Pirates ! (Militarism Whack-a-Mole #173)

Making the case against militarism is very reminiscent of climate denial whack-a-mole. Demolish one spurious argument, and you’re immediately presented with another. For example, my post showing that the economic benefits of “keeping sea lanes open” could not justify more than a trivial proportion of current naval expenditure, got hardly any substantive responses (apart from tiger-repelling rocks), but a great many saying “what about the pirates?”.

I’ve done the numbers on this one, and they look pretty clear-cut. There are a bunch of estimates on the web of the annual cost of piracy ranging from $1 billion to $16 billion a year.

This seems implausibly high. The amount actually stolen by pirates or paid as ransoms is far smaller, less than a billion a year at its peak, AFAICT. Looking in detail, there’s a fair bit of double counting here (both actual losses and the insurance premiums which offset them are counted, for example), and the high-end numbers typically include some estimate of the cost of naval deployments on anti-piracy patrols. In particular. Still, in the spirit of fair play, I’ll go with $15 billion a year as an upper bound.

Turning to the US Navy* budget, it’s currently just shy of $400 billion a year. That supports a fleet of 272 “deployable battle force” ships, implying an annual cost of $1.5 billion per ship. So, the annual cost of piracy is the same as the cost of about 10 ships. To put it another way, reducing the fleet by one ship, and scaling down anti-piracy operations accordingly would have to increase global piracy by 10 per cent to yield a loss to the global shipping industry greater than the savings to the US (I leave aside the question of why the global shipping industry is such an important recipient of US foreign aid).

Having played military whack-a-mole many times before I can anticipate the responses in my sleep. So, I’ll open the comments threads, resist the temptation to take part, and whack the inevitable moles in a later post.

* The US spends more than other developed countries, but I don’t think the others get any more ship for their shilling, capability-adjusted.

Budget bubble

The stream of leaks about Tuesday’s budget suggest that the process was still in turmoil until the last minute. If the last round of leaks are broadly accurate, it looks like a budget that will fit fairly neatly into a class war frame. On the tax side, the government has long been floating a cut in company tax rates and the removal of the budget emergency levy on incomes above $180k. At the last minute, they have apparently decided on an increase in the threshold (currently $80 000) for the 37 per cent marginal tax rate.

Presumably, Morrison and Turnbull think that this will be a vote-winner for people concerned about being pushed into higher tax brackets, or already in the higher brackets. How may such people are there, and who are they? Let’s suppose that the budget measures compensate for the bracket creep since Labor left office. The income tax statistics for 2012-13 showed that, at that time, 18.6 per cent of tax returns reported income of $80 000 per year.

Assuming a 10 per cent increase in nominal incomes since then, I estimate that around 5 per cent of taxpayers would have entered the 37 per cent bracket since then. Of course, most of these would be paying 37 per cent on only a tiny fraction of their income, but people don’t always judge these things sensibly. Still, a budget measure targeted at 5 per cent of taxpayers (a good deal less than 5 per cent of the electorate, even taking account of the fact that many are in couple families) doesn’t seem like an election winner.

The real punch of the measure is that everyone on incomes currently over $80 000 will benefit. Assuming a 10 per cent increase, the full benefit of $360 per year (the 4.5 cent difference in marginal rates, applied to $8000) would go to everyone with a taxable income above $88000. That’s about 25 per cent of the 12 million who file income tax returns or 3 million people.

Those above $180 000 will also benefit from the removal of the 2 per cent emergency levy, which is a much bigger deal for the beneficiaries. Anyone earning over $200k will gain at least $400 from this measure, more than from the tax cut

The threshold change I’ve calculated would cost around $1 billion a year to benefit a relatively small group of voters, most of whom are already Liberals and the rest of whom (including me, for example) are unlikely to be all that responsive to tax cuts.

As a political strategy, this doesn’t make obvious sense. I suspect, however, that most politicians and political commentators (particularly, though not only, on the conservative side) make their political estimates on the basis of people they know, many of whom are exercised about bracket creep, and very few of whom make less than $80 000 a year. I recall studies where members of the political class were asked to estimate the median Australian income, and got the number drastically wrong. The social bubble is reinforced by the intellectual bubble created by an increasingly fact-free rightwing world view.

Bubble thinking isn’t exclusively a problem of the political right. But it’s more prevalent there than at any time in the recent past. It may well prove the Turnbull government’s undoing.

* Peter Martin makes the same point about median incomes. After seeing a lower number in his article, I’ve corrected my original estimate of the budget cost, which was too high.