on short-sighted politicians and crony capitalism. If enough of us did more to voice our disapproval, the pollies would change their tune PDQ.

And we’d have a more convincing story to tell our grandkids when they want to know what we did in the climate war.
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Monday, May 28, 2018

Fortunately, Turnbull's tax cap is just window-dressing

The Turnbull government’s solemn pledge to cap the growth in tax receipts at 23.9 per cent of gross domestic product is a political gimmick to which no government committed to economic responsibility would bind itself.

So it’s good we can be confident that, should the Coalition remain in power in the years to come, it will ditch its solemn pledge the moment it becomes politically inconvenient.

Why can we be confident? Because this very budget ditches two earlier solemn pledges to “bank” any unexpected improvements in tax collections or government spending and to get the budget balance back to a surplus of at least 1 per cent of GDP “as soon as possible”.

As the independent economist Saul Eslake has noted, this budget gives away about 40 per cent of the revenue windfalls Treasury discovered.

For more reason to doubt the strength of the Coalition’s commitment to keeping its commitments, remember the way its determination to fix the debt and deficit “crisis” evaporated after its first attempt to do so in the 2014 budget caused its standing in the opinion polls to plunge.

What political imperative required ScoMo to ditch his earlier budget-repair commitments in this year’s budget? The government’s still well behind in the polls, but must face an election within a year, so is offering personal income tax cuts worth $144 billion over 10 years to bolster its claim to be a low-taxing party, unlike Labor.

Its latest solemn commitment to cap tax receipts at 23.9 per cent of GDP – which the government’s rosy projections say will be reached in 2021-22 - is also intended to boost the credibility of the Coalition’s claim to be a low taxer.

Where does the magic number of 23.9 spring from? The budget papers don’t bother to say. But the government has been waving this figure around without committing to it since its first budget, which says it’s “the average tax-to-GDP ratio of the years following the introduction of the GST and prior to the global financial crisis (from 2000-01 to 2007-08 inclusive)”.

That is, it’s quite arbitrary. There’s no science to it. The government could have picked any other run of years to average.

Note that in none of those eight years did the ratio actually hit 23.9 per cent. Rather, it ranged between 23.3 per cent and 24.3 per cent. Indeed, it exceeded 23.9 per cent in five of the eight years.

Is this starting to worry you? Only in the government’s medium-term projections do tax receipts move in smooth curves as a percentage of GDP. In real life, they bounce around from year to year.

The budget papers don’t bother to spell out the rules by which the cap would work (another sign of lack of commitment), but it seems it would apply prospectively.

If your forecast for the coming financial year was that receipts would exceed the cap, you’d have to use that budget to begin tax cuts big enough to prevent the cap being breached.

Of course, if the economy had up a head of steam and you breached the cap in spite of your tax cuts, you’d need to have bigger tax cuts the following year, and keep cutting taxes every year until the boom finally turned to bust.

Getting worried yet? In such circumstances, the more you kept cutting taxes, the more you’d be feeding the boom, making it more inflationary.

So, rather than using the budget and its “automatic stabilisers” (the biggest of which is what economists call “fiscal drag” and punters call bracket creep) to help stabilise the economy as it moves through the business cycle by acting to counter the cycle, you’d be acting “pro-cyclically”, the most damaging thing you can do with a budget.

Of course, the Reserve Bank wouldn’t be sitting idle while the treasurer was throwing tax-cut fuel on the inflationary fire. It would be seeking to counter the wrongly timed budgetary stimulus by jacking up interest rates. In the jargon, monetary policy would be at war with fiscal policy. Great idea.

Is this improbable scenario ringing any bells? It’s what actually happened under treasurer Peter Costello in the first stage of the resources boom. And it explains why, had such a cap existed at the time, it would have been breached four years in a row, despite annual tax cuts.

All these worries before you get to the question of whether the Coalition would have either the political courage or the wit to restrain its spending to fit within a cap on tax collections.

Nothing in its sorry history, nor its latest “guarantee” to continue to fund “the essential services that Australians expect and are entitled to receive”, suggests it would have such courage.

A party making no promises on the extent of its tax raising is more to be believed.
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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Bracket creep lives to fight another day

An Australian newspaper’s headline on the morning after the budget was SCOMO STOPS THE CREEP. The nation’s most ponderous political pundit intoned that the Treasurer would “eliminate bracket creep for the middle class”.

The man himself claimed his tax-cut plan “ran a sword through bracket creep”.

Sorry, yet another of Scott Morrison’s attempts to mislead us in a most misleading budget. He’s exploiting the public’s hazy understanding of what bracket creep is and how it works.

If you’re not paid to be treasurer, you can be forgiven for imagining that bracket creep occurs when pay rises or other increases in your income push you into a higher income tax bracket, causing you to pay more tax.

At present, the middle, 32.5¢-in-the-dollar bracket starts at incomes of $37,000 a year and runs to $87,000. Morrison plans to raise this upper bracket limit to $90,000 in July this year, then to $120,000 in July 2022, then $200,000 in July 2024.

At the moment, about 53 per cent of taxpayers have the last part of their income falling in that 32.5¢ bracket. But by the time he’s finished, he expects almost three-quarters of people to be in it.

Get it? Someone on $87,000 could see their income rise by 130 per cent before they were pushed into a higher tax bracket.

This is the basis for ScoMo’s claim to be pretty much killing off bracket creep. But it’s not as true as he wants you to believe.

Why not? Because chapter two of the The Idiot Politician’s Guide to Income Tax  explains that you can suffer from bracket creep even if you don’t get pushed into a higher bracket. If that wasn’t true, people on the top, 45¢-in-the-dollar tax rate wouldn’t suffer from bracket creep – and I assure you we do.

How can it happen? It happens because everyone’s income is taxed in slices, and the rate of tax on each slice gets progressively (note that word) higher.

At present, the tax rates start at zero for the first $18,200 of annual income, then 19 per cent for the next $18,800, 32.5 per cent for the next $50,000, 37 per cent for the next $93,000 and 45 per cent for everything over that total of $180,000.

By the time ScoMo’s three-step, seven-year plan is intended to be in place in July 2024, however, it will be zero for the first $18,200 of annual income, then 19 per cent for the next $22,800, 32.5 per cent for the next $159,000, and 45 per cent for everything over that total of $200,000.

Ignoring the complication of the low-income tax offset, at that time someone on $41,000 would pay an average rate of tax on the whole of their income of 10.6¢ in the dollar, whereas someone on $200,000 would pay an average tax rate of 28¢ in the dollar.

Guess what? As the incomes of people at the bottom of the new, huge 32.5¢ bracket rose over time, their average rate of tax would rise from 10.6¢ in the dollar towards 28¢. And that would happen without them being pushed into a higher tax bracket. As an economist would say, their marginal tax rate would be unchanged at 32.5¢.

How can this happen? People’s average tax rate rises because, as their income increases, a smaller proportion of it is taxed at less than their marginal tax rate, while a higher proportion is taxed at their (higher) marginal rate.

For someone who, in 2024, is on $41,000 a year, 44 per cent of their total income would be taxed at zero, while 56 per cent would be taxed at $19¢ in the dollar.

By the time that person’s income has increased to $200,000 a year, however, only 9 per cent of their income is tax at zero, and 11 per cent at 19¢ in the dollar, leaving the remaining 80 per cent taxed at 32.5¢ in the dollar.

So the correct way to understand what economists call “fiscal drag” and punters call “bracket creep” is that it happens because people’s average rate of tax increases as their incomes rise.

What is true, however, is that actually moving into a higher (marginal) tax bracket accelerates the rate at which your average tax rate rises.

Bracket creep is an inevitable consequence of our “progressive” income tax. The term progressive means that as your income rises, the proportion of your income paid in tax gets progressively higher.

But what does most to make an income tax scale progressive is an initial zero-rate bracket. Say some crazed treasurer of the future decided to introduce a tax scale with just a single positive tax rate of 32.5 per cent. That would be still be a progressive tax scale provided it had a zero-rate bracket (a “tax-free threshold”) to start with.

Only if the 32.5 per cent tax rate started at an annual income of $1 would such a tax be a true “flat-rate” tax. Economists would say such a tax was neither progressive nor “regressive” (where the proportion of income tax paid declines as incomes rise) but “proportional”.

When you have a progressive tax scale, as every rich country does, the only way to (largely) eliminate bracket creep is to index each of the bracket limits to some measure of price or wage inflation no less frequently than once a year.

Except for a minor change in the 2016 budget, our tax scale has been unchanged since July 2012. Consumer prices have risen by more than 12 per cent since then, and the wage price index by 14 per cent. That’s a fair bit of bracket creep.

So what are Morrison’s plans for raising the bracket limits? The zero bracket would be unchanged, the 19¢ in the dollar limit would rise by 11 per cent, the 32.5¢ limit would rise first by 3 per cent, then a cumulative 38 per cent and then 130 per cent. The top, 45¢ bracket would rise by 11 per cent.

Whatever ScoMo’s objectives are, fixing bracket creep isn’t one of them.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

We'll get a very clear choice at the election

The federal election campaign could be as soon as August and no later than May. So which side is shaping as better at managing the economy?

Sorry, I won’t be answering that question. If you’re smart enough to choose to read this august organ, you’re smart enough to make up your own mind – which you probably already have.

The partisan or tribal approach to politics – if my side’s proposing it, it’s what I prefer – is a common way of economising on thinking time.

But I’m paid to scrutinise the propositions coming from both sides, so let me offer some pointers to help those who do want a better understanding of the choice available.

The first point is one that will be forgotten from the moment the election’s called: the main instrument used to manage the economy through the ups and downs of the business cycle is interest rates (“monetary policy”).

So the day-to-day management of the economy is done not by the politicians in Canberra, but by the econocrats at the Reserve Bank in Sydney. Neither side has shown the least indication of wanting to change this.

It means that, apart from making decisions affecting the activities of particular industries (the banks, the live meat export trade) or such minor concerns as the natural environment, the elected government’s main means of influencing the broader economy is via its budget: the taxes it raises, the things it chooses to spend on, and the gap – the deficit or surplus – it leaves between the two (“fiscal policy”).

It’s now clear the election campaign will focus on taxes and government spending. Rather than sticking to the usual approach of making itself a small target against an unpopular government by saying “me too” to most of the government’s policies, Labor is making itself a big target, with various policies the Coalition has opposed.

So in this campaign we’ll be given a wider choice than usual, with each side conforming more than usually to their left versus right stereotypes. Labor will be promising to spend more on health and education than the Coalition, offering bigger tax cuts than the Coalition (in the first few years, anyway), and promising to reduce deficit and debt faster than the Coalition.

Against this, Malcolm Turnbull has used the big tax cuts announced in the budget to position the Coalition as the low spending, low taxing side, compared to Labor’s big spending, big taxing alternative.

This glosses over the Coalition’s own record on tax and spending, but there is some truth to the characterisation.

Remember, however, that neither side is promising anything but a temporary fix to bracket creep, because neither side is confident of its ability to contain the growth in government spending. So it’s probably closer to the truth to say that, however much Labor taxes and spends, the Coalition will do a bit less.

But how on earth can Labor promise to spend more, tax less and improve the budget balance faster?

Thankfully, we won’t be hearing much of the “Where’s the money coming from?” cry because Labor has a not-so-secret weapon: it has already announced policies to increase tax collections by reducing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount, further reducing superannuation tax
concessions, taxing family trusts, ending cash refunds of unused franking credits, raising the top income tax rate by 2 percentage points to 49 per cent, and abandoning the cut in the rate of company tax for big businesses.

These measures should increase taxes by about $30 billion over four years and almost $200 billion over 10 years. They’ve been costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, so there’s also likely to be less campaign argy-bargy over the costing of promises.

Labor has matched the government’s $530-a-year tax cut for middle and above-middle income-earners and raised it to $928. But it’s still considering whether to match the second step of lifting the 32.5 per cent tax upper bracket limit from $90,000 a year to $120,000 in July 2022. It’s unlikely to match the third step of lifting that limit to $200,000 in July 2024.

This tells us that neither side is particularly generous to genuinely low income-earners, and both have an exaggerated impression of where the middle is.

The big difference between the sides emerges for people earning more than $90,000 a year (which is almost 60 per cent higher than the median income), to whom the Coalition is offering much bigger tax cuts – while Labor would actually raise the tax rate on incomes above $180,000, as well as aiming most of its reductions in tax breaks at high income-earners.

So Labor would make income tax more redistributive, whereas the Coalition would make it less so. If that doesn’t offer voters a real choice, I don’t know what would.

But all is not as clear-cut as it sounds. For a start, both sides are engaged in a tax-cut bidding war while the budget is still in deficit with a rising debt. Both sides are relying on the government’s quite optimistic forecasts and projections in the budget. What if they don’t come to pass?

Also, what politicians promise and what they can get passed by Parliament are two different things. As Phillip Coorey of the Financial Review has revealed, the likely composition of the Senate after the election – fewer, but more conservative cross-benchers - should make it easier for the Coalition than for Labor to get its policies into law.
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Monday, May 21, 2018

Let's outlaw she'll-be-right budget projections

The practice of including in the budget 10-year “medium-term” projections of the budget balance and net debt is pernicious. It should be abandoned in the interests of responsible economic management.

It’s supposed to increase transparency and accountability, but in practice does more harm than good, presenting the government of the day with an almost irresistible temptation to portray the future as more assured than it is.

The future is unknowable. We can’t forecast the economy even a year ahead with any accuracy, but what we can be most sure of is that, even with pure motivations, a mechanical projection out 10 years is highly likely to be way off-beam.

We know the economy never moves in straight lines, but each year’s 10-year projection shows it on glide path to where we want to be. Obviously, no account is taken of unexpected shocks to the economy – even though it’s a safe bet there’ll be more than a few in the space of a decade.

Treasurers' unworthy intention is to leave non-economists with the impression everything’s under control and on the improve. But I think it’s likely to leave even our economists and econocrats with a false sense of comfort. If you doubt that, you haven’t read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

I remember how proud the Hawke government’s hard-man finance minister, Peter Walsh, was after persuading the cabinet to include in the budget papers not just the figures for the budget year, but also for the following three years of “forward estimates”.

This would improve transparency and accountability, making it harder for governments to hide the budgetary consequences of their decisions in later years.

But when Labor’s Wayne Swan came under pressure to get the budget deficit down in the early years of this decade – struggling with the big-spending proclivities of his successive prime ministers – he soon realised the way to make the deficit look like it was headed steadily in the right direction was to “re-profile” big spending commitments into more convenient years.

In particular, he was always using his “fiscal bulldozer” to push spending commitments beyond the three-year forward estimates, where they couldn’t be seen.

As commentators started drawing attention to this trick it became clear he’d have to bolster the budget’s credibility by providing some sort of answer to the question of what would happen beyond the forward estimates.

Thus the greater weight put on medium-term projections. Thus has the budget’s purview been inflated from one year to 10 – all with without succeeding in curbing treasurers’ temptation to mislead. From wherever he’s watching on, I doubt the late hard-man of Finance is cheering.

Sad to say, the medium-term projection has been about deception – both numerical and visual – from the off. In all the budgets since Swan introduced them, never once has the budget balance failed to glide smoothly up to a healthy surplus, nor the net debt failed to glide smoothly down towards zero.

How’s it done? By making assumptions, of course. Assumptions are the unavoidable basis for all “projections”. But the proof that the budget’s projections have always been more for support than illumination is that never have the assumptions been fully and clearly spelt out.

In this budget, what little explanation there is has been sprinkled through three different chapters (“statements”) of budget paper No.1. Buried in statement three is the warning that “projections of the receipts impact over the medium term are subject to higher levels of uncertainty and are sensitive to changes in economic conditions, underlying assumptions and forecasts”.

And this year Treasury seems to have slipped into statement two the additional warning that assuming the spare capacity in the economy is absorbed over five years from the first year of the projections is “a well-established approach but it is not without drawbacks”.

The key assumptions are: the rate at which government spending will grow – which will be based on any new (financial) year’s resolution the government has made to be frugal in future – and the economy’s medium-term “potential” rate of growth, when we’ll get back to it and how quickly we’ll use up the (estimated) spare capacity once we have.

This year’s fine print acknowledges that the assumed potential growth rate of 2.75 per cent a year is based partly on the assumption that labour productivity grows each year at its 30-year average rate of 1.6 per cent. But former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating notes that the average over the past decade is only 1.35 per cent – which makes a big difference.

Even without the ever-present temptation to fudge, projections are a device for deluding ourselves we know more about the future than we do. By ignoring all the uncertainties, they breed not understanding, but complacency. An honest government would abandon the practice.
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