Archive for the ‘Economic policy’ Category

The Australian exception (crosspost from Crooked Timber Piketty seminar)

January 2nd, 2016 20 comments

Note I wrote two pieces in response to Piketty’s Capital . This one, on Australia, was based on one already published here, but I was asked to crosspost it and I’ve now done so.

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Categories: Books and culture, Economic policy Tags:

Do we need a global tax to stop rising inequality (crosspost from Crooked Timber seminar on Piketty)

December 30th, 2015 33 comments

One of the more depressing features of Capital in the 21st Century is the air of inevitability attached to the much-discussed r > g inequality. This is exacerbated, on the whole, by the fact that Piketty’s proposed policy response, a progressive global tax on wealth, seems obviously utopian.

What about a much simpler alternative: increasing the rate of income tax applied to the very rich, and removing preferential treatment of capital income? Piketty’s own work with Saez yields the conclusion that the socially optimal top marginal rate of taxation, after taking account of incentive effects, would be 70 per cent or more. Such rates prevailed, at least nominally, in the mid-20th century, without obvious ill effects. Again, Piketty provides the relevant evidence.

So, is there something about a globalised world economy that renders a return to high marginal rates of taxation impossible?

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Bracket creep: How to get the answer you want

December 23rd, 2015 18 comments

NATSEM recently released modelling showing that discretionary tax cuts have more than offset bracket creep since 2005 (that is, taxes are lower than if the income tax scales had been indexed to the CPI or a wage index). The Centre for Independent Studies replied with a study pointing out that you get the opposite conclusion by looking at the period since 2013. Why 2013?

We chose 2013 as the starting year because this is when the last change to tax thresholds occurred

Well, yes. If you pick a period in which there have been no discretionary tax cuts, you will certainly find that discretionary tax cuts have not outweighed bracket creep. As author Michael Potter observes

This shows the importance of the starting year.

There’s no need to check the CIS numbers: given the setup, only one answer is possible.

Correction Michael Potter advises that the CIS study includes the impact of the tax changes in 2012-13, making it possible in principle that these could have offset bracket creep. But the 2012-13 changes weren’t a general tax cut aimed at offsetting bracket creep. They offered small tax cuts for low income earners to offset the very modest impact of the carbon price/tax. These were clawed back by higher marginal rates so that upper income earners (appropriately) bore the full cost of the carbon price. The key point, stated below, is that the Howard-Rudd tax cuts introduced after the 2007 election were so large that they have more than cancelled out all the subsequent bracket creep.

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Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Innovation: the test is yet to come

December 11th, 2015 18 comments

I have a piece in Inside Story, responding to the Innovation Statment. If Turnbull is really serious about an innovative society, he’ll show it by delivering the Gonski funding in full.

Comments welcome (Inside story doesn’t get much discussion, so best to comment here).

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Increasing GST: not worth the effort?

December 7th, 2015 30 comments

The Grattan Institute has just released a report suggesting that the government should get more revenue from the GST, either by broadening the base to include food, health and education (yielding an extra $17 billion) or by raising the rate to 15 per cent (yielding an extra $27 billion). As you’d expect from Grattan, the analysis is sound and careful. As long as you accept the standard framing of the tax reform debate, in terms of the need to shift from direct to indirect taxation, it is reasonably convincing.

Grattan suggest using 30 per cent of the extra revenue to increase welfare payments and 30 per cent in cutting the bottom two tax rates, thereby compensating low income earners. The overview concludes:

Around 40 per cent of the additional revenue from a higher GST would be left over after welfare increases and tax cuts. At least some will need to go to state governments to help them address their looming hospital funding gap, as the price for their support of the change. This would leave a little – but not much – to reduce the Commonwealth’s budget deficit, or to pay for other tax cuts that promote economic growth.

(emphasis added).

Is that enough to sell the package? I can’t imagine the states going along with a deal like this for less than 20 per cent of the total extra revenue, which implies the Feds are left with 20 per cent, somewhere between $3.5 and $5.5 billion. From a political viewpoint, it’s hard to see this being worth the effort for the Turnbull government, especially with no guarantee of success.

As a comparison, the FBT concession for motor vehicles, reinstated by Tony Abbott costs the budget around $1.5 billion. Exemptions for non-profits, which have been comprehensively rorted, cost at least as much. Add in a few ‘rats and mice” concessions, and the Federal government would have as much as it could get, in net terms, from the Grattan package (Getting rid of the non-profit concession would probably require some compensating expenditure, but the same is true of the health and education concessions under the GST.)

That’s before we get to the elephants: superannuation concessions (also supported by the Grattan report), corporate tax avoidance, land tax and higher income taxes for (say) the top 5 per cent of income earners (reflecting elite opinion, the Grattan report suggests cutting these rates). All of these are hard, but not obviously harder than the GST.

So, why is GST reform at the top of the government’s list? The answer is simple enough. The advocates of reform haven’t had a new idea, on taxation or anything else, in 30 years. They didn’t get the GST out of Keating’s Tax Summit in 1984 and they didn’t get the version they wanted from Howard and Costello in 2000. So, the same old idea keeps on coming up.

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Oz and the Anglosphere

November 11th, 2015 17 comments

Here’s a piece for Inside Story, pointing out the rest of the English speaking world is doing worse than Australia, and that New Zealand, in particular, should never be used as a model in anything to do with economic policy.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

For-profit education: plenty of blame to go around

October 30th, 2015 33 comments

Success has a thousand parents, failure is an orphan. The truth of that proverb is illustrated by the blame game now going on around the disaster that is for-profit Vocational Education and Training (VET) in Australia. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen dozens of different stories illustrating the extent of the failure. The Oz alone has at least ten.

Reading these stories, it’s clear that this isn’t a matter of bad apples or abuse of the rules. The for-profit sector as a whole is delivering abysmally poor results while chewing up billions of public dollars.

Unsurprisingly, Labor is blaming the government for allowing this to happen. Equally unsurprisingly the Oz is running the line, pushed by Minister Simon Birmingham that it’s all the fault of the ALP who extended the FEE-HELP scheme to the VET sector in the first place.

I had to check back on the history, which reveals that this was actually an initiative of the Howard LNP government, announced in its final year, implemented by the Rudd Labor government, and carried on by the Gillard and Abbott governments. Victorian governments of both parties led the charge at the state level. So, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

But, that’s history. The real problem is that no one is willing to admit the obvious lesson, already evident from the US; for-profit education, funded by public subsidies, is a recipe for disaster.

I should concede though, that Birmingham is already edging towards the right answer, saying that he is and not as keen as he was to extend subsidies to bachelor and sub-bachelor courses at private colleges.

Another piece of good news is that the ACCC and Auditor-General are finally getting their teeth into this, doing what should have been done by the supposed regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which has been asleep at the wheel ever since it was established.

But no amount of tightening up at the edges can fix this problem. The only solution is to abandon subsidies to for-profit providers and put a serious effort into restoring and upgrading the TAFE system.

Finally, a blast from the past. Back in 2012, ACPET, the for-profit VET lobby group cited me as saying

“I think we will continue to see many examples of (dodgy) educational institutions. They are going to be much more common than examples of successful profit driven training or educational enterprises”.

The report in question (paywalled) concluded by quoting me as saying

The only solution is ultimately for the federal government to take over this area [of VET] and to then have a much more robust accreditation system for private providers than we have, and a much more sceptical one”

ACPET suggested that my position was reminiscent of the Flat Earth Society. At this point, I’d say the Flat Earth Society has at least as much credibility as ACPET.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Populism, Patrimonialism and US politics (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

October 17th, 2015 22 comments

Nuance is nearly always appealing to academics. For a long time, that was true of my approach to economic issues, particularly including income distribution. When presented with simplistic populist solutions to inequality like “Make the rich pay!”, I was inclined to responses along the lines of “It’s more complicated than that”.

A big problem with “Make the rich pay!” is that with the kind of income distribution that prevailed in the mid-to-late 20th century, any change to income tax that would raise significant revenue would have to apply to the top quintile (20 per cent) of the income distribution. People in the top quintile of the income distribution mostly derive their income from (typically professional or para-professional) employment, don’t think of themselves as rich, and aren’t, in general, seen this way by others. So, the slogan didn’t match the implied policy.

But with the rise of the patrimonial society that’s largely ceased to be the case. The top 1 per cent of the US population now get more than 20 per cent of all pre-tax income, considerably more than the total revenue of the Federal government. Within that group, the top 0.1 per cent have done better than everyone else, and the top 0.01 per cent even better.

So, taxing the 1 per cent more makes sense. I responded a little while ago to a piece trying to argue increasing the top marginal tax rate would make no difference to inequality. And while I was drafting this post, the NY Times came out with an article that reached broadly the same conclusion as mine.

There’s nothing inherently ludicrous in the suggestion that the very rich should pay most or all of the costs of sustaining a system that benefits them so greatly[^1]. And, as in the 1920s, the very rich are different from everyone else. Their wealth is derived primarily from capital, or from control over capital (as business owners or from the financial sector). And, while most of the current cohort of ultra-wealthy did not inherit large fortunes, that’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that there weren’t many large fortunes to inherit until recently. As Piketty demonstrates, a society dominated by large accumulations of wealth will inevitably one in which inheritance, rather than effort, education or talent, determines life outcomes.

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Thinking the unthinkable

October 16th, 2015 24 comments

Thirty odd years ago, Richard Cockett wrote a classic analysis of the role of UK think tanks, most notably the Institute of Economic Affairs, in the economic counter-revolution that ushered in the present era of market liberalism. The crucial “unthinkable” idea put forward by the thinktanks was that profit-driven firms might do a better job of providing a variety of services that were then part of the public sector. This contrasted with the dominant view that any failings of the public sector were the result of specific problems such as poor management that could be overcome by better oversight, organizational restructuring and so on.

The resulting policies of privatisation, corporatisation, competitive tendering and contracting, PPPs and so on have transformed the public sector. Their success has also transformed the public debate, rendering their own ideas as part of the common sense[1] of the political class, and making other ideas unthinkable.

The case of for-profit education provides an example. There is now overwhelming evidence that for-profit education has been a disastrous failure wherever it has been tried, and particularly where for-profit firms can gain access to public funds through policies designed to enhance “consumer choice”. Here are some recent examples:

* A New York Times report pointing out that for-profit universities are getting millions of dollars in public funds every month despite a sustained track record of fraud and failure

* One of many reports from Sweden, until recently the poster child for the for-profit sector, now in a state of crisis, with declining performance an growing inequality

* A Senate Committee report, describing “rampant abuse, accelerating costs, and doubling of bad debt” under the FEE-HELP scheme for vocational education

The common element is that the abuses are well known and long-standing, but the proposed remedy is more of the regulation that has failed in the past. The unthinkable option is to shut off the flow of public funds to the for-profit sector and return to the combination of public and non-profit provision that has worked so well in the past.

Of course, once this unthinkable thought is allowed into public debate, the entire premise of National Competition Policy, based on the idea that “contestable” markets are invariably good for the public, would be cast into question. That would open up a reassessment of reforms in electricity, telecommunications, water, health and many other services provided successfully by the public sector over the course of the 20th century.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Lots of different things

October 6th, 2015 61 comments

For no particular reason, I’ve been very busy in the past few days, commenting on this and that.

There’s this piece on the recently announced (but still secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Also, this SMH article by Clancy Yeates, citing my criticisms of the Productivity Commission case against penalty rates.

And, Campus Morning Mail links to my criticism of the bodies representing and regulating post-school education.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Would a significant increase in the top (US) marginal income tax rate substantially alter income inequality?

October 5th, 2015 38 comments


This, you might think, qualifies as another in the series “Short Answers to Silly Questions”. But a Brookings Paper study by William G. Gale, Melissa S. Kearney, and Peter R. Orszag reaches the opposite conclusion. (Hat tip: Harry Clarke).

The study looks at increasing the top marginal tax rate (currently 39.6, applicable to incomes above $400k for singles), with the strongest option being an increase to 50 per cent. The proceeds are assumed to be redistributed to households in the bottom 20 per cent of the income distribution.

The headline finding is that the Gini coefficient is barely changed, as are other popular measures including the 99/50 ratio (the ratio of income at the 99-th percentile to 50-th percentile, that is the median). But the 99/10 ratio and 90/10 ratios change a lot, from 50 and 17 under current law to 37 and 12.5 with the redistribution.

What does this mean? Two things:

(i) As is well known, the Gini coefficient is a lousy measure of income inequality, much more sensitive to the middle of the income distribution than to the tails
(ii) The proposed redistribution would substantially improve the welfare of the poor, with most of the burden being borne by taxpayers in or near the top 0.1 per cent.

It’s obvious, as the authors note, that the 90-50 measure won’t change, since neither group is affected (there’s no simulation of behavioral responses which might have indirect effects). But, since the 99-th percentile income is very close to $400k, there’s very little impact on this group either. But the tax, as modelled, raises a lot of money from the ultra-rich incomes. As a result, distributing the proceeds at the bottom of the distribution raises incomes substantially, which explains the big changes in the 90-10 and 99-10 ratios.

The real lesson to be learned here, one I came to pretty slowly myself is that old-style measures looking at quintiles or even percentiles of the income distribution are no longer very relevant. The real question, in the economy of Capital in the 21st Century is how much should go to the ultra-rich.

Some post-school education bodies we could do without

October 1st, 2015 39 comments

First, there’s the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which is supposed to regulate the quality of vocational education. AQSA’s performance makes the Greyhound Racing Queensland Board look good

In 2012, when I wrote a report on vocational education, it was common knowledge that the for-profit education sector was comprehensively rotten, particularly in Victoria where the push to privatisation began. This ABC report suggests that ASQA was on the case. But three years later, the only thing that has changed is that the rot has spread nationwide. All the big names in the industry – Evocca, Aspire and so on – are engaged in practices like using laptops as inducement to recruit low-income students who have no chance of either completing their courses or repaying their HECS-HELP debts. There’s no surprise here – it’s exactly the business model of US for-profits like the University of Phoenix.

The right solution is to stop giving any public money to for-profit education businesses. But, in the current market liberal environment that would probably fall afoul of competition policy. So, my suggestion is to cap the amount any publicly funded institution can spend on marketing to Australian students. Ideally the cap would be well below the amount currently being wasted by universities and other public providers competing against each other with our money. That in turn would be far below the rake-off being taken by the recruiters on whom the for-profits depend.

In the meantime, AQSA is a proven failure. It needs to be scrapped and its functions turned over to a body with some real teeth and a willingness to defend the interests of students and the public purse, rather than being a captive of the industry it is supposed to regulate. A joint investigation by the ACCC and the Auditor-General would be a good start.

Next, Universities Australia, the Go8 and the other Vice-Chancellors’ clubs. Fresh from the fee deregulation debacle, they’ve turned their attention to the question of how we should allocate research training places (such as PhD programs).

In the case of fee deregulation, the VC groups were uniformly wrong, not to mention tin-eared. This time, we have the odd spectacle of the Go8 directly opposing UA, even though one is a subset of the other. The Go8 want to stop departments with poor research records, based on the “Excellence in Research Assessment” from getting funding for research training places. UA is opposed, making the point that ERA is not “fit for purpose”.

In the abstract, I have some sympathy for both sides of this argument but in practice it just looks like special pleading on both sides – UA wanting to keep something for all its members, and the Go8 lobbying for special treatment.

But the real problem is the one I identified in the deregulation debacle. The VC groups claim to speak for universities, but exclude all but 40-odd of the people who work and study in them. In the present case, wouldn’t the perspectives of research students and the academics who supervise them be more useful than those of VCs and administrators? To repeat, we need to replace UA with a body that represents students and staff as well as top management.

And, while we’re at it, how about dropping the linguistic abomination of names like Universities Australia[1]? Even knowing nothing else about the group, a name like this reeks of the worst kind of 1990s managerialism.

[^1] Are there any grammar experts who can give a name to the part of speech represented by “Australia” in this title? It’s not known to Standard English, I’m pretty sure.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A CHAFTA election? (updated)

September 17th, 2015 47 comments

Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Abbott has been the subject of much commentary, and I didn’t have anything to add. But now it’s time to look beyond the juggling of Cabinet positions and to consider some of the long term implications. Turnbull’s rise takes off the table, or radically changes the politics of, a number of issues that would have been central to an Abbott election campaign. Most obviously, there are the issues (climate change, equal marriage, republicanism) where Turnbull is known to agree with Labor but has said he will stick with Abbott’s policies. Obviously, Turnbull can’t run hard on these. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make political mileage out of the contradictions involved.

The ground Turnbull wants to fight on is that of economic liberalism, primarily as represented by the so-called Free Trade Agreements with Korea, Japan and, most importantly, China.

Turnbull has the near-unanimous support of the elites on these deals, even though it’s hard to find even a single economist who would support them with any enthusiasm. Anyone who has looked seriously at the issue understands that the trade aspect of these agreements is trivial. What matters are the side clauses on issues like Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedures, intellectual property, environmental protection and so forth. Unfortunately, political journalists, as a class, don’t do much thinking.

Here, for example, is Laurie Oakes, asserting that

>Labor needs to end up supporting this trade deal. That is the bottom line

but not providing a single argument in favour. In typical “Insider” style, Oakes says

The government charge that Labor is sabotaging jobs would not be a difficult one to sustain.

without worrying about whether this charge is actually true (it isn’t).

In the case of CHAFTA (the unlovely acronym for the China deal), the big problem is not in the agreement itself, but in a “Memorandum of Understanding”, which provides for circumstances under which a Chinese company can import its own workforce, without labour market testing (that is, even if there are Australians willing and able to fill the jobs) and without matching existing conditions.
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Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

When did “Free Trade Agreements” become “reform” ?

September 8th, 2015 15 comments

The Oz is pushing hard for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Support for the deal was (AFAICT) the only significant output from the “National Reform Summit” held by the Oz and AFR a week or so ago. This raises a few points of interest.

* Until very recently, bilateral trade deals of any kind were seen as the antithesis of free-market reform. Reformers favored either unilateral removal of trade barriers or global deals through the World Trade Organization. Admittedly, the latter is clearly a forlorn hope, but what happened to unilateral free trade

* Second, it ought to be clear by now that “reform” means “whatever the Oz and IPA wants”. For example, tax reform doesn’t mean taxing mineral rents or carbon externalities or tax-dodging trusts and shell companies. In essence, it means taxing food and giving the proceeds to the rich. Anyone concerned with good policy should stop using this word in a positive sense

* Most importantly, “Free Trade Agreements” are nothing of the kind. The key to the China deal is the expansion of the 457 system to allow for 100 per cent overseas workforces. Even if you think that’s a good idea, it should be addressed in the context of immigration policy. There’s a startling contradiction between this stuff and Joe Hockey’s high profile persecution of Chinese buyers who are allegedly pushing up the price of Sydney houses.

* The same is true of the other FTA’s this government has signed, and even more so of the proposed TPP. At most, the trade component of these deals consists of Australia selling its domestic policy sovereignty to foreign governments in return for the removal of their trade barriers.

Three word slogans

August 22nd, 2015 18 comments

I have a piece up at the Drum, looking at how the three-word slogan approach of the Abbott government helps to explain their budget problems. Text is over the fold

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Green jobs

August 17th, 2015 13 comments

The question of “green jobs” has arisen in a lot of different contexts. At present, the most relevant is the problem of how to deal with the employment effects of the necessary and inevitable decline of industries based on fossil fuels. Part of this question is whether expanding sectors of the economy will create a number of new jobs comparable to those that disappear , and whether those jobs will be appropriate for the kinds of workers who worked, or would have, in the declining sector (that is, predominantly, male manual and trades workers). There are a lot of conceptual problems here, which I’m not going to address in detail. Rather, I’ll just look at some raw numbers and throw in some comments.

I was struck recently to read that, in the United States, the solar power industry now employs 174 000 people. That’s twice as many as coal mining. And, while these aren’t direct substitutes, they are, it would appear, broadly similar kinds of industries in the sense that the core workforce is dominated by male manual and trades workers.

Looking quickly at similar stats for Australia, I found that the numbers were reversed. According to the ABS, there were just under 40 000 Australians employed in the coal mining industry in May 2015, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012, but well above the 20 000 or so employed in the early 2000s.

The Clean Energy Council estimates around 20 000 jobs in the renewables sector in 2014 – that’s up from virtually zero before 2010. So, broadly speaking growth in renewables has offset the decline in coal mining.

One specific issue in the US, that’s less of a problem here, at least in Queensland, is that of declining communities in places like Appalachia. Thanks to the practice of Fly-in Fly-Out, there are many fewer Australian communities focused on coal mining.

Finally, some related statistics I found in the process of researching this. The forestry and logging industries currently employ 3900 people (this number bounces about a lot, so I’m not sure how reliable it is). That’s about the same as the combined total for the NSW and Victorian National Parks systems. I expect if you added in various kinds of manual/trades jobs in adventure tourism and similar, you would find a net gain over the past 25 years or so.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

How our Senate (and not the US Senate) blocked the TPP

August 4th, 2015 17 comments

Following the breakdown of talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership last week, I did a quick reaction piece for Inside Story, making the point that our much-maligned Senate was the most important source of resistance to the demands for yet more protection for US pharmaceuticals, demands that make a mockery of both the claim that the TPP is a “free trade agreement” and the “diffusion of knowledge” rationale for the patent system.

Is an emissions trading scheme a carbon tax?

August 4th, 2015 23 comments

I was recently asked this question by ABC Fact Check. Here’s my answer:

The core idea of an ETS is to limit the volume of emissions (of carbon dioxide) by creating a set of permits that must be used by emitters. The permits may initially be auctioned or given away. Since the permits are tradeable a market price will be determined by the demand for permits and the willingness of permit holders to sell their permits. By contrast, a carbon tax sets a price on carbon emissions and allows the market to determine the volume of emissions.

There are a large variety of schemes that resemble the ETS in general structure. Within the environmental area, both the Renewable Energy Target and the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (if augmented with a baseline allocation and penalty structure) fall into this class. Other examples include taxi licenses, electronic spectrum auctions, and tradeable catch quotas in fisheries. None of these policies is normally described as a tax.

Back to the Deutschmark

July 28th, 2015 86 comments

The debt crisis has upended lots of my assumptions about European politics, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself agreeing with just about everything in this piece from The Telegraph by Mehreen Khan, advocating a German exit from the euro. Less surprisingly, I also agree in general with this NY Times article by Shahin Vallee, who also concludes that the (virtually inevitable) breakup of the euro would be better achieved by an orderly German departure.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Sea change

July 27th, 2015 25 comments

Maybe it’s my chronic over-optimism, but it seems to me as if there has been a sudden change in the long-sputtering debate about taxation in Australia. Until a few weeks ago, “tax reform” was, as it had long been, code a “tax mix switch” which in turn was code for “tax food and use the proceeds to cut the company tax rate or the top marginal rate of taxation”. Joe Hockey was still pushing the second part of this package only a week ago.

But the reports coming out of the recent COAG summit seemed to convey a general acceptance that more tax revenue is needed to fund health expenditure in particular. The two top options were an increase in the rate of GST or an increase in the Medicare levy, with little mention of “base broadening” (more code for taxing food).

Meanwhile, Labor has been talking about a Buffett tax, that is, a minimum rate of tax levied on gross incomes, regardless of deductions. And, while the LNP still assumes that it can win by running against a “carbon tax”, that belief seems to have come unmoored from any general theoretical viewpoint. How can Abbott run against a “great big new tax on everything”, if he is happy to discuss a 50 per cent increase in our existing “great big tax on everything”, the GST?

I’m not clear what has happened to bring this about, or whether I’m misreading the signals. But it certainly looks to me as if the great political taboo against even mentioning higher taxes has been broken.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the RET

July 26th, 2015 21 comments

That’s the title of a paper I wrote a while back about the Renewable Energy Target scheme. I was reminded of it when Labor announced its proposal to raise the RET to 50 per cent by 2030.

First, it’s striking to observe that no one has popped up to claim that the target is unachievable or that an electricity supply system with 50 per cent renewables will be unworkable. The strongest claim I could find in this article describing coal lobby responses is someone from the Minerals Council of Australia saying that the target is “technically questionable” which could mean anything. By contrast, until very recently, sites like Brave New Climate were full of amateur experts claiming to demonstrate the impossibility of such a goal.

Second, it’s clear that the economic impact will be minuscule. Owners of coal-fired power stations (if they are not compensated, as they should not be) will bear most of the costs. Electricity prices may rise a little compared to the current RET, but will probably be no higher than if we had stayed with a coal-based system. Perhaps this will help to convince those who think that decarbonization of the economy as a whole must have a massive cost impact, but, based on past experience, I can’t see this happening.

Third, as argued in the paper mentioned in the title, an expanded RET may not be the best way to achieve climate goals, but, if the carbon price is below the appropriate level ($50/tonne or more), a RET for the electricity sector is an appropriate policy. The main problem is that the RET doesn’t discriminate between different fossil fuels. A RET, combined with incentives to close down brown coal power stations, would have much the same effects as an adequate carbon price, and is politically much easier to do.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Balancing the books

July 10th, 2015 43 comments

I’ve been at the Australian Conference of Economists for the last few days. Today we had presentations from the Queensland Treasurer, Curtis Pitt, who is about to bring down his first budget, and from Commonwealth Treasury Secretary, John Fraser.

Curtis Pitt’s big announcement was a rearrangement of debt and equity in Government Owned Corporations, increasing their borrowing and transferring the resulting equity to the general government balance sheet. The result is a $4 billion reduction in general government debt, part of a program to bring the debt/revenue ratio down to around 70 per cent.

A transfer like this doesn’t make any difference to the state’s net financial position. Bu it makes the point that publicly owned assets are assets, not liabilities, and the fact that we own them makes the state’s position stronger. As long as the higher gearing ratio is commercially sensible and the debt can be serviced out of GOC earnings, there’s no reason not to use this to improve measures of general government debt.

Privatisation also makes no difference to the net position, assuming assets are sold at their value in continued public ownership, and the proceeds are used to pay down debt. However, the StrongChoices plan put by the LNP at the last election, would have dissipated around half of the sale proceeds on pork-barrel projects (to be delivered only if the LNP won the seat in question). So, compared to the alternative, Labor’s management is fiscally responsible.

The only measure that is unaffected by balance sheet reshuffles (at least if it is correctly measured) is net worth, and the only way to increase net worth is for income (revenue and asset earnings) to exceed expenditure.

John Fraser’s performance was as expected, which is to say, deeply disappointing. As a colleague sitting at our table remarked, he came across as a politician not a Treasury secretary. Fraser repeated the Henry Review’s criticism of stamp duties and the case for not taxing mobile capital. But when I asked if that meant he supported land taxes, he squibbed the question, waffling on about what a great group of officials he was working with in the states.

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

The IMF: An inexcusable, incorrigible failure

July 4th, 2015 55 comments

Chris Berrtram at Crooked Timber has already pointed out the failure of the core European institutions in their response to the global financial crisis. One excuse that can be made for these institutions is that they are still in the process of development, and were ill-prepared, intellectually and institutionally, for an event so far outside their experience. The ECB and EC developed in a period when controlling inflation and stabilizing government debt were the key imperatives, and they responded to the crisis accordingly.

No such excuse can be made for the third member of the Troika, the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has understood from the start that the austerity policies it has imposed are economically unsound and a repetition of past failures. And yet it has been unwilling and unable to do anything else.

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A progressive alternative economic agenda

June 26th, 2015 194 comments

This is a statement released yesterday and endorsed by a group of unions and individuals, including me. It calls for a progressive alternative economic policy. It’s a statement of principles rather than a program, and essentially a restatement of the social democratic position that represents the best of the Australian labor movement, free of both dogmatic leftism and the capitulation to market liberalism we’ve seen over the past thirty years or so.

A program developed on these principles would, I believe, be electorally popular if only we could get it before the public. But the policy elite, including journalists and the press, remain under the spell of market liberalism, despite its evident failures. So, our public debate will continue to be dominated by silly pointscoring about debt, deficits and the need for “reform”.

The full text is over the fold (the link goes to a properly formatted version)

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The Laffer hypothesis in Australia

May 16th, 2015 34 comments

I didn’t have time to respond, but the IPA brought Arthur Laffer out to Australia a month or two ago. For those interested, over the fold is a relevant extract from Zombie Economics.

Of rather more concern is the evidence that both the Secretary of the Treasury, John Fraser, and his Deputy for Revenue, Rob Heferen are adherents of the Laffer hypothesis or something very close to it. Fraser gave evidence to the Senate endorsing the Reagan tax cuts (based on Laffer’s hypothesis), while Heferen has claimed that something like 50 per cent of the revenue lost through a company tax cut will be returned through dynamic effects.

Although no issues are ever truly resolved in economics, this informal survey published by Ezra Klein is revealing. Klein asked various people about the tax rate at which revenue would be maximized. His respondents fell into three groups: left/liberal economists, who mostly gave answers around 70 per cent, rightwing pundits with zero credibility who gave answers around 20 per cent, and serious right/centre-right economists, who declined to give a direct answer to the question.

This suggests to me that the debate over the Laffer hypothesis has been won fairly conclusively by the left, and that those on the right would prefer to frame the question in the more defensible (though still, in my opinion, incorrect) claim that we face a long-run trade-off between equality and growth.

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Economic policy for the 21st Century

May 13th, 2015 18 comments

That was the title for the John Freebairn lecture on public policy I gave in Melbourne on Monday (Sorry for not giving any advance notice, I’ve been a bit swamped). Having offered that ambitious title, I decided to confine myself to the subset of policy issues surrounding the knowledge economy, and how it renders the reform agenda of the 1980s obsolete or irrelevant.

I believe there will be a vodcast, but in the meantime here are Mac Keynote and PDF versions of the slides.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Rethinking tax policy for Australia

April 24th, 2015 96 comments

The title of this post is taken from that of the recent Treasury Discussions Paper on Tax, entitled Re:Think. Sadly, as I point out in this Guardian piece, there’s very little evidence of rethinking from Treasury. Most of the paper could have been lifted straight from the Asprey Review of 1975, and the sensitivities of the current government have ensured a step backwards from the Henry Review, with carbon taxes and resource rent taxes now off limits.

Undeterred, I’m going to start on my own review. I’m going to try something a little different in blog terms. This post will be updated whenever I get a chance, both with new material and in terms of publication date so that each new version will appear at the top of the homepage, hopefully with the comments being carried with it. I’m putting in some headings, and starting off with an idea I mentioned recently, that of a tax on bank profits

Aggregates: Revenue, expenditure, budget balance, debt and net worth

Revenue options

* A tax on the super-profits of banks, reflecting their privileged position. Tax base $29 billion. Possible revenue $5-10 billion, or 0.3-0.6 per cent of national income/GDP.

* Reforming the treatment of negative gearing “Quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains. Revenue estimate: rising over time to $5 billion a year, or 0.3 per cent of national income/GDP.

Expenditure requirements

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Negative gearing

April 24th, 2015 17 comments

As I mentioned a while back, I’m planning a series of posts on tax policy. Since debate about “negative gearing” has been spurred by the suggestion that Labor might restrict it, this seems like a good time to cover the topic.

I’ll give my summary upfront, then go on. The problem is not negative gearing in itself but its interaction with the concessional treatment of capital gains. There are a variety of solutions, but the best is probably to “quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains.

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Waiting for the fallout: Australia and return of the patrimonial society

April 21st, 2015 26 comments
Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Goodbye to CPD

April 17th, 2015 30 comments

Like Mark Bahnisch, Eva Cox and a number of others, I’ve resigned as a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. It’s a sad day, since CPD has done a lot of great work, and I’ve enjoyed being involved in it. But the leadership of the Centre has taken a decision to move to the right in the hope of being more relevant to the policy process. The most recent outcome has been a paper on tax policy that broadly accepts the Treasury view of the issue, and pushes for a broadening of the GST base, which means taxation of fresh food. This isn’t a new or innovative idea. Rather, it has been part of rightwing orthodoxy for decades. CPDs endorsement allows its advocates to claim some “left” support. That claim obviously gained credibility from having Fellows like Mark, Eva and me. So, we had no alternative but to resign.

I should clarify that, apart from a nice title and a publishing outlet, I wasn’t getting any direct benefit from being part of CPD. So, I’m making a statement rather than a sacrifice.