Monday, November 29, 2010

Professed reformers spin lazy line on cost of living

Julia Gillard and her ministers are expressing their undying commitment to the economy and economic reform, but the way they pander to and even incite the punters' irrational whingeing about the cost of living gives the lie to their profession of economic faith.

For obvious reasons, the government has been saying a lot lately about Labor's values and vision for Australia. According to Gillard: "A strong economy - and opportunity for all. That's really it in a nutshell."

Wayne Swan said last week the Labor Party's "core purpose" had always started with two words: "prosperity and opportunity". (The more he said the clearer it became that, to him, Labor's reason for existence is solely materialistic: every worker should have the opportunity to own a Beemer.)

Penny Wong was a little broader in her view of what Labor stands for: "A fair go, a just society, a strong economy." (Note that none of the three saw fit to mention reconciling the economy with the environment as a priority.)

Get the message? Labor = a strong economy. So does this mean they're all economists or economic rationalists? No, it means they're politicians who've concluded that only good economic managers get to stay in office (and whose secret fear is that they aren't good economic managers).

They're pollies who've learnt to mind their economic P's and Q's - they know not to promise to control prices or re-regulate interest rates - but they haven't internalised "the economic way of thinking".

How can I be sure? Because of the way the politician in them leads them to pander to the public's complaints about the rising cost of living. And because anyone who thought like an economist wouldn't be able to resist the desire to explain to the whingers a few facts of life.

The punters are complaining about big rises in water and electricity prices. Do the pollies explain why these rises are occurring and why they're justified? Not that I've noticed. They just keep saying "I feel your pain".

Do they explain that, though water and power prices have increased a lot, other prices haven't risen much and some have actually fallen, meaning the overall cost of living hasn't been rising all that rapidly? Hell no.

The consumer price index rose by 2.8 per cent over the year to September. Over the previous year it rose by 1.3 per cent.

Behavioural economists understand how people develop exaggerated perceptions of what's happening to their cost of living. It's because people don't weight price rises according to the item's share in the basket of goods and services they buy.

Big price rises stick in their minds (with no allowance made for any improvement in the quality of the item), whereas small price falls are soon forgotten and items whose prices don't change get a weight of zero.

If economics is to be useful it should help people overcome their irrational misperceptions. But our self-proclaimed economic-reform obsessed leaders don't see a need to educate the electorate.

The obvious fact is the cost of living is always rising. That's not news. What matters is whether people's incomes are at least keeping up with the cost of living. And they are - easily. While consumer prices rose by 2.8 per cent over the year to September, the wage cost index rose by 3.6 per cent.

While prices rose by 1.3 per cent over the previous year, wages rose by 3.1 per cent. Over the five years to September, prices rose by 15.7 per cent, while wages rose by 20.8 per cent. So real wages have been rising by about 1 per cent a year.

It's because the cost of living is always rising that pensions are always being increased. They're actually indexed not to prices but to average income, meaning they grow in real terms. And last year the government gave pensioners (but not people on the dole) a big one-off increase.

So the rising cost of living is being outstripped by the rising standard of living. But still they whinge. And what do our piss-weak pollies say? "I feel your pain."

A pollie ought to understand that, because the cost of living is always rising, people complain about the cost of living when they haven't got anything more serious to complain about.

And what cause for complaint is there? Inflation is under control, employment has been growing very strongly, unemployment is a lot lower than we got used to, real wages are growing and the dollar's at parity with the greenback.

Do our pollies ever say any of this? Gosh no. Wouldn't dare.

Of course, interest rates are rising. And though far more people benefit from this than the one-third of households that have mortgages (many of them longstanding and thus quite small), the pollies compete to carry on about how iniquitous it is.

The government must think itself smart to have transferred the punters' ire from itself to the banks (aided by the carry-on of Joe Hockey). It knows the banks' double-dipping merely means one less official rate rise, but does it calm the punters with this news? Wouldn't dare.

When it comes to rate rises the government doesn't just feel your pain, it incites you to imagine it's the end of the world. This is smart? It's storing up trouble for the future.

Rate rises are the primary instrument we use to limit inflation pressure when the economy booms. And we're about to enter a mining construction boom that could run for a decade or more.

Do you reckon the strong-economy brigade has any notion of how many more rate rises we're likely to see before the next election?