The Australian government is currently engaging the population in an agonising discussion about taxation reform and proposed spending cuts. It is almost vaudeville when the Treasurer, or the Opposition Shadow Treasurer or some business leader gets up and gives us their ‘two bob’s worth’ of nonsense. We have a “revenue problem”, “no we don’t, we have a revenue problem”, “we need to raise taxes”, “no we don’t we need to cut spending”. Then the government appoints a former investment banker as Treasury Department head and he starts raving on about how government should limit its spending to a maximum of 25 per cent of GDP without any argument being provided as to why that limit is meaningful, how it is derived, how it can be achieved if desirable, and all the rest of it. Sounds like a good idea. The Eurozone has destructive fiscal rules (Stability and Growth Pact) that we just whipped out of thin air and sounded important. We may as well, like dumb sheep, follow the race to the bottom. Meanwhile, real GDP growth falls further below trend and the disadvantaged workers endure elevated levels of unemployment and hardship. It is enough to drive one to drink. And then yesterday, the Australian Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which is one of those neo-liberal concoctions introduced by governments around the world to deflect responsibility for decisions from the politicians and frame the public debate in a particular way, published a new report (February 3, 2016) – National fiscal outlook – Report no. 01/2016. The mind boggles how people can write this stuff and go homeat night and take themselves seriously.
On January 23, 2016, a former Australian Treasurer Peter Costello (1996-2007) gave a speech to the Young Liberals (the youth movement of the conservative party in Australia) – Balanced Budgets as a Youth Policy – which was sad in the sense that some people never get over being dumped as out of touch and unpopular and was ridiculous in the sense that it is a denial of reality and macroeconomic understanding. He mounted the same old arguments that have been used to justify the pursuit of fiscal surpluses (grandchildren etc) but failed to recognise that his period as Treasurer was abnormal in terms of our history and left the nation exposed to the GFC as a result of the massive buildup in private sector debt over his period of tenure. The only reason he achieved the surpluses was because growth was driven by the household credit binge which ultimately proved to be unsustainable. Fiscal deficits are historically normal and should not be resisted. They are the mirror image in a national accounting sense of non-government surpluses, which historically, have proven to be the best basis for sustained growth and low unemployment.
Australia has been caught up in a almost national hysteria the last few days as the Federal government’s Mid-Year Economics and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) release approached. The MYEFO was released yesterday (December 15, 2015) and the sky is still firmly above us, albeit slightly overcast today with storms approaching. I can assure everyone the storms are meteorological events associated with the early summer rather than any moves by international credit rating agencies to detonate their heavy artillery and sink the continent into the Pacific and Indian oceans. The mainstream media coverage of the buildup to the MYEFO has been nothing short of extraordinary and demonstrates that no matter how wealthy a nation’s per capita, how educated it’s people appear to be, public debate is conducted at levels of ignorance that the cavemen and women would laugh at. I have spoken to several journalists in the last few days who by their questioning expose a basic lack of understanding of the macroeconomic implications of the data that has been released in the MYEFO. Basically, the Outlook shows that the federal fiscal deficit is larger than previously estimated (in the May 2015 Fiscal Statement aka ‘The Budget’) and this demonstrates the automatic stabilisers in operation to put a floor under the slowing economy. This counter-cyclical movement is something that we should be comforted by because as private spending contracts and the economy slows the expansion of the deficit limits, to some extent, the job losses and the number of businesses that might become insolvent. However, the mainstream reaction has been hysterical (as in hysteria) with all sorts of predictions about national insolvency, credit rating agencies downgrading us, and “deficits for as long as you can see”. The problem is that the so-called average Australian believes all this nonsense and doesn’t understand that the rising deficit is a good thing in the context of poor developments in private spending.
The fiscal position of a government that issues its own currency should never be a focus of attention other than to understand why it have evolved to its current level – whether it is reflecting mainly discretionary policy choices or cyclical effects (automatic stabilisers). If there was accelerating inflation and high GDP growth then one might be tempted to conclude the fiscal deficit is to expansionary and needs to be cut back. One might equally conclude that private spending is too strong and needs to be cut back. But when there is declining growth and very high and persistent labour underutilisation rates, it is hard to argue that the fiscal deficit needs to be cut. It is, in fact, lunacy!
It is a public holiday in Australia today – Queen’s Birthday, a reflection of our past as a colony. Not a lot has actually changed and we still cannot shed the monarchy. Anyway, not many people reflect on the monarchy today given it is deep winter and football matches are on as part of the holiday. But in keeping with the holiday spirit, I will only write a short blog today. The topic is why no-one should vote for the Australian Labor Party although the argument is applicable to all parties like it, who formerly represented the interests of workers and who are now dominated by politicians who have embraced the neo-liberal macroeconomic myths as if they are truths and, if that wasn’t bad enough, have become active proselytizers of this destructive religion. I might write a few words about the on-going Eurozone saga too, given the extraordinary comments by leading European politicians overnight. Then I will head like thousands of others to the football!
Last night, the Australian Federal Treasurer brought down his second ‘fiscal statement’ (aka, the Federal ‘Budget’). I try to avoid the term ‘budget’ when discussing national government fiscal balances because it leads to a confusion between a the finances of a household, which uses the currency and is financially constrained and the finances of a sovereign government, which is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency. In last night’s fiscal statement, the Treasurer committed the Government to a policy path that will entrench mass unemployment (over 6 per cent for the next three years and not much below that in 2018-19). In each of the next four years, the fiscal shift is contractionary despite claims that it is a ‘big-spending budget’. It has nothing much to do with economics and all to do with the dramatic failure of last year’s fiscal strategy and the resulting plunge in electoral support. With an election next year, the Federal government has tried to run a fiscal policy with headline appeal but the reality is that the outcomes will continue to undermine the well-being of the disadvantaged. It will also fail to achieve its own fiscal targets because the in-built growth assumptions are too optimistic. Finally, it exposes the lie that the Government peddled in the lead up to the last election that on-going deficits would cripple the economy and send the nation bust. In that sense, the government is looking like the Tories in Britain in 2012 when they cut short the ridiculous austerity push which had sent the economy back into recession and instead allowed for an on-going deficit. The deficit wasn’t nearly large enough and so growth there has been pitiful. But it was large enough to support some growth. The same will be the case in Australia.
The ABC news report (May 4, 2015) – Budget figures likened to Stephen King novel as Deloitte predicts $14.1 billion blowout for 2015-2016 – is one of the worst pieces of journalism you will ever read. There is no critical scrutiny in this report at all. It clearly just takes the press release from the private consulting firm and summarises it for public consumption. That is not balanced reporting or good journalism. The ABC is our national broadcaster, funded from the public purse and reaches all the population. It is also a free resource so there are no barriers to entry to consumption. It therefore has a responsibility to provide balanced reporting and should never become partisan. The problem is that on economics matters it has become a neo-liberal mouthpiece and continually gives headline space to mainstream economics organisations who make money from selling spurious advice about the economy. The only reasonable thing that this ABC Report is that the headline likens the fiscal analysis of Deloitte Access Economics, a Canberra-based economic consultancy firm, to fictional prose, which I think is an accurate assessment.
Recall back to the worst part of the GFC when the Australian government announced a relatively large fiscal intervention in late 2008, we had a swathe of financial market commentators predicting the worst. This article (published July 11, 2009) – Alarming debt bomb is ticking – was representative of the hysteria that the public was confronted with. We read about “a nearly saturated bond market” and the ticking time bomb of government debt. Apparently, the Australian government was soon to run out of money and would not be able to fund itself. There were predictions of a “failed auction, when there are insufficient bids from authorised dealers to cover the volume of bonds offered”. The intent of all these sorts of articles were to put public pressure on the government to impose austerity (but leave any handouts to the corporate sector) intact. Some five years later, the fiscal deficit is still rising. Yesterday (March 24, 2015), the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM), which issues and manages Federal government debt, issued its latest press release – Pricing of New June 2035 Treasury Bond. I wonder when all the retractions are going to come from the financial market commentators, the Treasurer and a range of academics who were claiming there was a calamity approaching. Amazing really. Read on.
Its sad when politicians lie just to get political points as they face declining popularity. We saw last week that the Australian Prime Minister started attacking indigenous Australians for living in areas that they have occupied, one way or another, for somewhere up to 80,000 years. He claimed these settlements were “lifestyle” choices and people could no longer expect government support if they wanted to indulge in such choices. 80,000 years for a culture that has a deep connection with the ‘land’ is quite story compared to the Anglo settlement in Australia of 226 years for a culture that connects via iPhones! The PM was playing into the hands of the racist Australians who think the indigenous population here are skivers and drunks and should get no state support. They ignore that this cohort is one of the most disadvantaged peoples of the World. In the last few days, the PM has been lying about the state of government finances and pledging to that “the government will have the budget back in balance within five years”. There was no mention of what this might imply for the real economy. I am surprised that the conservatives haven’t learned from the previous Labor Government who made continual promises of surpluses but failed each time – largely because they didn’t understand that they cannot control the fiscal outcomes no matter how hard they try. And when they do try and run against the spending desires of the non-government sector, they just cause havoc and damage and fail to achieve their goals anyway. Stupid is not the word for these sorts of promises.
There is growing pressure on Australia’s wage setting tribunals to scrap penalty and overtime rates, allegedly because they damage employment and firms are just busting to put more workers on as long as wages drop. I have had a long association with these tribunals as an expert witness and I cannot recall the employers’ representatives ever agreeing that the time is right for wage rises. If their submissions are to be taken on their word then there would never be any wage increases. The facts are that real wages continue to fall in Australia – more rapidly in the private sector than the public. The Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June quarter yesterday (August 13, 2014) and the data shows that hourly wage inflation is running at 2.4 per cent per annum, which is well below the current inflation rate. Real wages growth is also well below the growth in hourly productivity, which means that the Australian distribution system is still redistributing real national income to profits. And all the while employment growth is flat or negative. Meanwhile, our cigar-smoking Treasurer sees it as his role to berate the poor for being poor and distorting the public data to hide the fact that the May fiscal statement (aka budget) significantly cuts the real standard of living for low income earners and leaves the top income earners relatively unscathed. But all of this is in the name of fiscal austerity (aka madness).