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A surplus of stupidity

December 6th, 2012

When commentators as disparate as me, Warwick McKibbin, Bernie Fraser, ACOSS the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia are all in agreement, it might be time for the government, and the opposition to start paying attention. At this point, I doubt that there is a single credible economist who thinks that the government’s promise to return the budget to surplus this financial year is a good idea. Yet the Treasurer remains absolutely committed, and the Opposition is ready to denounce him if we miss the target by even a single dollar.

To restate the case, it’s clear that growth is slowing, and, as usual in these circumstances, monetary policy is becoming less effective. In cases like this, fiscal policy ought to be moderately stimulatory, or at least left neutral, so that the automatic stabilizers (declining revenue and increasing welfare payments) are left to cushion the impact of a slowdown. Instead, thanks to this absurd pledge, the government is committed to matching every reduction in economic activity (and therefore in the budget balance) with its own cuts or tax surcharges.

Obviously, the reasoning here is political not economic. The government suffered badly from the gratuitous “no carbon tax” promise[1] made before the 2010 election. To dump the equally gratuitous “early return to surplus” promise would involve a whole world of pain. And of course Tony Abbott cares nothing at all about good policy, unless it’s defined as policy that will make him PM. So, we have the politicians united on one side of the debate, and everyone who has any idea of economic reality on the other.

fn1. Feel free to parse this in comments, but the fact remains that the Rudd government was elected with a strong commitment to carbon pricing, which Labor then dumped in a loss of nerve before the 2010 and was forced back to (something like) its original position by the election outcome. In this context, the question of whether a specific promise was made and broken is of secondary intersest.

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