The Government today appointed its Commission of Audit into the functions of government. The terms of reference are here.
I’d like to take a look at a few of the premises of the terms of reference.
The West Australian has a scoop today on one possible policy that could emerge from the new Government’s Commission of Audit:
The university education debt of millions of Australians could be sold off under a proposal to be examined by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s inquiry into the state of the nation’s finances.
In a move that could boost the Budget bottom line, up to $23 billion of outstanding Higher Education Contribution Scheme debt would be effectively privatised under a plan that has already won support in some financial circles.
One proposal that has backing in the financial sector is to convert the $22.6 billion in HECS debt held by 1.6 million Australians into a financial product. In a process called securitisation, the responsibility for HECS debts would be bought by the private sector and then sold to investors.
Three types of blog posts I’m sick of writing, and I’m sure you’re sick of reading, are generic defences of the Fair Work Act, angry screeds against predictable partisanship from The Australian, and basic summaries of labour force data. Yet every time I swear to myself that I’m going to take a break from each of these genres, someone writes something that gets me sufficiently riled up that I feel compelled to respond. John Black’s piece in yesterday’s Oz, titled ‘Workers at the mercy of a jittery economy‘, ticked all the boxes. He uses a highly selective and skewed bundle of labour force data to try to make the case that the Fair Work Act is the cause of rising unemployment. Here’s my response.
John Howard’s biographer, David Barnett, has a piece in the Drum today arguing against the use of fiscal stimulus in recessions and against Keynesianism in general. Setting aside the philosophical and theoretical arguments he makes, I’d like to examine his empirical claim, namely that fiscal stimulus has not worked, and the somewhat peculiar methodology by which he comes to this conclusion.
“It hasn’t worked…. In Australia, unemployment has just gone up, instead of down. At 5.4 per cent it is more than a percentage point higher than it was when the Howard-Costello government went out of office. That is around another 130,000 people without jobs.”
He knows, or should know, that the appropriate comparison isn’t between what was and what is, but rather between what is and what otherwise would have been. To assess the efficacy of a particular course of action we need to know the counterfactual: what would unemployment be today if the government had not implemented its fiscal stimulus? Economists can and do differ about the answer to that question, but to evade it entirely by making a comparison between 2007 and 2010 and thereby imply that all other things remain equal is disingenuous at best.
Interestingly, though, Barnett seeks to establish a counterfactual of sorts by drawing a comparison with Canada. He praises the Canadian Government, saying “Canada did not stimulate. The Canadian government responded to the GFC by cutting back on its expenditure. Canadian exports rose”. Notice how he shifts the goal posts, using exports rather than unemployment as the metric to evaluate the efficacy of macroeconomic policy.
Nevertheless, his argument about Canada provides us with the opportunity to follow Barnett’s own chosen methodology by comparing 2007 (pre-crisis) unemployment with present unemployment and imputing the difference to a failing of public policy. To be clear, I think this approach is not particularly useful, but Barnett seems to be of the view that it is appropriate, so we will follow it.
If we follow this approach, we see that unemployment increased by a greater amount in Canada than in Australia, off a higher base, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the labour force.
|Unemployment rate – November 2007||Unemployment rate – October 2010||Number of additional unemployed people|
So, on that measure, it certainly seems odd to suggest that a simple comparison of pre-crisis and post-crisis macroeconomic aggregates in Canada and Australia demonstrates the folly of fiscal stimulus.
But what if we accept Barnett’s suggestion that it is international trade that should be the barometer of policy success or failure? Well, our balance on goods and services (our exports less imports) looks pretty healthy to me:
Like most people I know, I’m obsessed with the Wire. I’ve watched the entire five-series set from start to finish twice, and I’m itching to do it again. One of the strengths of the show is the way it manages to make extremely powerful political points in a subtle way – characters don’t give moralising sermons that are directed at the audience. Instead, we’re left to see for ourselves how the interconnected web of rotting institutions that comprise David Simon’s Baltimore conspire to keep its citizens down.
One of the more heartbreaking storylines concerns the Baltimore school system, which is depicted as a bleak, bureaucratic wasteland in which talented students, teachers and administrators labour in vain to overcome the inherent limitations of the system. A big part of the problem is simple: money. Specifically, they don’t have enough of it.
The school system’s lack of money, in turn, is due to the structure of the American tax system. In the US, a lot of the functions of government like education are devolved to the local level. The amount of money that’s available for schools, police and all the other vital functions of government therefore depends on the amount of tax revenue that the local government is able to raise. That means that poor areas, in which few people work and there are no significant businesses, can’t devote much money to these services, simply because the tax base isn’t there. Thus begins the horrible vicious circle in which poor areas stay poor.
In Australia, we’ve sought to overcome this problem by equalising the funds available between states. The idea is that each state or territory should have enough resources to fund an equal standard of government services, so that citizens can expect decent schools and hospitals no matter which state they happen to live in. This principle is known as “horizontal fiscal equalisation” and it underlies the Commonwealth Grants Commission’s calculations of the share of GST revenue that each state will receive. Formally, the CGC defines horizontal fiscal equalisation as:
a distribution of GST revenue to State governments such that, after allowing for material factors affecting revenues and expenditures, each would have the fiscal capacity to provide services and their associated infrastructure at the same standard, if each made the same effort to raise revenue from its own sources, operated at the same level of efficiency and maintained the average per capita net financial worth.
Behind that dense, nearly impenetrable fog of bureaucratic obfuscation is the simple idea that all Australians should be able to expect decent government services. In practice, this means that wealthier areas, which can derive a lot of extra revenue from activities like mining, transfer funds to states without the same ability to raise their own revenue. The Northern Territory is the prime recipient state, but Tasmania and South Australia both also receive more GST revenue than their citizens pay.
With the mining boom in full swing, the West Australian government is able to raise a lot of revenue from mining royalties, as well as from increased payroll taxes and stamp duties. That means that its citizens pay more in GST than the state receives back from the Grants Commission, as some of the funds are sent to the Northern Territory and elsewhere.
Colin Barnett, the WA Premier, does not support this system. He has suggested that WA’s diminishing share of the GST funds could incite a “Tea Party style revolt” in the West. Let’s set aside the fact that WA still received more GST revenue than its citizens paid as recently as 2005/06, when the rivers of royalty gold were already flowing strongly into State Treasury’s coffers. Let’s also forget the inconvenient truth that the Grants Commission and the principle of horizontal fiscal equalisation were created for WA’s benefit when the state was a struggling economic minnow back in the 1920s.
Barnett’s position is morally reprehensible not just for its hypocrisy, but for its callousness. The notion that there should be a special deal to allow WA to retain a greater proportion of its GST payments would imply, necessarily, that WA residents would be entitled to expect better quality schools and hospitals than residents of poorer states. Poor kids in the Northern Territory or Tasmania would have a lower quality education than citizens lucky enough to be born in WA, thus further entrenching and amplifying regional inequalities in future generations.
It’s this sort of ruthless indifference to poorer areas that underpins the American approach, illustrated so vividly on the Wire. I’m not claiming that a recalibrated Commonwealth Grants Commission funding formula would lead us to a situation like Simon’s Baltimore, but I am suggesting that any deviation from the principle of citizens’ equal entitlement to government services would be a disastrous and repugnant step, however tentative, in that direction.
Until January this year, I had never lived anywhere other than Perth. It’s a great city and a great state, but the collective indignation about the state’s share of GST revenue is unedifying and does the state no credit.