Monday, December 12, 2016

Politicised Treasury bites own tail, covers for Turnbull

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen is right: One of the Abbott-Turnbull government's various acts of economic vandalism is its politicisation of the once-proud federal Treasury.

Among Tony Abbott's first acts upon becoming prime minister in 2013 was to sack the secretary to Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson.

Even so, Parkinson was left in place for more than a year before being replaced by John Fraser, a retired funds manager, hand-picked by Abbott.

Fraser had risen through the ranks of Treasury under the formative influence of the legendary John Stone, until he left in the early 1990s to make his fortune in the money market.

When Fraser returned in triumph to take the top job, singing the praises of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and David Cameron's austerity policy in Britain, it seemed clear he hadn't spent the intervening decades keeping up with developments in thinking about fiscal (budgetary) policy.

The Abbott government's next act of politicisation came a few months later with the publication of Treasury's fourth five-yearly intergenerational report.

It had been turned into a partisan propaganda rag, full of dubious figuring intended to prove the Abbott government's failure to return the budget to surplus as promised was all the fault of the previous Labor government. The media tossed the report aside.

The latest stage in the politicisation of Treasury came last week with its publication of a report on The Effectiveness of Federal Fiscal Policy, commissioned from Professor Tony Makin, of Griffith University.

If you've never heard of Makin's work, you'll be surprised to learn he regards fiscal policy as utterly ineffective and probably counterproductive.

If you have heard of it, you won't be. Makin's views on the ineffectiveness of fiscal "activism" – using budgetary stimulus to assist recovery during recessions – are well known, unchanged and unchanging.

He's the go-to guy for anyone who'd like an independent report asserting that fiscal policy doesn't work – never has and never could.

In all the decades since Makin made up his mind on this question, all the academic theorising and empirical evidence from the real world have served only to confirm the wisdom of that decision.

His paper's "review" starts by rubbishing that deluded fool John Maynard Keynes – who, presumably, will never attain the intellectual heights reached by Makin and his mates – and praising such giants of the profession as Robert Mundell, Marcus Fleming, Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent.

It then reprises Makin's well-rehearsed argument that the Rudd government's budgetary stimulus – undertaken at the urging of the then Treasury secretary, Dr Ken Henry – was unnecessary and unhelpful.

And finally it does a lot of hand-wringing about the rapid growth in the public debt (especially when you exaggerate the size of the debt by quoting gross rather than net, a trick Makin seems to have learnt from Barnaby Joyce), the burden being left to our children, and the need to make reducing recurrent government spending our top fiscal priority.

One small problem – the last time Makin ran his anti-activism line, in a paper commissioned by the Minerals Council, Treasury issued a detailed refutation. Makin seems to have taken none of its substantive criticisms into account in his Treasury-commissioned version.

This is a measure of the extent to which politicisation has changed Treasury's tune.

Apart from correcting various factual errors, old Treasury noted that the 1960s-era Mundell-Fleming open economy model Makin uses relies on extreme assumptions that don't hold in Australia's case, and certainly didn't hold during the global financial crisis.

Makin is unimpressed that, at that time, such lightweights as the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development heaped praise on the Rudd government's budgetary stimulus.

So why has new Treasury chosen now to pay one of its former critics to repeat his ill-founded criticisms?

One reason is that Fraser left Treasury not long after it had advised the Hawke government not to use fiscal policy to respond to the severe recession of the early 1990s, but to rely solely on monetary policy (lower interest rates).

Henry and others in Treasury eventually realised how bad that advice had been. Indeed, Henry's advice to Rudd was influenced by a determination not to repeat the mistake. But Fraser had left the building by then and didn't read the memo.

Another reason is that, now, both the IMF and the OECD are urging the Turnbull government to help strengthen the economy by increasing its spending on worthwhile infrastructure.

What's more, some guy called Dr Philip Lowe has been saying the same thing. Forcefully.

Makin has been hired to tell these idiots they don't know what they're talking about.