Monday, November 14, 2022

Treasury's advice now back in favour with the government

The Coalition’s practice of sacking a bunch of government department heads whenever it gets back to office is clearly calculated to discourage bureaucrats from giving frank advice. Fortunately for us, the Albanese government is not as arrogant.

In my experience, weak managers surround themselves with yes-persons, so their brains – and, as they see it, their authority – aren’t challenged.

Strong managers want frank advice from their experts, so they’re less likely to stuff up. They’re confident of their ability to sift through conflicting advice and pick the best way forward.

This Liberal policy of frightening bureaucrats into keeping their opinions to themselves began when they returned to power in 1996 under John Howard. It was repeated when Tony Abbott got back in 2013, sacking then Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson and various other Treasury-related department heads (narrowly missing Treasury’s incumbent, Dr Steven Kennedy).

Their crime, it seemed, was that they actually believed in the Rudd-Gillard government’s policy of using an emissions trading scheme to limit carbon emissions. Guilty as charged. Like almost all economists, Treasury accepted the scientists’ advice on the science, and believed the best tools for fighting climate change were economic instruments such as “putting a price on carbon”. Labor’s Department of Climate Change was staffed manly by Treasury people.

But the Libs’ peak disdain for the public service came under Scott Morrison who, upon attaining the top job, told the bureaucrats he wanted no advice from them, just diligent implementation of the policy decisions made by Cabinet.

What gave this bunch of not-so-super men (and the odd woman) the arrogance to believe they could govern wisely without the bureaucrats’ policy advice? Mainly, their ability to fall back on the small army of taxpayer-funded, but unaccountable ministerial staffers, mainly youngsters with political ambitions and the willingness to interpose themselves between the minister and the department.

These young punks, who think they outrank the most senior public servants, are generally big on politics, but weak on policy. Which, you’d have to say, was the Coalition cabinet’s “revealed preference”.

The apotheosis of this decadence was revealed in evidence to the robo-debt royal commission last week. Advice sought from an outside law firm, which found that the government’s cost-cutting scheme was unlawful, was paid for but not passed up the line to the minister – presumably because the bureaucrats judged it would not be welcome.

But in a little-noticed part of a recent speech by Treasurer Jim Chalmers, he left no doubt that, under Labor, Treasury’s advice would be sought, and used to improve the government’s decisions. What’s more, Treasury’s ability to convey its views to the public would be enhanced.

Chalmers noted that, even after the government had dealt with the inflation challenge, “we will have to manage a budget weighed down by persistent structural spending pressures”. Doing this required new thinking and deeper thinking, he said.

“It requires us rebuilding the evidence base for policymaking. Because, to get better, more-forward-looking economic policies, we need better, more-forward-looking policy foundations.”

Chalmers revealed six ways in which he will be “rebuilding the evidence base for policymaking”. One was “putting Treasury back at the centre of climate modelling again”, to build on “the new approach to climate risks, costs and opportunities” revealed in last month’s budget papers.

Second, Treasury’s annual statement on “tax expenditures” would be made “more accessible, more useful analysis of what tax concessions are costing the budget” and their effect on the distribution of income between high and low earners.

Economists have long believed that such “tax expenditures” are equivalent to actual government spending in their effect on the budget balance, and should be subject to just as much critical reassessment as actual spending.

But the Libs didn’t agree. Since taxes are evil, anything you do to reduce them must be a good thing, even if the concessions go to some (usually higher-earning) taxpayers and not others. They sought to play down the tax expenditure statement – which hugely annoys the interest groups receiving concessions on such things as superannuation savings, and the 50 per cent discount on taxing capital gains – by renaming it the “tax benchmark and variations statement”. Not anymore.

The third, even more significant change will be the appointment of an “evaluator-general” to regularly and publicly examine the effectiveness of government spending programs. Many programs don’t do much to achieve their stated objectives, but ministers and their department heads are notoriously reluctant to have them rigorously examined, for fear of embarrassment.

But, as first proposed by economist Dr Nicholas Gruen, such a person and their agency would have similar powers and independence to those of the much-feared Auditor-General. This should work, provided governments couldn’t do what Morrison did to the Auditor-General: cut his funding.

The appointment of an evaluator-general is official Labor policy, and has been championed by the assistant assistant treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, whose outstanding economic expertise is negated by his failure to align with any Labor faction.

No doubt Leigh will be keen for the evaluator to make use of the latest in evidence-based decision-making, randomised controlled trials.

The point is that one thing Treasury (and the Finance department) should be hugely knowledgeable about – but aren’t – is what policies work, and what policies don’t. An evaluator-general will fill this vacuum.

Fourth, Treasury will work with Finance Minister and Minister for Women Katy Gallagher to “ensure gender considerations are at the core of our work”, building on last month’s “gender-responsive budgeting”.

Fifth, Treasury will produce Australia’s first “national wellbeing statement” next year, which will be “a hard-headed way to gauge progress by recognising that a robust and resilient economy relies on robust and resilient people and communities”.

And finally, Chalmers will step up production of the Intergenerational Report from five-yearly to three-yearly, in the middle year of each parliamentary term. He promises the document will be “depoliticised”.

It’s true that former treasurer Joe Hockey trashed this exercise by turning it into a blatant attack on his Labor predecessors. It was hard to take subsequent reports seriously, especially when they imposed an artificial cap on tax collections over the next 40 years, while letting government spending run wild.

We need the report to be a much more balanced assessment of future budgetary challenges, not just a Treasury tract on the supposed evils of runaway government spending. We need more acknowledgement of the possible effects of climate change on the budget over the next 40 years – a start to which was made in last month’s budget.

And it would be nice if the report lived up to its name by having much more to say about intergenerational equity issues and trends, such as the effect of ever-rising house prices, and the longer-term consequences of the way the Howard government kept stacking the odds in favour of the old at the expense of the young, particularly favouring the self-proclaimed “self-funded retirees” (who never mention the huge superannuation tax concessions they’ve been given, nor that many of them also get a part-pension).

So, well done, Jim. With better advice and a better “evidence base”, now all Labor needs is the courage to stand up to a few powerful interest groups, including those industries that get the relevant union to plead their case in the new-look Canberra.


Friday, November 11, 2022

Treasury thinks the unthinkable: yes, intervene in the gas market

If you think economists say crazy things, you’re not alone. Speaking about our soaring cost of living this week, Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy told a Senate committee that “the solution to high prices is high prices”. But then he said this didn’t apply to the prices of coal and gas.

How could anyone smart enough to get a PhD say such nonsense? He even said – in a speech actually read out by one of his deputies – that this piece of crazy-speak was something economists were “fond of saying”.

It’s true, they are. If they were children, we’d call it attention-seeking behaviour. But when you unpick their little riddle, you learn a lot about why economists are in love with markets and “market forces”, why they’re always banging on about supply and demand, and why (as I’ve said once or twice before) if economists wore T-shirts, what they’d say is “Prices make the world go round”.

At the heart of conventional economics – aka the “neo-classical model” – lies the “price mechanism”. Understand this, and you understand why the thinking of early economists such as Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall is still influential a century or two after their death, and why, of all the people seeking the ears of our politicians, economists get more notice taken of their advice than other professions do.

The secret sauce economists sell is their understanding of how a lot of seemingly big problems go away if you just give the price mechanism time to solve them.

A market is a place or a shop or cyberspace where people come to sell things to other people. The sellers are supplying the item; the buyers are demanding it. The seller sets the price; the buyer accepts it – or sometimes they haggle or hold an auction.

If the price of some item rises, this draws a response from the price mechanism, which is driven by market forces – the interaction of supply on one side and demand on the other.

The price rise sends a signal to buyers and a signal to sellers. The message buyers get is: this stuff’s more expensive, so make sure you’re not wasting any of it.

And see if you can find a substitute for it that’s almost as good but doesn’t cost as much. If you’ve been buying the deluxe, big-brand version, try the house brand.

On the other side, the message to sellers is: since people are paying more for this stuff, produce more of it. “I’m not in this business, but maybe now the price is higher, I should be.” If the price has risen because the firm’s costs have risen, maybe we could find a way to cut those costs, not put our price up and so pinch customers from our competitors.

See where this is going? If customers react to the higher price by buying less, while sellers react by producing more, what’s likely to happen to the price?

If demand for the item falls, and the supply of the item increases, the higher price should come back down.

Saying the solution to high prices is high prices is a tricky way of saying market forces will react to the price rise in a way that, after a while, brings it back down again.

When demand and supply get out of balance, market forces adjust the price up or down until demand and supply are back in balance. The price mechanism has fixed the problem, returning the market to “equilibrium”.

This is the origin of the old economists’ motto: laissez-faire. Leave things alone. Don’t interfere. Interfering with the mechanism will stop it working properly and probably make things worse rather than better.

There’s a huge degree of truth to this simple analysis. At this moment there are thousands of firms and millions of consumers reacting to price changes in the way I’ve just described.

Kennedy admits that “there are many conditions that underpin” this do-nothing policy, but “in most circumstances Treasury would support such an approach”.

There certainly are many simplifying assumptions behind that oversimplified theory. It assumes all buyers and sellers are so small they have no power by themselves to influence the price.

It assumes all buyers and all sellers know all they need to know about the characteristics of the product and the prices at which it’s available. It assumes competition in the market is fierce. And that’s just for openers.

However, Kennedy said, the circumstances of the price shocks caused by the Ukraine war are “different and outside the frame” of Treasury’s usual approach. Such shocks bring government intervention in the coal and gas markets “into scope”. That is, just do it.

“The current gas and thermal coal price increases are leading to unusually high prices and profits for some companies,” he said. “Prices and profits well beyond the usual bounds of investment and profit cycles.

“The same price increases are leading to a reduction in the real incomes of many people, with the most severely affected being lower-income working households.

“The energy price increases are also significantly reducing the profits of many [energy-using] businesses and raising questions about their viability.”

In summary, Kennedy said, the effects of the Ukraine war are leading to a redistribution of income and wealth, and disrupting markets. “The national-interest case for this redistribution is weak, and it is not likely to lead to a more efficient allocation of resources in the longer term,” he said.

(The efficient allocation of resources – land, labour and capital – is the main reason economists usually oppose government intervention in the price mechanism. Markets usually allocate resources most efficiently.)

The government’s policy response to the problem could take many forms, Kennedy said, but with inflation already so high, policymakers “need to be mindful of not contributing further to inflation”.

This suggests that intervening to directly reduce coal and gas prices is more likely to be the best way to go, he concluded.


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

One small step for the wellbeing budget, giant leap yet to come

Hey, wasn’t this budget supposed to be Australia’s first “wellbeing” budget? Whatever happened to that? Well, it happened – sort of – but it turned out to be ... underwhelming. Didn’t arouse much interest from the media.

It met the expectations of neither the sceptics nor the true believers. Treasurer Jim Chalmers began talking it up long before he got the job. The treasurer at the time, Josh Frydenberg, thought it was a great joke.

He pictured Chalmers “fresh from his ashram deep in the Himalayas, barefoot, robes flowing, incense burning, beads in one hand, wellbeing budget in the other”.

No robes on budget night. But nor did we see Chalmers make a ringing denunciation of the great god GDP.

No quoting of Bobby Kennedy’s famous words that such measures count “air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage ... special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them [and] the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl”.

In short, Kennedy said, “It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

No, none of that. Nor any condemnation of economic growth or attack on the materialism of our age.

What we got was what Chalmers promised on the day he became treasurer: “It is really important that we measure what matters in our economy in addition to all of the traditional measures. Not instead of, but in addition to. I do want to have better ways to measure progress, and to measure the intergenerational consequences of our policies.”

What we got on budget night was a start to just that. Not a wellbeing budget, but a normal budget with a chapter headed Measuring What Matters.

It kicked off with some stirring rhetoric about how traditional macroeconomic indicators don’t provide a “complete or holistic view of the community’s wellbeing. A broader range of social and environmental factors need to be considered to broaden the conversation about quality of life.”

Then followed a lot of earnest discussion of “frameworks” and other high-level stuff that’s deeply meaningful to bureaucrats, but not the rest of us. It’s not a long chapter, but I had trouble keeping awake – though I may just have been tired at the time.

But don’t get me wrong. Though none of this stuff gets the blood racing, Chalmers is on the right track. It’s just that he’s got a lot further to go before we see anything likely to make much difference.

Let’s start with GDP – gross domestic product. Everything Kennedy said about it is true. Those who say it’s a bad measure of progress or prosperity or wellbeing are right.

But, as every economist will tell you, it was never intended to be. It’s a measure of the value of all the goods and services produced and consumed in Australia over a period, which means it’s also a measure of the total income Australians earn from producing those goods and services.

It counts the cost of the ambulances and tow trucks that attend road accidents, not because accidents are a good thing, but because all the workers involved earn their income by turning up and helping.

If you’d like everyone who wants a job to be able to get one – meaning unemployment is kept low – the managers of the economy need to know what’s happening to GDP to help them achieve that goal.

GDP doesn’t count “the health of our children or the joy of their play” because, apart from the doctors and nurses, the income we earn from that is “psychic”, not something you can bank or spend.

What economists are more reluctant to admit is that their obsession with the ups and downs of GDP – with the purely material aspect of our lives; with getting and spending – has led them to revere GDP as though it measured our wellbeing.

The rest of us have caught the bug from them. This suits the rich and powerful, whose main objective is to get richer and more powerful. They are focused on the purely material, and it makes it easier for them if the rest of us are too.

It doesn’t suit them to have us asking awkward questions about what economic activity is doing to the natural environment – or the climate – why it’s better for so many jobs to be insecure and badly paid, and whether the pace of economic life is extracting an (unmeasured) price from us in stress, anxiety and depression.

So, Chalmers is right. There’s much more to life – to our wellbeing - than just working and spending. If that’s all governments are doing for us, they’re not doing nearly enough.

We put much effort into measuring and thinking about GDP, but need to put a lot more effort into measuring all the other things that affect our lives and how much joy we’re getting.

Business people say that what gets measured gets managed. True – provided politicians take account of those numbers in the decisions they make. Chalmers’ wellbeing budget is still a long way off.


Monday, November 7, 2022

The cost of living isn't as high as we've been told

So, as we learnt the day after the budget, the cost of living leapt by 7.3 per cent over the past year, right? Wrong. Last week we were told it’s gone up no more than 6.7 per cent for employees, and 6.4 per cent for pensioners and others on benefits.

The 7.3 per cent came from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and was the rise in the consumer price index over the year to the end of September. The other figures also came from the bureau, and were for the rise in the “living cost index” over the same period for certain types of households.

Why weren’t you told about the second lot? Because the media wanted to avoid confusing you – and because they were better news rather than worse.

Huh? What’s going on? We’re used to using the consumer price index (CPI) as a measure of the cost of living. But the bureau knows it’s not. So, a week later, it always issues its living-cost indexes for key household types – which the media always ignore.

Usually, the differences from the CPI aren’t big enough to worry about. But now they are. Why? Because mortgage interest rates are increasing rapidly. And mortgage interest charges are the main difference between the two measures.

Before late-1998, the CPI measured the housing costs of owner-occupiers according to the interest they paid on their mortgages. But this was changed at the behest of the Reserve Bank, which didn’t want its measure of inflation to go up every time it raised interest rates to get inflation down.

So, since then, the bureau has measured owner-occupiers’ housing costs by taking the price of building a new house or unit. This doesn’t make much sense, since not many people buy a newly built home each quarter. Many of us have never bought a newly built home.

This is why the bureau also calculates separate cost of living indexes, using the same prices as the CPI, but restoring mortgage interest charges, as well as giving the prices different weights to take account of the differing spending patterns of particular household types, such as age pensioners.

New dwelling prices rose by almost 21 per cent over the year to September, meaning they accounted for a quarter of the 7.3 per cent rise in the CPI. By contrast, the mortgage interest charges paid by employee households rose by more than 23 per cent, but contributed only 12 per cent (0.8 percentage points) of the 6.7 per cent rise in their total costs.

Get it? Since mortgage interest charges are a more accurate guide to the costs of owner-occupiers than new-home prices are, the CPI is significantly overstating the rise in the living costs of everyone, from employees to people on social security (and the self-proclaimed “self-funded” retirees, for that matter).

This is a sliver of good news about the extent of cost-of-living pressure on households. It’s better news for people on indexed pensions and benefits: they’ll get what amounts to a small real increase.

But it raises an obvious question: why on earth has the cost of newly built homes shot up by 21 per cent over the past year? After all, this has added hugely to the Reserve Bank’s need to fight inflation by raising interest rates, to the tune of 2.75 percentage points so far.

It’s true the pandemic has caused shortages of imported building materials, but the real blame is down to the economic mangers’ appalling own goal in using grants, tax breaks and cuts in interest rates to rev up the home building industry far beyond its capacity to expand.

It got a huge pipeline of unfilled orders and whacked up its prices, adding no less than a quarter to our soaring inflation rate. Well done, guys.

This raises a less obvious question: federal and state governments were spending unprecedented billions to hold the economy together during the pandemic and its lockdowns. With the official interest rate already down to 0.75 per cent without doing much good, was it really necessary to cut the rate to 0.1 per cent and engage in all that unconventional money creation?

It makes a good case for the new view that, while monetary policy works well when you want to slow demand, it doesn’t work well when you wish to speed it up. Especially when rates are already so low and households already so heavily indebted.

This is something those reviewing the Reserve Bank should be considering.


Friday, November 4, 2022

Labor will struggle with deficit and debt until it raises taxes

There’s something strange about last week’s federal budget. It reveals remarkably quick progress in getting the budget deficit down to nearly nothing. But then it sees the deficit going back up again. Which shows that, as my former fellow economics editor Tim Colebatch has put it, Rome wasn’t built in one budget.

Let’s look at the figures before explaining how they came about. The previous, Coalition government finally got the budget back to balance in the last full financial year before the arrival of the pandemic, 2018-19.

The government’s big spending and tax breaks in response to COVID’s arrival in the second half of the following year, 2019-20, saw the budget back in deficit to the tune of $85 billion. Next year’s deficit was even higher at $134 billion.

But in the year that ended soon after the change of government in May, 2021-22, the deficit fell to just $32 billion. And in last week’s second go at the budget for this year, 2022-23, the deficit is expected to be little changed at $37 billion – which would be $41 billion less than what Scott Morrison was expecting at the time of the election six months ago.

But the changes in these dollar figures don’t tell us much as comparing the size of the deficit with the size of the economy (nominal gross domestic product) in the same year. Judging it this way allows for the effect of inflation and for growth in the population.

So, relative to GDP, the budget deficit has gone from zero in 2018-19, to 4.3 per cent, then a peak of 6.5 per cent in 2020-21, then crashed down to just 1.4 per cent last financial year. This year’s deficit is now expected to be little changed at 1.5 per cent.

We all know why the deficit blew out the way it did, but why did it come back down so quickly?

Three main reasons. The biggest is that it happened by design. All the pandemic-related measures were temporary. As soon as possible, they were ended.

But also: the rise in world fossil fuel prices caused by the war in Europe produced a huge surge tax collections from our mining companies. Last week’s budget announced the new government’s decision to use almost all of this windfall to reduce the deficit.

And last week we learnt the government had also decided to keep a very tight rein on government spending. It introduced all the new spending programs it promised at the election, but cut back the previous government’s programs to largely cover the cost of the new ones.

Its frugality had one objective: to help the Reserve Bank reduce inflation by first using higher interest rates to reduce people’s demand for goods and services.

Keeping the deficit low for another year has, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said this week, changed the “stance” of fiscal (budgetary) policy to “broadly neutral” - neither expansionary nor contractionary. Which, he’s sure to be hoping, will mean the Reserve has to raise interest rates by less than would have.

Another benefit of his decision not to spend the tax windfall, Chalmers said this week, is that by June next year, the government’s gross debt will be $50 billion lower than it would have been. And, according to Treasury’s calculations, this reduction means a saving of $47 billion on interest payments over the decade to 2033.

Great. Wonderful. Except for the strange bit: two years after this financial year, the budget deficit is expected to have gone back up to $51 billion, or 2 per cent of GDP.

What’s more, the budget’s “medium-term projections” foresee the deficit stuck at about 2 per cent each year – or $50 billion in today’s dollars – for the following eight years to 2032-33.

In the first budget for this year, just before the election, the deficit was projected to have fallen slowly to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2033. Now, no progress is expected. Which means, of course, that the amount of public debt we end up with will be higher than expected during the election campaign.

The gross public debt is now not expected to reach a plateau, of about 47 per cent of GDP, until the first few years of the 2030s.

So, if the budget deficits last year and this are so much better than we were expecting just seven months ago, why on earth are the last eight years of the medium term now expected to be significantly worse?

Three main reasons. First, because a new actuarial assessment of the future cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) shows the cost growing much faster than previously thought.

Second, because, with world interest rates having risen so much this year, the interest bill on the public debt is now projected to be much bigger over the coming decade.

Third, because the previous government based its projections on the assumption that the productivity of labour would improve at the quite unrealistic average rate of 1.5 per cent a year, but Chalmers has cut this to a more realistic 1.2 per cent. This change reduces government revenue by more than it reduces government spending.

What this exercise reveals is that the “persistent structural deficit” earlier projections told us to expect, will actually be worse than we were told. The deficit won’t go away but, on present policies, will stay too high every year for as far as the eye can see.

Fortunately, Chalmers freely admits that present policies will have to be changed. “While this budget has begun the critical task of budget repair, further work will be required in future budgets to rebuild fiscal buffers [ready for the next recession] and manage growing cost pressures”.

He repeated this week his view that, as a country, we need to “have a conversation about what we can afford and what we can’t” - his way of breaking it gently that, if the structural deficit is to be removed, taxes will have to rise.


Thursday, November 3, 2022


Talk to ACT Economic Society Annual Dinner, Canberra

I’m very pleased to be invited to talk to you tonight, the biggest and best of the Economic Society’s branches. I should warn you, however, that I’m a follower of the Paddy McGuinness school of public speaking, which holds that it’s no fun talking to a group from any persuasion if you don’t say something to annoy them.

I imagine many of you are econocrats so, before I do, I want to say that I like econocrats. All journalists have “contacts” – people they talk to regularly in their search for stories – or, in my case, for explanations and opinions. In this, the contacts I speak to are overwhelmingly econocrats. I’m too old and proud to speak to ministers’ PR people, and I’ve never been able get much frankness from politicians. I should speak to academic economists more than I do, but these days I get my fill of academia by being an incessant reader of the excellent The Conversation website.

I feel comfortable talking to econocrats, for one main reason: they helped me correct one of the great mistakes of my life. When I was a student at Newcastle Uni in my late teens, I decided that accounting was really interesting, but economics was boring, theoretical rubbish that would be of no use to me in my dream career as a chartered accountant. It wasn’t until I gave up on my accounting career, washed up at the Herald as a graduate cadet, and was advised to become an economic journalist, that I realised I’d got it the wrong way round: it was accounting that was boring, whereas economics was interesting and vitally important in solving the nation’s problems.

My problem was that I’d forgotten most of what I was supposed to have learnt from the three years of economics in my commerce degree. It took me many, many hours on the phone to econocrats in the bureau, the bank, Treasury, the IAC and other agencies to relearn what I was supposed to know. So I’m forever grateful to the econocrats who spent so much of their time helping get me up to speed. I was deeply impressed by their dedication, their selfless desire to educate the public on matters economic by helping educate me. (Now, you may wonder why so many econocrats are willing to speak to me. It’s because they know I’m a columnist, not a reporter. I don’t want to quote them, I want to take those of their opinions I agree with, and make them my own. Opinion writers are in the plagiarism business.)

All this helps explain why I don’t regard myself as an economist, and don’t claim to be one. I used to say I was an accountant pretending to be an economist, but these days I say I’m a journalist who writes about economics. That’s exactly how I see myself, and where my loyalties lie. Because I’m not an economist, I’m not a member of the economists’ union, which means I’m under no fraternal obligation to defend economists and economics against all those terribly ignorant people who keep criticising us and pointing to our failings. I don’t have to believe what everyone in every occupation or industry believes: that if you’re not in our business, no criticism you make of us could possibly have merit.

Being a journalist who writes about economics, my obligation is to my readers. I see my role as similar to a movie critic. I’m an economics critic. I explain what the economists are telling the government to do and why, and then I tell my readers whether I agree with what the economists are saying. To put it more positively, I’ve spent my career trying to figure out how the economy works, then telling my readers what I’ve learnt. This means my views have evolved considerably over the decades. Hopefully, what I say today is closer to the truth than what I used to say.

When top econocrats give a very thoughtful speech about how the economy’s got to its present state, or what we need to do to improve its performance, the press gallery usually riffles through it looking for some particularly newsworthy remark – say, a hint that the cash rate’s about to rise – and then toss it aside. I see it as a big part of my job to rescue the speech from the gallery’s waste-paper basket, and use my column to make sure my readers get the benefit of the top econocrats’ thoughtful explanations and observations. Even when I don’t agree with their policy proposals, I try to give them a fair run before I register my doubts.

Partly because I’m a longstanding exponent of explanatory journalism, I write a lot about economic theory, more than most other economic journalists do. It was many years after I graduated that some economist took the trouble to explain to me the role of theory in our efforts to understand how the world works, to extract some mastery from the seeming chaos around us. About how “models” help us understand the real world by focusing on a few really powerful explanatory variables, and ignoring everything else. The neoclassical model is hugely useful, and hugely powerful in influencing the way economists think about how the economy works – and should work. This is why I keep writing about its assumptions and limitations. I think “behavioural economics” helps ensure our search for a better understanding of how the economy works isn’t held back by those assumptions and limitations.

But my interest in improving on the neoclassical model seems to bring out the defensiveness in academic economists – particularly on Twitter, where what I say is often dismissed as “simply wrong”. But what’s often not understood is that the neoclassical model I care most about is not the one written down in a set of equations, but the one lodged in the heads of econocrats. When I criticise “economists” I’m usually referring to econocrats and other economic practitioners. I care most about what practitioners think and propose because they’re the ones with most influence over policy – the ones with most influence over the economy my readers live in. But academics almost always take “economists” to be referring to them, not to their former students. Their self-absorption is revealing.

I became an economic journalist in 1974, which means I’ve been a professional watcher of the economy – and the econocrats providing economic advice – for almost 50 years. Tonight, I want to reflect on some of the conclusions I’ve reached in that time, the things I’ve learnt, and the way my views have changed. I guess I’ll be accused of being wise after the event, so let me get in first and plead guilty to exactly that. Being wiser after the event isn’t a crime, it’s a virtue. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re not very bright.

When the era of “micro-economic reform” began in the mid-1980s under the influence of “economic rationalism”, I was a strong supporter. Over the 40 years since then, however, I’ve had growing doubts about many of the supposed reforms we’ve made. By now, it’s clear that governments’ enthusiasm for what came to be known as “neo-liberalism” has largely dissipated. Any number of policy changes by Liberal and Labor governments are clearly at odds with the principles of economic rationalism. But it’s not just the politicians who’ve lost their compass. I suspect that many econocrats have lost their John Stone certainty of what’s right and what’s wrong in economic policy.

I think we’re going through a period where econocrats and their fellow travellers are wandering in the wilderness searching for a new program of improvement to be working towards. Economic rationalism 2.0, if you like. Econocrats seem as reluctant as any other profession would be to publicly admit the mixed record of neo-liberalism. But I’m here to say I don’t think econocrats will get their mojo back until they’re willing to admit that many of the things done in the name of micro-economic reform turned out to make matters worse rather than better. We have to learn from our mistakes. I want to propose a couple of principles that should be at the centre of econocrats’ renewed sense of mission.

First, however, we need to think about what went wrong with that great reform push and why. Let’s be clear: the biggest of the reforms were necessary and have worked well: floating the dollar, deregulating the banks, ending import protection, ending centralised wage-fixing and, as Andrew Leigh has reminded us, introducing national competition policy.

The problem has mainly been with privatisation, outsourcing and “contestability” – “reforms” largely motivated by the belief that the provision of services will always be done better by the private sector than the public sector. This is an article of faith for the Liberal Party, but also for too many econocrats. It has succeeded in making the public sector a lot smaller – and very much smaller than it would otherwise have been – but too often this has come at the cost of higher prices (electricity), fewer services and, particularly, lower quality services, delivered by inadequately trained workers. This is true in aged care, child care and employment services. Contracting out to providers in “thin markets” – a Productivity Commission euphemism for pretending there’s a market where none exists - is a big part of the reason for the blowout in the cost of the NDIS. The states’ TAFE systems needed shaking up, but opening up to cherry-picking private providers, plus general cost-cutting, has left us with an utterly inadequate technical education system. Far too many privatisations – particularly in electricity and ports – have involved selling government-owned businesses with pricing power intact, maximising the sale price at the expense of establishing a competitive market.

None of these adverse outcomes were envisaged in the econocrats’ advocacy of these “reforms”. What went wrong when theory was put into practice? One reason is the use of privatisation, and of bureaucrats putting downward pressure contract prices, to reduce “debt and deficit” – which, when you examine it, is about politicians responding to the public’s growing demand for government services, but without asking people to pay for them with higher taxes. This was never going to add up.

But I place some blame on the naivety of our econocrats. They assumed that what works in the textbook would work just as easily in real life. Many econocrats have never worked in the private sector, but are painfully aware of the deficiencies of the public sector. This, plus the neo-classical model’s implicit assumption that markets are rational but governments aren’t, blinded them to the truth that private firms are hugely fallible. Econocrats believed in the profit motive, but didn’t understand its raw, even ruthless power. As we’ve seen from wage theft and the banking royal commission, among other examples, even our biggest, most respectable firms are perfectly capable of breaking the law in their pursuit of profit. Everyone wants to take a bite out of the government. When business people are invited to sell to the government, dollar signs appear in their eyes. They put both hands into the public purse and pull out as much as they can possibly carry away. They think the government’s always an easy touch – and too often they’re right. The bureaucratic regulators of private providers have proved no match for business people on the make.

The biggest reason so many reforms haven’t lived up to their billing, however, is the way the econocrats’ political masters have compromised the economic objectives by adding their own political objectives. Sometimes they’re trying to make the government’s finances look better than they really are. By moving debt off-balance sheet, for instance. But sometimes I suspect that the Liberals, being the party of the private sector, see moving businesses and workers from the public column to the private column as a clear win for their side of politics and loss for their Labor opponents.

There’s much more I could say about the crosses on the economic rationalist report card, but I need to get on with suggesting two key principles I think must be part of any revival of reformist zeal.

First, it’s become an empty cliché to say that policy proposals should be “evidence-based”, but it’s actually our beliefs about how the economy works that need to be more evidence-based. The great advance in academic economics in our time has been the way the information revolution has allowed it to become less theoretical and more empirical. The eternal temptation is to forget that models are just models. They’re not the economy, they’re a cardboard cut-out of the economy. They enlighten us in some circumstances, but mislead us in others. The great project in academia must be to test orthodox theory against the empirical evidence, to see what bits of the theory accurately describe the real world and what bits don’t. The classic example of this is the way empirical evidence has caused economists to change their tune on the role of minimum wages. If there’s one area of the economy where the simple neo-classical model – the one that economists carry in their heads – is an unreliable guide to how the economy works, it’s the labour market. Most econocrats have much to learn from labour economists about how the labour market ticks. Monopsony, for example.

My broader point is that economists who think the neoclassical model they memorised at uni is all they need to give wise advice on policy – whose views on how the economy works haven’t been changed by advances in industrial organisation, asymmetric information, incomplete contracts, behavioural economics and the rest – are setting themselves up for failure. The policies advocated by econocrats have been faith-based rather than empirical-evidence-based.

Second, economic rationalism 2.0 must accept the failure of the smaller-government push. The move to private providers of publicly funded care has not led to any noticeable improvement in the efficiency with which those services are delivered. Where governments have managed to hold down the growing cost of services, this has been achieved by reducing the quantity and particularly the quality of services. Where services have been delivered by for-profit providers, savings from genuine improvements in efficiency have been insufficient to make room for their necessary profit margin. The plain truth is that any savings made by outsourcing services have come simply from side-stepping the good pay rates and conditions of the original workers.

Turning the focus to general government and the budget, the quest for smaller government and its objective, lower taxes, has clearly failed – despite decades of trying. It’s failed because the growth in the public’s demand for more and better government services is inexorable. No government of either colour is prepared to make the big cuts to major spending programs that would make smaller government a reality. Some conservative politicians genuinely believed smaller government was desirable and possible. More of them saw the political attraction of claiming to be pursuing lower taxes while their opponents indulged in “tax and spend”.

Far too many econocrats believed in smaller government and lower taxes as a sure-fire way of increasing economic growth. They focused on the simple theory that taxing any activity always discourages it, while ignoring the absence of empirical evidence that lower company tax leads to increased investment, and lower marginal tax rates encourage work effort. They studiously ignored the evidence that only in the case of secondary earners (mainly mothers) are effective marginal rates likely to affect work effort.

But I think econocrats are guilty of a greater error: their commitment to smaller government – which sort of fits with their day job of using false economies to pare back this year’s embarrassingly high budget deficit – involves pursuing a will-o-the-wisp while ignoring the real challenge. Since big spending on government services is the public’s clearly revealed preference, their job is to use every opportunity to remind the public – not to mention their political masters – that demanding more government spending is fine, provided you’re prepared to pay for it with higher taxes. By omission, econocrats have played along with the delusion that higher taxes are unthinkable – both economically as well as politically – and settled for eternally struggling ineffectively to reduce budget deficits. They should have been doing all they could to stand against the demonisation of taxation for short-term and usually hypocritical political advantage.

Econocrats have spent too long struggling ineffectively to achieve smaller government, while doing little about what should be their real concern: not smaller government, but better government. Government in which the winners from globalisation and other structural change are required through the tax-and-transfer system to compensate the losers. The neglect of fairness toward the losers from micro-economic reform does much to explain why resistance to reform has grown and too many people have become susceptible to populist solutions.

Econocrats need to care more about how, for instance, assistance with housing costs can be more effective and better targeted to those needing it most. Econocrats – and particularly the accountants in Finance – have relied too heavily on crude annual percentage cuts in agencies’ budgets, and too little on building capacity to identify particular areas of waste. It takes no effort or understanding to barrack for small government or big government. What’s hard is knowing how government spending can be efficient and effective. Too often, econocrats have failed to promote and protect spending measures that should be seen as an investment in future cost reduction in return for immediate spending. Too often, the accountants have yielded to the short-term expedient of giving them the chop.

When it comes to regulation, the econocrat profession should be the repository of the nation’s knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, but it’s made little effort to become that. The new government’s commitment to an “evaluator-general” is good news. We need more rigorous evaluation of spending programs, with the results made public. This will always be resisted by ministers and department heads, but that’s all the more reason the econocrats should be unceasing in pushing for it.  Academic health economists worked for many years to build the information base that allowed governments to control their spending on public hospitals more effectively than just giving them 5 per cent more than they got last year. Eventually this “activity-based” funding model was adopted as part of the federal-state hospital agreement. To my knowledge, the econocrats did nothing to support this research effort, and were slow to realise its value.

It’s clear from all the discussion of the fiscal position inherited by the new government that we face a choice between bigger government with higher taxes, and a never-ending struggle with “debt and deficit”. Our econocrats should make sure they’re on the right side.


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

If only Labor's wage changes were as bad as the bosses claim

Have you ever wondered why capitalism has survived for several centuries in the advanced economies? How a relative handful of rich families and company executives have been getting richer and more powerful for so long in countries where everyone gets a vote and could, if they chose, insist on something different?

It’s because the capitalists, counselled and coerced by politicians anxious to keep the peace, have made sure that the plebs, punters and ordinary working families have been given enough of the spoils to keep them reasonably content.

I remind you of this because, for 30 or 40 years in America, and now about a decade in Australia, the capitalist system – economists prefer calling it the market system – hasn’t been giving ordinary workers enough to keep them getting better off, while the few people at the top of the tree have been doing better, year after year.

If you wonder why so many Americans voted for a man like Donald Trump, and now delude themselves that he didn’t lose the last election, why the Yanks seem to be rapidly dismantling their democracy, a big part of their discontent is their loss of faith that the economic system is giving them a fair shake.

Fortunately, it’s nothing like that bad in Australia. Not yet, anyway. What’s true is that the average standard of living in Australia today is no better than it was a decade ago – something that hasn’t happened before in the more than 75 years since World War II.

Over the eight years before the pandemic, wages rose barely faster than inflation. We’ve had wage stagnation, now made a lot worse by the supply-chain disruptions of the pandemic, soaring electricity and gas prices caused by Russia’s war, and by the way floods keep wiping out our fruit and vegetable crops.

When Labor went to this year’s federal election promising to “get wages moving”, I think it struck a chord with many voters.

After we ended centralised wage-fixing by the Industrial Relations Commission in the early 1990s, we moved to collective bargaining at the level of the individual enterprise. Workers’ right to strike was hedged about with many requirements and limits.

At the beginning, more than 40 per cent of workers were covered by enterprise agreements. By now, however, some academic experts calculate that the proportion of workers covered by active agreements is down to about 15 per cent.

At the jobs and skills summit in September, all sides agreed that the enterprise bargaining system had broken down. Last week the government introduced its answer to wage stagnation, the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill.

It would make a host of changes, many of which strengthen existing provisions of the Fair Work Act, and most of which the industrial parties agree would be improvements. It makes job security and gender pay equity explicit goals of the act, prohibits sexual harassment and requirements that workers keep their pay secret, and strengthens the right of workers with family responsibilities to request flexible working hours. More debatably, it abolishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

To repair enterprise bargaining, it clarifies the BOOT – better off overall test – requiring that agreements leave no worker worse off. This was the Business Council’s greatest complaint against enterprise agreements.

One reason such agreements now cover so few workers is that they’re expensive and complex for small and middle-size employers to organise. Hence, the proposal to widen the existing provision for “multi-employer bargaining”: workers in similar enterprises allowed to bargain collectively with a number of employers.

This would widen access to enterprise bargaining. It’s aimed particularly at strengthening the bargaining position of women in low-paid jobs in the aged care, childcare and disability care sector.

Ambit claims and exaggerated rhetoric are standard fare in industrial relations, but the cries of fear and outrage coming from the various employer groups are over the top.

It would “create more complexity, more strikes and higher unemployment,” said one. It was “so fatally flawed” it would “emasculate enterprise bargaining”, according to another outfit. It was “seismic” in its impact, claimed a third.

Methinks they doth … I’d be amazed if they actually believe that stuff. They’re probably still adjusting to the shock of having the unions back in the government tent. They know they won’t be able to stop the bill being passed, so they want at least to be seen opposing it with all their voice.

What changing the law won’t change is that the proportion of workers in a union has fallen from 50 per cent to 14 per cent. The small and middle-size businesses we’re talking about have even fewer union members than that.

No union members, no strike. No strike, no big pay rise. In any case, really powerful unions get big pay rises without needing to strike.

This is an attempt to make bargaining provisions that didn’t work last time, work this time. I doubt if these modest changes will do much to “get wages moving” again. More’s the pity. If I’m right, Australia’s capitalism will remain broken.