How to keep an AUD30bn surplus

The short version: you can’t. Not (politically) tenably, at any rate.

The Federal Government could deliver a record budget surplus of between $26 billion and $30 billion under its new fiscal policy tactic for putting downward pressure on inflation.

As the Government faced calls yesterday from a business group to freeze spending, it is emerging that the surplus for next financial year is set to be much larger than the $18 billion flagged.

This would allow the Government to use the budget to sell its message that it is tightening fiscal policy enough to contain inflationary pressures despite keeping its promised $31 billion in tax cuts.

The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said yesterday the Government would apply a “new era of fiscal discipline” for years to get inflation under control.

Mr Swan said a Business Council of Australia submission calling for no real spending increases correctly identified challenges in areas like improving workforce skills and infrastructure.

I don’t know how the government plans to pull that off. Our economy is under very serious inflationary pressure – as was well-presented only over the weekend by Ross Gittins:

When our real resources reach the point of being fully employed, the economy (gross domestic product; aggregate demand) simply can’t grow faster than aggregate supply is growing – which these days the econocrats estimate to be 3.5 per cent a year at most, and probably nearer 3 per cent.

When we attempt to grow faster than that we don’t succeed, we just generate imports and inflation.

If, for instance, the state governments decide it’s time to start making inroads into the infrastructure backlog, their extra spending is more likely to bid up wages in the construction sector than cause more roads and schools to be built.

So how do we reduce the likelihood of such an unhappy event? By reducing the need for the Reserve Bank to rely as heavily on the blunt instrument of further interest-rate rises by making more use of the budget’s braking power.

And that means Kevin Rudd not being so stupid as to keep his ill-considered promise to cut taxes in July.

Needless to say, now that they are in opposition, the liberal party has a different view:

the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, defended the Coalition’s approach. “As a Liberal Party we take the view that those taxes [are] money taken out of the pockets of hard-working, everyday Australians,” Dr Nelson said.

“Once we’ve delivered on our commitments in defence and health, education and roads and all of the things that we need to do to look after pensioners, then that money wherever possible ought to be returned to the people who actually paid it.”

Actually, as a liberal party, you should not have set those tax revenues up in the first place, while allowing a now-probably-non-solvable export bottleneck to hold productivity back.

Budding Austrian economists! This is why (big G) Government isn’t supposed to take away more than the minimum required to do the things for which it was created. It always ends in tears, eventually. I don’t much look forward to another recession we will have to have had (I’m the Picasso of tenses, it’s true).

Given, as Gittins explains, that we are at (and, probably beyond) the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, giving Australian households AUD31bn in negative taxation is not going to help much – irrespective of how much money the government isn’t giving back.

If today’s IHT is correct, the commodities boom could, soon, be boosting Australia’s income still further, as Latin America faces its own problems:

Argentina and Brazil are facing the possibility of short-term energy crises from a lack of natural gas, which is needed to fuel industries and generate electricity for residents. Bolivia is sitting in the middle, with the region’s largest gas reserves.

I’m with Gittins: the government should really consider holding onto that money for awhile. Pour it into the migration of labour within the economy, from low to high-productive areas/industries, if necessary.

This returns us to the notion of complexity, though. If you’d promised AUD31bn in tax cuts, and then I came along and explained the macroeconomic risks of delivering on that promise – the promise of tax cuts – what would you do? Unfortunately, the government is also in politics.

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