Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Oldies looked after while young don't notice

If I was going to wander around the inner city chalking messages on the pavement in copperplate, they wouldn't say Eternity. They'd say Wake Up. Why? Because, contrary to rumour, the Nanny State doesn't exist.

If you fail to pay attention because you assume that the market economy will always deliver you a square deal, you're heading for disillusionment. If you think it's the government's job to ensure no one ever rips you off, you have much to learn.

Indeed, it's just as likely to be the pollies who decided to short-change you when they realised you were too busy watching reality television to notice.

Take the great debate about tax reform. Now the best-informed are telling us the government has thought better of changing the goods and services tax, I fear the debate will turn in a distinctly more boring direction – to reducing the generosity of tax concessions for superannuation.

Mention super and everyone over 50 pricks up their ears, while everyone under 50 wonders what's on telly tonight. To date, that's meant that the over-50s have been looked after at the expense of the under-50s.

To date, the debate over super tax concessions has been about their rapidly growing cost – about $25 billion a year in reduced tax collections – and the fact that the lion's share of this loss to the budget goes to high-income earners (like me). That is, it's a question of fairness between rich and poor.

But in their latest paper on super tax concessions, to be released on Wednesday, John Daley, Brendan Coates and Danielle Wood, of the Grattan Institute, argue that the reform of super can also be advocated on the grounds of fairness between the old and the young.

It's not something often talked about, but our budget and social security arrangements – as with all advanced economies – have a "generational bargain" built into them.

The bargain is simple: except perhaps for the period when they're raising a family, people of working age generally pay more in tax than they get back in benefits, with the difference used to provide those who are too old to work with a lot more in benefits than the little they pay in taxes.

Since we all expect to get old one day, this was regarded as a quite fair bargain between the generations. And until recently, paying for it all wasn't a big problem, because the number of workers was growing a lot faster than the number of oldies.

What's changed is the ageing of the population and the retirement of the baby boomers, which means the number of oldies needing to be supported from the budget has started growing a lot faster than the number of workers.

But Daley and his co-authors point out that it's not just demography that's undermining the generational bargain. The politicians have been making it worse by increasing the generosity of benefits to the old.

In Australia's case, John Howard was always slipping extra benefits to the alleged "self-funded retirees", who he regarded as a key part of the Liberal heartland. He gave them the senior Australians tax offset and made it easier for them to get health cards and the pensioners' rate for pharmaceutical benefits.

Then Peter Costello came along and made a lot of supposedly self-funded people eligible for a part pension, as well as making super payouts completely tax-free for people over 60.

Not to be outdone, Kevin Rudd granted pensioners a big discretionary increase on top of regular indexation to average weekly earnings.

Daley and his colleagues show that the largest increases in government spending have been on healthcare (where federal and state governments spend twice as much on each 60-year-old as on a 30-year-old) and the age pension.

"Both of these spending categories grew substantially faster than gross domestic product, not because of the ageing of the population, but because of explicit and implicit choices to spend more per person of a given age," they say.

In 2010, and after removing the effect of inflation, the two levels of government spent $9400 a year more per household over 65 than they did six years earlier. At the same time, the average amount of income tax paid by those 65 and over fell in real terms, despite an increase in incomes.

This generosity has been funded by running budget deficits and borrowing to cover them. Who'll be paying the interest on that debt? Not the oldies.

Over the past decade, according to Grattan's calculations, older households captured most of the growth in Australia's wealth. Households aged between 65 and 74 years today are $400,000 (or 27 per cent) wealthier in real terms than households of that age 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, the wealth of households aged 25 to 34 years fell by $2000 (or 4 per cent).

This is partly explained by rising house prices, of course. Older households are far more likely to own their home than younger households. And, of course, the value of their home is ignored when assessing their eligibility for an age pension.

If the young do take an interest in the reform of super tax concessions, they'll find they're being asked to agree to exclude themselves from the largess being enjoyed by the older generation. But until a halt is called, the generational unfairness will keep worsening.