How Treasury lost its way on economic reform

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From the almost stony silence of the nation’s economists, you’d never know that Malcolm Turnbull’s successful move to needs-based funding of schools is the most significant economic reform in many a long year.

It’s notable, too, that this reform seems to have been achieved with little or no involvement by the high priests of economics at Treasury and the Productivity Commission.



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High fives all round – Gonski 2.0 passes

After days of deal making, discussions and disputes, the government’s $23.5 billion school funding package has passed.

Only a few economic reform projects are more important than raising the efficiency and effectiveness of federal and state spending on primary and secondary education.

Allocating that spending according to student need is the necessary first step towards the ultimate goal of reducing the shockingly high proportion of students who leave school without an education sufficient to go on to further study – in a trade course, for instance – or even to a life in which the normal state is employment, not recurring periods of unemployment.

The Australian economics profession’s slowness to see the economic – not just the equity – significance of “Gonski” is a sign it’s yet to learn the lessons leading economists in America and Britain are drawing from the populist revolt against the way developed countries’ economies have been managed during the era of “neo-liberalism” – better called economic fundamentalism.

Consider how well needs-based funding fits with former US Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s list of the economic managers’ “errors of omission” in recent decades:

They failed “to expand job training and re-training opportunities, especially for the less educated; to provide transition assistance for displaced workers, including support for internal migration; to mitigate residential and educational segregation and increase to access of those left behind to employment and educational opportunities; to promote community redevelopment, through grants, infrastructure construction and other means; and to address serious social ills through addiction programs, criminal justice reform and the like.”

It needs to be said that the first decade or so of “micro-economic reform” in Oz – floating the dollar, financial deregulation, eliminating protection, reforming the tax system, decentralising wage-fixing and reducing intervention in a host of highly regulated industries – was necessary, often unavoidable given what was happening in the rest of the world, and on balance, of great benefit to the populace.

It’s impossible to imagine returning to the bad old pre-reform economy. Treasury and the Productivity Commission’s predecessor body must be given most of the credit for promoting and designing these reforms.

But it’s equally impossible to avoid the thought that, sometime been then and now, Treasury lost the plot, allowing the reform push to degenerate and be captured by business rent-seekers, politicians with ulterior motives and other government departments that didn’t understand what they were doing.

To a fair extent the present populist revolt is explained by Bernanke’s errors of omission: governments’ failure to help the victims of the structural change their policies promoted and to ensure most of the cost of that assistance was borne by the winners from the change.

How could Treasury forget such an obvious way to minimise popular resistance and resentment of government-promoted change in the structure of industry?

Sometime been then and now, Treasury lost the plot.

Because it was misled by the mistaken notion that economic efficiency and distributional fairness are always at daggers drawn, and by the dubious ethic that economists should stick to promoting efficiency in the allocation of resources and leave fairness for others to worry about.

But also because Treasury allowed itself to be seduced away from strictly economic objectives to the essentially political objective of “smaller government”.

We’ve got an economy heavily affected by multiple forms of market failure – including huge areas with public goods characteristics – but our overriding goal must be less government intervention in markets, less government spending and lower taxes, particularly on high income-earners.

There’s little empirical evidence that economies with large public sectors preform worse than those with small ones, and no evidence that high marginal tax rates do much to discourage economic activity among high-paid full-time workers.

But Treasury’s embrace of the smaller government objective does much to explain the Abbott-Turnbull government’s loss of interest in budget repair (because cutting government spending turns out to be politically impossible), the neglect of measures to assist the losers from structural change (because they would add to government spending) and the lack of interest reform of spending on education (because the need to go easy on the losers from spending reallocation means greater spending during the transition to more rational, cost-effective arrangements).

In the new era of populist backlash against the mounting evidence of stuff-ups in the later years of micro-economic reform, Treasury will continue to flounder and its influence wane until it switches its goal from smaller government to more effective government.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor. Twitter: @1RossGittins.

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