Monday, March 23, 2015

Budget needs more efficiency, less deficit repression

Joe Hockey's intergenerational report says something I really agree with: "to ensure government expenditure is sustainable and better targeted . . . governments need to focus their efforts on achieving the efficient provision of services".

At last, Hockey is acknowledging that we need to reduce the rate of growth in government spending in ways that increase the efficiency of the government's delivery of services.

To me – but no one else, it seems – the pet shop galahs' call for "more micro reform" points directly at two of our biggest industries, healthcare and education, which happen to be mainly in the public sector.

The intergenerational report projects that federal healthcare spending will rise only modestly over the next 40 years from 4.2 per cent of gross domestic product to 5.5 per cent, while federal education spending actually falls from 1.7 per cent to 1 per cent.

Believe that and you'll believe anything. These implausible projections rest on assumptions that the unsustainable cuts in the indexation of federal grants for state hospitals and schools plus the deregulation of uni fees proposed in last year's budget will roll on untouched for four decades.

Truth is, both healthcare and education are "superior goods", meaning they make up an ever growing proportion of consumption as real incomes rise over time. They account for such a large proportion of federal and state government spending that they expose the fiscal monoculists' goal of cutting spending to the point where taxation stops increasing and even falls, for the pipe dream it is.

Fiscal monoculists are those who take a one-eyed view of the budget. If it's in deficit, this can only be caused by excessive spending, never by inadequate taxation, even when the lack of revenue arises from choice-distorting sectional tax breaks, blatant multinational tax avoidance or irresponsible Reagan-style tax cuts.

Brushing aside the more obvious objections to last year's budget, another was its dearth of what Paul Keating called "quality cuts". These are cuts that aim to improve the efficiency of the provision of services.

By contrast, most of the savings came from nothing more virtuous than cost-shifting – to the young unemployed, university graduates, the aged, the sick and, above all, the state governments. This is why so many of the measures, even if they'd got through the Senate, were unsustainable.

You could argue that the GP co-payment, with its introduction of a price signal, and the deregulation of uni fees were genuine, cost-saving reforms, aimed at increasing efficiency in healthcare and higher education.

But such an argument stands up only if you make the most cursory examination of the economics involved. A co-payment price signal improves efficiency only if it deters unnecessary consultations, not if it deters low-income patients from reporting serious problems to their GP before they get worse. Too many of the latter and your "reform" becomes a false economy, storing up higher costs for later.

Deregulating uni fees and expecting market forces to prevent over-charging is a case of magical thinking when you remember the unis remain government-owned and highly regulated, are possessors of market power, and would be selling a service still heavily subsidised by taxpayers via HECS's income-contingent, real-interest-free loans.

There are ways to cut costs in healthcare and education – or, at least, slow their rate of growth – without reducing quality, but they require a lot more thought and effort than was put into last year's GP co-payment and uni fee deregulation proposals.

If you accept that governments ought to be assisting the victims of homelessness, domestic violence, people who can't possibly afford legal representation, dispossessed Indigenous people, the working poor and so forth, it's not efficient to make savings by cutting grants to charities, whose non-profit benevolence is a free good being offered to the taxpayer.

Echoing economists' strictures against "repressed inflation" in days past, the prominent American economist Lawrence Summers is warning against the prevalence of "repressed deficits", where governments engage in accounting tricks and false economies to hide the true costs and make budget deficits and debt look better than they really are.

Such as? Failing to properly maintain public assets, deferring the replacement of infrastructure beyond the end of its useful life, effectively paying higher interest rates to persuade private firms to hide government-initiated debt on their own balance sheets or, with similar effect, engaging in the sale and leaseback of government offices.

On the latter, the Howard government wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars doing that in its first budget. And now, I hear, Hockey is planning the same thing for the Treasury building. Not smart, Joe.