Friday, November 3, 2006


Talk to Australasian Treasury Officers’ Conference, Hobart
November 3, 2006

I’m pleased to be here to talk to you and offer an outsider’s view of the performance of Treasuries - when I say Treasury, please take that to include finance departments where they’re separate from treasury and to refer to the ‘purse-string departments’ at both federal and state level. It’s not my practice in speaking to any group to tell them how wonderful I think that are, so my critique will be fairly critical. Of course, as an outsider it’s quite possible I’m misinformed - but, if so, I’m sure you’ll set me straight. Before I launch into any criticism, however, I should make it clear that I have a great deal of sympathy for treasuries and the vital role they perform in controlling public spending. It’s not a popular job, but someone has to do it and it may be that my original training as a chartered accountant gives me sympathy with those whose lot in life is to be that someone. Any fool can make themselves popular by spending money; it takes character to be the one who often says no. Or it may be my knowledge of economics gives me an acceptance that, despite the unwillingness of so many to accept it, there is a budget constraint, which will make its presence felt one way or another, and it’s much smarter to learn to live within it.

My basic claim, however, is that treasuries could be doing that job a lot better than they are. That, too often, they’re going through the motions using old fashioned budget restrictions to limit the growth in spending, using instruments that either aren’t very effective or that do a lot of collateral damage, whereas they need to be using newer techniques that are a lot more effective, imaginative or, as I like to say, scientific. And in that respect I think we need more than just the latest accounting fad.

But before we get on to all that, first we need to be clear about why we want to control spending and about the challenge that lies ahead. I’m not a believer that everything private is good and everything public is bad, so government needs to be kept as small as possible. Rather, government needs to be efficient and effective whatever its size. Why? Because of nothing more profound than opportunity cost. Because money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s a limit to how much tax people are prepared to pay. And because, to make the high levels of tax we must pay more politically palatable, we need to do more to counter the widespread perception that a much government spending is wasteful.

I don’t think we’ll ever reach a time when most voters have a realistic acceptance that, at least in the long run, budgets must balance, thus producing a clear link between how much governments spend and how much they raise in taxation. Most people remain hopeful that governments will increase their spending - because there are so many worthwhile things the government could be doing - without that requiring them to pay higher taxes.

You’ve probably been labouring under that tension for as long as you’ve been in treasury, but I think it’s clear that tension is likely to intensify rather than abate. We’ve now been through a large number of exercises examining future fiscal pressures, starting with federal Treasury’s Intergenerational Report in 2002, then the Productivity Commission’s report and then studies by most if not all state treasuries, including the NZ dept of finance.

All those studies tell us much the same thing: if you look out over the next 40 years or so, yes, you do see considerable pressure for increased government spending. But only some of this pressure will be coming from the ageing of the population. If it were just population-related it would be quite manageable. According to all the studies, most of the pressure will be coming from spending on health - from the ever-more-expensive advances in medical technology and the public’s demand that it be given access to the benefits of that advance as fully and quickly as possible. It’s paying for health that will present the greatest single challenge to the treasury officers of the next 40 years.

Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I do see a bit of treasury propagandising at work here. When before have we had this amazing rash of studies of future fiscal pressures in every jurisdiction? I don’t think it’s been purely because of concerns about ageing. I think it’s also because of treasury concerns about living in an age of strongly growing revenue, budget surpluses and a record length expansion phase in the economy (with resources boom). With spending demands so easily accommodated, with no deficit problem to hold over politicians, where does the discipline come from? It doesn’t. So you have to manufacture it, fashion yourself a stick to wave around people’s heads. I suppose that’s fair enough.

In the process, however, we’ve managed to highlight an important point: many if not most forms of government spending are what I call ‘superior goods’, otherwise known as merit goods and bearing similar characteristics to luxury goods. That is, as our income increases, our spending on them increases at an ever faster rate. The classic example of a superior good is health care spending - and that makes all the sense in the world. As we get richer, why wouldn’t we want to devote a significant proportion of the increase to staving off death and staying hale and hearty for as long as possible? So be clear that the unrelenting pressure for increased health spending is fundamentally a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s a trend to be accommodated, not resisted. And, since we choose for good reasons (mainly to do with equity) to deliver health care mainly through the public sector, there’s no reason we should be unduly concerned about the likely increase in taxation needed to accommodate the community’s desire to live longer.

The wider point, however, is that health care is just one of the superior goods delivered by governments. Education is another obvious example - which is why it will be difficult to realise in practice the savings theoretically made possible by the lower birth rate. Take health and education and you’ve covered at least half of a state government’s recurrent spending. But the superior goods don’t stop there. Think about it and you realise that even something as mundane as law and order is a superior good: the richer I get, the more susceptible I become to worries about my personal safety and to fears that my wealth will be stolen from me.

The point is that, if so much of what governments do is deliver superior goods, then as incomes rise the pressure for increased government spending will be irresistible, and so will be the pressure for higher taxation. All governments have been reluctant to admit the obvious: that the primary solution to the future fiscal pressures their studies have identified will be higher taxation. (Treasuries haven’t wanted to admit it either because it counteracts their use of these studies as a weapon for enforcing discipline on the spending side.) It’s clear, however, that as our real incomes rise over the coming decades and our desire for spending on publicly-provided superior goods grows accordingly, the result will be a steady increase in the share of our incomes devoted to tax.

In principle, there’s no reason for that to be regarded as a bad thing. You’re the people who’ll be responsible for helping the politicians bring about that rise in taxation - or, perhaps, for persuading them that, since they’ve happily acceded to electoral pressure to bring the higher spending about, they must raise taxes to finance it responsibly.

I must concede, however, that while an increase in spending on superior goods is inevitable as incomes rise over time, there are extra risks of inefficient and wasteful spending where those superior goods are delivered through the public sector. Sometimes superior goods are delivered through the public sector because of their public-goods characteristics, but mainly I suspect it’s because of equity considerations. So a major responsibility for treasury officers over the next 40 years will be not simply trying to keep the lid on government spending, but continually searching for better trade-offs between equity and efficiency. If you try simply to impose increased efficiency at the expense of equity you’ll have limited success in getting your proposals adopted and persisted with (because equity considerations are so powerful politically). So, much better to be working on the much more intellectually demanding task of finding a better trade-off between the two.

Before I leave that outline of the likely outlook for both sides of the budget in coming decades, let me make one further point. I think it vitally important for treasury people to become more conscious of Fred Hirsch’s concept of ‘positional goods’. Positional goods or services are those which, along with doing whatever it is they’re supposed to do, are purchased also with the hope that they’ll demonstrate to the world our superior position in the social pecking order. In other words, it’s about conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Jones. When you think about it you realise that, the more our incomes rise and the cost of necessities accounts for an ever-declining proportion of that income, the higher the proportion we’re likely to devote to the pursuit of social status via the purchase of positional goods - remembering that, when you choose to buy a BMW over a Toyota, the price of the Toyota is the cost of the transport vehicle you bought and the extra you shelled out to get the BMW is the cost of the positional good. Our private spending abounds in the payment of premiums intended to demonstrate our status. You can see it in the clothes we buy for ourselves and our children, the cars we buy, the homes and suburbs we choose to live in, the private schools we send our kids to, the private hospitals we insure for, the restaurants we eat at, the holidays we take and much, much more.

Why am I telling you this? Partly because I believe much of the pressure on governments to keep taxes down comes from the public’s desire to be left with as much disposable income as possible, to be spent on the pursuit of social status. But the pursuit of status, like an arms race, is a zero sum game. I can advance my place in the pecking order only at the expense of those I pass. So I wouldn’t have thought it an important public policy objective to leave people with as much positional spending money as possible. And yet, if you examine the descent into middle-class welfare by the Howard Government, for instance, I believe you can find examples of Howard providing public subsidies for positional goods: the 30 pc private health insurance rebate is one example, the increased grants to undeserving private schools is another.

To me, this is all the wrong way round. If you’ve got a situation where people are dead keen to spend money on private health and private schools - on things that are superior goods and publicly provided - you shouldn’t be subsidising them you should be exploiting them. In other words, the more we can make people pay privately for their pursuit of status-linked superior goods, the better off we are. Treasury officers forever searching for relatively politically painless ways of increasing taxation should never forget the device I call the ‘voluntary tax’. Private health insurance was a voluntary tax (you didn’t have to take it but, if you did, your public subsidy diminished), sending kids to private schools was a voluntary tax, gambling taxes are voluntary in a sense (though with risks of social costs if their pursuit is overdone) and tobacco tax is, too, in a sense. You should be looking for ways to increase voluntary taxation - which includes ‘taxing’ people pursuing social status - and perhaps it would help if this way of looking at things were explained to politicians tempted to go the other way.

OK, now let’s turn to my critique on the spending side. The conventional means used to try to limit spending - by imposing cuts or caps on agencies - has various disadvantages. It tends to favour existing programs over new programs, even though some older programs could be abandoned or turned over to private provision. It tends to favour cures over prevention - fixing problems after they’ve happened rather than stopping them happening. It often fails to motivate agencies to co-operate in identifying the fat and making sure it gets chopped rather than the bone. Indeed, it can leave governments vulnerable to passive resistance, where cuts are directed to those areas the government is likely to find most politically embarrassing, in the hope of forcing it to relent. I guess many of the new accounting approaches are aimed at overcoming these limitations, but I think we can do better.

One of the great temptations facing treasuries is to get so locked into the annual budget round that they end up focusing on cost containment in the short term rather than cost effectiveness in the longer term. When treasuries’ behaviour becomes too hand-to-mouth - too focused on getting this year’s budget balance looking OK - they can resist spending on the evaluation of programs that could be most informative in subsequent budget rounds, they can resist spending on health prevention and promotion simply because the costs are up front and the savings down the track. In other words, there’s a great temptation to be a short-term maximiser, with the result that you commit the greatest treasury sin: false economy. Public servants tell me of the crazy things agencies do in the name of efficiency - so much so that, to them, efficiency is synonymous with inefficiency. If something done in the name of efficiency is counterproductive or short-sighted, it’s not efficient by definition. I think the public sector abounds with false economy. Sometimes this won’t be the direct result of treasury decisions, it will be a damaging response by the agency to perverse incentives created by treasury.

When we lift our sights beyond this year’s magic budget-balance figure, we’re able to pay greater attention to the quality of government spending. Quality goes to the effectiveness of spending programs, but also to the thing the top-flight treasury officer should be perpetually in search of: the program which, though it’s classed as an expense, is actually an investment - an investment in future cost containment.

It’s important to remember that the spending agencies often have very little vested interest in measures that offer high value for taxpayers’ money. What departments are genuinely keen to have their programs rigorously evaluated? How many doctors would support spending on health promotion and prevention when that money could be spent on their own curative specialty? How many agencies want to do rigorous cost-benefit analysis of their capital works projects? In other words, if treasury isn’t pushing for these improvements, who will be? Now, you may say that if treasury were mad enough, it could support the spending of millions on dubious health promotion advertising campaigns. True - but all the more reason treasury should be pressing for - and paying for - rigorous assessment of what prevention programs work and what don’t.

I don’t know a lot about all the various accounting reforms - I won’t call them fads - I think the latest is performance budgeting. They may carry the answer to some of my criticisms. I have a feeling, however, that what we need is not so much better accounting as more economics. When I say we need a more scientific approach to spending control, the examples I have in mind come from economists, not accountants.

I’m thinking of such innovations as case-mix funding of hospitals. This is where, rather than giving a hospital funding based on an adjustment to what it got last year, it gets a flexible amount based on the known cost of efficiently dealing with particular types of cases, multiplied by the particular mix of cases the hospital encounters. Health economists put an enormous amount of research into developing the cost data needed for such a funding system. I’m not sure how much of the encouragement and funding of this research came from treasuries.

Another example is the advent of income-contingent loans. Australia has been a world leader in this area, with Professor Bruce Chapman’s application of the concept to university fees being the finest example of applied economic rationalism. As is easily seen in the case of HECS, the beauty of income-contingent loans is the superior trade-off they offer between equity and efficiency. You can require students to make a higher contribution towards the private benefits they receive from a university education, without fear of making uni education too expensive for kids from poor families. If Treasury and Finance had been doing their job, the idea would have been developed by them. Now Professor Chapman and his colleagues are elaborating on the many other ways - such as drought assistance - in which savings could be made by replacing grants with income-contingent loans. But it’s not clear the purse-string departments are pursuing this opportunity with any enthusiasm.

To me, however, the cost-effectiveness potential of these ideas is dwarfed by the scope for long-term savings arising from the neuroscientists’ discovery of the crucial importance of an infant’s early years in determining both its IQ and its EQ - its intellectual ability and its emotional ability to fit in socially, apply itself to work or study and generally lead a successful life. I suspect that many of our politicians are better versed on this remarkable research than the econocrats are. But there’s no excuse for the purse-string controllers: the whole thing’s been checked out by the Nobel-winning economist James Heckman, who’s given it a rave review.

Heckman’s studies demonstrate that spending programs aimed at early childhood development (that is, long before school-age) have far higher cost-benefit scores than remediation programs for students, prisoners or the unemployed in later life. If you leave it that late, you’ll be lucky if the benefits exceed the costs. Heckman makes a killer point for economists: spending on early childhood development involves no conflict between equity and efficiency. That is, the things you might do to promote equality of opportunity are just as effective in promoting productivity and human capital formation, and vice versa. In other words, improving on early childhood development is as close as we come to a free lunch.

The implication of this body of research for spending on social programs is profound. It says that, in neglecting babies and spending money trying to help or punish young people and adults once their educational or behavioural problems come to the attention of the authorities, we’re getting it exactly the wrong way round. Whether you care about economic efficiency or about fairness, we ought to be massively re-orienting our social spending in favour of the very young. In fact, the only remaining justification for trying to help non-infants is simply the ethical point of not abandoning people who are victims of our earlier neurological ignorance.

At an intellectual level, many of our political leaders know this. The trouble with modern politicians, however, is that they’re more interested in being seen to be responding to problems than in actually solving them. So they spread their spending too widely and thinly. Explain to them about how babies’ brains develop and they ‘respond’ by initiating a few new early childhood programs, but they never spend anything like enough. Why not? Because they have other interest groups to keep happy and so they’re not prepared to divert funds from social programs where, though we now know the money is largely wasted, the profile is higher and the political pressure greater.

The people who should be throwing their weight behind the neuroscientists, social workers and early childhood educators in helping persuade the pollies to reform their spending priorities are the purse-string controllers. But are they? I doubt it. Why not? Because they’re not applying their brains and they’re not trying hard enough.

I want to finish by adding something different: I believe every up-and-coming treasury officer needs to be familiar with the relatively new school of economic thought known as behavioural economics. BE draws heavily on the findings of psychologists - including the psychologist Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for founding the school - to study the way people actually make economic decisions in contrast to the conventional assumption of rational self-interest. It finds that most people don’t act on opportunity cost, don’t ignore sunk costs, dislike losses more than they like gains of equivalent size, are more loss averse than risk averse, practice mental accounting which breaks the assumption of fungibility, have big self-control problems and much more.

Why do ambitious treasury officers need to be familiar with this stuff? Various reasons. Because it helps them understand why the conventional model often mispredicts. Because it teaches them to respect and accommodate the electorate’s inescapable concerns about fairness, particularly procedural fairness - economists can abstract from fairness considerations, but the people to whom politicians answer never can. But also because the two professions with an instinctive understanding of BE are the marketers and the politicians. BE helps economists convince themselves of the truth and relevance of propositions politicians simply know to be true. So BE is a counter to the old treasury line that there are always only two policy choices: good economics (ie conventional economics) and political expediency. It turns out the pollies often have good reason to reject advice based on conventional economic assumptions that are normative (how people should behave) but not positive (how they do behave). The point is that when econocrats’ understanding of BE allows them to break out of the good-v-expedient mindset, they’re better equipped to find a better trade-off between what would be ideal in an ideal world and what politicians are likely to accept as doable.

There is much scope to elaborate on this point - to draw out the practical lessons for policy advisers from BE - but let me highlight just one: when you understand BE you realise that hypothecation should be embraced rather than opposed. Treasuries traditionally oppose hypothecation because it’s either a con on the public (it doesn’t actually lead to increased spending in the area in question) or it distorts spending choices (it does oblige more spending in the area than would otherwise occur). The trouble with this logic is that it’s too rational by half. In an era when people’s demands for increased spending are insatiable but their willingness to pay higher tax is limited, hypothecation is a useful tool. At the moment when public demand for new spending is at its height, the politician steps in and says sure I’d like to spend the money but I’d need to cover it by introducing this small levy or surcharge. The public invariably agrees. Why? Because it wants to see what normally is concealed from it: the link between what you pay and what you get. The Howard Government has made extensive use of the hypothecated surcharge. Why? Because it’s unconscious understanding of BE gives it better policy judgement than many econocrats, who’ve been blinded by the unrealistic assumptions of conventional economics.