The Myth of Liberal Competence-1
19 November 2022
One of the enduring myths of politics is that conservatives are better money managers. This is the case in the US, where the Republicans, who enthusiastically dismantle government programs that help poor people and the UK Conservatries who do the same. And it is the case here with the Liberals.
Perhaps the logic is that since they are rich, they must be better with money. But I wonder at the influence of Christianity. The key message is that you must suffer to be redeemed. Suffering is worthy and will later be rewarded. This seems to play into notions that the country will benefit if we all suffer now, ‘we’ in this case being those more dependent on welfare, or those at the bottom of the heap.
The other overarching fact in a market economy the more wealthy people can set the prices, which effectively means they set their incomes. At the bottom of the social pyramid, those at the bottom compete for the jobs and wages set by others. In short, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The game ‘Monopoly’ was designed to illustrate this. People play Monopoly, and when they win or lose, they stop the game and go on with life. But what is the game were real and never ended? The losers would get poorer and poorer until they had nothing else to give. That arguably is what a market economy will do without some intervention from an outside force, like a government, to intervene in the cause of those going backward.
Arguably the world’s leading economist is Thomas Piketty. He is a Frenchman who, as he rose, was offered a post in Harvard. He did not take it, opining that economics in the US was theoretical and not based on hard data, as a science should be. Records of national income and death duties going back for 400 years in 4 countries had been put together and he analysed it. His book, ‘Capitalism in the 21st Century’ is a towering work. It is long, but it is very well-structured with concise conclusions at the beginning and the proof in the later chapters for those who want to read more. He observed that the wages of the population go up at the inflation rate, and the income of the rich who loaned money go up at the interest rate, but the interest rate was always higher than the inflation rate, otherwise there would be no profit in lending. So the income of the rich would always go up faster than the rest of the population, so social inequality would increase in the absence of other interference.
It has always been known that money goes round, and to stimulate the economy people have to spend more. But Piketty points out that poor people spend a greater percentage of their money than rich people. Very poor people spend all the money they have, rich people save about a third. So if you want to stimulate an economy, you should give money to poor people. This is of course not what conservative governments do. They give money to infrastructure, which these days means big private contractors or have industry assistance packages. But these initiatives are giving money to the rich, on the assumption that it will generate more jobs in the long term than the extra consumption would have generated.
(You might ask why Piketty has not got a Nobel Prize for being the first economist to use real data over centuries and come to such a profound conclusion. If you did ask that you might wonder if the Nobel prize economics committee are all neo-liberal economists and you might be right).
The point is without government intervention, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. The best way to minimise this is to have as much shared wealth as possible in the form of park and public facilities, such as transport, health, education and essential services that blunt the significance of income disparities, as a base-line is set without it having the stigma of charity.
But conservative governments, like the Nobel committee want to ignore Piketty and the obvious facts as they do not suit their ideological agenda. A cynic would say that the ideological agenda from right wing ‘think tanks is merely an endless list of convenient reasons to keep the money flowing to the top end of town, to lessen government ‘interference’ which might act for fairness, and to commodify everything such as housing, transport and education so they can become profitable, increase inequality and profit those at the top. How can this agenda ever be considered the foundation of good financial management?
But as Treasurer, Morrison was not even clever in his management of his own revenue. Here is a tale of how his GST deal with Western Australia was out by a factor of almost 10 times over 3 years. Yet the legacy of this shambles is contracts and deal that other have to grapple with.
One of the modest contributions that I am seeking to make to political discourse is to sheet home the blame for failures to the people responsible for them. Here is a start, from the SMH:
Cost of Morrison’s WA GST deal blows out by $20 billion as debt hits record high
By Shane Wright SMH November 14, 2022 — 5.00am
A deal put in place to placate Western Australia when its share of GST revenue was tumbling is on track to cost the nation’s taxpayers 10 times more than originally forecast, helping drive up federal government debt and interest payments to record levels.
Pulled together by then-treasurer Scott Morrison in 2018 before being put through parliament by his successor, Josh Frydenberg, the deal that was originally expected to cost $2.3 billion is now on track to cost more than $24 billion.
WA, which delivered four seats to Labor at the May election on the back of a 10.6 per cent swing, is vowing to fight to keep the arrangement, due to expire in 2026-27.
Morrison struck the deal at a time WA’s share of the tax pool had fallen to an all-time low of 30 cents for every dollar of GST raised within the state. Its iron ore royalties were effectively being redistributed among the other states and territories based on a Commonwealth Grants Commission formula that takes into account each state’s revenue sources and expenses.
Under Morrison’s deal, from 2022-23 WA must receive a minimum of 70 cents in the dollar before increasing to 75 cents in 2024-25. When the policy was put in place, it was expected iron ore prices would fall and WA’s share of the GST pool would therefore rise. Instead, prices have soared.
The Morrison government ensured other states and territories wouldn’t be worse off, which requires the top-up funding for the deal to come from outside the $82.5 billion GST pool.
It was originally forecast to cost federal taxpayers $2.3 billion over three years, including just $293 million in 2021-22, but the surge in iron ore prices has meant more top-ups and for longer.
The October budget revealed that last year, the deal cost $2.1 billion and is forecast to jump to $4.2 billion this financial year. By 2025-26, the cost of the entire deal is on track to reach $22.5 billion, with another $2-3 billion likely the year after that.
Throughout the entire period, the budget is expected to be in deficit, forcing the extra cash to be borrowed. In percentage terms, the blowout in cost is larger than the NDIS, aged care, health or defence.
Independent economist Chris Richardson said the deal had been ill-conceived from the beginning with the cost to be borne by future taxpayers.
He said all significant spending programs needed to be properly assessed, including the GST deal.
“Yes, the politics of it are difficult. But we have a whole host of other issues, like the NDIS, and the economics of them have to be dealt with,” he said.
Any change to the GST deal would create enormous political problems in WA which is likely to gain more political power with an additional seat in a looming federal electorate redistribution.
WA Premier and Treasurer Mark McGowan, who reported a $5.6 billion budget surplus for the 2021-22 financial year, told this masthead he expected the GST deal to remain.
“I have made it very clear that West Australians will not accept any changes to the GST distribution,” he said.
“Those on the east coast who are demanding WA lose out still do not realise that under the reforms, WA will receive 70 per cent of its population share of the GST next financial year. In complete contrast, no other state has ever received a share of the GST lower than 83 per cent.
“WA will continue to subsidise all the other states into the future under this arrangement. No state has lost a dollar under these reforms.”
The extra borrowing for the GST deal has contributed to the lift in gross debt, which on Friday reached a record $909.4 billion.
Ahead of the COVID-pandemic, gross debt was expected to reach $576 billion this financial year. Instead, it is now forecast to reach $927 billion before reaching $1 trillion in 2023-24.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the cost of servicing the debt was getting more expensive and was now the budget’s fastest-growing expense.
“We’ve made good progress in a very short space of time. We’ve found $22 billion in savings and kept real spending growth flat across the forward estimates,” he said.
“[But] it will take more than one budget and more than one term of government to make up for a decade of missed opportunities and messed-up priorities.”