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I’m underwhelmed …

August 15th, 2013 43 comments

… to put it mildly, by Kevin Rudd’s endorsement of the Coalition/IPA proposals for a variety of tax and policy distortions to subsidise economic activity in Northern Australia.

I get that a certain amount of this kind of thing is to be expected in an election campaign, but I hope we don’t see too much more of it.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

We’re only ‘doing it tough’ out of envy

August 14th, 2013 58 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in Crikey, over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Labor, hiding its light under a bushel

August 7th, 2013 96 comments

A bit belatedly, a piece I posted on Crikey a couple of days ago, bemoaning Wayne Swan’s failure to tell the story of the government’s success in managing the GFC. His obsessive pursuit of a return to surplus with a fixed target date suggests to me that he never really saw Keynesian fiscal policy as anything other than a once-off emergency measure, and that the credit for the government’s courage in 2009 must go to Ken Henry and Kevin Rudd. Regardless, the government should be winning the economic debate hands down, instead of being on the defensive.

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Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Oz, NZ and the election

August 5th, 2013 46 comments

Following my earlier discussion of relative economic performance in Australia and NZ, I’ve been chatting with people in the NZ Treasury, and also with some of the macroeconomists in my own department. Its given me a number of research ideas I hope to pursue in the future, both with respect to possible ways the NZ-Oz gap might be bridged and more general implications about macroeconomic theory.

In the circumstances of the election what matters is the suggestion by Tony Abbott and others on the political right that New Zealand is a model for Australia to follow as regards macroeconomic policy. The key point is that NZ had a smaller stimulus than we did, and looks set to return to surplus a little earlier, though of course we know how unreliable such projections can be.

If, like Abbott, Hockey and (on even-numbered days) Robb[1], you regard budget surpluses as the paramount measure of good economic performance, there’s a case to be made here. But if you think that employment and economic growth are more important, Australia looks a whole lot better, as you can see from the graphs below.

Standard economic theory suggests that, when two countries have access to the same technology, comparable education systems, free labour and capital movements and so on, any initial differences in income levels should gradually be evened out. Instead, the Oz-NZ gap has widened since the GFC. Anyone who could seriously suggest NZ as an economic model should not be entrusted with the management of our economy.

OzNZ002
NZandothers

fn1. Not to mention Peter Costello and Wayne Swan, who seemed to view the stimulus that saved us from recession as an embarrassing departure from normality.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Doublethink on triple-A

July 30th, 2013 27 comments

Which politician, holding a senior frontbench economic position, made the following sensible observation

I remind you that Lehman Brothers, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which started this global financial crisis, on that very day, they still had a AAA credit rating. What does a AAA credit rating really amount to? What I’m saying is you can’t place enormous store in the rating agencies. They do get things very badly wrong, and they totally missed those major firms and economies that were driving and the reason for the GFC.

Unfortunately, the same one who said only a few months ago that our

commitment to returning the Budget to a real surplus in a timely fashion and retaining Australia’s AAA rating is paramount.

Answer over the fold

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Oz & NZ

July 28th, 2013 35 comments

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been looking at the relative economic performance of Australia and New Zealand over the postwar period. For most of the 20th century, income per person in New Zealand grew in parallel with Australia. According to the Penn World Tables, income per person in New Zealand was within 10 per cent of the Australian level for most of the period from 1950 to 1970. Since the 1970s, NZ has declined greatly relative to Australia. On the latest Penn World Table figures, income per person is about 70 per cent of the Australian level. Over most of this period, NZ has been governed by radical advocates of the free market[1]. As part of my research, I’m collecting some of their claims about NZ economic performance, relative to Australia and the OECD. I’ve listed some over the fold (links a bit scrappy, as some predate the rise of the interwebs). Further contributions welcome, as would any interesting examples of more accurate assessments (I have some already).

Read more…

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Rent-seeking rampant

July 19th, 2013 86 comments

The Rudd government’s proposal to tighten up documentation requirements for the very generous tax concessions provided for people who receive motor cars as a fringe benefit has produced some striking examples of rent-seeking from the Australian right, notably including Catallaxy and the Australian Financial Review. Catallaxy has a string of posts defending this rort.

The Fin gives lots of space to bleating rent-seekers, while imputing to “academics” the opinion that this is a subsidy. I guess that’s fair enough, given that the Fin regards basic science as a matter of academic opinion, while treating the failed dogmas of the 1980s as proven facts. And, of course, the Opposition has promised to oppose the measure, while weaselling out on the question of whether it would reverse the changes if elected.

This really is a test for Rudd. If he wants to refute the oft-repeated claim that he is all spin and no substance, this is his first chance, and one of the best he is going to get.

The failure of electricity market reform

June 19th, 2013 58 comments

As many readers will be aware, The Guardian now has an Australian edition, and I’ve just published an opinion piece in their Comment is Free section, looking at What lies behind the power price increases in Australia?. While there are plenty of factors, they are tied together by the misconceived reform of the industry undertaken in the early 1990s. Concluding paras

he free market assumptions of the reformers were simply inapplicable to a network industry like electricity, where every participant interact with one another through a distribution and transmission system that has all the characteristics of a natural monopoly. The assumption that a combination of profit-driven investment and regulation in the public interest could resolve these contradictions has proved unfounded.

Equally importantly, even though the COAG reforms coincided with the emergence of global concerns about climate change, the reform process took no account of the possibility of carbon pricing, and made no provision for renewable energy. In particular, the assumption that households could be regarded purely as consumers failed to consider the possibility of solar rooftops, or of any interactions between households and energy suppliers to promote energy conservation.

Fixing this mess will take many years. But the first step is to admit that electricity reform has been a failure, and to re-examine the whole system without any ideological preconceptions.

I’m hoping to write more on how to fix the system soon, perhaps even making a submission to the Newman government’s inquiry on the subject.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Worst graph ever?

June 17th, 2013 6 comments

I just downloaded the Queensland government’s paper announcing, but not spelling out, a 30-year electricity strategy to be developed in the course of this year. I started with healthy scepticism about this, but scepticism turned to bemusement when, on page 5, I ran into one of the worst graphs I have ever seen.

EnergyGraph

This graph, taking up half a page, contains a total of six data points (energy intensity and gross state product for three states). The relevant data, such as it is, is contained in the three yellow bars. The legend describes them as “Electricity use (KwH) per $ of state product”, while the axis label claims that the measure is “Energy use (Mj) per $ of state product” Since a joule is a watt-second, it’s easy to check that a kilowatt-hour is 3.6 megajoules, but the difference isn’t large enough to work out which one is correct. It’s a fair bet, though not sure, that the quantity being measured is electricity use, and not all energy use. The only information conveyed is the unsurprising fact that Queensland’s economy is more electricity-intensive (or maybe more energy intensive) than those of NSW and Victoria.[1]

The real joke, though, is the second measure, of total state product. This is of no interest at all, since it just reports the well known fact that NSW has a larger economy than those of Victoria and Queensland. But the thing that would make Edward Tufte turn in his grave (if he were dead, which Wikipedia tells me he is not) is that this irrelevant information is reported in a line graph, making it appear that there is some sort of relevant order here.

The rest of the graphics are almost, but not quite, as bad. There’s an amusing one describing the “engagement and accountability model”. Three Venn-style intersecting circles representing market, government and customer are overlaid with an equilateral triangle, the vertices of which are labelled “Engaged”, “Efficient” and “Effective”. All stakeholders are invited by the government to “get on board and challenge current thinking”.

Eager as usual to be a team player, I’ll be contributing some thoughts on the failure of electricity market reform to the Guardian, hopefully appearing tomorrow. I will certainly challenge current thinking and look forward to being welcomed on board by the Newman government.

fn1. Since no more explanation is given, I’ll take a stab at explaining the significance of these numbers. Assuming the Kwh measure is correct, and taking an average price of 15c/KwH, electricity amounts to around 3.3 per cent (0.15*0.22) of the total Queensland economy. That sounds about right to em.

Costello again

May 11th, 2013 33 comments

The Final Report of the Queensland Commission of Audit, headed by Peter Costello, has been released. It largely abandons the claims made in the Interim Report, suggesting that the state’s fiscal problems are the result of irresponsibility on the part of the previous government. To its credit, the Commission identifies the real problem, namely, the long-term tendency for the share of expenditure going to human services such as health and education to rise over time. Since these services are largely provided or funded by governments, they can’t be provided, on the scale people would like, without increasing taxation.

Unfortunately, that’s where the credit stops. The core of the problem, identified by William Baumol in 1967, is that, for obvious technological reasons, productivity in these services tends to grow more slowly than in other sectors, most notably goods-producing sectors. The Commission’s proposed solution is breathtaking in its simplicity – if we could raise the rate of productivity growth in the human services sector, the problem would go away. Yes, and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

My response, which got a run in today’s Courier-Mail, is here.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Decarbonising Australia (updated)

May 7th, 2013 214 comments

I’ve been meaning to post about the Australian Energy Market Operator’s report on the feasibility of a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply system for Australia (H/T commenter Ben). In the meantime, Brian Bahnisch at LP has done a detailed summary, so I’ll refer you there and make a few points of my own.

First, this study should kill off, once and for all, claims made here and in many other places (notably, at Brave New Climate) that the intermittency of renewable electricity is an insuperable problem.[1] The AEMO is the body that manages the electricity market on a minute-to-minute basis, so it has the expertise to assess this claim, unlike the many amateurs who have tried their hands. And, since it might have to do the job, it has no reason to understate the difficulties of a renewables-based system.

Second, the estimate cost of $111 to $133 per megawatt-hour represents an increase of $60-80/MwH on current wholesale prices, or 6-8c/Kwh on retail prices. That’s much less than the increase we’ve seen thanks to the mishandling of electricity market reform. If we wound back those costs, we could actually end up with both 100 per cent renewables and cheaper electricity.

Third, although the study envisages a role for electric vehicles, it doesn’t present a full-scale program for decarbonization. But once you have a scalable, fully renewable electricity supply, everything else is comparatively easy.

Finally, if we take Tony Abbott at his word in wanting direct action to deal with climate change, this report provides him with a blueprint. If we want to, we can eliminate the great majority of domestic CO2 emissions simply by mandating renewable technology and electric vehicles. The cost would be substantial in dollar terms ($250 billion for the electricity component). But, over a couple of decades, it would be a barely detectable deduction from growth in national income.

Update As it turns out, there’s a response at Brave New Climate from Martin Nicholson. Nicholson reports on a study of his own, in which nuclear is included in the mix. On Nicholson’s estimates, this substantially reduces capital costs, a point of which he makes a big deal. But obviously, renewables have much lower operating costs and Nicholson estimates the levelised cost for his system at $124/MWh to $126/MWh. As he says:

As this is in the middle of the AEMO range, wholesale prices are likely to be similar with or without nuclear

Given that very few current-generation nuclear plants have been built, cost estimates for nuclear are speculative. The obvious inference for Australia is that we should push along with renewables, and take a “wait and see” position on nuclear, observing developments in the UK, US, France and China. If they can deliver nuclear safely and at low cost, we can add it to the mix (say, after 2030).

Sadly, I think most of the BNC readership are locked into a position that nuclear must be the answer, which requires them to believe that renewables won’t work. Even a comprehensive demonstration that renewables can deliver a 100 per cent solution at a cost comparable with optimistic estimates for nuclear isn’t going to shift them.end update

fn1. This is part of a rhetorical manoeuvre aimed at pushing the conclusion that nuclear is the only feasible zero-carbon option. Once it’s admitted that 100 per cent renewable electricity is feasible, nuclear advocates need to present a case based on comparative costs. In the Australian context, it will be very hard to make that case, given the need to set up a complete nuclear infrastructure from scratch.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Fantasy budget

May 6th, 2013 64 comments

Crikey asked me to write 1000 words or so on my ideal budget. I didn’t respond exactly in those terms, looking instead at the strategy for the medium term. Crikey ran it today, and I’m doing the same (over the page).

Read more…

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Gillard gets it right

May 1st, 2013 61 comments

Ever since the Hawke government announced the “Trilogy” commitments in 1984, promising no increase in the revenue and expenditure shares of national income, Australian politics has been, in effect, a conspiracy of silence about the central issue of economic policy, that of the appropriate balance of private and public expenditure. The steady growth in demand for services like health and education has ensured that no reduction in the public sector share has been feasible, while the market liberal dogma enshrined in the Trilogy has prevented any increase.

In retrospect, it’s striking that Hawke’s commitment came just after the reintroduction of Medicare, funded (in part) by a levy on all incomes. Medicare’s success has made it politically untouchable. On the other hand, it has been assumed (though without much supporting evidence) that any increase in taxation (not matched by offsetting cuts) is politically impossible.

The Gillard-Swan government was, until yesterday, ruled by this doctrine. With their unfortunate habit of making categorical commitments out of aspirations, both Gillard and Swan had repeatedly ruled out a levy to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (by contrast, “conservative” state premiers like Newman were happy with the idea) But, as a recent Grattan Institute report has made clear, there is no way of meeting the needs for health and education without a substantial increase in revenue (as well as cuts in low-priority direct expenditures and tax expenditures).

So Gillard has announced a proposal for a 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy, raising $3 billion a year. Abbott has equivocated so far, but has stated his support for the NDIS, which leaves him no honest options except to go along.

If we could achieve consensus on paying for improved services through higher taxation in this case, we might finally have a serious debate about what, as a community, we are willing to pay for.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Costello Report: first look

May 1st, 2013 36 comments

The full version of the Costello Commission of Audit Report has finally been released, along with the Newman government’s responses. As it turns out, the “Interim” report was the Commission’s last word on most of the big issues, such as the state’s debt position and fiscal outlook. The Final Report consists of

* A general discussion of the role of government, which is just a restatement of the market liberal orthodoxy of the 1980s and 1990s, proposing privatisation, competitive tendering and contracting and so on
* The specific claim that Queensland can deal with the problem of rising demand for health, education and similar services in coming decades by permanently raising the rate of productivity growth in those sectors.
* Detailed discussion of all areas of government activity.

Of these, the second is the important one. The fact that productivity grows more slowly in human services than in other sectors of the economy, and that this implies relative growth of the public sector, has been known since the work of Baumol in the 1960s. This pattern is unlikely to be changed by the kinds of measures being proposed by the Commission.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

MRRT

April 30th, 2013 34 comments

I appeared at a Senate inquiry into the Minerals Resource Rent Tax yesterday. Given the virtual certainty that the tax will be abolished after the election, I tried to focus on the future. Here’s my opening statement

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Back to the future

April 24th, 2013 79 comments

Back in the 1980s, there was a constant stream of international delegations to Wellington, seeking to learn from the “New Zealand miracle”, in which a group of radical free-market reformers turned around a sclerotic welfare state. While the results had yet to show themselves, everyone was confident that NZ would soon surpass Australia, where the political system threw up many more obstacles to reform. Everyone knows how that turned out. After 100 years of economic parity, NZ GDP per person has fallen to around 60 per cent of the Australian level. The gap closed a little when NZ abandoned radical reform (from the first MMP election to the end of the Clark Labor government) but is now widening again.

And, just in the last week, the intellectual foundations of austerity polices have been cut away with the discovery that the influential paper of Reinhart and Rogoff, predicting disaster when public debt levels exceed 90 per cent of GDP, was based on a coding error (not to mention some dubious statistical choices). That follows the demolition of the even more influential work of Alesina, Ardagna and other co-authors, some of which I criticised in Zombie Economics

Against this background, it’s truly bizarre to see the Australian right (IPA, CIS and Tony Abbott) presenting New Zealand as a model, on the basis that the budget has been returned to surplus. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the economic outcomes have been consistently appalling, as long as the ideology is right.

I have a simple suggestion which I hope will appeal to everyone. Since the new NZ government came in, deluded Kiwis have been voting with their feet in large numbers. The resulting imbalance could be addressed if the CIS, IPA, Parliamentary Liberal Party and their keenest supporters moved across the Tasman to try out the marvels of free-market reform for themselves.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Grattan on the revenue-expenditure gap

April 23rd, 2013 25 comments

There’s an important new report out from the Grattan Institute, which has received a fair bit of press (some of it rather off-point) for its prediction that, under current policies, Australian governments will need to find an additional 4 per cent of GDP (about $60 billion a year) over the next decade if they are going to meet new expenditure needs for health and education services and maintain a prudent fiscal surplus.

The options aren’t explored in much detail, but it seems clear that expenditure cuts (particularly the usual suspects like duplication and waste, “middle class welfare” and so on) won’t be enough, so more tax effort will be needed. The top priorities ought to be tightening up the income tax system and increasing income tax rates at the top. If that’s not enough, the next option (tough, but maybe necessary) is an increase in the rate of GST.

I’ll try to post in more detail soon, but I think Grattan gets the story right on most points, and their analysis will certainly help anyone who wants to take a serious look at Australain fiscal policy

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

There is a world market for maybe five computers …*

April 13th, 2013 201 comments

As has been true since 2010, our aspiring leaders seem to be determined to outdo each other in silliness this week. Since Julia Gillard will (with 90 per cent probability) be nothing more than a bad memory in a year’s time, while Tony Abbott will be an unavoidable reality, I’m going to ignore Gillard’s “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” aprroach to funding Gonski and talk about the National Broadband Network.

The Abbott-Turnbull proposal for a cutprice NBN has been an amazing success in clarifying issues that previously seemed too complex to be resolved. Until now, it’s been far from obvious how to assess the NBN – the complaint that we didn’t have a benefit cost analysis was obviously silly in the absence of any easy way of quantifying the benefits. But now that we’ve seen the alternative – a 25MBps network, dependent on Telstra’s failing copper network and non-existent goodwill, it’s obvious that the NBN is the only option that gives us any hope of keeping up with the steady growth in demand for information. The claim that individual subscribers can choose to upgrade to fibre-to-the-premises appears to have collapsed in the face of expert scrutiny. Instead, it seems, we’ll end up with lots of street-corner boxes, which will have to be ripped out and replaced wholesale when their inadequacy becomes apparent.

Given that he is going to win the coming election anyway, Abbott could greatly improve his chances of re-election in 2016 by admitting his mistake and going with the existing NBN plan, maybe with some cosmetic tweaks. As a bonus, from Abbott’s POV, Turnbull would have to eat a lot of humble pie.

The same is true for the other slogans on which he’s relied so far, like “Stop the Boats’ and “Axe the Tax”. Thanks to Labor’s implosion, he can afford to dump them now, and replace them with something more realistic – there’s no shame in changing policies before an election.

I don’t expect Abbott to take this unsolicited advice, but he could look at the cautionary lesson provided by Bligh, Gillard and NSW Labor among others, and consider carefully whether it’s better to take a few lumps now, or gain office on the basis of commitments that will prove a millstone, whether they are abandoned or adhered to.

[Comments are closed]

* I know, this quote attributed to Thomas J Watson is apocryphal, as is a similar one attributed to Bill Gates, but lots of similar statements have been made in reality, and they’ve all proved to be silly. For example, I can remember people saying in the early 80s that 8-bit address space of 64k (a double octet) were all we would ever need. Many more people said, well into the 1990s, that graphical interfaces were an unnecessary luxury and that personal computers would always start with a C:\> prompt.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

1975 as the mirror image of 2013

April 9th, 2013 65 comments

There’s already plenty of commentary, here and elsewhere on Margaret Thatcher. Rather than add to it, I’d like to compare the situation when she assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party with the one we face now. As Corey Robin points out at Crooked Timber

In the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Despite having come into office on a vague promise to contest some elements of the postwar Keynesian consensus, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.”

Crucially, Heath was defeated mainly as a result of strikes by the coal miners union.[1]

From the viewpoint of conservatives, the postwar Keynesian/social democratic consensus had failed, producing chronic stagflation, but the system could not be changed because of the entrenched power of the trade unions, and particularly the National Union of Miners. In addition, the established structures of the state such as the civil service and the BBC were saturated with social democratic thinking.[2]

Thatcher reversed all of these conditions, smashing the miners union and greatly weakening the movement in general, and promoting and implementing market liberal ideology as a response to the (actual and perceived) failures of social democracy. Her policies accelerated the decline of the manufacturing sector, and its replacement by an economy reliant mainly on the financial sector, exploiting the international role of the City of London.

Our current situation seems to me to be a mirror image of 1975. Once again the dominant ideology has led to economic crisis (now about 4 years old), but attempts to break away from it (such as the initial swing to Keynesian stimulus) have been rolled back in favour of even more vigorous pursuit of the policies that created the crisis. The financial sector now plays the role of the miners’ union (as seen in Thatcherite mythology) as the unelected and unaccountable power that prevents any positive change.

Is our own version of Thatcher waiting somewhere in the wings to take on the banks and mount an ideological counter-offensive against market liberalism? If so, it’s not obvious to me, but then, there wasn’t much in Thatcher’s pre-1975 career that would have led anyone to predict the character of her Prime Ministership.

fn1. I was too far from the scene to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of these strikes or the failed strike of the early 1980. It’s obvious that the final outcome was disastrous both for coal miners and for British workers in general, but not that there was a better alternative on offer at the time.

fn2. The popular series, Yes Minister, was essentially a full-length elaboration of this belief, informed by public choice theory

Categories: Economic policy, World Events Tags:

The joke titles write themselves …

April 7th, 2013 28 comments

… for the announcement that the Commonwealth government is spending $20 million to support the production in Australia of a Disney film of the Jules Verne novel 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was interviewed by Gary Maddox who wrote an opinion piece supporting the subsidy, but mentioning my opposition.

For dogmatic free-market advocates, there’s not much need to explain why the subsidy is a bad idea – it follows from the general claim that all subsidies are bad, and for the real dogmatists, that any kind of government expenditure is bad. But I’m happy to support subsidies to film production under some circumstances so I need to explain my position a bit further, and the Maddox piece provides a handy foil

Read more…

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Auditors, unaudited

March 23rd, 2013 7 comments

The Crime and Misconduct Commission has announced that it does not have jurisdiction to investigate allegations of an undeclared conflict of interest against Peter Costello in relation to the Queensland Commission of Audit. This is an unsatisfactory outcome: the allegations remain neither proven nor refuted, adding to the general miasma of nepotism and jobbery that surrounds the Newman government, and leaving Costello without an opportunity to defend himself against what remain merely anonymous leaks. If the CMC has no jurisdiction on allegations that policy recommendations involving state assets worth billions of dollars are being made by someone with a vested interest, something is seriously wrong. The fact that the Newman government has attacked the CMC (set up because of pervasive corruption under an earlier LNP government) from day one makes this seem even worse.

The Newman’s government’s response to the Audit Commission’s Final report has been similarly inappropriate. It’s not uncommon for a government to sit on a report while it makes up its mind how to deal with the recommendations. I can’t recall, though, a case when the recommendations have been made public, but the report itself remains secret. That suggests a lack of confidence in the quality of the analysis. Given the weakness of the Commission’s Interim Report, and the Commission’s inability to respond effectively to criticism (as an example, my lengthy critique received a one-sentence reply), this lack of confidence is probably wise.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Electricity privatisation in Queensland

March 6th, 2013 55 comments

I’ve just released a report I prepared on electricity privatisation in Queensland[1] This was a bit difficult given that the Costello Commission’s proposals have been announced with great fanfare, but the supporting analysis is so secret that even Campbell Newman claims not to have seen a copy. This Courier-Mail story by Paul Syvret gives the basic points

The report is online here.

fn1. It’s partly a followup from my previous response to Costello’s Interim Report. As in that case, I’m not getting paid for this, and it’s entirely my own work. So, it’s not as polished as the Costello report will doubtless be when it comes out, but I can confidently say it’s better value for money for the Queensland public.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Commissions of Audit, then and now

March 4th, 2013 17 comments

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Commissions of Audit lately[1]. Although the Costello report has not yet been released, I happened to find, on my bookshelf, a document entitled “Report of Queensland Commission of Audit”. It’s not a back-of-the-truck pre-release copy, but the report of the 1996 Commission of Audit, commission by the newly-elected Borbidge (Nat-Lib coalition) government[2], and led by Vince Fitzgerald (a credible, though conservative economist).

The Report makes interesting reading. Its key conclusions are

(a) Queensland’s balance sheet is strong. The state’s net worth is $51 billion
(b) There is an inbuilt negative trend in the state’s operating position, which if unchecked will reach a deficit of $2.7 billion in 10 years

Point (a) sounds pretty positive given that both the Newman government and the interim Costello report paint a picture of a state on the verge of bankruptcy. So, what’s happened to our net worth over the 16 years from Fitzgeral to (interim) Costello. Readers might expect that it’s fallen a lot, or even become negative. In reality, it’s more than tripled, to $171 billion.

Of course, the Costello report has switched attention from net worth to gross debt. While this makes little economic sense in ordinary terms (if you were buying a company, would you care more about its net value, or its debt level), it might be important if the ratio of debt to net worth had risen a lot. Actually, gross debt was $24 billion in 1996, and is $64 billion now. The ratio of gross debt to net worth has actually fallen.

To sum up, the big difference between Fitzgerald and Costello is that Fitzgerald is a serious look at the state’s finances, while Costello (in common with the majority of Commission of Audit reports) is a propaganda stunt. The state’s underlying position is strong, just as it was in the 1990s.

The second point reported by Fitzgerald is also interesting. Borbidge only had one term and didn’t do much, so the problem of dealing with the adverse trend identified in the report fell to the Beattie Labor government. Beattie kept the budget in surplus, and it remained in good shape until we were hit by the GFC and climate disasters of the last few years.

fn1. Of course, we’ve been treated to a peek at the conclusions. This is not calculated to inspire confidence in the analysis, but it certainly makes criticism more difficult.
fn2. Although the Costello Commission is often presented as if it’s something new, appointing a Commission of Audit has been routine piece of political theatre for incoming conservative governments since the early 1990s. The recommendations almost invariably involve spending cuts, and usually asset sales.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Bait and switch

March 2nd, 2013 101 comments

In the course of raillery with the famously scabrous Thames watermen, Boswell reports that Dr Samuel Johnson triumphed with the line “Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods”‘

That insult is applicable, with minimal modification to the Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA advocacy of dams in Northern Australia, long notorious among economists as the worst kind of boondoggle is the kind of scandalous behavior analogous to running a house of pleasure. But, as various interactions on Twitter and elsewhere have made clear, the IPA isn’t really keen on dams – that’s just bait to bring in the nostalgic believers in what Bruce Davidson famously called “The Northern Myth”

The real agenda is the creation of a special economic zone in Northern Australia, with lower taxes and less regulation, but apparently still receiving the same flow of public funds from the national government as at present[1]

Proposals for dams are mostly harmless since so few of them are likely to stack up, even with subsidies. But the suggestion of special tax treatment for businesses located in one part of the country rather than another is the worst kind of distortion[2], the public policy equivalent of receiving stolen goods.

And we don’t have to look further than the front page of the IPA website to see the promoter and biggest single beneficiary of this proposed ripoff – none other than Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman and one who has done nothing to earn her wealth except to be very successful in Family Court.[3]

It’s a tough call whether the IPA has reached its lowest possible point in proposing that ordinary Australians should pay more taxes and get less services, in order to provide a targeted tax handout to Rinehart. That’s low, but arguably not as bad as lying in the service of the tobacco industry.

fn1. The NT government is easily the biggest per capita mendicant in the country, as can be seen from its massively oversized Parliament, more suitable to a medium-sized country than a population of 200 000. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Legislative_Assembly_at_Night.jpg

fn2. Individual taxpayers already get a concessional “zone allowance”, but it’s small enough not to constitute a serious distortion. By contrast, the corporate handouts being pushed by the IPA could be huge.

fn3 As pointed out in comments, it was actually in the Supreme Court which deals with inheritance disputes, such as those between Rinehart, her stepmother and her children. The Family Court is only for divorces.

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The IPA: Less scruples than Billy Hughes

February 28th, 2013 95 comments

A prominent figure in Australian politics in the first half of last century, Billy Hughes, ‘the Little Digger’, was famous for his flexibility, having successively led the Labor Party, National Labor, the Nationalists and then the United Australia Party, before serving in Labor’s Advisory War Council and then joining the Liberal Party. According to legend, he was once asked why he had never joined the Country Party (now the National Party) and replied ‘You have to draw the line somewhere’.

Starting about the time Hughes retired, the Institute of Public Affairs has been similarly flexible, serving first as a Liberal Party slush fund, and then combining a high-minded line in free-market ideology with hackish advocacy on the part of all kinds of vested interests. But, unlike Hughes, the IPA has decided not to draw a line anywhere.

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PPPs take a long time to die

February 28th, 2013 27 comments

In the immediate aftermath of the GFC, I argued that the Public Private Partnerships model then in vogue was broken beyond repair, and that, even after the crisis we would be unlikely to see many more, though we might see deals wrapped up to look like PPPs, but with the public bearing most of the risk.

The recent failure of BrisConnections, the owners of the Airport Link Tunnel in Brisbane was no surprise. The AirportLink deal was one of the last pre-crisis PPPs, when investors were still optimistic enough to buy shares based on absurdly overstated traffic flows. In fact, they bought “partly paid” shares, a startling piece of financial engineering under which shares, trading at virtually zero, carried with them the obligation to come up with a payment of $2/share later on.

Because of the eagerness of private investors, the Queensland government bore little risk in the project. Former Treasurer Andrew Fraser’s description of the project as “a zinger of a deal for the public” displayed his customary tact, but was accurate enough considering the deal in isolation. The problem is that, after this and similar failures, it is highly unlikely that the pre-2008 PPP model can be revived in Australia.

For roads at least, there’s a simple alternative – road pricing based on congestion. I and other economists have been banging this drum for years, but politicians are terrified of even mentioning the idea. At one level, I can understand this – it’s tricky and likely to be controversial – but Queensland governments of both parties have adopted politically suicidal policies, largely motivated by the perception that they will free funds for capital investment.

First, Anna Bligh, along with Andrew Fraser reduced Labor to a seven-member rump with her pursuit of economically disastrous asset sales, exactly the opposite of what she had promised. Now, Campbell Newman has dissipated a huge volume of goodwill with savage cuts to public services, again a wholesale breach of promise, and is now pursuing privatisation. Compared to these electorally suicidal policies, road pricing ought to be a doddle.

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Trouble in paradise (updated)

January 22nd, 2013 26 comments

That’s the headline for my latest Crikey article, on Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls’ lame excuses for the rise in unemployment that inevitably followed his government’s decision to sack around 14 000 people. I’m reposting it over the fold

Update I’ve updated to take account of the fact that only 8000 of the promised 14000 sackings took place in 2012.

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Trifecta

January 17th, 2013 101 comments

If there were still magazine stands, I’d be all over them today. Three pieces of mine have (coincidentally) come out on in the last day or so, in fairly disparate publications

* In Aeon (a new British “digital magazine of ideas and culture, publishing an original essay every weekday”), I have a followup to my first essay there, which argued the case for a Keynesian utopia, with a drastic reduction in market working hours. In my follow-up, I look at the environmental sustainability of the idea. The tagline for the essay “For the first time in history we could end poverty while protecting the global environment. But do we have the will? ”

* Continuing on the utopian theme, Jacobin magazine has published The Light on the Hill, a reply to Seth Ackerman’s piece on market socialism

* And, at The National Interest, a piece with the self-explanatory title, Will Banks Finally Be Brought to Heel?

While I’m plugging my own work, I thought some readers might be interested in this paper on financial liberalisation and asset bubbles, written in the leadup to the global financial crisis. There’s not much I would change now, and it’s still a pretty good summary of how I think about the financial bubble that created the crisis. The linked working paper version is from 2004, and it eventually appeared in the Journal of Economic Issues, the main journal of the institutionalists who carry on the tradition started by Veblen and Commons in early C20. Not surprisingly, given this obscure outlet, it hasn’t had a lot of attention.

Krugman on 2013 vs 1958 macro

January 10th, 2013 44 comments

At the recent American Economic Association meeting in San Diego, Brad DeLong chaired a panel on ” Stimulus or Stymied?: The Macroeconomics of Recessions“, and has posted a transcript. Paul Krugman was there and picked up my claim that macroeconomics has, on balance, gone backwards since 1958. I’ve extracted his section here. Lots of useful stuff, but I’d stress this:

the whole basis on which we constructed monetary policy during the Great Moderation, which is that stabilizing inflation and stabilizing output are the same thing, is all wrong: you can have a sustained period of low but not negative inflation consistent with an economy operating far below its potential productive capacity. That is what I believe is happening now. If so, we are failing dismally in responding to this economic crisis. This is in contrast to what some central bankers are saying—that we have done well because inflation has stayed relatively stable.

To push this a bit further, I’d argue that there will be no real recovery as long as central banks continue to treat the inflation-targeting polices of the (spurious) Great Moderation as the pre-crisis normal to which we should strive to return

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How effective is fiscal policy: Guest post from Roger Farmer (crosspost at CT)

January 8th, 2013 14 comments

Roger Farmer, professor of economics at UCLA, has sent a response to my post on the fiscal multiplier, which is over the fold. I’ll make some substantive points in comments, but I’d like to start by saying that this is a good example of a discussion to which blogs are ideally suited. Contributions from people like Roger who have something important to say, but not the time or inclination for a regular blog, make it even better.

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