Showing posts with label government spending. Show all posts
Showing posts with label government spending. Show all posts

Friday, October 27, 2023

Paying tax is good and, for better government, we should pay more

On Friday, a former top econocrat did something no serving econocrat is allowed to do, and no politician is game to do: he set out the case for us to pay higher, not lower, taxes.

For years, politicians have sought our votes by promising smaller government and lower taxes. This often helped get them elected, but it hasn’t worked as promised.

They’ve reduced the size of government by privatising government-owned businesses and outsourcing the provision of many government-funded services. But though they’re always announcing tax cuts, the hidden tax of bracket creep means there’s been no real reduction in the tax we pay. Great.

The man advocating a radically different approach is Dr Mike Keating. He laid out the case for bigger government and higher taxes in a speech to the Australia Institute’s revenue summit at Parliament House in Canberra.

The pollies seeking election by promising lower taxes take it as obvious that taxation is a bad thing – a “burden” which, like all burdens, needs to be minimised.

But Keating says we should remember the purpose of taxation. It’s to pay for a wide range of services that governments provide to us either directly (education, healthcare, child care, aged care, pensions and payments) or collectively (defence, law and order, roads). Some services we get while we’re young, some when we’re middle-aged, and many when we’re old.

Keating says there’s a wide consensus among Australians about the things we expect the government to do for us. “We recognise that all Australians are entitled to basic levels of education, healthcare, income support and shelter, and that governments have a responsibility to ensure the provision of these essential services,” he says.

Recent Coalition governments promising us lower taxes always added the promise that this could be done without reducing “essential services”.

Keating says there’s now widespread acknowledgement that these services that we pay for collectively are critical to building our community and to our sense of community.

So taxation reflects our mutual obligation to one another as citizens. Taxation underpins an inclusive society and is an efficient way of paying for those services that are consumed collectively. Many of the services paid for by taxation add to our quality of life.

Indeed, he says, history suggests that our demand for these services, such as education and health, tends to rise rapidly as economic growth causes our incomes to grow. They’re what economists call “superior goods”. The better off we get, the more of our income we devote to them.

The problem for governments – which politicians themselves have worsened – is the disconnect in people’s minds between our demand for government services and the taxation needed to pay for them. We refuse to join the dots.

“We want increased access to more and better services on the one hand, and less taxation on the other,” Keating says.

So, let’s stop kidding ourselves. If we want more and better services from government, we’ll have to pay for them with higher taxes, just as when we want more or better in a shop or a restaurant, we know we’ll have to pay more.

But assuming we accept that truth, why do we already want the government to be bigger and better?

One way the previous government sought to square the circle of maintaining “essential services” while cutting taxes – including next July’s stage-three tax cuts – is by underspending on those services and hoping no one would notice.

Keating has thought of no less than seven areas where there’s little doubt that we need to spend more.

First, although the previous government acted on the scandals exposed by the royal commission into aged care, and governments have spent more on childcare, both remain underfunded. What’s more, increases in the availability and quality of care services are likely to lead to higher costs because higher wages will be needed to attract the extra workers.

Second, the Albanese government’s increased spending on “social housing” (what in the olden days was called the housing commission) is widely considered to be much less than needed.

Third, federal government grants for public hospitals will probably have to grow a lot faster than presently expected to reduce excessive waiting times. And the Medicare payments to GPs are still too low, risking shortages of doctors, particularly in the country.

Fourth, federal funding for universities hardly grew in real terms over the nine years of the Coalition government, and actually fell per student. Labor will be pressured to make this up. As for vocational education and training – TAFE – the new National Skills Agreement requires the feds to cough up more.

Fifth, unemployment benefits – this week labelled JobSeeker, maybe something else next week – are very low compared with most other rich economies. And the recent leap in rents means the rent assistance paid to pensioners and others on benefits is now far too mean.

Sixth, it’s clear we’ll need to spend a lot more on the AUKUS nuclear submarines and other defence capabilities. This could increase annual defence spending by at least 1 per cent of gross domestic product over the next decade.

Finally, measures to reduce carbon emissions and to fully develop Australia’s potential as an exporter of renewable energy will almost certainly require greater funding than the government is presently planning.

The Grattan Institute estimates that if present tax arrangements aren’t changed to cover the expected additional growth in government spending, the “structural” (underlying) budget deficit will be close to 3 per cent of GDP in 10 years. Keating thinks it’s more likely to be 4 per cent – or $100 billion a year in today’s dollars.

Continuing deficits of this size would be quite unrealistic, he says. He suggests not another review of the tax system, but a major, authoritative inquiry to assess how much revenue is needed to adequately fund all government services.

When the public has a better understanding of what we’d get for our money, then maybe we’ll be more prepared to accept the need for higher taxes.

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Friday, October 20, 2023

How much government spending is wasted? Sorry, don't know yet

Hands up if you think a lot of the money the government spends is wasted. I think a lot of people would agree. But the question’s not as easily answered as you may think.

My guess is that many people’s impression of the amount of waste is exaggerated. When they see what they believe is wasteful spending they notice and remember it, whereas when everything seems to be going as it should, they don’t take note.

And what’s wasteful can be in the eye of the beholder. All the government money that comes my way is well spent, but the money it’s giving to people I don’t know or don’t like – or to causes I don’t care about – that’s waste. Well, maybe, maybe not.

Many people convince themselves governments waste massive amounts, in order to justify their objection to paying more tax, or their resentment of what they already pay.

Remember, no one in government just stands there tearing up banknotes. Some of the money can be spent on, say, fighter planes than don’t work properly, or roads that are rarely used, but almost all the money spent ends up in someone’s hands, not just as a pension or benefit, but as a payment for work they did for the government, either as its employee or the employee of a company that did something for, or sold something to, the government.

The people who get money from the government in this way don’t regard it as a waste. What do they do with it? They spend most of it. And when they do, this generates income for other people. The money goes round and round. It’s rare for government spending to benefit no one.

But that doesn’t mean the money was well spent. That it benefited the people it was supposed to benefit, or that they got as much benefit from it as intended. That can be particularly so when governments don’t just give people cash, but do things for them that are supposed to help them.

When you think of it like that, my guess is that a fair bit of the government’s spending is wasteful. But I can’t tell you how much. Why not? Because even the government doesn’t know.

Why not? Because governments don’t do nearly as much evaluation of their spending as they should. Australian governments have no culture of regularly and rigorously checking to see spending programs are achieving their stated objectives.

But here’s the news. The Albanese government has vowed to change this. In fulfillment of an election promise, it has allocated spending of $10 million over four years to set up the Australian Centre for Evaluation as a unit within Treasury. It’s the baby of assistant treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh.

The centre will improve the number, quality and impact of evaluations across the Australian public service, working together with evaluation units in other departments and agencies. “It will save taxpayers money and make government better,” Leigh says.

It will partner with other departments to conduct evaluations on mutually agreed priority programs. These evaluations will build momentum by helping to build departments’ capabilities and demonstrating the value of better evaluation across the government.

“Building the … public service’s evaluation capability is also an important step towards reducing the over-reliance on [outside] consultants” and cutting spending on them. Using consultants “is expensive and delivers inconsistent results”, Leigh said.

Last week, Leigh announced that the centre’s first evaluation, with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, would be of Workplace Australia, the latest name for the network of community and for-profit outfits contracted to provide “employment services” to people having a hard time finding a job.

Leigh says that making sure the Workplace Australia network’s employment services are achieving their stated objective – which is to reduce long-term and “structural” unemployment – is a key part of achieving the government’s commitment to full employment, as outlined in its recent white paper on employment.

Good. Because I’ll be amazed if the evaluation doesn’t find the Workplace Australia program has been a huge waste of money, doing amazingly little to help unemployed people with problems on their way to a decent job.

On one side, bureaucrats have used the tendering system to pay as little as possible for the services the government says it wants to be provided. On the other, the “providers” – even some of the community organisations that seem only in it for the money – have learnt all the ways to tick the boxes and be paid, while doing precious little to help people with problems.

In the era of robo-debt, it didn’t take the providers long to twig that the previous government was happy to pay them for punishing the jobless for minor or manufactured misdemeanours, rather than helping them.

The telltale sign that Workplace Australia was yet another example of the failure of outsourcing – looked good on paper; didn’t work in practice – is the number of times the bureaucrats have tried to fix it by giving it a new name. The old Commonwealth Employment Service became Jobs Services Australia, then the Job Network, then the one-word, lower-case jobactive, then Workforce Australia.

Leigh, a former economics professor, is a great believer in the wider use of the “randomised controlled trials” that the medicos have used so successfully to ensure the procedures and pills they prescribe are “evidence-based”.

This, he hopes, will make the evaluations more accurate in determining what works and what doesn’t.

I have to say there’s a reason that, to date, the evaluation and improvement of spending programs has been half-hearted to non-existent. It’s because ministers and their department heads aren’t keen to have people producing documentary evidence that they aren’t doing their job properly. And the last thing they’d want is for such a report to find its way to the public’s attention.

So Leigh’s is a worthy crusade. Let’s hope he gets somewhere. Actually, if evaluations became a regular thing, and led to regular improvements, ministers and mandarins would have a lot less to fear.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Voting No? You may have this key assumption wrong

If you’re thinking of voting No in the Voice referendum because governments have been spending so much taxpayers’ money trying to “close the gap” without much sign of success, perhaps you need to reconsider. If the Voice to parliament of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is enshrined in the Constitution, obliging our politicians and bureaucrats to listen, chances are that money will be better spent.

But I can tell you now the message First Nations people will be trying to get across: we want the local spending on health and education and the rest to be administered by Indigenous-led local organisations.

Why? Because when you do it that way, the money’s spent by people with a much better understanding of what the problems are, and the best ways to go about fixing them. Because when the government’s being represented by Indigenous-run outfits, they get much more trust and co-operation.

I’ve realised this mainly by reading a report, Better Outcomes and Value for Money with a Seat at the Table, issued by the Lowitja Institute, a largely government-funded, Indigenous-controlled health research organisation, based in Melbourne.

Let’s start with some facts about government spending on Indigenous people.

According to the Productivity Commission’s most recent estimates, for the 2015-16 year, spending by all levels of government on Indigenous people totalled $33 billion, representing 6 per cent of those governments’ total spending of $556 billion.

Some mates of mine believe Aboriginal people get a lot of government money the rest of us don’t. Only $6 billion of that $33 billion was specifically targeted to Indigenous people. The remaining $27 billion was the share of ordinary spending on hospitals, education, aged care and, importantly, the justice system, used by Indigenous people.

Even so, that $33 billion represents average annual spending of $44,900 per Indigenous person, compared with $22,400 per non-Indigenous person.

Why are Indigenous people getting twice as much? Because they have more disadvantage than the rest of us, and so need more help. For instance, their burden of disease is 2.3 times that of non-Indigenous people, the report says.

Indigenous people “have survived centuries of systemic racism, economic and social exclusion, and intergenerational trauma. As a result, our peoples now die far earlier and experience a higher burden of disease, disability, poverty, and criminalisation than other Australians,” it says.

But here’s the upside. Because governments are spending so much, “slight improvements in the efficiency of the existing spend would generate substantial savings, both directly and through flow-on impacts to other policy areas,” we’re told. For a case study, read to the end.

The federal government first signed a statement of intent to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 2008, to “achieve equality in health status and life expectancy … by 2030”.

This partnership was refreshed and strengthened in 2020 by a National Agreement on Closing the Gap, made between peak Indigenous community organisations and all federal, state, territory and local governments.

The agreement accepted four priority reforms: formal partnerships and shared decision-making, building and strengthening the community-controlled sector, transforming government mainstream organisations, and shared access to data and information at a regional level.

Are you getting the message? In practice, however, the report says, “these changes have been patchy and incremental despite increased investment from government”.

“An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice could support more effective public investment in our wellbeing because our communities know what they need and how to deliver outcomes with the right support,” we’re told.

The report argues that government-run, top-down programs to close the gap haven’t worked as well as community-controlled initiatives.

Research indicates that Indigenous-controlled community health organisations “attract and retain more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients than mainstream providers, are more effective at improving our health, and see more significant health benefits per dollar of expenditure,” the report says.

It was Indigenous community health organisations that had the knowledge and expertise to rapidly respond to the especially great threat presented to their people by COVID-19.

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, just 147 cases of the virus were reported among Indigenous people, out of 28,000 total cases in Australia. There were no Indigenous deaths and no identified cases in remote Aboriginal communities.

In the second year, Indigenous community health organisations worked tirelessly to ensure their communities were vaccinated.

Turning to education, the report says the federal government’s “remote school attendance strategy”, begun in 2013, with total spending of more than $200 million over eight years, had seen falling attendance rates.

By contrast, the report argues, in 2017, the community-led Maranguka justice reinvestment project in Bourke achieved a 31 per cent increase in year 12 retention, a 23 per cent reduction in recorded rates of family violence incidents, and a 42 per cent reduction in adult days spent incarcerated.

These improvements were calculated to have saved the NSW economy $3 million that year – five times the project’s operating costs.

I’ve drawn my own conclusions from all this. So close to the vote, I leave you to draw yours.

Read more >>

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Murray-Darling basin: farmers’ friends are helping them self-harm

Not only in America. If you think the United States has become dysfunctional and incapable of solving its pressing problems, I have three words to say to you: Murray-Darling Basin. Last week, federal Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek announced a brave new plan to rescue the Murray-Darling rescue plan, which the feds, NSW and Victoria had agreed to give up as all too hard.

Since the issue’s unlikely to be front of mind, let me tell this sorry story from the beginning. I’ll do so with much help from Professor Jamie Pittock of the Australian National University, an environmental scientist who’s been studying it for most of his career. (His many articles are on the universities’ The Conversation website.)

The Murray-Darling Basin covers about a seventh of Australia’s land mass: most of NSW, all the Australian Capital Territory, much of Victoria, and parts of Queensland and South Australia. It covers the Murray and Darling rivers, plus all their many tributaries, including the Murrumbidgee.

You could call it the nation’s biggest food bowl, underpinning the livelihoods of 2.6 million people and producing food and fibres worth more than $24 billion a year. Vast amounts of water are extracted from the rivers to supply about 3 million people, including those in Adelaide, but particularly for irrigating farms.

It’s also a living ecosystem that depends on interconnected natural resources. About 5 per cent of the basin consists of floodplain forests, lakes, rivers and other wetland habitats. Like all our rivers, the Murray-Darling is subject to recurring droughts and flooding.

Over the past century, however, the extraction of water, especially for irrigation, has reduced water flows to the point where the system can no longer recover from these extreme events.

Over the past decade, millions of fish have perished in mass die-offs, toxic algae have bloomed, wildlife and waterbird numbers have declined and wetlands have dried up.

Efforts to reverse the river system’s decline began with big-spending announcements by John Howard and his environment minister Malcolm Turnbull before the election they lost in 2007. It took five years before Julia Gillard and Tony Burke reached agreement with the basin states on a plan to restore the river system.

Under the then $13 billion plan, 3200 billion litres a year would be returned to the rivers, largely by buying back water entitlements from willing farmers. But the plan’s been modified several times and in 2015 the feds decided to cease buying back entitlements. Both the NSW and Victorian governments had been persuaded by their farmers to oppose buybacks.

NSW and Victoria have not delivered on their promise to reach agreements with riverside landowners to allow bought-back water to spill out of river channels onto floodplain wetlands. Another problem has been farmers drawing more water than their entitlement.

The buybacks have stalled at 2100 billion litres a year, even though the planned 3200 billion litres is probably too little to counter the evaporation caused by global warming. The plan had been due to be completed by June next year, with a new agreement in 2026.

But, in the 2022 election campaign, Anthony Albanese promised to revive the scheme and buy back the remaining water needed to meet the 3200 billion-litre target, and last week Plibersek announced a new deal with all the states, bar Victoria.

She agreed to another two or three years to deliver the remaining water, more options to deliver it, more funding to pay for it and more accountability by the feds and other governments to deliver on their obligations.

But she will need the support of the Greens and independents to get the new deal through the Senate. The opposition won’t support the resumption of buybacks, whereas the Greens don’t like the extra time to be taken.

Of course, even if the legislation goes through, there’s no guarantee the various governments will do what they’ve committed to. The feds are doing what the feds always have to do to get the states’ co-operation – offer them more money – but Victoria and NSW will always be tempted to keep their own farmers and river towns on side, which remain strongly opposed to buybacks.

How can it be so hard to ensure the continued survival of such an important river system? To say that, without remedial action, the rivers could shrink to a chain of billabongs is no great exaggeration. That might not happen for 50 years but, the way climate change seems to be accelerating, it could be a lot sooner.

You’d think the people who’d see this most clearly were those who stand to lose most as the rivers continue to shrivel. But, no, myopia prevails.

Take some pain now to avoid catastrophe later? No way! You can keep all the city-slickers’ tax money you want to pay us to help us adjust. We’re betting it will never happen. In any case, I’ll be dead by then.

And politicians who will take the votes of people who’d prefer to self-destruct aren’t hard to find. Reminds me of the way things are in the Land of the Free.

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Monday, August 28, 2023

How to make sense of Treasury's latest intergenerational report

Our sixth intergenerational report envisages an Australia of fewer young people and more elderly, with slower improvement in living standards, climate change causing economic and social upheaval, aged and disability care becoming our fastest-growing industry, and home ownership declining, while we spend more defending ourselves from the threat of a rising China, real or imagined.

That does sound like fun, but remember this: just as I hope many of the predictions I make will be self-defeating prophecies – because people act to ensure they don’t happen – so it is with Treasury’s regular intergenerational reports.

They say, here’s the pencil sketch of the next four decades that we get when we assume present economic and demographic trends keep rolling on for 40 years, and that present government policies are never changed.

Get it? Intergenerational reports are Treasury’s memo to the government of the day, saying things will have to change. The memo to you and me says: you may hate change, but unless you let our political masters make changes, this is how crappy life may become.

Every intergenerational report comes to the same bottom line: if you think you won’t be paying more tax in future you must have rocks in your head.

The media can’t stop themselves from referring to the report’s findings as “forecasts”. Nonsense. Forecasts purport to tell you what will happen. These reports are “projections”: if we make a host of key assumptions about what will happen, plug them in the machine and turn the handle 40 times, this is what comes out.

Remembering that Treasury demonstrates almost annually its inability to forecast in late April what its own budget balance will be in just two months’ time, June 30, let’s not imagine that anything it tells us today about 2063 could prove close to the truth, except by chance.

This is no attack on Treasury. No one’s forecasts are less wrong than theirs. It’s just saying don’t let the false confidence of the economics profession fool you. Only God knows what the world will look like in 2063 – and she’s not telling.

We’re all peering through a glass darkly, doing the best we can to guess what’s coming around the corner. How many pandemics in the next 40 years? Treasury’s best guess: none. How many global financial crises? Best guess: none.

We know from experience that the economy rarely moves in straight lines for long, but the nature of Treasury’s mechanical projections is that most curves stay straight for 40 years. Unexpected things are bound to happen. Some will knock us off course only briefly; some may change our direction forever. Some will be bad; some will be good.

The report’s single most important assumption is the rate at which the productivity of labour will improve. Until now, Treasury has avoided argument by assuming that the average rate of improvement over the next 40 years will be its rate over past 30 years.

The first report in 2002 assumed a rate of 1.75 per cent, but in later reports it was cut to 1.5 per cent. Now it’s been cut to the seemingly less unrealistic 20-year average of 1.2 per cent.

This shift makes a big difference. The first report had living standards – measured as real gross domestic product per person – climbing 90 per cent in 40 years. This report has them climbing by only 57 per cent in the next 40.

Since this is only the second of the six intergenerational reports produced under a Labor government, it’s only the second that takes climate change seriously. The other four looked into the coming 40 years and didn’t see any consequences of climate change worth taking into account.

Labor’s first report, in 2010, had a lot to say about climate change, but this report attempts to measure its effect on the economy and the budget. It estimates that climate change will cause the level of real GDP in 2063 to be between $135 billion and $423 billion less than it would overwise have been, in today’s dollars.

The report’s title has always been a misnomer. If it lived up to its name, it would deal with the intergenerational transfer of income and wealth from the young to the old – an issue that deserves much more attention than it gets.

It would talk about the way our treatment of housing favours the elderly, and how the tax, spending and superannuation decisions of the Howard government, in particular, shifted income from the young to the old.

But no. The real reason it’s called the intergenerational report is that its main purpose is to bang on about the huge effect the ageing of the population – the rise in the population’s average age – will have on the federal budget (while ignoring any effects on the states’ budgets).

It’s here, however, that Rafal Chomik, of the ACR Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research at the University of NSW, has noted this overhyped story being toned down over the six reports. In 2002, the first report projected that, by 2023, the share of the population aged 65 and over would climb from 12.5 per cent to nearly 19 per cent.

Actually, it’s only up to 17.3 per cent. And the projection for 2063 is 23.4 per cent, less than the 24.5 per cent originally projected for 2042.

Another factor on which the report was too pessimistic at the start is the effect of ageing on participation in the labour force (by having a job or actively seeking one). Whereas it was expected to dive as the Baby Boomers retired, it’s now expected just to glide down.

Participation actually reached a record high of 66.6 per cent this year – who knew our response to a pandemic would return us to full employment for the first time in 50 years? – and is now projected to have fallen only to 63.8 per cent by 2063. If so, that would be higher than it was in 2002.

Chomik says the first report projected government spending on health care to reach more than 8 per cent of GDP by 2042. Now it’s projected to reach just 6.2 per cent by 2063. But, thanks to the royal commission, the cost of aged care is now expected to grow faster, to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2063.

Which brings us to Treasury’s bottom line, the federal budget. Treasury projects that, as a percentage of GDP, the budget deficit will decline steadily until 2049, before ageing causes it to start heading back up.

Note, however, that while government spending is projected to rise by almost 4 per cent of GDP, tax collections are assumed, as always, to be unchanged.

Get the (unchanged) commercial message from Treasury? Taxes will have to rise.

Read more >>

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Universities teach us much about government mismanagement

I’m starting to worry about Anthony Albanese and his government. As politicians go, they’re a good bunch. Well-intentioned, smart and hard-working. Only occasionally got at by their union mates.

They’re anxious to fix things, which is surely what we elect our politicians to do. Things the previous lot either neglected or worsened. But, like all pollies, their overriding objective is to stay in office.

And I fear they lack what John Howard called the “ticker” to make the tough decisions. To knock heads together when needed. To make the unpopular decisions their predecessors shied away from.

Above all, to say to voters what a tradie says to a home owner: “I can fix it, but it’s gonna cost ya.”

Everywhere you look in the federal space you find problems: aged care, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, government employees who’ve gone for years being underpaid, especially women in the “caring economy”, who’ve been exploited for decades. Medicare, with its overstretched hospitals and staff, overpaid specialists and underpaid GPs. The way the increasing frequency of extreme weather events is making insurance unaffordable.

Housing – whether it’s home ownership or renting. The decades of neglect of public housing. The rundown of the public service and its expertise and its replacement by untrustworthy management consultants charging exorbitantly for self-serving advice.

What many of these problems have in common is that they’re the consequence of both parties’ decades-long experiment with “smaller government” and lower taxes and the always-dubious notion that, because the private sector is inherently more efficient than the public sector, handing institutions over to private owners and the provision of various public services over to for-profit providers would leave us much better off.

No. Government is smaller only because so many of its bits have been sold off. The new private owners have rarely hesitated to whack up their charges, but our taxes don’t seem any lower. Put it together, and we’re paying more for services whose quality has declined.

Education Minister Jason Clare’s plans to fix universities are an extreme example of supposed “reform” gone wrong.

Last month, he issued an interim report promising five immediate actions to start fixing the sector’s many problems, ahead of the more comprehensive changes to be proposed in the accord panel’s final report in December.

These involve setting up 20 additional “study hubs” in regional areas plus up to 14 outer-suburban hubs, abolishing the Morrison government’s rule requiring students who fail to pass 50 per cent of their courses to be sent away, giving uni places to all First Nations students who meet the eligibility requirement for the course, guaranteeing uni funding for a further two years, and persuading state governments to appoint more people to uni councils who actually know something about universities.

That list is too modest to fault, but nor is it likely to do much good. When it comes to universities, everywhere you look you find problems. The academics tell you the government isn’t giving them enough money to do good research; the students tell you the teaching isn’t good enough, with too much of it palmed off onto casuals. Too many students drop out of their courses without anyone much caring. Young graduates seeking a career in academia get no job security and are treated badly.

The Morrison government’s crazy Job-ready Graduates scheme cut the tuition fees for degrees it approved of – teaching, nursing and agriculture – while doubling the fees for the humanities degrees it disapproved of. There’s been no decline in people doing arts degrees, just a lot more debt for those who do.

The HECS student loans started life in the late 1980s as carefully designed and fair, but governments’ attempts to get the money repaid faster have stuffed up the fairness.

The plain truth is that successive governments have brought about a sort of back-door privatisation of our universities with disastrous results. They’ve been trying for ages to get the unis off the federal budget. Their big let-out has been to allow the unis free rein in overcharging overseas students.

They’ve succeeded in giving unis the worst of both worlds. Unis have been filled with layers of high-paid managers, whose main role seems to be to annoy the academics. If businesses can fill up with casuals and keep accidentally underpaying people, we can too.

Vice-chancellors have become fund-raisers, always hunting for new sources of revenue. They spend much time finding ways to game the various international rankings of universities, which impresses the parents of overseas students and allows the big-city unis to charge higher fees.

One problem for Clare is that though the unis are agreed the system is bad and needs big change, they can never agree on what the changes should be.

But the biggest problem is that nothing can be fixed without costing the government a lot of money. This is where Clare risks raising expectations the government can’t meet. We’re stuck with smaller government in the sense that the pollies aren’t game to ask us to pay more for a better one.

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Friday, July 21, 2023

Covid spending makes bread and circuses too costly for Andrews

These days it’s not unusual for cities to realise they prefer not to host major sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games. What is unusual is that it’s taken so long for Premier Daniel Andrews to pull the plug.

The later the decision, the greater the disappointment and the ire of organisers, athletes and sport fans. And, no doubt, the greater the wasted spending.

Even so, it does take great political courage – and maybe overconfidence – to make such a decision, especially based on an undocumented claim of such a massive cost overrun – from $2.6 billion to as much as $7 billion.

If there isn’t a political price to be paid at the next Victorian election, it really will prove Andrews’ invincibility – with able assistance from a hopelessly divided opposition.

It isn’t hard to believe that the now-expected cost is far higher than the initial estimate. But the latest estimate of up to $7 billion does stretch credulity.

Overruns are a virtual inevitability in games hosting. This is shown by a table of overruns for the summer and winter Olympics, prepared by researchers at Oxford University.

It shows that Sydney’s stated overrun of 90 per cent in 2000 was on the high side, but nothing to compare with Atlanta in 1996, Barcelona in 1992 and the all-time winner, Montreal in 1976.

Even so, the table does suggest that the size of overruns has fallen in recent times as, presumably, host cities wise up. Perhaps now it’s cities with more experience – and good existing sporting facilities – that are more likely to seek and win the games, or perhaps these days cities know to take more care with their budgeting.

Initially understating the likely cost seems standard political practice for all public projects, let alone major sports events. “It’ll be great fun, bring us the international recognition we deserve, not to mention huge tourist dollars – and it won’t cost all that much.”

But it’s not just the pollies who mislead us. We’re all so keen to enjoy the games at home that we’re easily convinced they won’t cost much and will bring great benefits.

What gives hosting international games such a great risk of blowouts is partly the international sporting body’s demand for many new venues, but mainly the need for them to be completed by a specific, immovable date.

This leaves the games organisers hostage to greedy unions and private contractors.

But there’s rarely a shortage of “independent” consultants willing to take a highly optimistic view of what it all will cost, and what the (always greater) monetary benefits the games will bring in. Even to the extent of putting a dollar value on the supposed “social” benefits they will bring.

It’s all too easy to overestimate the benefit that all the spending by sport fans – local and visiting – will bring. Economists have put much thought into what they call “the economics of special events”, remembering, as most people don’t, to allow for the greatest insight of economics, “opportunity cost” – what your decision to do X means you now won’t be able to do.

Another pertinent concept is “intertemporal substitution” – decisions to move spending between time periods. Remember, too, that the amount of benefit varies with the perspective from which you view it.

Holding the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, for instance, would attract many visitors from other states, spending on tickets, travel, accommodation, meals and so forth.

From the perspective of the Victorian economy, that’s a benefit. From the perspective of the Australian economy, however, the extra spending in Victoria is cancelled out by the reduced spending in other states.

From a national perspective, the only benefit is from overseas visitors, spending money in Oz that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Most of the spending would come from Victorians themselves. But it’s likely most of this is money they otherwise would have spent in Victoria on other things, at other times in the year. So, little net benefit to the state’s economy, except for spending by overseas and interstate visitors.

It’s a different matter, however, for the mayors of the five regional cities that were planned to share the hosting of the games. Their cities would have benefited greatly from the spending by visitors from the rest of Victoria, other states and overseas.

Andrews’ decision to regionalise the games was intended to be their special feature, a new model for how the games could be run. But this dispersion seems to have added greatly to the games’ cost. Even at $2.6 billion, Victoria would have been spending much more than other state hosts of Commonwealth Games.

Andrews has promised that the regional cities will still get their planned new sporting venues, but it’s hard to see how this squares with his new view that the state has more pressing spending priorities.

So, just why has Andrews cancelled at this embarrassingly late stage?

He hasn’t said so, but it’s obvious. Because he spent so much coping with the pandemic, and the great debt this has left him with. He has no room left for spending on bread and circuses.

It’s now become common for cities to think twice about their plans to host Commonwealth or Olympic games – though not for them to leave it this late.

It’s noteworthy that Melbourne had no rivals in its bid for these games. And that no other Australia state is interested in filling the vacuum.

Why has hosting become less attractive? Because it’s finally dawning on cities that building so many new sporting venues – which will be little used after the games’ fortnight – is a waste of money that could have been spent on far more lasting and useful things.

But I doubt this means the days of these funfairs are numbered. The international controlling bodies will have to trim their demands for new facilities, and rotate the games between a few cities that have maintained adequate existing venues.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Don't let the political duopoly block the little guys

What could be better for democracy than taking the big money out of election campaigns? Both Victoria and NSW have made moves in this direction, but the feds have done nothing. Until now. The Albanese government’s working on plans for reform.

Last month, the parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, now chaired by Labor’s Kate Thwaites, tabled an interim report recommending sweeping reforms to the rules on donations to political parties.

Thwaites wrote that the evidence the committee heard allowed it to “develop clear goals for reform to increase transparency in election donations and curb the potentially corrupting influence of big money, to build the public’s trust in electoral and political processes, and to encourage participation in our elections”.

The committee proposes that limits (“caps”) be set on the maximum permissible donation and the maximum spending by election candidates. Caps would also apply to “third parties”, such as big organisations seeking to influence the election outcome.

The maximum donation that could be made without the donor’s identity having to be disclosed should be lowered from the present $15,200 to $1000. And the disclosure would have to be made at the time, not months later after the dust had settled.

The Labor majority report also urged a new system of increased public funding for parties and candidates in the light of the effect these changes might have in discouraging private donations.

The committee didn’t specify how the caps on donations and spending would work but left it for the government to decide.

Wow. Wouldn’t all that be an improvement? What’s not to like?

Well, I can think of a big risk. At present, the two major parties are at loggerheads, with the Coalition committee members issuing a minority report. They’re particularly – and rightly – opposed to Labor’s desire to regulate donations from big business while exempting donations from big unions.

But as I’ve written before – and will keep writing – the big political development of our time is not the continuing struggle between Labor and Liberal, but the continuing decline of the two-party system of government, as the bad behaviour of both sides turns an ever-growing proportion of voters away to the minor parties and independents.

I think it will become rare for one side to have a comfortable majority, and common to have a minority government. If so, whichever side forms government will be more dependent on winning the support of the crossbenchers – which, I hope, will make them more reformist.

My interest in this is not just that it affects the economic policies governments will be pursuing, but that economists have given much thought to the way small numbers of big firms – “oligopoly” – find ways to compete that are better for them and worse for their customers.

One thing economists know is that the two parties of a duopoly commonly settle into a carve-up of the market that makes life cosier for both of them.

Oligopolists collude – tacitly, of course, since overt collusion is illegal – to keep prices and profits high. This leaves them exposed to some new firm entering their market and taking business away from them by undercutting those excessive prices.

So oligopolists devote much attention to finding ways to raise barriers that stop interlopers entering their market. Often, this involves persuading governments to raise those barriers for them. All for the greater safety of the customer, naturally.

Do you see the parallel with the threat the teals pose to the Liberals, and the Greens pose to Labor? Except that, in the two big parties’ case, when they combine to repel intruders, they don’t have to extract a favour from the government because they are the government.

Surely, there’s some hidden solution to neuter those pesky minor parties that the two big guys could cook up?

Well, the teals, in particular, needed huge donations from badly dressed internet billionaires (and lesser mortals) to knock off so many sitting Liberal members. So maybe we can toughen up on donations in a way that wins much approval and looks even-handed without people noticing it’s disadvantaged the interlopers more than us.

If we have fewer funds from donations, but more public funding, that advantages the established parties because, although every candidate gets the same dollars per vote, the funding you have to spend in this election campaign was determined by how many votes you got last time.

Oh, you didn’t run last time? What a pity.

But that benefit is small compared with the advantages of being the incumbent. Sitting MPs and senators get better paid than most of us, but they also get electoral staff, cars, travel allowances, printing allowances and much else.

All this support is justified as helping the pollie give their constituents good service. But it’s easily diverted to helping them get re-elected. When pollies shake many hands at a school fĂȘte, are they just doing their job, or shoring up their vote? Both.

When the government comes up with its plans to reform election donations and spending, we’ll need to examine their implications carefully.

Read more >>

Monday, May 29, 2023

Gilding the budget lily: Labor brings in the creative accountants

This month’s budget is not as profligate as its critics claim, but nor is it the deficit-disappearing, penny-pinching budget it was tricked up to be.

When ministerial staffers use words to gild the fiscal lily, it’s called spin doctoring. When the government’s bureaucrats show the treasurer and, more particularly, the finance minister how to do it with numbers, it’s called creative accounting.

So, never fear, Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher didn’t need to pay PwC a motza to explain how to make the budget seem better than it was.

No, not the way the former NSW Coalition government paid KPMG to show it how to make its budget balance look better by moving the state’s trains off-budget. Nor has the same firm been paid by another part of the state government to write a report on why it was a bad idea.

There was something a bit odd about the media’s treatment of Chalmers’ second budget. Because the budget’s purpose is to reveal the government’s plans for taxing and spending in the coming financial year, the media give all their attention to the budget balance for the coming year.

Which, this time, is expected to be a deficit of $14 billion, rising to $35 billion the following year, with the budget projected to stay in deficit through to at least 2033-34.

Usually, the media ignore the estimated budget balance in the present financial year, which will end on June 30. It’s “old”. But not this year. This time, a surplus of $4 billion is expected.

Once the media got wind of a surplus, they lost interest in anything else. A surplus! First surplus in 15 years! What an achievement. And after being in power for only a year. How could you get more convincing proof of Labor’s skill as a manager of government finances?

Now, let’s be clear. The expected surplus is perfectly believable, and not the product of creative accounting. But it is the media displaying their economic ignorance.

For a start, in a budget of $630 billion a year, in an economy of $2600 billion a year, a surplus of a mere $4 billion is nothing to get excited about. It’s really a balanced budget, just as much as a deficit of $4 billion would be near enough to a balanced budget.

More significantly, the notion that any treasurer, no matter how wonderful, could turn an expected deficit of $78 billion into a surplus of $4 billion in the space of a year is fanciful. If any pollie should get the credit for it, it would have to be Chalmers’ Liberal predecessor, Josh Frydenberg.

Only he had enough time to do the things capable of helping produce such a result. With the benefit of hindsight, what Frydenberg did was greatly overstimulate the economy, adding to a surge in inflation as well as causing the unemployment rate to fall to 3.5 per cent so workers and businesses paid a lot more income tax.

Another way to look at it is that, had Treasury been better at forecasting, Frydenberg could have forecast a return to budget balance in his last budget.

But this didn’t stop Chalmers and his spin doctors from claiming the credit for himself. Consider this from the budget papers: “The improved fiscal outlook since October largely reflects government decisions to return tax upgrades to budget.”

Talk about twisting the truth. Chalmers wants to take all the credit because, confronted with an unexpected surge in tax collections of $88 billion, he only spent a bit of it.

But, surely, it was the silly media that made all the fuss about the surplus, not that nice young Mr Chalmers. Well, that’s certainly what his spin doctors want you to think – all the adulation came from the crowd.

But they were subtly pushing an easily distracted media in a favourable direction. Consider this. The usual practice in the construction of budget tables is to highlight the coming “budget year”. Not this time. This time it was the old year that got highlighted. So, the $4 billion surplus was shown in bold type, not the $14 billion deficit.

(By the way, as The Australian Financial Review has reported, had Frydenberg’s $690 million [yes, million] deficit in 2018-19 – the one that presaged all the Libs’ happy election talk about “back in black” – been calculated using the same accounting rules under which Chalmers’ surplus was calculated, it would have been a surplus of $7 billion. But no, this isn’t a fiddle, either. The decision to change the rules was made, in prospect, many years earlier by some finance minister named Penny Wong.)

Now we get to the creative accounting, which the Centre for Independent Studies’ Robert Carling, a former NSW Treasury officer, has pointed out. The budget papers make much of the claim that “the government’s spending restraint has limited real [note the real] payments growth to an average 0.6 per cent over five years from 2022-23 to 2026-27”.

Wow. Now that’s what I call restraint. What an achievement. Elsewhere in the papers we’re told that this compares with real average spending growth of about 4 per cent in the eight years before the global financial crisis, and 2.2 per cent over the eight years before the pandemic.

Wow. What restraint the Albanese government is showing. Except that pollies usually quote budget figures over the four years of the budget year plus three years of “forward estimates”. So, why is the 0.6 per cent an average over five years?

Because the extra year includes in the sum the pre-budget year ending in a month. And, purely by chance, real government spending in 2022-23 is expected to fall by 4.3 per cent.

By contrast, real spending in the coming year will grow by 3.7 per cent. Then comes projected annual real growth of 0.6 per cent, 1.9 per cent and 1 per cent.

Why the huge fall this year? Partly, I suspect, because of the effect of temporary pandemic spending programs coming to an end. But also because the indexation of various spending programs was lagging the huge rise in the consumer price index, which is the inflation measure used to calculate the “real” change.

What’s worth remembering from this little fiddle is: never trust calculations of average spending growth into the future. The first year will be close to the truth, but the projections for subsequent years will always be way too low because they’re based on the assumption of unchanged policies, whereas it’s certain that spending plans will have grown by the time we get there.

The first treasurer to con me with this averaging trick was Chalmers’ former boss, Wayne Swan. But Swan got his comeuppance by making himself a laughing-stock when he treated Treasury’s forecasts of future budget surpluses as in the bag. Turned out they weren’t.

The assumptions that policies won’t change and that targets will always be achieved are the reason the budget papers’ “medium-term” projections of deficits and debt 10 years into an unknowable future shouldn’t be taken seriously.

In both sense of the word, they are calculated to mislead.

Read more >>

Friday, May 19, 2023

Climate change will hurt, but we can still be the Lucky Country

What are we in for with climate change? How will it change the environment, the way we live and the way we earn our living? Is it all bad news for the economy, or is there some upside? And, by the way, how much is it costing us as taxpayers?

The previous federal government didn’t want to think about these questions, much less talk about them. You could read the budget papers each year and hardly find a mention.

But all that’s changed with the change of government. So, no surprise that last week’s budget has a lot in it about climate change.

In various parts of the budget papers, the Albanese government acknowledges that, with the globe already having warmed by an average of 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, global warming will continue changing our weather (short-term changes) and climate (longer-term patterns) for the rest of this century.

It will endanger more species and reduce biodiversity. It will adversely affect human health, with more days of extreme heat leading to more deaths of old people.

The productivity of labour and the number of hours worked are expected to decline as temperatures increase, particularly for people who work outdoors in agriculture, construction and some manufacturing.

Treasury expects farming yields to decline, and I expect that, over time, the production of different crops and the grazing of animals will migrate to the parts of Australia where the climate is less unsuitable.

Speaking of migration, you’d expect our population to grow faster where it’s relatively cooler, with fewer people wanting to live where it’s even hotter than it is today.

And that’s before you get to people – refugees, even – moving between countries in response to rising sea levels. Starting, in our case, with people from the islands of the South Pacific.

Treasury says the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters will also lead to reductions in the production of goods and services through disruptions to economic activity, and to the destruction of private property and road, bridge and rail infrastructure.

It shows that the value of insurance claims has steadily increased over the past decade, with temporary peaks caused by the floods in Queensland and NSW in March 2013, Cyclone Debbie and Sydney hailstorms in March 2017, then bushfires and hailstorms in NSW and the ACT in the last quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020.

So far, the greatest insurance claims – $6 billion-worth – were from the floods in south-east Queensland and NSW in the March quarter last year. Then there were (less costly) floods in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania late last year.

Treasury says our economy will be reshaped by both the physical impacts of climate change and by the efforts of the more than 150 countries that have now signed up to the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. What they do will affect us, plus what we ourselves do.

Australia is one of world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels, so we can expect our exports of coal and gas to decline steadily over the next decade or two, as our overseas customers reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions from burning the dirty fuel they bought from us.

Of course, not all of them will have their own plentiful sources of renewable energy. They’ll have to import it from somewhere, just as they’ve had to import our fossil fuels.

Which gives us an opening. As our great apostle of smart climate change, economics Professor Ross Garnaut, was first to realise, Australia’s huge expanse, full of sun and wind, means we’ll be able to produce far more renewable energy than we need for our own use. And do it cheaply.

Gosh, what good luck we’ve got. Turns out the move to renewables will give us a “comparative advantage” in international trade we didn’t know we had. All we’ve got to do is play our cards right and get in quick before other, less well-endowed countries sign up our potential customers.

The former government wasn’t interested but, as the budget papers make clear, the Albanese government is. The “net-zero transformation”, which represents one of the most significant shifts in the industrial structure of the economy since the Industrial Revolution, “holds major opportunities for Australia, given our endowment of renewable energy sources and our large reserves of many critical minerals,” the papers say.

There is a problem, however. As yet, there isn’t an economic way to ship raw clean electricity and green hydrogen across the sea to other countries.

But this could be a good thing. We can “embed” our renewable energy in our mineral exports by further processing our iron ore into green steel, and our bauxite into green aluminium, before we export them.

Whereas in the old, fossil fuel world the further processing of our minerals before export wasn’t “economic” (profitable) – in the renewables world it could well be economic.

Get it? We could give our declining manufacturing industry a whole new lease on life. What’s more, it would make economic sense to do the further processing out in the regions, close to the solar and wind farms generating the clean electricity.

Implementing such a transformation would require huge capital investment and risk-taking, the early part of which would have to come from the government.

So, yes, climate change – both the bad bits and the good bits – will come at a great cost to the budget, and thus to taxpayers.

The budget papers reveal the Albanese government planning to spend an extra $25 billion on new climate-related programs over several years in its first budget last October, and now a further $5 billion in last week’s budget. Don’t think that will be the last of it.

So, get ready to hand over more in taxes as the government seeks both to ameliorate the costs of climate change and turn the world’s energy transformation to our advantage.

At least now we’ve got a government willing to get off its backside.

Read more >>

Monday, May 15, 2023

Debt and deficit fixed in just Labor's second budget. Really?

Small things amuse small minds. Too many people have allowed their excitement over an expected budget surplus of a tiny $4 billion this financial year to distract them from noticing a much bigger deal.

Remember that mountain of government debt we ticked up fighting the pandemic? Now Treasurer Jim Chalmers tells us it’s more like a big hill. Remember the frightening spectre of the “structural” budget deficit? Not to worry, it’ll have disappeared in a decade – if you can believe it.

Assuming it happens, achieving an infinitesimally small, and one-off, surplus of $4 billion may be significant politically, but from an economic perspective, it’s not worth popping the champagne cork. In a budget worth $630 billion a year, in an economy worth $2600 billion a year, it’s no more than a rounding error.

No, what’s genuinely significant is not that magic word “surplus”; it’s that this time last year we were expecting a deficit of $78 billion. It’s the absence of another big deficit that’s the big deal. It represents the passage of a year in which we didn’t add to the existing public debt. And, as a consequence, didn’t add to the size of our annual interest bill every year until we’re all dead.

What’s more, the absence of a deficit this year suggests the expected deficits for the next few years will also be smaller than we thought. So next year will see not just a smaller than expected annual interest bill, but a smaller than expected addition to the debt, and thus an even smaller than expected addition to the following year’s interest bill, and so on and on forever.

Well, in principle, anyway. What this news also shows is how hopeless Treasury (and all economists) are at predicting the future.

Next, note that this year’s expected deficit disappeared not thanks to Chalmer’s superior management, but thanks to Treasury’s failure to realise how strong the economy would be. More people are in jobs and paying tax (and not needing to be paid the dole).

Company profits are up, as is the tax they pay. Export commodity prices have stayed higher than Treasury was expecting, so mining companies’ taxes are well up. And remember this: inflation causes taxes to rise faster than government spending does.

But though nothing Chalmers did caused the big improvement, he’d like a round of applause for not spending much of the extra dosh.

And he’s got some very impressive news he’d love me to tell you about. Treasury hasn’t just produced revised forecasts for the financial year just ending and for the budget year 2023-34, it’s done “projections” for a further three years. It’s also made “medium-term” projections right out to 2033-34.

What they show is truly amazing. Unbelievable, even. The budget papers say the absence of the formerly expected $78 billion deficit this financial year, and consequent improvement in forecasts for the following few years, “will avoid $83 billion in interest payments over the 12 years to 2033-34. It also means [the government’s] gross [public] debt, as a share of gross domestic product, will be 7.1 percentage points lower in 2033-34.”

That bit you can believe. It’s just compound interest – which, of course, works in reverse for a borrower rather than a saver.

Now it gets hairy. The Albanese government’s various decisions to limit the growth in government spending mean real spending growth is now “expected to average 0.6 per cent a year over the five years [to] 2026-27”.

This compares with average real (inflation-adjusted) spending growth of about 4 per cent in the eight years before the global financial crisis of 2008, and 2.2 per cent a year over the eight years to 2018-19, before the pandemic.

Really? That’s a truly Herculean achievement. And with so little blood on the floor.

What used to be a mountain of debt is now just a big hill. Phew. And we thought it was only Scott Morrison who could call forth miracles.

Except, of course, that it hasn’t been achieved. It’s just “projected” to happen. All those other averages are “actuals” whereas, the unbelievable 0.6 per cent is simply a projection.

Projections are based on assumptions, which are then mechanically multiplied out, year after year. One assumption is that the economy, and the budget, will just move in a straight line over the next five years, with nothing unexpected – say, a pandemic or a recession – blowing us off course.

The five-year projection says the gross public debt is now expected to peak at 36.5 per cent of GDP in June 2026. Now, get this: this would be 10.4 percentage points lower, and five years earlier, than projected just seven months ago in Labor’s first budget.

And if you keep cranking the projection handle, the public debt “will” (their word) be down to 32.3 per cent of GDP by June 2034.

Next, remember all the economists wringing their hands over the “structural” budget deficit? This is the part of the budget balance that’s left when you take out the part that’s just the product of where the economy happens to be in the business cycle at the time.

The balance will look good when you’re at the top of the boom (as we are now) and bad when you’re at the bottom of a recession (as we may be in a year or two). The structural deficit or surplus is a calculation of what the balance would be if we were in the dead middle of the cycle, neither up nor down.

In Chalmers’ first budget, last October, Treasury took its projection of the budget balance out 10 years, and estimated the structural component to be steady at a deficit of about 2 per cent of GDP.

That’s $50 billion a year in today’s dollars. A medium-size economy with a big debt can’t live with that. We have to get it down, so we’re well placed to borrow heavily in the next recession or pandemic.

Well, has Chalmers got good news for those economist worrywarts. Seven months later, the projection (budget paper No. 1, page 131) shows the structural deficit steadily withering away until it reaches almost nothing in 2033-34.

So, how did Chalmers magic it away? Assumptions, dear boy, assumptions. For years, the biggest single program driving the growth in government spending has been the explosive growth in the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But the government has decided to take steps to limit its growth to a mere 8 per cent a year. The projections are based on mechanically projecting “existing policy”, so the 8 per cent target – which may or may not be achieved – is baked in.

Take that monumentally optimistic assumption, add further optimism about restraint in other spending areas, allow them to magnify the believable bit (that a disappeared deficit right at the beginning of the projection significantly reduces our formerly expected interest payments over a decade) and you’ve eliminated the problem.

If only reality was as easy.

Read more >>

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Why I'm happy to bang the drum for higher wages

I’ve long believed that no government – state or federal, Liberal or Labor – should be in office for more than a decade before being put out to pasture. But I can’t say the demise of the 12-year-old Perrottet government in NSW filled me with joy.

Liberal-led governments have been falling like ninepins. But this one happened to be the only one genuinely committed to limiting climate change, improving early childhood education and care, and getting more women into politics (even if its party members weren’t playing ball).

The best thing about Dom Perrottet’s departure is the end of his cap on the size of public sector pay rises. Its removal will add to pressure for higher public sector wages in the other states – particularly Victoria – and at federal level.

It will even put a bit of upward pressure on wage rates in the private sector.

If you wonder why pay rises have been so small over the past decade, government wage caps – in Labor states as well as Liberal – are part of the reason. They’ve reduced the price competition for workers throughout the economy.

But don’t take my word for it. When he was desperate to get inflation up to his 2 to 3 per cent target range, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said the same.

In NSW, public sector wage rises were capped at 2.5 per cent in 2011. Only when the inflation rate started heading to 8 per cent was it lifted to 3 per cent.

There’s never a shortage of people predicting that higher wage rates will lead to death and destruction. Many Canberra lobbyists make a good living crying poor on behalf of the nation’s employers.

I’m sure there must be some businesses somewhere doing it tough, but you don’t see much evidence of it in the business pages of this august organ. The reverse, in fact.

But won’t higher wages just lead to higher prices? Yes, but not to the extent it suits business groups to claim. Wages and other labour costs don’t account for anything like the majority of the costs most businesses face.

If all firms do is pass on their higher labour costs, all it will do is slow our return to low inflation. It’s when firms use the cover of the highly publicised rises in their costs to add a bit extra to their price rises that inflation takes off.

But that’s less likely now the Reserve Bank is jacking up interest rates to slow the economy down. It won’t say so, but it’s hitting the brakes precisely because businesses were getting a bit too willing with their price rises.

Certainly, it’s not because wage rises have been too high. Few if any workers have been getting – or are likely to get – wage rises anything like as high as the rise in prices.

That’s likely to be true even for the “frontline” nurses and teachers in NSW, whose unions will be celebrating the end of the wage cap by hitting Premier Chris Minns for big increases.

It will be least true for the bottom quarter of workers dependent on the national minimum wage and the range of minimum wage rates set out in awards, who are likely to be awarded decent pay rises by the Fair Work Commission, as they were last year.

We can’t possibly afford that? Really? Nah. “If you made a list of all the things that are giving us this inflation challenge in our economy, low-paid workers getting paid too much wouldn’t be on that list,” Treasurer Jim Chalmers has said.

Why am I happy to bang the drum for higher wages? Because, as any year 11 economics student could tell you, the economy is circular.

Business people may begrudge every cent they pay their workers, but they’re pretty pleased to have all those dollars back when the nation’s households front up at their counters.

A big part of managing a capitalist economy involves saving short-sighted business people from their folly.

As for minuscule public sector pay caps, ask yourself why it’s fair enough to expect people who work for the government to accept lower rates of pay. Because they’re second-class citizens? Because they stand around leaning on shovels?

Because they’re not as smart as the rest of us? Well, if you go on doing that for long enough, you probably do end up with the cream of the crop going to higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Which means it’s not just a matter of fairness. Underpay your nurses and teachers and then wonder why you can’t get enough recruits.

Yes, but how will Minns possibly pay for those higher wages? He could cut the number of nurses and teachers he can afford to employ, but I doubt he will.

No, he’ll do what a business would do: raise his prices. Except that, in government, prices are called taxes. You want the workers? You pay the going rate. It’s the capitalist way.

Read more >>

Friday, February 24, 2023

How about sharing the economic pain arround?

If you don’t like what’s happening to interest rates, remember that although the managers of the economy have to do something to reduce inflation, it’s not a case of what former British prime minister Maggie Thatcher called TINA – there is no alternative.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe acknowledged during his appearance before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics last week, there are other ways of stabilising the strength of demand (spending) and avoiding either high inflation or high unemployment, which are worth considering for next time.

So, relying primarily on “monetary policy” – manipulating interest rates – is just a policy choice we and the other advanced economies made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the arrival of “stagflation” – high unemployment and high inflation at the same time – caused economists to lose faith in the old way of smoothing demand, which was to rely primarily on “fiscal policy” – manipulation of taxation and government spending in the budget.

The economic managers have a choice between those two “instruments” or tools with which smooth demand. The different policy tools have differing sets of strengths and weaknesses.

Whereas back then we were very aware of the weaknesses of fiscal policy, today we’re aware of the weaknesses of monetary policy, particularly the way it puts a lot more pain on people with home loans than on the rest of us. How’s that fair?

Lowe says the conventional wisdom is to use monetary policy for “cyclical” (short-term) problems and fiscal policy for “structural” (lasting) problems, such as limiting government debt.

But it’s time to review what economists call “the assignment of instruments” – which tool is better for which job. The more so because the government has commissioned a review of the Reserve Bank’s performance for the first time since we moved to monetary policy dominance.

It’s worth remembering that the change of regime was made at a time when Thatcher and other rich-country leaders were under the influence of the US economist Milton Friedman and his “monetarism”, which held that inflation was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” and could be controlled by limiting the growth in the supply of money.

It took some years of failure before governments and central banks realised both ideas were wrong. They switched back to the older and less exciting notion that increasing interest rates, by reducing demand, would eventually reduce inflation. There was no magic, painless way to do it.

Macroeconomists long ago recognised that using policy tools to manage demand was subject to three significant delays (“lags”). First there’s the “recognition lag” – the time it takes the econocrats and their bosses to realise there’s a problem and decide to act.

Then there’s the “implementation lag” – the delay while the policy change is put into effect. Lowe described the cumbersome process of cabinet deciding what changes to make to what taxes or spending programs. Then getting them passed by both houses, then waiting a few weeks or months for the bureaucrats to get organised before start day.

He compared this unfavourably with monetary policy’s super-short implementation delay: the Reserve Bank board meets every month and decides what change to make to the official interest rate, which takes immediate effect.

He’s right. While the two policy tools would have the same recognition lag, monetary policy wins hands down on implementation lag.

But on the third delay, the “response lag” – the time it takes for the measure, once begun, to work its way through the economy and have the desired effect on demand – monetary policy is subject to “long and variable lags”.

Lowe said it took interest rate changes 18 months to two years to have their full effect. But I say most budgetary changes – particularly tax changes – wouldn’t take nearly that long. So, that’s a win for fiscal.

The sad truth is that measures to strengthen demand by cutting interest rates, or cutting taxes and increasing government spending, are always popular with voters, whereas measures to weaken demand by raising interest rates, or raising taxes and cutting government spending, are always unpopular.

This meant politicians were always reluctant to increase interest rates when they needed to, Lowe said. This is a good argument for giving the job to the econocrats at the central bank and making them independent of the elected government.

This became standard practice in the rich economies, although we didn’t formalise it until the arrival of the Howard government in 1996. Lowe advanced this as a good reason to stick with monetary policy as the dominant tool for short-term stabilisation of demand.

Against that, using monetary policy to get to the rest of us indirectly via enormous pressure on the third of households with mortgages shares the burden in a way that’s arbitrary and unfair.

What’s more, it’s not very effective. Because such a small proportion of the population is directly affected, the increase in interest rates has to be that much bigger to achieve the desired restraint in overall consumer spending.

But if the economic managers used a temporary percentage increase in income tax, or the GST, to discourage spending, this would directly affect almost all households. It would be fairer and more effective because the increase could be much smaller.

Various more thoughtful economists – including Dr Nicholas Gruen and Professor Ross Garnaut – have proposed such a tool, which could be established by legislation and thus be quickly activated whenever needed.

A special body could be set up to make these decisions independent of the elected government. Ideally, it would also have control over interest rates, so one institution was making sure the two instruments were working together, not at cross purposes.

Another possibility is Keynes’ idea of using a temporary rate of compulsory saving – collected by the tax office – to reduce spending when required, without imposing any lasting cost on households.

They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s obvious now that macroeconomic management needs a lot of fixing.


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Monday, December 12, 2022

Who knew? The price of better government is higher taxes

Have you noticed? Since the change of government, the politicians have become a lot franker about the budgetary facts of life. And now the Parliamentary Budget Office has spelt it out: it’s likely that taxes will just keep rising over the next 10 years.

The great temptation for politicians of all colours is to make sure we don’t join the budgetary dots. On one hand, they’re going to improve childcare and health and education, do a better job on aged care and various other things. On the other, they’ll cut taxes.

In short, they’ve discovered a way to make two and two add to three.

The attraction of that relatively new institution, the Parliamentary Budget Office, is that it reports to the Parliament, meaning it’s independent of the elected government. Each year, sometime after the government has produced its budget, the office takes the decisions and figurings and examines whether they are sustainable over the “medium term” – an econocrats’ term for the next 10 years.

They do this by accepting the government’s present policies and mechanically projecting them forward for a further six years beyond the budget’s published figures for the budget year and the following three financial years of “forward estimates”.

Note that these mechanical projections are just projections – just arithmetic. They’re not forecasts of what will happen. No one but God knows what will happen to the economy over the next year, let alone the next 10.

No one putting together the Morrison government’s pre-election budget of April 2019 – the one saying the budget would soon be “back in black” – foresaw that the arrival of a pandemic 11 months later would knock it out of the ballpark, for instance.

Projections don’t attempt to forecast what will happen. Rather, they move the budget figures forward based on plausible assumptions about what the key economic variables – population growth, inflation, for instance – may average over the projection period.

So, projections are not what will happen, but what might happen if the government left its present policies unchanged for 10 years. They give us an idea of what changes in policy are likely to be needed.

Media reporting of the budget office’s latest medium-term projections focused on its finding that, if there are no further tax cuts beyond the stage three cuts legislated for July 2024, the government’s collections of personal income tax may have risen 76 per cent by 2032-33.

The average rate of income tax paid by all taxpayers is projected to reach 25.5 cents in the dollar before the stage three tax cut drops it to 24.1 cents. But then it could have risen to 26.4 cents by 2032-33 – which would be an all-time high.

Why? Bracket creep. Income is taxed in slices, with the slices taxed at progressively higher rates. So, as income rises over time, a higher proportion of it is taxed at higher rates, thus pushing up the average rate of tax on all the slices.

Like the sound of that? No. Which is why the media gave it so much prominence. But there’s much more to be understood about that prospect before you start writing angry letters to your MP.

The first is that, according to the projections, even with such unrestrained growth in income tax collections, the rise in total government revenue wouldn’t be sufficient to stop the budget deficit growing a bit, year after year.

Why not? Because of the strong projected growth in government spending. That’s the first thing to register: the reason tax collections are likely to rise so strongly is that government spending is expected to rise so strongly.

Why? Because that’s what we want. The pollies know we want more and better government services – which is why no election passes without both sides promising to increase spending on this bauble and that.

What neither side ever does in an election campaign is present the bill: “we’re happy to spend more on your favourite causes but, naturally, you’ll have to pay more tax to cover it”. Indeed, they often rustle up a small tax cut to give you the opposite impression: that taxes can go down while spending goes up.

The budget office’s projections suggest that total government spending will rise from 26.2 per cent of gross domestic product in the present financial year to 27.3 per cent in 2032-33. This may not seem much, but it’s huge.

Nominal GDP – the dollar value of the nation’s total production of goods and services, and hence, the nation’s income – grows each year in line with population growth, inflation and any real increase in our average standard of living. So, for government spending to rise relative to GDP, it must be growing faster even than the economy is growing.

Briefly, the spending growth is explained by continuing strong growth in spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the growing interest bill on the government’s debt, and the rising cost of aged care.

This being so, there seems little doubt we’ll be paying a bit more tax – a higher proportion of our income – most years over the coming 10, and probably long after that.

But that’s not to say things will pan out in the way described by the budget office and as trumpeted by the media. For a start, it’s unlikely any government would go for six years without a tax cut.

It’s true that governments of both colours rely heavily on bracket creep – aka “the secret tax of inflation” – to square the circles they describe during election campaigns; to ensure two and two still add up to four.

But they’re not so stupid as never to show themselves going through the motions of awarding a modest tax cut every so often – confident in the knowledge that continuing bracket creep will claw it back soon enough.

The next point is that the overall average tax rates the budget office quotes are potentially misleading. Every individual taxpayer has their own average rate of tax, with high income-earners having a much higher average than people with low incomes.

But when the budget office works out the average for all taxpayers – the average of all the averages, so to speak – you get a number that accurately described the position of surprisingly few people. It’s like the joke about the statistician who, with his head in the oven and his feet in the fridge, said that, on average, he was perfectly comfortable.

There are plenty of things a government could do to reduce the tax concessions for high income-earners (like me) and to slant any tax cuts in favour of people in the bottom half, which would allow it to raise much the same revenue as the budget office envisages without raising the average tax rate paid by the average (that is, the median) individual taxpayer by nearly as much as the budget office’s figures suggest.

Fearless prediction: just such thinking will be what leads the Albanese government to make a start next year by rejigging the size and shape of the stage three tax cuts.

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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.

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Monday, October 31, 2022

Memo RBA board: Time to stop digging in deeper on interest rates

If, as seems likely, the combined might of the advanced economies’ central banks pushes the world into recession, the biggest risk isn’t that they’ll drag us down too, but that our Reserve Bank will raise our own interest rates too far.

That’s the message to us – and everyone else – from the International Monetary Fund’s repeated warnings about the unexpected consequences of “synchronised tighten” by the big economies – America, Europe and, in its own way, China, all jamming on the brakes at the same time.

Synchronised macro-policy shifts are a relatively new problem in our more globalised world economy. Until the global financial crisis of 2008, world recessions tended to roll from one country to the next. Since then, everyone tends to start contracting – or stimulating – at the same time.

When you were stimulating while your trading partners weren’t, much of your stimulus would “leak” to their economies, via your higher imports. But, as we learnt in the fight to counter the Great Recession, when everyone’s stimulating together, your leakage to them is offset by their leakage to you, thus making your stimulus stronger than you were expecting.

The fund’s warning is that we’re now about to learn that the same thing happens in reverse when everyone’s hitting the brakes – budgetary as well as monetary – together. Synchronisation will make your efforts to restrain demand (spending on goods and services) more potent than you were expecting.

So the fund’s message to us is: when you’re judging how high interest rates have to go to get inflation heading back down to the target, err on of side to doing too little.

But there are four other factors saying the Reserve should be wary of pushing rates higher. The first is Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ confirmation in last week’s budget that the “stance” of his fiscal policy has also switched from expansionary to restrictive, and so is now adding to the restraint coming from tighter monetary policy.

Chalmers has cut back the Coalition’s spending programs to make room for Labor’s new spending plans, while “banking” the temporary surge in tax revenue arising from the war-caused jump in world energy prices, and the success of the Coalition’s efforts to return us to full employment.

As a result, the budget deficit has fallen from a peak of $134 billion (equivalent to 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product) in 2020-21, to $32 billion (1.4 per cent) in the year to this June. The present financial year should see that progress largely retained, with the deficit rising only a little.

What’s more, the government’s already acting on its intention to force our greedy gas producers to raise their prices by a lot less than has been assumed in the budget’s inflation forecasts.

Second, the Reserve’s efforts to reduce aggregate (total) demand by using the higher cost of borrowing to reduce domestic demand, will be added to by the other central banks’ efforts to reduce our “net external demand” (exports minus imports).

What’s more, the expected further big fall in house prices will help reduce domestic demand by making home owners feel a lot less well-off than they were (the “wealth effect”).

Third – and this is a big point – the restrictive effect of the Reserve’s higher interest rates will be massively reinforced by the “cost-of-living squeeze” (aka the huge fall in real wages). Comparing the wage price index with the consumer price index, real wages fell by 2 per cent over the year to June 2021, and by an unbelievable 3.5 per cent to June this year.

Now the budget’s predicting a further fall of 2 per cent to June next year, with only the tiniest gain by June 2024.

This is an unprecedented blow to households’ income. It just about guarantees an imminent return to weak consumer spending. And it’s a much bigger blow than the big advanced economies have suffered, suggesting our central bank should be going easier on rate rises than theirs.

The final factor saying the Reserve should be wary of pushing rates higher is “lags”. As top international economist Olivier Blanchard reminded us in a recent Twitter thread, monetary policy affects the inflation rate with a variable delay of maybe six to 18 months.

This says you should stop tightening about a year before you see any hard evidence that inflation has peaked and started falling. Wait for that evidence, and you’re certain to have hit the economy too hard, causing the recession we didn’t have to have.

But to stop tightening before the money market know-alls think you should takes great courage.

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Friday, October 28, 2022

Budget will reduce need for increases in interest rates

When the economy’s needs have switched from stimulus to restraint, it helps to get in new economic managers, who can reverse their predecessors’ direction with zeal rather than embarrassment.

The need for economic policy to change course became clear only during this year’s election campaign, when the Reserve Bank’s concern about rapidly rising inflation prompted it to make the first of many rises in the official interest rate.

So this week’s second go at a budget for the present financial year was needed not just to accommodate a new government with different policies and preferences, but to change the budget’s direction from push-forward, to pull-back.

In just those few months, we changed from “gee, aren’t we roaring along” to “gosh, we better slow down quick”. One moment we’re seeing how low we can get the rate of unemployment, the next we’re jacking up interest rates in a struggle to get inflation down.

A drawback of living in a market economy is that it moves through a “business cycle” of alternating boom and bust. The role of the economic managers is to “stabilise” – or smooth out - the demand for goods and services, cutting off the peaks and filling in the troughs.

The problem with booms is that as demand (spending) starts running ahead of supply (production), it pushes up prices and the inflation rate. The problem with troughs is that as demand falls behind supply, businesses start sacking workers and unemployment rises.

The macro managers use two “instruments” to smooth the cycle’s ups and downs: the budget (“fiscal policy”) and interest rates (“monetary policy”).

With the budget, they increase government spending and cut taxes to add to demand and so reduce unemployment. They cut government spending and increase taxes to reduce demand and so reduce the rate of inflation.

With interest rates, the Reserve Bank cuts them to encourage borrowing and spending by households, so as to reduce unemployment. It increases them to discourage borrowing and spending by households and so reduce inflation.

So, which of the two policy levers should you use?

A new conventional wisdom has emerged among top American academic economists that, because of the two levers’ contrasting strengths and weaknesses – and because interest rates are so much closer to zero than they used to be - you should use fiscal policy to boost demand, but monetary policy to hold it back.

This more discriminating approach has yet to become the accepted wisdom, however. The old wisdom is that monetary policy is the better tool to use for both stimulus and restriction.

The budget’s “automatic stabilisers” (mainly bracket creep and unemployment benefits) should be free to help monetary policy in its “counter-cyclical” role, but discretionary, politician-caused changes in government spending and taxes should be used only in emergencies, such as recessions.

So expansionary fiscal policy did much of the heavy lifting during the pandemic – hence the huge budget deficits and addition to government debt.

But now the Reserve and monetary policy have taken the lead in slowing demand within Australia, so it doesn’t add to the higher prices we’re importing from abroad, thanks to the pandemic-caused supply chain disruptions and the Russian-war-caused leap in fuel prices.

The conventional wisdom also says that, whatever you do, never have the two policy tools pulling in opposite directions rather than together.

If you’re mad enough to have the budget strengthening demand when the independent central bank wants it to weaken, all you do is prompt the bankers to lift interest rates that much higher. This is the “monetary policy reaction function”. One way of saying the central bankers always have the trump card.

Which brings us to this week’s budget redux. How did Treasurer Jim Chalmers play his cards? He did what he thought he could to get the budget deficit as low as possible and so back up monetary policy’s efforts to reduce demand. He’s no doubt hoping this will reduce the need for many more interest-rate increases.

First, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher hacked away at the Morrison government’s new spending programs, so that Labor’s promised new spending could take their place with little net addition to expected government spending over this financial year and the following three.

This wasn’t particularly hard because most of the Coalition’s plans were politically driven, and most hadn’t got going before government changed hands in May.

Second, the same attack on Ukraine that’s causing household electricity and gas bills to rocket has also caused the profits of Australian gas and coal exporters to rocket, along with their company tax bills.

As well, the Coalition’s success in getting employment up and unemployment down has caused a surge in income tax collections.

This huge boost to government revenue isn’t expected to last, so Chalmers has decided to “bank” almost all of it rather than spend it. That is, use it to reduce the budget deficit.

The budget in March expected a budget deficit for the year to this June of $80 billion. Thanks mainly to the tax windfall, it came in at $32 billion, a huge improvement, equivalent to more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

The deficit for this year was expected to be $78 billion, but now $37 billion is expected, an improvement of almost 2 per cent of GDP. Next financial year, 2023-24, has gone from $57 billion to $44 billion.

So, the budget deficit is expected to fall continuously from a peak of $134 billion (6.5 per cent of GDP) in 2020-21 to $37 billion (1.5 per cent) this financial year.

That’s enough to convince me the “stance” of fiscal policy is now restrictive. I reckon it’s also enough to convince Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe that fiscal policy is co-operating in the effort to restrain demand and control inflation.

One small problem. After this year, the deficit’s projected to start drifting back up, and stay at about 2 per cent of GDP until at least 2032-33.

Oh dear. Why? Tell you next week.

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