Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Talk to Centre for Public Christianity supporters’ lunch, Sydney,

Talk to Centre for Public Christianity supporters’ lunch, Sydney

I’m pleased to be here to talk to your supporters’ lunch today. Speaking as a fellow-traveller rather than a Christian, I think the centre does a valuable job in making public a much-need Christian perspective on contemporary developments, and one not limited to issues of sexual morality.

I want to talk to you about materialism, an issue that’s been of growing interest to me the longer I’ve stayed as an economic journalist. Of course, we’re all concerned with the material to a greater or lesser extent - and for good reason. The material dimension of our lives is important, indeed, inescapable. Even the monk who takes a vow of poverty must devote a part of each day to begging.

But I believe we live in an era of heightened materialism, one where a lot more of us give material concerns a much higher priority in our lives, to the point where it can be said many of us - perhaps even society in general - have made materialism our god. This is true not just of Australia, but throughout the developed world and much of developing world.

I believe I can see this trend developing throughout my own working life in the attitudes and values of the businesses I’ve work for - and with - and in the way things have changed at the Herald over my 40 years there. Business life has become more intensely competitive and, as has, become more overtly focused on money-making over other values.

But if you want more objective evidence of heightened materialism, it can be found, first, in the American Freshman Survey, which has polled the attitudes of students entering tertiary education throughout the United States since 1967. In that year, 42 per cent of freshers said it was very important to be ‘very well off financially’. By 2012, the proportion believing this reached a record high of 81 per cent. Over the same period, the proportion saying it was very important for them to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ fell from 86 per cent to 46 per cent.

I think we can find evidence of our growing materialism in the way we’ve chosen take the ever-rising productivity of our labour in the form of higher real wages - more money - rather than fewer working hours, thereby confounding the predictions of the futurologists who foresaw an ever-shorter working week. Part of the problem is that, increasingly, leisure activity has become professionalised and commercialised - something you buy, including ‘retail therapy’.

I think we can find evidence of growing materialism in our changed attitude towards bearing our fair share of the tax burden and being too proud to claim welfare benefits we’re too well off to need. These days a mini industry exists to help the comfortably retired hold their wealth in ways that don’t diminish their eligibility for the age pension.

I’m not sure what factor or factors initiated this heightening in materialism, but I am sure the rise of economic rationalism - micro-economic reform, neo-liberalism - in the early 80s has been both a cause and an effect of our growing materialism since then. Economists have been offering governments pretty much the same advice for decades, but perhaps the politicians became more receptive to that advice as a response to the electorate’s increased material aspirations. Economists specialise in the material, in studying the ways the community can advance its material aspirations. Generally speaking, the economists’ advice works - and, certainly, over the past 30 years our material standard of living (measured as real income per person) has risen quite strongly and our position on the developed-country league table of income per person has improved a lot.

But the trouble with economic rationalism is that it’s missionary and imperialistic. It provides a rationalisation for selfishness and tends to promote the material aspect of life as though it’s the only thing that matters, unconsciously cannibalising other aspects such as the social, cultural and spiritual.

The trouble with materialism - and with money in particular - is that it’s more powerful than other motivations, tending to crowd out those less ‘salient’ influences. A psychology experiment found that when you offer people a choice between a $80,000 a year job that’s boring and a $70,000 job that’s interesting, they opt predominantly for the higher-paid job. The experimenters say this is not because of simple materialism, but because our brains find it much easier to compare the two numbers than to imagine how much worse a boring job would be than an interesting one.

We tend to invest material, money-making activities with a greater sense of urgency than non-material activities. Almost everyone would say their family was the most important part of their lives, but usually there’s nothing urgent about our relationships. So if I see little of the family while I work this weekend, we can always make it up later. We don’t really believe it, but we end up acting as though working long hours to allow us to send our kids to a good school is more important than actually being available to our kids.

Reading the work of the CPX’s fellows makes me think the decline in Christian observance and values may offer much of the explanation for our era of heightened materialism and for its great success as a rival god. Dr Justine Toh’s fascinating interpretation of the Harry Potter books reminds me of the power of advertising and its false promise that buying stuff can give our lives the meaning and identity we feel they lack. There was a time when religious belief filled these needs.

Dr Gordon Menzies’ essay on the sexual revolution reminds me in passing that the standard economists’ model is built on an unstated assumption that to be well-functioning, the market system needs a set of social norms that guide and constrain the behaviour of agents in the market. When you deregulate the financial markets, the absence of those social norms - and maybe even deregulation’s destruction of them - means self-seeking triumphs over prudence and restraint, and you end up with the GFC.

But where do social norms of honesty, self-restraint and consideration for others come from? Well, for openers, try religious belief. My reading tells me that, predominantly, people get their notion of what’s acceptable, ethical behaviour from the attitudes and behaviour of those around them - much more so than from any inner, moral compass. You’d expect that, the weaker were Christian observance and values, the less likely it is that people’s moral compass keeps them - and all of us - out of trouble.

One of the strongest conclusions I’ve come to as an economic commentator is that the dominance of economists and economic values in the advice going to governments and in the public debate needs to be balanced by the voices of people with other, non-materialist perspectives on what’s important to our lives. This is why I think the work of the Centre for Public Christianity is so important and I’d like to see it become more influential.


Political cycle of cynicism and naivety about to turn

They say oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. If, as almost everyone expects, Prime Minister Julia Gillard loses the election in September, it will be a classic example of that phenomenon. Labor will be tossed not because Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's policies seem so much better but because too many of us have tired of this government's foibles and failings.

A telltale sign that a prime minister is on the skids is when nothing they say makes any difference, when the public has just stopped listening. We'd stopped listening to Paul Keating before the 1996 election and to John Howard before the 2007 election, and it seems pretty clear that we've stopped listening to Gillard.

But though this is the usual way government changes hands, it's hardly the ideal way. It means that in the months before the election, the opposition, the media and the electorate devote most attention to recounting the government's many failings, not reviewing the opposition's policies and plans.

This, of course, is just how oppositions like it. They make themselves into the smallest target possible in the hope they can slip into government with as few commitments and as little examination as possible.

And for the most part, they succeed, because we're preoccupied by our disaffection with the last lot.

Trouble is, our lack of diligence almost invariably sows the seeds of our eventual disaffection with the new lot. When we make up our mind to throw a government out, hope springs eternal that the new lot will be much better.

How do we know they'll be better? We don't really. Certainly, it's not a conclusion we reach after careful evaluation of their policies. It's just a naive hope that a new broom will sweep cleaner. That a new government with a new page won't blot it the way the last mob did.

But I've been around long enough to know the flip side of naivety is cynicism - the kind of cynicism we're seeing all around at present, the kind that causes people to stop listening and some to go into plague-on-both-your-houses mode.

The antidote to both naivety and cynicism is reasoned scepticism. And it's because we didn't exercise it from the start that we end up disillusioned and cynical. Scepticism determines what can be believed and what can't; cynicism comes to the lazy, impotent decision that nothing can be believed.

Because we don't put in enough effort to be continuously questioning, the cycle keeps repeating: having flipped to cynicism about the old lot, we flip to naivety about the new lot.

What feeds both naivety and cynicism is unrealistic expectations about what the new government will do and what any government could ever have the ability to do. As we speak, unrealistic expectations are building about an Abbott government. And that's true despite - and, indeed, partly because of - all Abbott's efforts to make himself a small target and make as few commitments as possible.

How? Well, first, by Abbott's probably successful effort to slip into government without much voter attention being paid to the unpopular cuts in government spending he knows he'll need to make after the election to pay for all his promises.

When voters discover the new government is doing things it didn't warn them were coming, they'll suffer their first bout of disillusionment.

And, second, by the opposition's unreasonable criticisms of the Gillard government's performance. It's become standard practice in Australian politics to blame governments for almost every bad thing that happens on their watch, including developments beyond their control.

This makes no sense but, since so many punters don't bother to think things through, it goes down well with your rusted-on supporters and the great unwashed. So in shadow treasurer Joe Hockey's reply to the budget last week he implicitly - but of course, not explicitly - blamed Labor because Treasury got its forecasts wrong, because the world economy keeps behaving unexpectedly and because Labor can't control the value of the Australian dollar.

Now, you may protest that both sides do this and it's long been regarded as acceptable behaviour. True. We can be sure that when Labor's back in opposition it will be returning the compliment, making the same unreasonable criticism of the Abbott government.

But that's my point. The way our pollies play the political game perpetuates the cycle of cynicism and the ever-declining credibility of their profession.

Abbott says the few commitments he's making are part of his determination to rebuild the trust of an electorate that feels alienated and disenfranchised.

Sorry, but that's what they all say - when they're in opposition. So far, it's not what they do in government, and I'll be surprised if the most successful scare-campaigner of our age turns out to be the first prime minister in living memory to get through three years of government without breaking any promises.

Hockey is promising a return to ''stable, predictable and honest government''. But how can you have stable and predictable government in an unstable and unpredictable global economy?

Honest Abbott's unqualified promise to Stop the Boats assumes there are no push-factors beyond our government's control, only pull-factors within its control. Sure. So what are the punters likely to think when, long after September 14, the boats don't stop coming?

I've got a better idea. Why don't the pollies on both sides Stop the Bulldust? And why don't the rest of us keep giving both sides a hard time until they do?

Monday, May 27, 2013


Talk to Master of Sustainability students, University of Sydney

Tony Masters has invited me to talk to you about sustainability from an economist’s perspective, which I’m happy to do, though I must warn you that my perspective is very different from the majority position among economists who, though they’re happy to use the word, attach a very different meaning to it than the one I do, and that many of you may.

As I’m sure you’ve realised, ‘sustainability’ means different things to different people. This is partly because it’s a very fashionable to talk about sustainability - everybody’s doing it, the sustainable adjective or adverb can be slapped on the front or the back of almost every noun: our Treasury talks about ‘fiscal sustainability’, I read about sustainable agriculture, business sustainability, even sustainable culture. The word gets used a lot because it’s something no one can disagree with: who could say they’re opposed to sustainability? Who could admit they want to keep doing something even though it’s un-sustainable? After all, as the US economist Herb Stein famously said, ‘if something cannot go on forever, it will stop’. Or ‘trends that can’t continue, won’t’.

But, because it’s a word no one could oppose, we need to keep its meaning vague so it doesn’t involve something we don’t fancy, having to stop doing things we would prefer to keep doing. The term ecological sustainability ought to be pretty unambiguous, but this may be why the UN Bruntland Commission in 1987 settled on the less specific term ‘sustainable development’. And this lack of specificity may be why the report started the sustainability craze. The report did define sustainable development to mean development that meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of the future to meet its needs.

That might sound good, but it leaves a loophole for economists to jump through. The secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, gave a speech in 2011 he called ‘sustainable wellbeing’. He said ‘sustainable wellbeing requires that at least the current level of wellbeing be maintained for future generations’. This required that each generation bequeath a stock of capital that is at least as large as the stock it inherited. This should include all forms of capital: man-made capital, human capital, natural capital and social capital. ‘Note, though,’ he goes on, ‘that drawing down any one part of the capital base may be reasonable as long as the economy’s aggregate productive base is not eroded. For example, reducing our natural resource base and using the proceeds to build human capital or infrastructure may offer prospects of higher future wellbeing.’

See the loophole? The implicit assumption is that all the different forms of capital are good substitutes for each other. It’s saying that, provided we leave the next generation with a sufficiently high level of education and a sufficient quantity of man-made capital, it may not matter than we wrecked the natural environment in the process. You can see this mentality in the way many economists, business people and lobby groups approach environmental problems: yes of course the environment matters, but so do a lot of other things, and the objective must be to find the best trade-off between all our many conflicting, but equally desirable, objectives. In this process, the environment will get better treatment, but it won’t get all it wants. Don’t be greedy, be reasonable. The trouble is, you can’t ask a dying river system to be reasonable, to put up with more degradation because many people’s livelihoods depend on that degradation continuing. You can’t bargain with nature, you can either sustain it or continue with unsustainable practices.

Why can’t economists, business people and politicians see that? Because they don’t want to see it. Because they’re committed to unending economic growth and so don’t want to accept there may be physical limits to growth, that the economy is a sub-system of the natural environment - the ecosystem - and so, because the size of the ecosystem is fixed, there must be physical limits to how much the economic sub-system can grow.

My guide in this area is Herman Daly, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, and a founder of the school of economic thought known as ‘ecological economics’ (not to be confused with the far more conventional ‘environmental economics’). His definition of sustainable development is much tighter: development without growth beyond environmental carrying capacity, where development means qualitative improvement and growth means quantitative increase.

When it comes to economists (and business people and politicians), the big area of conflict with ecologists and people in the physical sciences, the big stumbling block, the big reason they want to interpret ‘sustainability’ their own way, is the question of growth. The economists want it to continue forever; the scientists say it must stop. But the first point I want to make is that there’s enormous terminological confusion between scientists and economists on what exactly they mean by the word ‘growth’. Scientists take it to mean something very different from what economists do, which means much of what little debate passes between them flies over the heads of the other side. I’m sure the ground of disagreement between them would be greatly reduced if only this terminological confusion could be ended.

What ecologists want is an end to growth in the ‘throughput’ of natural resources. If you think of the economy as a machine, we put inputs in one end of the machine, and take outputs out of the other end. To an ecologist, the inputs of concern to them are natural resources and ‘ecosystem services’; the outputs of concern to them are an equivalent amount of waste - in the form of landfill, sewage and all the many types of pollution, including greenhouse gases. In conformity with the laws of thermodynamics, the ecologists worry as much about the emission of waste - and the ecosystem’s ability to absorb that waste - as they do about the using up of natural resources. This is why what they seek is an end to growth in the throughput of such resources. I think many of them imagine this would be achieved if GDP ceased to grow.

But the economists conceptualise things very differently. To them, the inputs to the economic machine aren’t just natural resources, but also the other economic resources: labour and capital - physical capital in the form of machines, structures and infrastructure. (The input from ecosystem services is ignored.) To their eyes, the output from the economic machine isn’t waste (it gets ignored) but all manner of goods and services. What real GDP measures is the growth in the output of goods and services over time. (Since those of us who work earn our income from our contribution to the output of goods and services, real GDP also measures the growth in real income.)

So what is it that causes GDP - output of goods and services - to grow? Two things. First, any increase in the throughput of economic resources: natural resources, but also labour and capital. But, second - and this is the bit that goes straight over the heads of most ecologists - any increase in the efficiency of the economic machine at turning inputs into outputs. Economists call this ‘productivity’, which they define as output per unit of input. The productivity of the economic machine increases almost continuously each year, and has done since the start of the industrial revolution. What causes ‘multi-factor’ productivity to improve is the continuing pursuit of economies of scale, the increasing specialisation of labour, the rising knowledge and skill of the workforce, and technological advance: the invention of better machines and better ways of doing things. Now get this: over the long term, productivity improvement accounts for the lion’s share of our rising real income per person and our rising material standard of living.

The point is that when economists hear people say they want an end to growth, they assume that means they want an end to productivity improvement. They find this prospect appalling. But this is not what ecologists want. All they want to stop is growth in the throughput of natural resources - which isn’t something most economists would relish, but isn’t nearly as frightening. And this means GDP could still increase, provided that increase came from improved productivity, not increased use of natural resources.

Clearing up this misunderstanding allows us to envisage more clearly what a steady-state economy would look like - that is, an economy that conformed to Daly’s definition of sustainable development. It would be an economy that didn’t get bigger in its impact on the environment - that was ecologically sustainable - but did get better, in terms of the quality of our lives. It would be an economy that didn’t grow, but it wouldn’t be an economy that was stagnant, that never changed. It wouldn’t be an economy where people had to stop striving - to build a better mousetrap, write a symphony or find the cure for cancer. Many economists instinctively fear a steady-state economy would stifle the incentive to innovate. But that fear’s not justified. Indeed, you could argue that, with the quantitative route to improvement blocked off, the qualitative route would gain more attention. Herman Daly’s way of making the distinction is to say economic growth (pushing more resources through a physically larger economy) is bad, but economic development (squeezing more welfare from the same throughput of resources) is fine.

But how would we go about reorganising the economy so that we no longer increased the throughput of natural resources? It wouldn’t be easy, but nor would it be terrifically hard. It actually represents nothing more than a design problem - one the economics profession is well-equipped to solve, should the community decide to give it that task. We’d still have a capitalist, market economy where market forces continued to determine economic outcomes and to drive the push for greater efficiency in resource use, within the framework set by government. The big difference would be the government adding a new constraint to the operation of market forces: a limit on the consumption of natural resources.

How would we achieve that limit? By using the same ‘economic instrument’ we’ve already begun using to limit the burning of fossil fuels: a system of tradable permits. You impose a cap on the total quantity of a certain class of natural resource permitted to be consumed in a year, and auction to producers permits to use the resource up to the cap. The more efficient firms are at doing what they want to do while using fewer natural resources to do it, the less they have to spend on permits - thus harnessing market forces to help reduce the use of those resources. Firms that discover they have more permits than they need are able to trade them for money to firms that discover they need more permits than they have. By such means the burden of limiting resource use to the cap is transferred to those firms able to reduce their resource use most cheaply, thereby limiting the loss of income to the community involved in achieving the limit on resource use. As firms became more efficient at reducing their natural resource use - including by the invention of new technological solutions to the problem - it would possible, if desired, to lower the cap and, hence, the quantity of resources used, at no increased cost to the community.

The purpose of such a cap-and-trade scheme would be, of course, to raise the price of natural resources - and the prices of goods with a high natural-resource component - relative to the prices of all other goods and services. In line with the most orthodox economics, it’s this change in relative prices which would motivate producers and consumers to reduce their resource use, and do so with minimum loss of economic efficiency. Economists believe changes in relative prices are very effective in bringing about changes in the behaviour of producers and consumers.

This process would, of course, lead to a once-off increase in the general level of consumer prices, which might be quite a significant increase. Many of you would be concerned about the effect on the cost of living, particularly for pensioners and low income-earners. But, as with our present carbon tax, once the cap-and-trade scheme had brought about the desire changed in relative prices, the proceeds from the sale of permits - analogous to the proceeds from a carbon tax - are available for use to reduce the rates of other taxes - the obvious one being income tax - and increase the rates of pensions and benefits such as the family allowance, thereby compensating households for the increase in their cost of living. So I don’t see a reason to be concerned about the effect of the move on the welfare of low income-earners. Such a re-jig of the tax system would be a classic example of what environmental economists mean when they call for the burden of tax collection to be shifted from taxing ‘goods’ (such as labour and capital) to taxing ‘bads’ (such as greenhouse gas emissions and the consumption of natural resources). You raise the same amount of total tax revenue but, in the process, you discourage activities you want to discourage rather than activities you don’t want to discourage.

Raising the prices of natural resources relative to the prices of other resources - labour and capital - could be expected to have various desirable side-effects. First, it would increase the economic incentive for people to recycle natural resources and repair rather than replace appliances with a high materials-component.

Second, changing the relative prices of economic resources could be expected to change the focus of the private sector’s continuing search for greater efficiency - economising, if you like - in the use of economic resources and, hence, improved productivity. For all the time since the Industrial Revolution, most of the economising effort - including most technological advance - has been, quite logically, directed towards economising in the use of the most expensive resource: labour. But if we were to make natural resources more expensive than labour - particularly if the scheme involved a fall in the main tax on labour, income tax, thereby lowering its effective cost - this should mean a lot more entrepreneurial effort would be directed towards reducing the economy’s despoiling of the natural environment.

There are many more implications of a steady-state economy I could explore, but that’s enough to be going on with. Is a steady-state economy feasible? Yes it is.


Waiting for PEFO just Hockey's excuse to delay truth

I have a feeling Joe Hockey would make a much better treasurer than many imagine, but all politicians talk a fair bit of nonsense while in opposition and Hockey is no exception. Ministers know what they say is under much closer scrutiny.

Hockey professes hardly to believe a word of Wayne Swan's budget. It "lacks integrity" and he has "deep reservations about the numbers", which "at the very best are optimistic".

He claims not to lack faith in the work of the Treasury, only in the Treasurer. But he criticises various budget assumptions about how spending on certain items will change over the next four years (he seems terribly confident about the accuracy of his own crystal ball), implying Swan has imposed his own, implausible figures on the econocrats.

So what's he on about? Part of it is no doubt just an attempt to further destroy the credibility of the man who, in last year's budget, boasted it "delivers [note that word] a surplus this coming year, on time, as promised, and surpluses each year after that, strengthening over time". Oh dear.

Well, Hockey wouldn't be a pollie if he didn't exploit that golden opportunity to put in the boot. And he's right to cast doubt on the likelihood of a $6.6 billion surplus in four years' time - not because the government has got at Treasury and Finance but because no one, not even Hockey, can have any certainty about how the economy will unfold between now and then.

That's just common sense. It's the simple souls who take medium-term projections literally that Hockey should be wising up, not implying he can know the future better than Swan can, or that Treasury's forecasts would be right on the money were Swan not forcing them to be wrong.

There's no reason to believe a change of government would make any difference to the likelihood of budget forecasts proving off-beam because of unforeseen developments. The world will not suddenly become more stable or predictable on September 14.

But I think Hockey's motives in rubbishing the budget forecasts are more devious. He dribbles out the odd example of unpopular spending cuts but, since he doesn't know the budget's true position, he can't do more than that. He doesn't know how much he's got in the kitty to play with - or, rather, how big is the "true" deficit that will constrain the promises the Coalition will make.

Get it? He claims the budget figures are politically tainted because this justifies him delaying publication of his costings until only about three weeks before election day - which is when we'll receive the PEFO, the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook, signed off not by Swan and Penny Wong, but by the secretaries of Treasury and Finance.

The "pee-foe", part of Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty, is a good idea gone wrong. Its purpose was to stop future incoming governments doing what Costello did in 1996 (and Paul Keating did in 1983): claiming to have uncovered a "budget black hole" left by their predecessors and using this as an excuse for a horror budget, in which cuts not mentioned in the campaign materialise and promises retrospectively declared to be "non-core" are broken.

That's fine, but successive oppositions have used it ever since as an excuse to leave revelation of their plans and costings to the last moment.

Trouble is, last week Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson (who said he'd been authorised by Finance secretary David Tune to speak also on his behalf) undercut Hockey's excuse, saying that had the PEFO been released at the same time as the budget, it would have said the same thing.

So if the PEFO differs from the budget it will be because of government policy decisions and developments in the economy, not because the econocrats are no longer being leaned on.

Note that, if he follows past practice, Swan is likely to publish an updated economic and fiscal outlook document just a week or two before the PEFO. Why? So he can take any policy measures needed to prevent the econocrats' latest forecasts from comparing too badly with the budget.

Hockey says "we must return stable, predictable and honest government to Australia". Well, if he can magically make the economy more stable and predictable, good luck to him. As for restoring honesty, it would be a good thing. But by using such a weak excuse to keep the electorate in the dark about his plans until the last moment, he's not off to a good start. The next honesty test will be whether his costings are checked by the Parliamentary Budget Office or by some back-street accountant who has certified only that the arithmetic's OK.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Structural budget reveals tax cuts are the problem

They say it's only when the tide goes out you discover who's been swimming naked. It's the same when you calculate the "structural" budget balance. And we've just learnt that though Wayne Swan's cossie has slipped revealingly, Peter Costello was completely starkers.

This week both the new Parliamentary Budget Office and Treasury published estimates of the federal budget's structural balance from the start of the noughties to 2016-17, in the office's case. The figures used were actual outcomes up to 2011-12 and then the forecasts and projections contained in last week's budget. The two agencies' conclusions are very similar.

When you look at the figures for the overall budget balance you get the story the Liberals have been drumming into us non-stop since 2009: we were fabulous managers of the government's finances, but Labor's been absolutely hopeless. We left office in 2007 having produced six budget surpluses in a row. As a result, we paid off the debt we inherited from the Keating government and left office with $45 billion in the bank. But from the moment Labor took over, everything went to pot. If it gets tossed out in September, Swan will have presided over six deficits in a row and, according to his own figuring, no return to surplus for another three years. He will have left us with a net debt of about $178 billion.

That's all arithmetically correct and it sounds pretty damning. But it glosses over the fact that Costello's luck was a lot better than Swan's. Costello presided over the first part of the resources boom when the government's coffers were overflowing, whereas Swan wasn't in office long before the global financial crisis hit.

He spent a lot of money trying to stave off recession but, though he had much success, the government's revenues still haven't fully recovered. And though the resources boom soon resumed, it was very different from the first stage, with the miners' investment spending meaning they didn't pay much company tax and the high dollar meaning other tradeable industries didn't pay much either.

When you take the overall budget balance and adjust it to determine the structural (or underlying) budget balance, what you're doing, in effect, is removing the part of the budget balance that's the result of luck.

By trying to ascertain what the budget balance would have been had the economy been having an average year - with it neither booming nor very weak - you're taking away Costello's good luck and making up for Swan's bad luck. And by doing that you're getting at whether each man was a good manager or a bad one.

You're trying to remove the effect of the business cycle and other temporary factors so as to reveal the structural (lasting) changes that took place. These mainly result from the overt decisions governments make to change their spending or taxing arrangements.

Don't think this is a bit of sophistry cooked up to explain away Swan's failure to get the budget back to surplus as promised. It's a calculation with a long history in macro-economics, that's done for us each year by both the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But that doesn't make it a simple or certain calculation.

As with so much in economics, it involves making a lot of assumptions, and everyone who does it comes up with a different answer. In our case, the big imponderable is what's going to happen to our terms of trade (essentially, the prices we get for our exports of coal and iron ore).

For clarity, I'll quote the mid-point of the range of estimates of the structural balances calculated by the budget office. It finds the budget began the noughties in structural surplus, but then the structural balance declined steadily between 2002-03 and 2011-12, from a surplus equivalent to about 2.5 per cent of nominal gross domestic product to a structurally balanced budget in 2007, before falling to a structural deficit of about 3.75 per cent of GDP in 2011-12.

Based on the figures in last week's budget, the structural deficit then shows a sharp improvement to a bit over 2 per cent this financial year. In the next four years to 2016-17 the structural deficit is expected to improve to a bit under 1 per cent of GDP.

So what are the causes of this deterioration and then improvement? From the structural balance's biggest surplus in 2002-03 to its biggest deficit in 2011-12, the structural level of revenue fell by about five percentage points of GDP, while the structural level of spending rose by about one percentage point.

From 2011-12 to 2016-17, the structural level of revenue is expected to rise about 1.75 percentage points, while the structural level of spending declines by about one percentage point, with the combined effect significantly reducing the structural deficit.

The budget office says more than two-thirds of the initial five percentage point decline in structural revenue was caused by the cumulative effect of the six tax cuts in a row delivered or promised by Costello. (Two-thirds seems too much to me. I suspect it doesn't allow for the notional indexation of the tax scale and so counts this as structural rather than cyclical.)

A further quarter of the five points, the office tells us, results from a decline in excise receipts, caused by Costello's decision to end the indexation of petrol excise in the 2001 budget and by a decline in smoking (and thus tobacco excise).

The expected 1.75 percentage point rise in revenue between 2011-12 and 2016-17 is mainly the result of rising income-tax collections because of bracket creep and the budget's initial net benefit from the increase in the Medicare levy until the new disability scheme is fully phased in.

See what this means? The Libs keep saying the problem is Labor's unrestrained spending but, in fact, it's almost all on the tax side. The tax weakness arises overwhelmingly from Costello's eight delivered or promised tax cuts. Swan's main failings were to actually deliver the last three of those cuts and to not restore the indexation of petrol excise.

News on economy not as bad as it sounds

Good grief! It seems all the news about the economy this week has been terrible. Is the roof about to fall in?

First we heard consumer confidence took a 7 per cent hit after Treasurer Wayne Swan's all-bad-news budget, then we hear the sharemarket has taken a dive because the Americans can't decide whether things are getting better or still as bad as ever.

By now the dollar's down about US6c. New figures show the mining investment boom is no more and, to top it off, we hear Ford is ceasing production with up to 10,000 jobs to go.

So, is the roof falling in on the economy?

Fortunately, it's not as bad as it sounds. My guess is the economy will continue motoring along (sorry), not doing brilliantly but not doing too badly either.

Let's put the bad news in context. For a start, the ups and downs in measures of consumer confidence must mean something, but they are an unreliable guide to the prospects for consumer spending.

We all know the sharemarket goes up and down from one day to the next, and of late there has been more up days than down.

The fall in the dollar might be bad news for people planning overseas holidays or buying imported goods, but it's good news for our hard-pressed manufacturers and tourist operators. My fear is it won't last.

Ford might have announced its closure this week, but it won't actually happen for another three years. That gives its workers plenty of time to find new jobs.

In any case, our workforce of 11.6 million often grows by 10,000 or more in just a month. That might sound like a lot of jobs but, compared with the size of our economy, it's microscopic.

The economy's been growing at an average rate of 3 per cent a year. That's been enough to hold unemployment below 5.5 per cent, though it's true the budget expects the economy to slow a fraction in the coming financial year, thereby allowing unemployment to creep up to 5.75 per cent by next June.

It's true the end of the mining boom is likely soon to be reducing rather than adding to the economy's growth, but that is why the Reserve Bank has been cutting interest rates back to their lowest since the global financial crisis: to encourage borrowing and spending on consumer durables, housing and business investment.

And remember this: every time we get a new government hope springs eternal and people cheer up, with punters spending more and businesses investing in renewal and expansion.

How long the good mood lasts depends on the new government's performance, of course.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Keynote address to External Dispute Resolution forum, Sydney

Since Fiona Guthrie has billed me as talking about behavioural economics I want to talk about a subject of little interest to conventional economists: the sometimes yawning gap between the way we perceive the economy and our place in it and the way the objective indicators say it actually is and where they say we fit into it. I’ll do so with special reference to financial counsellors and the people they counsel.

I was to start by observing that the economy isn’t travelling too badly at present, but if you listen to what you hear from much of the media, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s in terrible shape. I can think of four reasons why the economy’s doing a lot better than many people imagine. First, a fair bit of it is political: if you don’t like the Gillard government it’s easy to conclude it must be making a mess of the economy. Second, the world economy is not growing strongly and a lot of the bad news we get from Europe may be worrying people, even though our strong and growing links with the developing Asian economies mean we are much less affected by problems in the North Atlantic economies than we used to be. Third, another part of the explanation may be that all the fuss about the Gillard government’s inability to keep its promise to return the budget to surplus this year may have been taken wrongly by some as proof it is managing the economy badly. But, fourth, it remains true that some parts of the economy are under great pressure from the high exchange rate and other factors and, as we’ll see, many people have a tendency to think that  if I’m doing it tough the whole economy must be stuffed.

When you stand back from all the argument and complaints, however, you see the economy isn’t doing too badly. It’s been growing at about its medium-term trend rate of 3 per cent a year, though the budget forecasts it will slow to a little below trend in the coming financial year. The rate of unemployment has been a bit above 5 per cent for the past few years - which is quite low by the standards of the past 30 years - though it’s now drifting up slowly and may reach 5.75 per cent by June next year. Inflation remains low at about 2.5 per cent and has stayed within the 2 to 3 per cent range for three years. The diminishing threat from inflation has allowed the Reserve Bank to cut the official cash rate to an exceptionally low 2.75 per cent (it was 7.25 per cent before the GFC), meaning mortgage interest rates are the lowest they’ve been since the time of the GFC.

I've been thinking a fair bit lately about differences in people’s perspectives and perceptions of the economy. Whereas economists form their views about the state of the economy using economy-wide statistics - meaning they view the economy from a helicopter, so to speak - most business people and ordinary citizens base their views on their own experience and the experience of those around them. What’s happening to me is what’s happening to the economy. If I’m a shopkeeper and my sales are down, it’s obvious the economy’s very weak. If I’m a worker but I haven’t been able to find a job for months, it’s obvious the economy’s stuffed.

The second, more ephemeral factor that influences the views of non-economists is what they see and hear from the media about the state of the economy. But apart from when it’s quoting the official statistics, most of what the media tell us is quite unrepresentative of what's happening to most people. Why? Because the media tell stories about the experiences of individuals, and the stories the media choose to tell are those they believe their audience will find interesting. But the stories we find most interesting are those that are unusual rather than usual, thus making them unrepresentative of the economy rather than representative. This explains the media’s overwhelming preference for bad news rather than good news: people find bad news far more interesting. So, for example, any factory that decides to lay off 350 people will hit the headlines, whereas a factory that took on 350 workers would hardly rate a mention.

Another thing to bear in mind is that, in general, the people to whom you provide financial counselling come from the opposite side of the tracks to the relatively well-off and well-educated readers I write for. I often take a fairly unsympathetic line to the complaints of the comfortably off precisely because I'm aware of the genuine, often extreme financial hardship suffered by people struggling to manage on very much lower incomes. But just as I try to remind my readers how comparatively well off they are, so you need to remember that the people you see are also unrepresentative of the wider economy. If one in five adult Australians experience financial stress each year, then four in five don’t experience stress to any great extent.

Dr Nicola Brackertz, of Swinburne University, has prepared a report for the Salvation Army (my co-religionists) that tells us a lot about the circumstances of people suffering genuine financial stress. She surveyed more than 200 of the clients of the Salvos’ free financial counselling service, Moneycare.

The first thing to note is that a third of respondents were living alone and another 28 per cent were sole parents. Only 14 per cent were couples with dependent children. Two-thirds of them were women. Almost 80 per cent had a government pension or benefit as their main source of income. Only 15 per cent had wages as their main income. Almost 40 per cent of respondents were renting privately and 22 per cent were renting public or community housing. Only 21 per cent were paying off a mortgage and just 5 per cent owned their homes outright.

Put all this together and it tells me we’re dealing with people right at the bottom of the heap. Most of the respondents would be unemployed, people on the disability support pension or sole parents (many of whom have been relegated to the dole by a grateful government). Since the great majority of age pensioners own their homes, we’re dealing in the main with only those age pensioners living alone and renting. It all goes to show how close people on the dole live to the poverty line, the more so if they have to rent privately.

With rents the way they are, it’s no surprise that people living in privately rented accommodation on a very low income are highly likely to experience financial stress. The surprise is the disproportionate number of respondents living in public housing. The rent these people pay is generally set at 25 per cent of their income, no matter how low their income is. That sounds pretty generous; the standard measure of housing stress is rent or mortgage payments exceeding 30 per cent of income. The trouble is that the cost of true necessities such has food, clothing and power tends to be a reasonably fixed amount, whatever your income. So if your income is very low, you may not be left with enough for spending 25 per cent of the total on rent to be easily manageable. By the same token, if your income is quite high, a lifestyle choice to devote a lot more than 30 per cent of it to housing doesn’t leave you feeling the pinch.

If you’re as comfortably off as I am, it’s a surprise to discover how small were the total debts that got the respondents into trouble with their creditors. Although a third had debts of more than $20,000, the typical (median) debt level was $5000 to $10,000. Almost half had three or more sources of debt, with the most common being utility bills, credit cards, phone bills and personal loans. Well over half the respondents had been experiencing financial difficulties for two years or more.

Why did the respondents get into financial trouble?  In their own words, ‘the leading causes were insufficient income caused by retrenchment, unemployment, underemployment and an insufficient level of government allowances and pensions,’ the report says. ‘Health reasons, including disability and mental illness, often prevented respondents from earning sufficient income.’

It’s easy for the comfortable to tell themselves these people are just bad money-managers. But American research I’ve been reading says they’re no better or worse managers than the rest of us. Their real problem is that life at the bottom so much more unforgiving. When your income’s so low you need all of it just to get by, there’s no scope to build a buffer of money to cover you when quarterly utility bills arrive or some unexpected expense arrives. And when you can’t afford comprehensive car insurance of home content insurance, big unexpected expenses are more likely to arrive. When some service is cut off because you haven’t paid the bill, you can’t get it back on until you’ve paid the arrears AND a reconnection fee. When you borrow to tide yourself over, you pay much higher interest rates than the rest of us - including to ‘payday lenders’ and pawnbrokers.

When the people you counsel complain about the high cost of living, I’m inclined to believe them and be sympathetic. But in recent years it’s become fashionable for people in the comfortable world also to complain about the high cost of living, and there is little objective evidence to support these complaints. Nothing special.

I suspect people complain about the cost of living when they don’t have anything more serious to worry about - such as having to find a job or even the risk they may lose their job. I also suspect the complaints of the comfortably off mostly boil down not to the high cost of living but the difficulty some people encounter achieving the higher standard of living to which they aspire. No matter how high your income, it's always possible feel financially stressed if you over-commit yourself. You can often have difficulty making ends meet if your income is always fully committed and you leave yourself no buffer to cope with unexpected expenses, such as a big increase in utility bills.

Compare that with ‘Michael’ who was outraged when my colleague Peter Martin wrote that anyone earning more than $210,000 a year was ultra-rich, in the top 1 per cent. Michael wrote that $210k gross translated to $140k after tax. “Assuming a $600k mortgage (appropriate to this level of income) and two children in private schools plus additional outgoings this leaves a balance of only $21k for holidays and other incidentals and/or saving.” Peter wrote back assuring him that, however difficult his circumstances, 99 per cent of Australians earned less than he did.

There is plenty of research evidence suggesting people’s notions of where they fit in the distribution of family income - from low to middle to high - are often wildly astray. Everyone wants to think they’re somewhere near the middle. So let me give you Peter’s test: what at do you think was the average income reported to the Tax Office in 2010-11 (excluding all the low earners who don’t end up paying tax)? The average income earned by the Australians who did pay tax was less than $67k.

As financial counsellors well know, many people have a low level of financial literacy. Many people also have low factual knowledge of the hip-pocket effects of government tax and benefit changes. A recent survey by the progressive think tank Per Capita found that more than half of respondents believed the carbon tax had increased the price of petrol, when it doesn’t apply to petrol. Most respondents estimated the tax had increased their cost of living by $20 a week or more, whereas the Treasury estimate was just under $10 a week. And almost half of respondents claimed to have received no compensation from the government in tax cuts or benefit increases, whereas Treasury’s estimate was that 90 per cent of households would get some compensation and about two-thirds would be fully compensated.

Everyone has their own perspective on the economy. There’s the reality and the perception - and the two are often very far apart.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Both sides' big secret: taxes must go up, not down

Someone said the reason the political debate in Australia has become so bitter and personally abusive is that, at bottom, there's not a lot of difference between the two sides on policy issues. There are a few issues on which they offer clear alternatives, but not many.

You may think, for example, there's a big difference between them on taxation. But, as it has become clearer in the past week, the supposed differences are more contrived than real.

The parties are as one in their refusal to acknowledge the truth that strikes whoever examines the many studies inquiring into future spending pressures on federal and state budgets: there's only one way taxes can go and that's up.

I'm sure all our political leaders understand this but, fearing what the other side would say, they pretend the problem isn't looming. When I tax cabinet ministers with the topic, they don't tell me I'm talking nonsense, they look aghast and mutter "we couldn't possibly say that".

As so often with economic matters under the Rudd-Gillard government, in the politicians' determination not to confront voters with the harsh realities on taxation it's the Liberals who take the offensive and Labor that's defensive.

Tony Abbott initially put a lot of work into exploiting and reinforcing the voters' deeply held misperception that the Liberals are the party of low taxation, and Labor the party of high taxes. He promised to abolish Labor's "great big new taxes" on carbon emissions and the impoverished mining companies. Bronwyn Bishop repeated virtuously that the Liberals are always opposed to big new taxes.

I wanted to ask her, do the letters GST ring a bell? When you measure the burden of federal taxes as a proportion of the nation's income - as you should - Peter Costello was our highest taxing treasurer. Wayne Swan can't hold a candle to him. Only if you ignore inflation and the real growth in the economy can you pretend Swan is extracting more tax than his predecessor.

But when it comes to cynical and hypocritical exploitation of the public's presumed opposition to higher taxes, both sides have form. Remember how hard Labor campaigned against John Howard's iniquitous goods and services tax in 1998?

It was immoral and would greatly damage the economy. Yet when Labor returned to power nine years later, the idea of repealing or even modifying the tax never once crossed its mind.

Abbott's grandstanding on the horrendous cost and economic damage to be wrought by the carbon tax has been the most successful yet utterly dishonest scare campaign of modern times.

But now Labor is preparing to return the compliment. Prevented by all his crocodile tears over Labor's "debt and deficits" from acting on his promise to return the budget to surplus forthwith while still introducing a tax cut, Abbott is now giving the appearance of action by promising yet another review of the tax system, this time not excluding the goods and services tax.

So Labor is gearing up for another scare campaign on the GST, which will be dishonest not because an expansion of the tax is unlikely - it's highly likely within a few years - but because Labor will portray it as unneeded and economically disastrous, all the while standing ready to benefit from the tax when the party next returns to office.

The pressure for more revenue from the GST is the clearest, most immediate reason for believing we'll be paying a higher proportion of our incomes in tax in the future. It has turned out not to be the great "growth tax" and saviour of the state governments.

The era in which households were running down their savings, thus allowing consumer spending to grow perpetually faster than household income, has ended and won't be returning. What's more, the two main areas of household spending excluded from the GST (apart from food) - health and education - are growing faster than the spending included, meaning the tax applies to an ever-declining proportion of total consumer spending.

Since the states are so heavily dependent on revenue from the GST to finance their own considerable spending, this a big worry for the premiers, who by now must be desperately hoping a way can be found to raise the rate of GST or broaden its scope, or preferably both.

What's a problem for all the premiers becomes a problem for Canberra. And big business is partial to higher GST, hoping the proceeds could be used to cut the rate of company tax (vain hope).

It's often charged that most of the many budget "savings" Swan boasts of are actually increases in taxation. It's true. But note this: last week Abbott warned he reserved the option of implementing all of Labor's savings if he gets into power (no matter what nasty things he'd said about them at the time).

The disability insurance scheme represents a clear extension of the social safety net. Nothing could make more sense than saying such an extension would need to be covered by higher taxation.

Yet Julia Gillard, proud mother of this historic reform, lacked the courage to propose such an obvious measure until forced by budget realities just a week or two ago.

But here is the point: No-new-taxes Tony immediately embraced a 0.5 percentage point increase in the rates of income tax. And voters copped it almost without murmur. The era of higher taxes is dawning.