Monday, November 2, 2015

Econocrats propose same old answer to all problems

If Malcolm Turnbull wants policy reforms that make the economy more innovative and agile, he should think long and hard before accepting advice from the economists in Treasury and the accountants in the department of Finance.

If you want innovation and agility, the last people to whom you should look for help are the two professions that, in their approach to problems new or old, demonstrate minimal innovation or mental agility.

I wouldn't want to call them insane, but they certainly recommend the same solutions over and over, while expecting different results.

The trouble with both professions is that their expertise is so narrow: they know a lot about just one aspect of the problem and little about all the other aspects, which they tend to ignore - while failing to warn their clients to match their advice against the advice of experts in other areas.

In the case of economists, they know what the economy needs, but they don't know much about what the economy needs and, thus, how to go about getting it.

For instance, economists see consumption as "the sole end and object of all economic activity". So they're experts on consumption, are they?

Well, no, not really. They couldn't, for instance, tell you how to maximise the utility you derive from your spending on consumption. Not their department. Better to ask a psychologist.

Economists know that improving productivity is the key to achieving faster economic growth and ever-rising material living standards. In fact, in the long run productivity is "almost everything".

So, could you give us a list of 10 things we could do to lift productivity? Well, no, not really. We don't actually know much about how you get productivity, we just know it's a great thing to have.

Of course, we do know a key source of productivity improvement is technological advance. Great, so how does technological advance work? Sorry, we haven't studied it much. We did have a go at developing an "endogenous growth theory" in the 1980s, but we soon gave up.

So what exactly is economists' area of expertise? They'd never admit it, so I'll tell you: prices. They know heaps about how the price mechanism works (given a host of mainly unrealistic assumptions), but not much else.

To make it sound sexier they may tell you economics is "the study of incentives". But in the economists' lexicon, incentives is just a synonym of prices. That's because economics pretty much ignores anything that can't be quantified, so the only incentives economists are conscious of are monetary incentives.

This assumption - that the power of monetary incentives is quite unaffected any other motivations (e.g. Turnbull only knocked off Tony Abbott because prime ministers are paid more than ministers) - does much to explain why the solutions economists propose often work so badly, with so many "unintended consequences".

Note that, in the mind of an economist, things like taxes and wages are just prices. This does much to explain economists' apparent obsession with taxation. It's a government-controlled price that seems to have much to do with the things politicians worry about these days.

It's a way for economists to appear to have useful advice on problems they don't really know much about.

Q: How should we encourage people to work more? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How should we encourage people to save more? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How should we encourage people to invest more? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How should we encourage innovation? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How can we make the economy more agile? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

In sum, their preferred advice on such questions is: get the [monetary] incentives "right" and stand back.

Anything more specific to suggest? Yes, prime minister. Increase the tax incentives for spending on research and development. Give more money to scientific outfits like the CSIRO.

But haven't you guys been advising governments for years to keep cutting R&D tax breaks and money to CSIRO? Yes, prime minister, but that was when we wanted to cut the budget deficit and didn't care how we did it. Then, we didn't give a stuff about innovation and agility.

How come your advice on tax reform invariably favours high income-earners? Because when you're giving advice on matters you don't know much about, it's much less critically scrutinised when it happens to favour the rich and powerful.