As someone who, back in the day, did his share of being one of Paul Keating’s pet shop galahs – screeching “more micro reform!” every time they saw a pollie – I don’t cease to be embarrassed by the many supposed reforms that turned into stuff-ups.
My defence is that at least I’ve learnt from those mistakes. One thing I’ve learnt is that too many economists are heavily into confirmation bias – they memorise all the happenings that affirm the wisdom of their theory, but quickly cast from their minds the events that cast doubt on that wisdom.
Well, let me remind them of a few things they’d prefer to forget.
Of course, it’s not the case that everything done in the name of “micro-economic reform” was wrong-headed. The floating of the dollar was an unavoidable recognition that the era of fixed exchange rates was over and the dollar’s ups and downs have almost always helped to stabilise the economy.
The old regulated banking system wasn’t working well and had to be junked. With the rise of China in a globalising world, persisting with a highly protected manufacturing sector would have been a recipe for getting poorer. Nor could we have persisted with a centralised wage-fixing system or a tax system that failed to tax capital gains, fringe benefits and services – to name just a few worthwhile reforms.
Many privatisations were justified – the government-owned banks, insurance companies and airlines – but the sale of geographic monopolies (ports and airports) and natural monopolies (electricity and telephone networks) was a step backwards, mainly because governments couldn’t resist the temptation to maximise the sale price by preserving the businesses’ pricing power at the expense of consumers.
The conversion of five state monopolies into the national electricity market proved a monumental stuff-up at all three levels: generation, transmission and retail. It quickly devolved into an oligopoly with three big vertically integrated firms happily overcharging consumers at every level, with collateral damage to the use of carbon pricing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
We’ve learnt that “markets” artificially created by governments and managed by bureaucrats are – you wouldn’t guess – hugely bureaucratic, with the managers susceptible to “capture” by market players. The gas market has also been an enormous stuff-up, threatening the survival of what remains of Australian manufacturing.
The ill-considered attempt to treat schools and TAFEs and universities as being in some kind of market, where fostering competition between them and paying teachers performance bonuses would spur them to lift their performance, proved an utter dud.
Had the harebrained plan to deregulate uni fees not been stopped, it would have made even worse the chronic disorientation of the nation’s vice chancellors on what universities are meant to do and why they’re doing it. Lesson: trying to turn non-market parts of society into markets, while blithely ignoring all the obvious reason such “markets” would fail, is a fool’s errand.
Which brings us to the half-baked idea of trying improve the provision of taxpayer-funded services by making their delivery “contestable” by for-profit providers. It’s been an expensive failure pretty much everywhere it’s been tried: childcare, employment services, vocational education and training, and aged care (see present royal commission), not to mention privately run prisons and offshore detention centres. How long will it be before we’re having a royal commission in the abuses of the largely outsourced national disability insurance scheme?
Why have so many reform programs ended so badly? Partly because of the naivety of econocrats and other proponents of “economic rationalism”. They had no notion of how far the grossly oversimplified neo-classical model of markets they carry in their heads misrepresented the big bad real world.
And many of them, having spent their working lives solely in the public sector, had no idea of how wasteful or bureaucratic the supposedly rational private sector could be. Actually break the law if they thought they wouldn’t get caught because corporate law-breaking wasn’t being policed? Sure. Rip off the government because the bureaucrats wouldn’t notice? Love to.
But there’s another reason so many reforms blew up. Because naive econocrats failed to foresee the way reforms intended to leave consumers or taxpayers better off could be hijacked by Finance Department accountants looking to cut government spending and produce “smaller government” by whatever expediency possible (see uni fee deregulation) and politicians looking to win the approval of big business or to move money and influence from the public sector column (them) to the private sector column (us).
Lesson: if a venal politician can find a way to sabotage micro-economic reform to their own advantage, they will.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.