Monday, February 29, 2016

Change of Senate guards on gate to economic reform

Sometimes it's things that don't seem to have anything to do with economics that have the biggest effect on economic policy.

The proposed changes in voting arrangements for the Senate, which Malcolm Turnbull is pushing through Parliament with as little scrutiny as possible, are a case in point.

If they're passed – as it seems they will be – they're likely to make life a lot easier for lobbyists, who'll have a much smaller list of Senate parties to get around – in both senses.

Another fear about Turnbull's voting change – being supported by the Greens and Nick Xenophon, but opposed by everyone else in the Senate – is that it will lead to a decline in political competition by raising the barriers to entry by other, newly emerging parties.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow, first came to prominence with his "impossibility theorem".

He proved mathematically that when voters have to choose between three or more options, no system of ranking their preferences can produce a single, indisputably best order of precedence.

That is, there's plenty of room for argument over which voting system, while not being perfect, is better than the others.

This is why we need time – the usual Senate public inquiry would do – to hear from the experts and examine the properties of the voting system one side of politics has come up with and wants to ram through.

If the Coalition has proposed a move to optional preferential voting, allowing people to express their preference for up to six party groupings, it's a fair bet it believes such a system will advantage it over its Labor rival.

If the left-leaning Greens and centrist Xenophon party are happy to give the Coalition what it wants, it's a fair bet that's because the deal leaves room for their comfortable survival, while raising the drawbridge against the emergence of new minor-party rivals of either leaning.

The benefit to the Liberals is that their coalition (their joint voting ticket) with the Nationals, and the greatly reduced scope for the emergence of new, right-of-centre minor parties, minimises the wastage of right-leaning votes, whereas the lack of a coalition agreement between Labor and the Greens leaves significant scope for the wastage of left-leaning votes.

That's the point about optional preferential voting – it leaves a lot of votes being wasted. And this is how it greatly reduces the possibility of new minor parties gaining a foothold.

When Xenophon first got himself elected to South Australia's upper house, he did so with a primary vote of less than 3 per cent. It was winning a seat that allowed his profile to grow and ensure much higher primary votes in subsequent (federal) elections.

Similarly, it was a quite small initial primary vote that allowed Bob Brown to get known and eventually spread the Greens to all states.

Turnbull's proposal doesn't change the requirement that, to win a seat in a half-Senate election, you need to amass 14 per cent of the votes in your state. For a full-Senate election after a double dissolution, the quota falls to 7.6 per cent.

If the indication of preferences becomes optional – meaning many people won't bother – the hurdle facing future Xenophons and Browns will be almost unreachable. They'd need a primary vote not far short of the quota.

Behavioural economists know that the way you "frame" a proposition greatly influences how people respond to it. Turnbull has framed his thus: if you want to put an end to micro-parties gaming the system and getting people with a primary vote of as little as 0.5 per cent elected, support my reforms.

Sorry, non-sequitur. You can agree with the first part – as I do – without accepting that Turnbull's solution is the only one, or even the best available.

A better solution – one that ended gaming by micro parties without stymieing all democratic change – would be to retain the present preference system but simply add the rule that candidates getting a primary vote of less than, say, 2 per cent, would be excluded from election and their preferences redistributed.

Turnbull and his minor-party collaborators claim that the rush to get his Senate changes into law by March 17, and for them to take effect immediately, is independent of his threat to call a double dissolution if his anti-union legislation is blocked.

But if he gets his voting changes through, it's hard to see him not calling an early, double D election. Why? Because once he's done the micro-party Senators in the eye, it's hard to see him ever getting anything through the present Senate.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Why economic modelling results are dodgy

Modelling is hugely fashionable in Canberra (joke intended). Any lobby group seeking to persuade the government to do something – or not do something – produces allegedly independent modelling that supposedly backs up their case.

Government isn't above using modelling to make its case, either. Had Malcolm Turnbull decided to go ahead with raising the goods and services tax, he would have produced modelling to show how wonderful that would be.

When he decided not to increase the GST, he naturally produced modelling to show that the gains to the economy would have been minor.

Have you detected my note of scepticism? The mathematical models of the economy that economists produce are supposed to be an aid to thinking. In the public debate, however, they're used as a substitute for thinking.

When it suited the government to make public a version of Treasury's modelling of a "tax mix switch" – raising the GST and using the proceeds to cut income tax – it came with a product warning: "This modelling is indicative at best and care should be taken with its use".

That was inserted to protect the modellers' professional reputation from criticism by people like me.

It's a gross understatement. What it should say is: we've been asked to answer a question our model is incapable of answering with any reliability but, because we enjoy modelling – and are quite well paid to do it – we've fudged up something that looks like an answer.

People are impressed by economic modelling because it's done on a computer. It has to be because it involves solving so many equations and so many calculations.

So, at one level, modelling is highly sophisticated. At another level, however – and this is the bit the punters never get – it's amazingly primitive. Why? Because the economy is so hugely complicated that no simplified model of it is capable of doing justice to its many possible reactions to some development.

Be clear on this. I was pleased when Turnbull decided not to increase the GST. It wouldn't have been a good change. And I happen to agree that a tax mix switch reliant on the GST would do little to increase economic efficiency or foster "growth and jobs".

So I'm not attacking Treasury's modelling for the usual reason people do: because its findings don't accord with their prejudices. No, what I object to is the way economists (who just want to be paid to keep playing with their models) collude with politicians and vested interests in using modelling to hoodwink the public.

Try to con my readers and I'm like the mother bear in The Revenant.

What if I told you that rather than a tax with an $18,200 annual tax-free threshold and rates of tax rising from 21 per cent to 47 per cent as incomes rise, the personal income tax modelled by Treasury was a flat-rate tax of 16.7 per cent, applying from the first dollar of income?

It's true. You can read all about it in a Treasury working paper published last April.

But we've never had such a tax and are never likely to. It's radically different to the progressive tax we do have. So why on earth would you use it for the modelling?

Because it's the best the model can do. It's simply not capable of modelling our real-world income tax. Why not? Because the model has just one household in it - the "representative" household.

But it does have 111 businesses – one for each of the 111 industry sectors it identifies. To this it adds one government (not eight) and one "foreign sector".

The basic model Treasury – and many other modellers – uses is called a "static, representative household, computable general equilibrium (CGE) model".

The CGE bit means the model attempts to cover the whole economy, not just one bit of it. This allows it to capture some of "the main second-round effects of taxes on households, firms and investors". It's also able to capture interactions between different taxes.

But that advantage comes with the huge disadvantage of the single, representative household. We know Australia's 9.2 million households differ greatly in many respects – size, age, income, spending patterns, saving rates, ability and desire to work.

But for "analytical tractability" (to stop the model becoming impossible to understand, even by the modeller) all these dimensions are reduced to averages. And, as we know, the statistical average household, being a mixture of everything, is often quite un-representative.

Apart from being unable to cope with a progressive income tax, the model is also unable to cope with means-tested welfare benefits. It was able to model only a fraction of the compensation that would have had to accompany an increase in the GST (the huge cost of which is the real reason Turnbull abandoned the idea, not the happy modelling about benefits to the economy).

The model assumes that an increase in the rate of tax discourages people from doing as many hours of paid work. But it uses a single, average "elasticity of labour supply" (the degree of workers' responsiveness to changes in their after-tax wage) for the representative household.

Really? Professor Patricia Apps, of Sydney University, points to the empirical evidence showing that "primary" earners (mainly husbands working full time) have quite low elasticity – have you tried telling your boss that from now on you'll be working only 37 hours a week, not 38? – whereas "secondary" earners (mainly mothers working part time) have quite high elasticity.

Averaging the two together makes the exercise meaningless.

The modellers concede that "general equilibrium models are necessarily a simplification of the economy and, as such, they can only incorporate a stylised representation of the tax system".

I'd say models are a cartoon caricature of the economy, quite incapable of answering the intricate questions we ask of them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Turnbull is fumbling his bid for greatness

Malcolm Turnbull is slipping. Not just in the opinion polls, that's merely a symptom of his problem. No, he's slipping in his shot at being one of our great prime ministers.

And if he rushes off to a double dissolution election in July because he fears he may not win if he waits until September, that will be a sign his place in the prime ministerial hall of fame will be up the back with his three immediate predecessors.

When Turnbull displaced Tony Abbott five months ago I, like many others, dared to hope his ascension represented a new beginning for Australian politics.

An end to the spiral of ever-declining standards of political behaviour, the negativity, the broken promises, the short-sightedness, the tit-for-tat mentality, the reciprocal scare-mongering, the unceasing attempts to "wedge" the other side, the blatant appeal to our baser instincts.

The eternal emphasis on attaining and retaining power, rather than on using that power to make Australia a better place to live and work.

To be fair, there was no way any flesh-and-blood politician could have lived up to the unrealistic expectations we had for him. And Turnbull does fit the bill in one important respect: he speaks and looks and acts like a prime minister should. He has gravitas.

But the closer we get to the pointy end of the Coalition government's first term, the more possibilities for improvement are being taken off the table to leave the second-term work program awaiting the voters' approval, the more Turnbull seems to be shrinking to the size of his stunted predecessors.

Just in the past week or so we've Scott Morrison doing Joe Hockey impressions, and Turnbull resorting to the same cheap tactics as the man he overthrew.

I'm not prepared to condemn Turnbull for failing to slash and burn government spending at a time when the economy is still not fully back on its feet.

But when you remember all the Coalition's carry-on over the "budget emergency", the insouciance with which Turnbull and Morrison have consigned the budget deficit to the too-hard basket is breathtaking.

I've been happy to defend Turnbull against the unthinking notion that increasing the goods and services tax and channelling the proceeds to foreign investors and people on the top personal tax rate is the be-all-and-end-all of tax reform.

Fail to deliver for big business and you're utterly lacking in courage.

Nonsense. The four tax subsidies to which the tax reform spotlight has turned – superannuation tax concessions, work-related deductions, negative gearing and the concessional taxing of capital gains – carry plenty of potential for changes that make the tax system both a lot fairer and more economically efficient, that is, less distorting of the choices individuals and businesses make.

One of my fears has been that the success of Abbott's unrelentingly destructive attack on the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government would leave us with a Labor opposition committed to nothing more than getting its own back.

Bad behaviour breeds bad behaviour. Labor has descended to pay-back. Bill Shorten's scare campaign on increasing the GST has been a match for all the dishonest things Abbott said about "debt and deficit" and the way the carbon tax would destroy the economy.

But in one important respect Labor has risen above negativity and created an opening for Turnbull to be greater than his predecessors. It has announced controversial policies to reform super tax concessions, negative gearing and the half taxation of capital gains that is the mainspring of negative gearing.

This has presented Turnbull with an opportunity to make this election a contest of ideas and plans rather than a slanging match. My plan's better than his for the following reasons.

I hope I'm wrong but, as each day passes, it seems clearer that Turnbull isn't preparing to match Labor's boldness with boldness of his own. He'll do something on each of those four tax subsidies, but not much.

Rather, he's reverting to the Abbott tactic of portraying Labor as high-taxing and the Libs as low taxers. (Only a true believer would believe it's that simple.) He's launched into an Abbott-like scare campaign, claiming Labor's negative gearing plan would knock house prices for six.

Turnbull's confidence seems to have faltered. He's looking behind him at his fractious backbench and at the Liberal heartland, who don't want to give up a cent of the tax subsidies that go mainly to them.

That's the behaviour of a survivor. The behaviour of a future great prime minister is to look out at all those uncommitted and even Labor-leaning voters who would vote for him if they thought he really cared about making the tax system fairer; if he still inspired them.

We wouldn't be onto our fifth prime minister in five years if federal politics wasn't dominated by moral pygmies – people lacking in courage, who see tactics but not strategy, whose only vision is of their survival in their seat and their progression up the party pecking order.

What the pygmies don't see is that the public can smell politicians and parties who put their careers ahead of serving the nation. What few people in Canberra remember is that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating achieved greatness by making changes they believed the nation needed, but their own supporters hated.

Turnbull will never be great if he takes his political advice from pygmies.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tax reform to bring greater fairness, efficiency

The Abbott-Turnbull government may be doing a good impression of a government going round in circles, but don't let big business and its cheer squad convince you we'll be getting little in the way of tax reform.

We look like getting quite a bit of reform, just not the type of reform the big end of town was hoping for. And this will require quite a bit of courage on Malcolm Turnbull's part.

To be fair, however, much of Turnbull's courage will be coming courtesy of his Labor opponents, who've broken the Abbott mould on short-sighted, destructive politicking.

Big business defines "reform" as cuts to the rate of company tax and the top personal tax rate – that is, rejigging the system in favour of foreign investors and high domestic income-earners. There'll be little of that.

What we do look like getting in the way of reform is greater fairness ("equity") in income tax via the removal or reduction of various "tax expenditures" – or tax subsidies as Labor calls them – used mainly by high income-earners.

Turnbull seems to be planning to use savings from the reform of superannuation tax concessions, work-related deductions, negative gearing and maybe even the concessional taxing of capital gains to pay for a modest round of tax cuts.

All four of those tax subsidies have been crying out for reform for years. The fact that they're yet to be fixed despite various attempts and quick retreats is a sign of how controversial they'll be.

Last year, when Joe Hockey was exploring superannuation reforms and Labor said it would definitely be proposing its own reforms, Tony Abbott immediately swore not to touch super so he could portray Labor as high taxing.

Fortunately, Turnbull isn't so destructive. He's more inclined to regard Labor's policies as providing cover for him to act – or maybe even pinch.

The government's super reform may involve limiting the amount of annual contributions able to be made at the concessional tax rate of 15 per cent. It may also tighten the limits on after-tax contributions.

Many workers exaggerate the size of their work-related deductions, but the real rorting is done by wealthy doctors and lawyers claiming for professional development seminars at that renowned hall of learning, Hawaii.

Last week Labor announced good policies to reform negative gearing and the capital gains tax. It proposes to limit negative gearing to new housing from July 2017, with existing investments unaffected.

It would halve the capital gains tax discount to 25 per cent for assets purchased after the same date, with previous purchases unaffected.

Labor's willingness to propose changes that the well-off won't like will encourage Turnbull to do something in this area, though he's unlikely to be as brave.

It sounds like he's planning to put a limit on the number of homes you're allowed to negatively gear, which would affect only a relative handful of investors.

But removing or reducing those four inequitable tax subsidies is only half the story; the other half being what will be done with the tax savings?

If the government had any guilt over its claims of a "budget emergency" to get itself elected, it would use those savings to reduce the deficit.

Instead, it will cut income tax at a time when that's the last thing the budget can afford. Why? Because it's raised expectations of a tax cut that it dares not disappoint.

It's spent its whole term exaggerating the problem of bracket creep to justify a tax cut. If it stuck to that rationale, people near the bottom of the tax scale would get proportionately bigger tax cuts – measured by the fall in their average tax rate – than people near the top.

But I bet they won't.

While all four reform areas would make the tax system fairer, there would also be economic efficiency benefits.

To tax some forms of investment income more lightly than others distorts behaviour.
We've got an investment tax regime that encourages borrowing over saving, speculation over hard work, and passivity over enterprise. A nation already too in love with bricks and mortar has a distorted tax system that makes it worse.

We have a negative gearing loophole no other country tolerates, which is forcing house prices far higher than they need to be and, in the process, locking much of the younger generation out of home ownership.

Don't try to tell me fixing those allocative​ inefficiencies isn't reform.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Innovative idea would fix brown coal problem

Tony Abbott's decision to put short-term popularity ahead of the nation's longer-term economic interests by abolishing the carbon tax has left Malcolm Turnbull with more than a few problems. Just one is the likelihood that less-polluting power stations will close while more-polluting ones keep pumping out greenhouse gases.

At the Paris summit late last year, our government was shamed into promising to step up our reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, even though, without the carbon tax, we lack an economic instrument strong enough to bring the promised reduction about.

But we could make some progress if we could find an acceptable way of taking out of production the worst of Victoria's brown coal (lignite) power plants. The emissions per unit from these plants are about 50 per cent higher than for black coal plants.

The problem is explained in a paper by Associate Professor Frank Jotzo, of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and Salim Mazouz, of EcoPerspectives.

Thanks to our less wasteful use of electricity and the growth in sources of renewable energy, we now have excess capacity to produce coal-fired power. Sooner or later, some power stations will have to close.

Trouble is, the absence of a price on carbon means there's no guarantee it will be the more-polluting brown-coal plants that bite the dust.

That's because brown coal-fired electricity is significantly cheaper to produce than black coal-fired power.

Why? Because the brown coal power stations are right next to the brown coal mines, thus minimising the cost of shipping the coal to the station.

And the brown coal itself is cheaper because there's nothing else to do with the stuff, whereas black coal could be exported to foreign power plants, which would pay well for it. (Black has a higher "opportunity cost".)

The lower cost of brown coal-fired power (lower "short-run marginal cost", in the jargon) means the brown coal stations do well in the continuous auction to sell power into the national electricity grid.

This means that, though the decline in demand for power from the grid has caused the level of production capacity use to fall for all types of power plants, the brown coal plants are still operating at about 70 per cent of capacity, compared with black coal plants at about 50 per cent.

That's more reason to fear that, if the question is left to be resolved by the market, the plants that close won't be the high emitters.

If we had a decent carbon tax – or emissions trading scheme, they're much the same thing – it would add more to the cost of brown power than it would to black power, so to speak, because its impost varies according the emissions-intensity of the product being taxed.

So, provided the tax was sufficiently high, it would push the firms in the market in the direction that was most desirable from the perspective of tackling climate change. Which, of course, is the reason you have a carbon tax.

But although various power stations aren't making adequate profits, there's little sign that any of them is close to throwing in the towel.

Why not? Because each of the potential quitters is telling themselves that, if they can only hang in there longer than a couple of the others, they'll get their cut of the departing firms' market share, meaning they'll then be in better shape.

Such a Mexican standoff is known to economists as a "collective action problem". The firms in a market have got themselves into a situation where they realise that something they're each doing is damaging to themselves and everyone else, but no particular firm is willing to be the first to stop doing the crazy thing because they fear their rivals would take advantage of them.

Many economists give you the impression competition is an unalloyed benefit. Collective action problems are an example of the downside of competition.

Which means they're an instance of "market failure" – circumstances where problems can't be solved simply by leaving it to the market. (Another instance of market failure is, of course, the damage to the climate caused by greenhouse gas emissions.)

The existence of market failure establishes the case for government intervention in the market – provided you can be confident the intervention will make things better rather than worse.

Intervention by the government is pretty much the only solution to collective action problems. The government comes in over the top and imposes a solution equally on all the firms in the market, which go away pleased they no longer feel obliged to do the crazy thing.

Here's the point: Jotzo – an environmental economist of international stature – and his colleague have proposed an ingenious, innovative, agile solution to the brown coal problem, one that would cost the government and the taxpayers nothing.

You invite the four brown coal power producers to enter an auction by nominating the minimum amount they'd need to receive to be willing to close down. You'd pick the winner or winners according to the ones that offered the cheapest cost per unit of emissions reduced.

You'd be hoping the winners were Hazelwood, owned by GDF Suez, the oldest and most emissions-intensive generator, and Yallourn, owned by Energy Australia, the second oldest and second most emissions-intensive generator.

But the government wouldn't just hand over a cheque. Rather, it would recover the cost by imposing a levy on all the remaining black and brown power plants – those that would benefit from the closures – in proportion to their emissions.

It's true the remaining power stations would want to pass that extra cost on to their customers. But because distribution costs (poles and wires) are so great, the (higher) wholesale price is only a small part of the retail price, meaning the effect on households is likely to be small.

Not a bad idea.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The real reasons GST won’t be changed

After the months we've spent debating changes to the goods and services tax, a lot of people were surprised to learn last week that the idea's been abandoned.

But not me. I've been expecting it since November 24. Why? Because everything has unfolded just as my colleague Peter Martin revealed in the column he wrote 12 weeks ago.

"The big GST decision, on whether to lift it to 15 per cent, is already as good as made. The Treasurer and Prime Minister won't do it. Nor will they extend the goods and services tax to food, to health or to education, although they might yet extend it to financial services," Martin wrote.

What was arguably the biggest political scoop of the year was ignored. Maybe the denizens of the House with the Flag on Top didn't believe it. What's an economics editor doing getting scoops? Why would you bury a scoop in a column? Why was he told when we weren't?

Or maybe it suited no one in the building to kill off the GST story so soon. Politics is like a drama, where each player sticks to his part. Labor didn't want to know there'd​ be no change to the GST because it wanted to keep running its scare campaign.

Similarly, the press gallery wanted to keep milking the story for scary headlines. As for the government, it would have wanted to manage expectations, gradually conditioning its backbenchers and business urgers to the idea that tax reform wouldn't be as radical as first thought.

When the time was ripe, ministers' offices would start leaking bits of the story to key journos – the proper way to get a scoop – preparing the way for the boss to drop a big hint on some TV program, before formally acknowledging the decision.

The trouble with Martin's scoop was it was out of sequence; it didn't fit the standard choreography; it was the media playing something other than their allotted role. When the play was only half-way through, a rogue journo stood up and read out the last page.

Better to pretend it hadn't happened.

But this means we've been given the sanitised, media-managed version of how the decision was reached. For a start, careful leaking has removed the demand for the government to explain why it rejected the options for broadening the GST base.

Fortunately, Martin gave us the unsanitised explanation. Extending the tax to fresh food "was never going to happen". It would hit low earners hardest, and these days it's almost impossible to compensate them, we were told.

Extending it to health and education was considered to be unfair. People who use public schools and hospitals would pay no extra, while those already paying for access to private schools and hospitals would pay extra, Martin told us.

Last week's official version of the government's reason for deciding not to increase the rate of GST was its Damascus-road experience on January 25 when Treasury surprised it with modelling showing that using an increase in the GST to cut rates of personal income tax would do nothing to foster "growth and jobs".

Two small problems. First, this should have come as no surprise to anyone who'd read the tax reform discussion paper issued last March, which advised that personal income tax and the GST were little different in terms of economic efficiency.

Second, it portrays the decision not to change the GST as a simple economic calculation, untouched by base political considerations. Yeah, sure.

For a start, Treasury's modelling also shows that big efficiency gains could be had by using an increase in the GST to cut the rate of company tax. The government's unwillingness to contemplate such a switch was obviously political.

But the really significant consideration glossed over by the media's sanitised version of events is Martin's revelation that, since the GST was introduced, it's become much harder and more expensive to compensate low and middle income-earners for the regressive effect of indirect tax increases.

These days, many low income-earners neither pay income tax nor receive government benefits. Labor excluded many part-time workers from income tax by trebling the tax-free threshold to $18,000 a year, while the Liberals made superannuation payouts tax-free.

When people neither pay income tax nor receive a benefit, how do you compensate them? How do you even know how much to give them?

This explains why Treasury now estimates that at least half the gross proceeds from a GST increase would be needed for compensation, leaving much less room for tax cuts – personal or company – and making the politics of tax reform much more daunting.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

One way to foster growth and jobs

Things may be gloomy in other countries, and even in parts of our own economy, but there's one aspect of Australian life where everything's on the up: we're enjoying a sustained prison boom.

Consider this. Over the 66 years to 1984, Australia's rate of imprisonment per head of population rose by a paltry 13 per cent. Over just the past 30 years, however, it's more than doubled.

How's that for progress? We now have more than 36,000 people behind bars, meaning our imprisonment rate exceeds that of Canada, Britain and most of Europe.

And I'm happy to acknowledge that the Aboriginal community has made a quite disproportionate contribution to this achievement. The Indigenous imprisonment rate is now more than 45 per cent higher than it was at the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

This exciting news is brought to us by Dr Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, in a conference paper to be delivered on Thursday.

Weatherburn calculates that if we can only maintain the rate of growth we've achieved in the past five years for another three, we'll be up to more than 43,000 prisoners nationwide.

Think of the contribution to "growth and jobs". A screws-led recovery. And think of the improvement in productivity as we stuff more prisoners into our existing jails.

But that's not the best of it. We've been able to keep prison numbers growing even as rates of crime have been falling. How's that for an achievement?

How's it been done? Easy. Over the past 30 years we've pursued policies that result in more people being refused bail, more people getting a prison sentence and more people staying in prison for longer.

Truly, the prison industry and its backers could teach the commercial world a thing or two about drumming up business.

To be fair, there was a long period when rates of crime got worse and worse. According to Weatherburn, it started in the 1960s when servicemen returning from Vietnam brought heroin with them. The rate of heroin use began to climb, and with it a lot of heroin-related crime.

Between 1973 and 2001, rates of theft and robbery soared. Property crime spread from working-class suburbs such as Redfern, Footscray and Fortitude Valley to middle-class suburbs as well. By 1983, nearly one in 10 Australian households had been victims of some form of household property crime in just the past 12 months.

The public got fed up. Led by the shock jocks, the media jumped on the bandwagon and state politicians competed with each other to prove they were tougher on crime than thou.

Australians became prison-happy. Got a problem? Whack some people in jail. Problem doesn't seem to be easing? Lengthen their sentences. Still not happy? Keep getting tougher, without ever checking to see if it's working.

But now crime rates have been falling since 2000, the time when the heroin problem suddenly went away. The national robbery rate is down by two-thirds, as is the burglary rate. Motor vehicle theft is down by more than 70 per cent and all other forms of theft by more than 40 per cent.

Even the rate of assault seems at last to be coming down in NSW and Victoria.

You could, if you were of a mind to, argue that crime is down precisely because more baddies are locked up. But this ignores all the other factors that may have changed.

Careful analysis by criminologists finds that a higher rate of incarceration does reduce crime, but only to a small extent, too small to explain much of the extent of the fall.

Of course, the nigglers – economists and suchlike – would point out that all this imprisonment is costing taxpayers a lot. In the 12 years to 1994-95, national spending on corrective services almost doubled to $880 million a year.

By now it's almost trebled to $2.6 billion a year. And if it continues its present rate of growth it will be up to $3.5 billion in three years' time.

We're spending a fortune to keep people locked up for ages even though it's not a very effective – and thus a very expensive – way to reduce crime.

But what about what about all the "growth and jobs" we're generating? You won't hear this from politicians, but those niggling economists will tell you we don't need growth for growth's sake, nor even jobs for jobs sake.

The fact is that all spending – by households, businesses or governments – creates jobs, so it's not enough to say this project or that will create jobs. That's why, if we've got any sense, we'll ensure that what we spend on brings us the most of those things we most want.

To give you an idea, the $2.6 billion a year we're spending keeping so many people banged up is the same as the cost of employing about 2800 probation and parole officers for 10 years, or putting more than 100,000 students through university.

At a time when governments – federal and state – profess to have no money to spare for worthy causes, perhaps we should be looking for ways to punish offenders that are more effective in reducing crime and aren't so expensive.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Why the very rich have got richer

Everyone knows the gap between rich and poor has been widening in most developed countries, but why is it happening? Have the rich been smarter and harder working, or have they just been craftier than the rest of us?

Between the end of World War II and sometime in the 1970s or '80s, the gap got progressively narrower, reducing inequality. Since then, however, the trend has reversed and the rich have got richer faster than the poor have got less poor.

That's particularly true for the English-speaking rich countries, though it hasn't happened as much in Oz as it has in Britain and, especially, the United States.

Here, real incomes have increased at the bottom, the middle and the top, though they've risen a lot faster at the top. And the respective shares haven't changed much in very recent years.

It remains true, however, that Australia's been part of the international trend to exceptionally strong growth in incomes right at the top of the distribution, say, the top 1 per cent.

In Australia's case, Professor Paul Frijters, of the University of Queensland, and Dr Gigi Foster, of the University of NSW, sought to explain this growth in top incomes in a paper published in the Australian Economic Review.

At the level of theorising, they say there are two rival potential explanations: that incomes have become more unequal as a byproduct of market forces, or as a result of political decisions.

The first explanation focuses on a shift in the "marginal productivity" of skills. Changes in technology – the obvious candidate being the information and communication revolution, aka computerisation and digitisation – have increased the value of certain highly skilled jobs relative to other, less skilled, more routine jobs.

This economists refer to as "skill-biased technological change". Some jobs are replaced by machines, others are in greater demand because of the need for people to control and maintain the new machines and to manage a more complex organisation.

In such a world, you'd expect the wealthiest people in the community to be highly technically trained and great organisers – people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

A related phenomenon is what the authors call "increasing returns to superstars", but is otherwise known as the rise of "winner-takes-all" markets.

Legal and sporting contests, for example, reward people not so much because they're highly skilled but because they're more highly skilled than others.

Such rewards increase with the size of the market in which the contest occurs.

"Moving from a world where every town runs its own competition to one where a single high-stakes competition is held for a whole country, or the whole world, involves the replacement of local winners with uber-winners who enjoy far higher returns but of whom there are far fewer per type of contest, resulting in a more unequal overall income distribution," Frijters and Foster say.

"This kind of effect explains the enormous salaries earned by today's soccer stars, top artists, top financial advisers, inventors who obtain patents, and so on."

It's advances in communication technology that do most to explain the increased scale of many markets. Bigger scale means a bigger gap between people at the top of the world market and winners in the local market.

The returns to innovation are also much greater in a global market than in a local one, because you're pushing out for the whole world what economists call the "production possibility frontier" – increasing the menu of different goods and services we're able to produce.

The alternative explanation for growing inequality – especially at the very top – is the effect of political favours.

"Our democratic political process both sets the rules of economic interaction amongst market agents [participants] and allocates political favours, including taxes and subsidies. In this view, each institution within a country's bureaucracy has some discretionary power of its own," the authors say.

The political balance of power may change and lead to changed taxes and transfer (welfare) payments in ways that favour the rich and hurt the poor. This may happen by accident or by political design.
It may happen because interest groups become more effective at lobbying governments or because the rich become better at exploiting loopholes in regulations or taxes.

So much for theoretical possibilities. What hard evidence can we find to help us choose between those possibilities?

A study by Sir Anthony Atkinson, a British world expert on inequality, and Andrew Leigh, former economics professor and now federal Labor politician, found that reductions in tax rates explain between a third and half of the rise in the income share of the richest 1 per cent in five English-speaking countries.

But Frijters and Foster took the unusual approach of seeing what clues they could deduce from studying the BRW magazine's list of the richest 200 Australians in 2009. They found that the industry category producing the largest number of super-rich Aussies – 61 – was buying and selling property.

Natural resources was second with 23, then "organising financial investments" with 19. "These 103 cases account for the vast bulk of the $119 billion owned by the top 200 in 2009."

Only eight families in the top 200 held large amounts of inherited wealth and all eight were in those three industry categories. So most of the money of our super-rich was made relatively recently.

As best the authors could determine, only five people on the list invented things. Another five were top entertainers. So only 5 per cent of our super-rich could be classed as superstars or top innovators.

About half spent their efforts on activities where local political decisions determine the winners: about who gets to build which property where, who gets access to favourable mining concessions, and so on.

On the basis of this evidence – which is hardly definitive – the authors conclude that "the political favours story seems more likely than the marginal productivity story".

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why big business has so much influence

According to the Labor Party's rising star, Senator Sam Dastyari, 10 big companies control our political process. They are the four big banks, three big mining companies, the two big grocery chains and the one big telco, Telstra.

The only surprise in that list was his third miner, not the foreign-owned Glencore Xstrata – to go with the foreign-owned BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto – but the largely Australian-owned Fortescue Metals.

I doubt it's quite that simple but, on the other hand, I doubt many people would believe me if I claimed that big business had no great influence on our politicians.

You don't need to look far to find evidence of the power wielded by "the big end of town".

Consider the fate of the mining tax. First Julia Gillard allowed the original big three miners to redesign the tax to their own satisfaction, hugely reducing its revenue-raising potential, then Tony Abbott abolished it.

Or consider the banks. Whenever they fail to pass on in full to home buyers a cut in the official interest rate, the pollies on both sides are loud in their condemnation. But they never actually do anything.

Since the global financial crisis they haven't been game to make the one big change we need, obliging the banks to choose between their government guarantees and their right to continue engaging in speculative market trading.

When the former Labor government responded to the various cases of bank-owned outfits giving appalling advice to small investors by tightening up the rules and limiting the use of commissions, first Labor toned down its investor protections in response to bank objections, then the incoming Coalition government attempted to tone them down a lot more.

And any number of farmers and small suppliers will tell you Woollies and Coles are allowed to get away with murder.

It's tempting to think the economy is controlled for the benefit of big business, not mere consumers.

But there are plenty of counter examples. Take Malcolm Turnbull's decision not to make changes to the goods and services tax.

Who do you think was pushing hardest for the GST to be raised? They hoped the proceeds would be used to cut the rate of company tax.

The point is that politicians survive only by getting enough votes, and each of us gets a vote but companies get none.

Turnbull turned away from the increased GST because he feared the economic benefits from a change wouldn't be sufficient to justify the risk of losing many votes.

But if politicians care ultimately only about votes, why are they so prone to accommodating the interests of big business? Because the two sides compete hard to attract votes during election campaigns using advertising, direct marketing and other expensive tools.

The parties need money to finance their campaigns, and big business and big unions are willing to supply it. Election campaigning has become a kind of arms race, where each side can never get enough. Give the parties public money to help with expenses and it doesn't satisfy them, it just moves the race to a higher level.

But does this mean businesses are attempting to buy influence with people in power? Does it mean the parties are effectively selling favours?

What an utterly offensive thing to say. Joe Hockey would be shocked. Businesses just want to support the democratic process. The parties are happy to take the money, but donors gain nothing in return.

Don't believe it? Neither does the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It says so in a new report, Financing Democracy: Funding of political parties and election campaigns and the risk of policy capture.

"Although money is necessary for political parties and candidates to operate and reach out to their voters, experience has shown that there is a real and present risk that some parties and candidates, once in office, will be more responsive to the interests of a particular group of donors rather than to the wider public interest," the report says.

"Donors may also expect a sort of 'reimbursement' for donations made during an election campaign and to benefit in future dealings with the respective public administration, for instance through public procurement or policies and regulations."

The report proposes a framework of items to avert the capture of government policy by interest groups. It advocates tight regulation of party donations, but warns that rules can be avoided by the use of "third-party" funding (interest groups in sympathy with, but not part of, particular parties) and other legislative loopholes.

It calls for a highly independent, well-resourced electoral authority with monitoring powers and the ability to impose sanctions ranging from fines and criminal charges to the power to confiscate illegal donations. Sounds a long way from our electoral commission.

It reported on political donations only last week. The donations it informed us of had been made up to 19 months earlier. Even so, the figures may not be complete. There is little penalty for late disclosure.
Parties are not required to disclose donations under $12,800, and buying a seat at a dinner table with a minister is not classed as a donation.

The OECD report says public reporting of donations should be timely, reliable, accessible and digitally searchable. Why? To make it easier for civil society groups and the media to be effective watchdogs.

Perhaps that's why we don't do it.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Too many 'no-brainer' cures for health, education

If the tax system and industrial relations aren't high priorities on my reform agenda, what does deserve to be at the top of the list? It's obvious: health and education are crying out for attention.

There are many reasons why economic reformers should be paying more attention than they are to education and health. One is that they're bedrock responsibilities of government.

The second is that each of them constitutes a major industry, big enough for a poor performance to be significant at the macro-economic level. Together they account for 11 per cent of gross domestic product, but for technical reasons this understates their significance.

A better indication of their contribution to economic activity is given by their shares of total employment. Education and training accounts for 8 per cent all jobs, making it a bigger employer than manufacturing.

Health care and social assistance is actually our biggest industry by far, accounting for almost 13 per cent of all jobs. All told, these two public sector-dominated industries account for more than one worker in five, 2.5 million souls.

A third reason for giving health and education more attention than economists have done is that their unavoidable – and, indeed, desirable – high degree of government regulation and participation means normal market disciplines are missing, making them more susceptible to waste and ineffectiveness.

Every doctor or health worker will tell you of waste in the health system, while the anti-government brigade is right in saying there's little evidence of improvement to show for all the extra money we've pumped into education in recent years.

A fourth reason is the intrinsic importance of both industries. Not many industries have more significant effects on our lives, wellbeing and quest for longevity than healthcare. Education hugely influences the quality of our lives and, to get mercenary, our earning capacity as individuals and as a nation.

It's amazing how business people and economists wring their hands over our supposedly weak productivity performance without ever concluding it means we should leave no stone unturned to get education right at every level, from early childhood development to post-grad research.

In the era of the information economy, any country that's stuffing up education at almost every level the way we are is asking to be relegated to the ranks of the poor and needy.

The final reason is that, precisely because government involvement in health and education is unavoidable, they constitute a major part of government spending – federal and state – and thus a major part of the other dimension of our economic challenge: budget repair.

Study the successive Treasury intergenerational reports – federal and state – and a single fact leaps out: the one, overwhelming threat to future budgets is the projected ever-growing cost of health care, only part of which is explained by an ageing population.

Which brings me to the point: econocrats are frequently involved in governments' unceasing decisions about health and education, but that involvement is much more focused on achieving budget savings than on ensuring all the government regulation and subsidisation of health and education leaves us with health and education systems that deliver Australians value for money both socially and economically.

Like so many of the interest groups, econocrats are obsessed with funding education and health rather than ensuring both systems are working in ways that have found a good trade-off between fairness and efficiency and effectiveness.

Quite frankly, when Treasury and Finance put on their expenditure review committee hats their contribution to the decision-making process is more likely to be welfare-diminishing than welfare-enhancing.

Their first besetting sin is short-sightedness. Forgetting (as we usually do) that knowledge is valuable for its own sake, education is all about long-term investment in human capital. But who can worry about that when we're pulling out all the stops to ensure this year's budget deficit doesn't look bad?

In health, it's obvious that well-chosen preventive health measures will yield big payoffs to taxpayers down the track. But when the heat was on in the first Abbott/Hockey budget, preventive health measures were among the first items thrown on the bonfire.

The econocrats' other besetting sin is what I call "no-brainer" economics. Don't bother learning about the specifics of the field you're dealing with, don't consult the health economists – if there are education economists out there I wish they'd get in touch – just wade in with your pocket-rocket model of all markets and propose "getting the [exclusively monetary] incentives right" and "introducing competition" from for-profit providers (such as shonky vocational "colleges").

Is this the best economists can do? If so, they're part of the problem and need reforming.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

We're a long way from getting bank regulation right

The movie version of The Big Short is so good you probably don't need to read the best-selling book by my far-and-away favourite finance writer, Michael Lewis.

If you want to go deeper than the events culminating in the global financial crisis of 2008 to a more systemic analysis of why we've had so much trouble with the financial system and will continue to unless we change the rules more radically than we have, I recommend you read Other People's Money, by a leading British economist, Professor John Kay.

It's required reading for the nation's economists but, although it's very thorough, it's eminently readable by ordinary mortals. Similarly, although it doesn't deal specifically with Australia's financial system, its analysis is more readily applied to Oz than a book more focused on Wall Street.

Kay was in Australia this week, and when I spoke to him he left me in little doubt that he wasn't wildly impressed by our financial system inquiry, conducted by a panel dominated by people from the industry and led by former Commonwealth Bank boss, David Murray.

Not much there to ruffle the industry's feathers.

The Murray report does little to contradict the conventional wisdom that the huge expansion of the "financial services" industry over the past 30 years has been a great boon to the wider economy.

We've benefited from much financial innovation, deeper financial markets and a revolution in the management of financial risks.

But have we? We've certainly enjoyed much greater access to credit and much more convenient banking thanks to automatic tellers, direct debits and credits, and bill-paying on the internet.

But much of this is owed to advances in information processing and telecommunications rather than banking expertise.

Much of the "innovation" in the development of new financial products has been motivated by a desire to get around government taxes and regulations.

We're often told that all the trading of financial claims the banks and other market participants do between each other has made financial markets deeper and more liquid, thus making it possible for bank customers – individuals or businesses – to buy or sell a large block of shares or currencies without their transaction having a big, adverse effect on the market price.

Kay counters that all the trading of claims between financial institutions has, in fact, made financial markets far deeper than is required by users from the "real economy". Their need to buy and sell securities without moving the price could be met by opening the markets for a quarter of an hour a week.

But surely all that trading – in conventional securities, but also in ever-more exotic "derivatives" that get ever-more removed from the physical assets they are supposedly derived from – is aimed at helping customers manage the financial risks they face.

Well, that's what bank bosses and economists told us for years. Kay recalled the now-infamous incident in 2005, where a young Indian upstart from the International Monetary Fund attending the US Federal Reserve's annual conference at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, queried the value of recent innovation in financial markets and warned of troubles ahead.

The young fool was quickly put back in his box. One heavy defended the innovations, claiming that "by allowing institutions to diversify risk, to choose their risk profiles more precisely, and to improve the management of the risks they take on, they have made institutions more robust".

"These developments have also made the financial system more resilient and flexible – better able to absorb shocks without increasing the effects of such shocks on the real economy," he went on.

Later, another heavy agreed: "Financial institutions are able to measure and manage risk much more effectively. Risks are spread more widely, across a more diverse group of financial intermediaries, within and across countries."

You've guessed how this story ends. Within two or three years, the global financial crisis revealed all that as the opposite of the truth – to the great cost of taxpayers who had to bail out banks in the US and Europe and all the people in the real economy who lost their jobs or businesses.

It turns out the financial markets weren't managing risk by spreading it thinly across many people – as happens with an insurance policy, for instance – but were multiplying it (by gearing up and by creating derivatives of derivatives) and concentrating it in the hands of a relatively small number of big banks. Nobody knew how much risk particular banks had taken on.

The other way to "manage" risk is to find someone whose particular circumstances give them the opposite "risk profile" to yours. Do a deal and the problem is solved at each end.

In practice, however, such perfect matches are very hard to find. The best you can do is find a partner who's "risk seeking" – they want to take on the risk because there's a chance they'll clean up if you've jumped the wrong way.

In other words, they're willing to speculate. Turns out that's the main thing our bigger financial system is doing: not managing risk in any genuine sense, just making bets with each other.

These days, no central banker makes speeches extolling our bigger financial sector and much better ability to handle risk.

Trouble is, Kay says, all the tightening of regulation – including the requirement for banks to hold higher levels of capital, which the Murray report so strongly supported – hasn't done enough to ensure we don't have another crisis.

We have loads of regulation, all of it acceptable to the banks, whatever their grumbles. We could have less regulation if we regulated the right things the right way.

We could leave speculative trading between financial institutions largely unregulated provided it was separated from the normal banking activity than must always be effectively government-guaranteed. But the banks mightn't like that.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Good reason to be angry about the banks

Are you angry about the banks? A lot of Australians are. And a lot of people in the United States and Europe are a lot angrier than we are, with good cause.

In Oz, we're annoyed mainly by the banks' very big profits and the way they never seem to miss a trick in keeping those profits high.

In other countries, people are angry about the way the banks and other financial institutions, having stuffed up their affairs to the point where they almost brought the global economy to its knees, were promptly bailed out at taxpayers' expense, so that few went bust, with almost no executives going to jail and many not even being fired.

By now, however, you're probably used to bankers and economists saying you don't understand and are quite unreasonable in your criticisms.

That's why you need to know about the book, Other People's Money, by John Kay. Kay, who's visiting Australia and this week spoke to a meeting organised by the Grattan Institute, says he wrote the book to help ordinary people understand "what it is they're angry about".

You want the dirt on the banks? No one's better qualified to spill the beans than Kay, an economics professor from Oxford and columnist for the Financial Times, who was commissioned to write a report on the sharemarket for the British government.

He starts by noting that over the past 30 or 40 years, each of the developed economies has experienced "financialisation" – huge growth in the size of what these days is called their "financial services sector" to the point where it's among their biggest industries.

For years, we've been told this is a wonderful thing, a sign of our economy's growing sophistication and ability to manage risk. Kay doesn't believe it.

We've always had a financial sector composed of banks, insurance companies and other institutions, and we've always needed one.

We've needed it to help us make payments to each other, to bring people wanting to save together with homeowners and businesses wanting to borrow, to help us save for retirement and to help individuals and businesses manage the risks associated with daily life and economic activity (insurance policies being the obvious example).

We need a financial sector to service the needs of the "real economy" of households and businesses producing and consuming goods and services. But none of this justifies the huge growth in the financial sector we've seen.

Most of that growth has come in the form of massively increased trading between the banks themselves in "financial claims", such as shares and bonds and foreign currencies and "derivatives" (claims on claims, and even – if you've seen The Big Short – claims on claims on claims).

If you add together all the financial assets ("claims") owned by all the banks and other financial outfits, they exceed by many times the value of the physical assets – such as houses and business buildings and equipment – which are the ultimate basis for all those claims.

The value of foreign currencies changing hands each day vastly exceeds the value of currencies needed by businesses and tourists paying for exports and imports. Similarly, the value of shares changing hands each day vastly exceeds companies' needs to raise new share capital and end-investors' needs to buy into the market or sell out.

Kay says that, in Britain, bank lending to firms and individuals in the real economy amounts to only about 3 per cent of their total lending.

All the rest is lending to other banks and institutions busy buying and selling bits of paper to each other – making bets with each other that the prices of those bits of paper will rise or fall in coming days.

Kay makes what, for an economist, is the very strong condemnation that almost all this speculative activity is "socially unproductive". It might or might not benefit the people doing the trading, but it's of no benefit to the rest of the economy.

He observes something I've noticed, too: economists have put little effort into explaining why all this trading in claims is so hugely profitable, allowing people near the top of the banks (but not their many foot soldiers) to be paid such amazing salaries.

If all they're doing is making bets with each other, why aren't the gains of the winners exactly cancelled out by the losses of the losers?

His answer is that the claims-trading parts of banks have found ways to exaggerate the profits they make by counting expected future profits they haven't actually captured – "paper profits" – but delaying recognition of expected "paper losses" until they're realised.

This game can continue for as long as everything's on the up and the bubble's getting bigger. Once it bursts, of course, former supposed profits become present, unavoidable losses. Many banks teeter on bankruptcy, but the government bails them out and they live to gamble another day.

Kay says the answer is to rigidly separate the old-fashioned parts of banking – the facilitation of payments, and lending to households and businesses; the bits that must be kept going through recessions – from all the speculative trading in claims.

It's a free country and "investment" banks should remain free to bet against each other, but there should be no taxpayer bailouts or other government protection for those that do their dough.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Big business-biased 'reform' won't fly

I'm confident this year will see the economy performing better than many people expect – those who underrate the importance of domestic influences – but I'm far from confident it will be a year of great progress on economic reform.

There are plenty of things that need reforming, but anyone who thinks the top two are the tax system and industrial relations is confusing rent-seeking with reform.

Rent-seeking involves interest groups pressuring governments to change laws and regulations in ways that advantage them at the expense of others. Look at our tax "debate" and that's just what you see.

Big business and high income-earners want to pay less tax – a cut in the rate of company tax and in the top personal tax rate – and if that means other people paying higher tax, say through a higher goods and services tax, so be it.

Naturally, their self-interest is cloaked in claims about how good this would be for the economy. Benefits going directly to the well-off, we're assured, will trickle down to the punters.

But rarely do the advocates of such reforms spell out the mechanisms by which lower rates of tax are supposedly transformed into greater effort to "work, save and invest", much less produce empirical evidence.

It's remarkable how many highly trained economists go along with this self-serving pseudo-science.

There are two giveaway signs that the present push on taxes isn't genuine reform. First, the one area where there's solid evidence that high (effective) marginal tax rates are discouraging work effort is in returning mothers' transition from part-time to full-time work, but no one's proposing to do anything about this.

Second, if people are so anxious to respond to globalisation's threat to our tax base by shifting it away from taxing mobile resources, how come they're so set on increasing the GST rather than taxing the ultimate immobile resource, land?

Of course, we've yet to see how far Malcolm Turnbull will go in seeking to give his party's business backers the "reform" they seek. If he doesn't go far, they'll brand him as lacking courage. It will be more accurate to say he lacks foolhardiness. Rejigging the tax system to favour the better-off will always be hard to sell to the rest of the electorate.

As for industrial relations reform, there's never been a time when it's less needed. Certainly not the reform that gives employers more power to limit the wage rises of their workers. This stuff is straight wishful thinking by bosses.

One thing we'll notice this year is the potential for conflict between tax reform and budget repair. It was good last week to see the secretary to the Treasury, John Fraser, discharging Treasury's sacred duty to put fiscal rectitude above all else, by reminding us of the importance of returning the budget to surplus.

Predictably, the political journalists' conclusion that Fraser was warning of the imminent loss of our AAA credit rating missed the point. Rather, he was openly correcting his masters' repeated contention that a return to "growth and jobs" (mysteriously brought about by business-biased tax reform) would fix the budget problem.

Not when the deficit you're running is more structural (caused by explicit spending and taxing decisions) than cyclical (caused by temporary weakness in the economy), he told them. So there's no substitute for hard decisions to cut spending and raise taxes.

Can the Turnbull government reform taxes and repair the budget in the same year? We'll see, but I doubt it.

In any case, it won't get far as long as it sticks to its political ideology that higher taxes are the greatest economic evil, so the only acceptable way to return the budget to surplus is to slash government spending.

Trouble with this mentality is that while it rests easily in the minds of conservative governments – and Treasury secretaries – in practice it's almost impossible to implement.

That's because it shifts the burden of repair towards welfare recipients and ordinary wage-earners, and away from high income-earners using concessions and loopholes to pay less tax than they should.

Problem: the votes of the chosen victims far outweigh the votes of the high-income beneficiaries. Surely Turnbull, Scott Morrison and Fraser learnt that from the utter disaster of the government's first budget.

He didn't say it, but Fraser's speech implied that recent increases in spending on the disabled, on disadvantaged school kids and on higher wages for welfare and childcare workers were a waste of money and needed to be chopped back.

If we never get back to budget surplus, such ideological bias and pig-headedness will be a big part of the reason.