Monday, July 6, 2015

How growth can make us worse off

Just about every economist, politician and business person is a great believer in a high rate of immigration and a Big Australia. But few of them think about the consequences of that attitude – which does a lot to explain our economic problems.

The latest figures from the Bureau of Statistics show our population grew by 1.4 per cent to 23.6 million in 2014. Less than half this growth came from natural increase (births exceeding deaths), with most of it coming from net migration.

When I saw the 1.4 per cent growth figure, I thought it much of a piece with the 1.5 per cent growth over the year to September. It confirmed us as having one of the fastest growing populations among the advanced economies.

But, the Business Bible assured us, growth of 1.42 per cent was a big worry. It was clearly less than the 1.49 per cent average rate of the past 15 years and was, indeed, our weakest growth in eight years.

Slower population growth meant slower growth in real gross domestic product and this would also make it harder to get the federal budget back into surplus, we were told.

Really? This is crazy talk. It shows even our economists have turned off their brains on the question of immigration and lost their way between means and ends. Now they believe in growth for its own sake, not for any benefits it may bring us.

Of course slower growth in the population means slower growth in the size of the economy. But what of it? What do we lose?

The economic rationale for economic growth is that it raises our material standard of living. But this happens only if GDP grows faster than the population grows. So it doesn't follow that slower GDP growth caused by slower population growth leaves us worse off materially.

That would be true only if slower population growth caused slower growth in GDP per person. I suspect many people unconsciously assume it does, but where's the evidence?

I doubt there is any. The most significant recent study, conducted by the Productivity Commission in 2006, concluded that even skilled migration would do little to increase income per person. And what little growth the commission could find was appropriated by the new arrivals.

I doubt it's by chance that economists rarely, if ever, adjust the GDP figures they obsess about for population growth. Meaning we're constantly being given an exaggerated impression of how well we're doing in the materialism stakes. I can't remember GDP per person rating a mention in the budget papers.

Politicians are always boasting about record government spending on this or that, but they never make allowance for population growth in making such claims. (Why would they when often they don't even allow for the effect of inflation?)

As for the claim that slower population growth will make it harder to reduce the budget deficit, it reveals just how unthinking we've become on immigration. It's true enough that slower growth in the workforce means slower growth in tax collections.

But is that all there is to it? What about the other side of the budget? Aren't we assuming a bigger population is costless? Skilled immigrants and their dependents never use the health system? They don't have kids needing to be educated?

They don't add to traffic congestion, wear and tear on roads and 100 other taxpayer-provided services? Since there's often a delay while they find jobs, who's to say budgets, federal and state, wouldn't be better off with fewer immigrants?

But what's strangest about the economic elite's unthinking commitment to high immigration is the way they wring their hands over our weak productivity growth and all the "reform" we should be making to fix it, without it crossing their minds that the prime suspect is rapid population growth.

It's simple: when you increase the population while leaving our stock of household, business and public capital unchanged, you "dilute" that capital. You have less capital per person, meaning you've automatically reduced the productivity of labour.

So you have to do a lot more investing in housing, business structures and equipment and all manner of public infrastructure – a lot more "capital widening" – just to stop labour productivity falling.

The drive for smaller government – and the refusal to distinguish between capital and recurrent government spending – simply doesn't fit with a commitment to rapid population growth and a rising material standard of living.

Lower immigration would help reduce a lot of our economic problems – not to mention our environmental problems (but who cares about them?).