You may not have noticed, but the Productivity Commission’s search for “a new policy model” for reform, in reaction to the breakdown of the politicians’ “neoliberal consensus”, offers better prospects for finally getting the budget under control. That’s because, although the commission doesn’t say so, its reformed approach to reform represents a retreat from a central tenet of neoliberal doctrine for the past 30 years: the goal of Smaller Government.
The retreat makes sense for three reasons. First, because attempts to reduce government’s role in the economy – think privatisation, deregulation and cuts in government spending – are central to the populist revolt against neoliberalism.
Second, because the smaller-government push has had little success and, particularly in recent times, some spectacular failures – think the attempt to reform TAFE by making vocational education and training “contestable” by for-profit providers, which the commission now admits was a “disastrous intervention”.
Third, because, paradoxically, abandoning the goal of smaller government offers a better prospect of budget repair and a return to “fiscal sustainability” (low public debt) via greater control of government spending over the medium term and a lifting of the fatwa against explicit tax increases.
That’s partly because, as we’ve learnt since the ill-fated 2014 budget, the electoral opposition to significant cuts in spending on social security (read the age pension), healthcare and education actually exceeds the resistance to hypothecated tax increases (those linked to worthy spending programs).
But it’s also because, as we’ve known for decades, but chosen to ignore, there’s little empirical evidence of a correlation between the size of a country’s public sector and its rate of economic growth or macro-economic stability.
Nor has there ever been much empirical evidence that the willingness of high income-earners to work hard – as opposed to “secondary earners” (mainly married women choosing between part-time and full-time work) – is greatly diminished by high rates of income tax.
If there’s little evidence favouring smaller government, why’s it been central to the neoliberal project? Because a presumption against government intervention is built into the assumptions of the economists’ neoclassical model, and because limiting the size of government minimises the taxes and maximises the freedom of the rich and powerful.
The Productivity Commission’s new reform agenda unconsciously reveals how much the old agenda of the past 30 years was influenced – and constrained – by the goal of smaller government.
If you’re trying to improve productivity, there are two broad approaches. One is to reduce the role of government by privatising government-owned businesses (including natural monopolies), outsourcing the provision of government services, reducing government regulation and reforming taxation in ways believed to improve incentives to work, save and invest.
The alternative approach is to focus on ensuring the nation’s education and training system delivers the best skill formation possible – including those skills most useful in the digital economy – and on ensuring spending on public infrastructure is both sufficient and sufficiently well directed to maximise the private sector’s productivity, particularly in the big cities.
Get it? The commission’s new reform agenda approaches productivity improvement more directly, accepting that the old agenda is well into diminishing returns. In the process it’s shifted the goal from smaller government to better government.
The great side benefit of the commission’s new policy model is that, as well as seeking to give micro-economic reform a new direction, it improves governments’ chances of regaining control over their spending.
As successive federal and state intergenerational reports have shown, by far the greatest source of future growth in combined federal and state spending will be healthcare. The second biggest area of combined spending is on education and training.
The standard, Treasury and Finance-promoted approach to restraining these two spending areas adopted in the Abbott government’s first budget was simply to shift a big chunk of spending off the federal budget and on to the budgets of households (the co-payment for GP visits) and the states (slashed federal grants for public hospitals and schools).
The vehemence of the public’s opposition to these cuts not only rendered them impossible, it warned off governments of either stripe from trying such an approach again. Malcolm Turnbull’s surprise embrace of needs-based school funding covered his retreat from cuts in grants for schools.
The alternative approach to controlling the rate of growth in spending on health and education over the medium term is to get deep into the nitty-gritty of what the respective systems do and how well they’re doing it.
It’s not hard to believe that improving the quality of service they deliver to patients and students could also reduce waste and inefficiency, thus slowing the rate at which their costs are growing.
Ross Gittins is Economics Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.
First published in The Canberra Times, 13 November 2017.