Economics textbooks are hefty objects. Many a kinked neck and curved spine have resulted from children being forced to lug such weighty tomes between school and home.
Whether many students manage to read and absorb the often turgid contents of such books remains an open question.
But the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, have proven diligent students. Many of the hallmark economic policies of this Labor government – pricing carbon, the mining tax, fiscal stimulus and even efforts to cap middle-class welfare – could be torn straight from the pages of your typical HSC economics textbook.
Forcing big polluters to pay for the pollution they emit is economics 101. To an economist’s mind, pollution is the ultimate example of an “externality”. Externalities arise when the total costs or benefits of an activity are not borne entirely by the producer of that activity, but are imposed, in part, upon the rest of society. This can be a good thing. Investments in new technologies can produce “positive externalities”, or “technology spillovers”, if the resulting new technology is of potentially wider application.
That is why economists often support government subsidies for research and development. Without such subsidies, the market would produce less investment in this new technology than would be socially optimal. Any economics textbook will tell you such externalities are a case of market failure, where the level of activity produced by the free market is not socially optimal. Society is better off when governments intervene to promote the activities that generate positive externalities, or to discourage activities with negative externalities.
When your neighbour strikes up her lawnmower at 7am on a Saturday, no doubt she is doing it because it is the best use of her time. But her actions create a negative externality – noise – which affects all within earshot. The neighbourhood as a whole would be better off – enjoying more sleep and harmony – if she did not engage in such industrious activity so early in the morning. That is why local councils commonly impose curfews on the use of loud machinery, to control the noise externality.
Pollution is the textbook example of such a negative externality. If producers are not forced to pay for the pollution they emit as part of their production process, they tend to do more of it than would be socially optimal. Pollution imposes a cost on the rest of society – through global warming, increased severe weather events and drought – that is not borne by the producers themselves. Making polluters pay, even if they pass some of this cost on to consumers, corrects for this externality and gives them an incentive to pollute less.
The economic theory behind the government’s proposed minerals resource rent tax is similarly standard economics fare. Economists are always looking for ways to raise tax in a way that interferes with economic activity as little as possible. Land, being immoveable, is the ultimate example of something good to tax – land can’t move to avoid the tax. Natural resources are also largely immoveable, making them an obvious target for taxation.
But instead of setting an arbitrary annual tax based on the volume of mineral extraction – like state mining royalties – economists consider it far more efficient to tax natural resource producers as a percentage of their profits. In particular, it makes sense to tax mining companies on their “above normal profits”, that is, not just the reasonable rate of return required to tempt them into extracting resources in the first place, but the return they receive in excess of that due to the scarcity of the resource and the monopoly power they have over production at a particular mine. This is the essence of the mining tax.
The government’s multibillion-dollar stimulus program unleashed at the beginning of the global financial crisis was also by the book. It is no overstatement to say it represents perhaps the finest example of Keynesian fiscal stimulus employed by any country to date. With private demand in retreat, the government stepped forward quickly with public demand to prop up growth and employment, helping Australia to avoid recession. Crucially, the stimulus was designed to be temporary, so when the economy was on the mend the withdrawal of stimulus ensured government policy was Keynesian on the upside, too.
Carbon tax, mining tax and fiscal stimulus: a holy trinity of good economic policies that, instead of earning Labor a reputation for fine economic management, have somehow bred only discontent and fear.
Because while Labor has proved a good economics student, it has proved a woeful economics teacher, failing to impress upon voters the important and prudent nature of its reforms.
It has no doubt faced fierce opposition in building the case for good economic policy. Labor swallowed the economics textbook whole, but choked politically in the process.
But in Tony Abbott’s hands, the economic textbook seems little more than a handy blunt object with which to whack one’s opposition. The Opposition Leader appears hell-bent on styling himself as some sort of economic Antichrist.
Where Labor seeks a market-based solution to the problem of climate change, Abbott wants a multibillion-dollar system of grants, where the government will pick winners for funding to reduce emissions.
Where Labor seeks a minerals resource rent tax in line with Ken Henry’s recommendation, Abbott wants to axe the tax, meaning a return to inefficient state mining royalties.
Abbott lampooned the government’s fiscal stimulus to such a degree that it is not at all clear he would attempt any such action should global economic conditions deteriorate.
I was at the lunch earlier this year at Melbourne University when Abbott slapped down a roomful (outdoor tentful, actually) of Australia’s most respected economists for their advocacy of a price on carbon. “Maybe that’s a comment on the quality of our economists,” the Rhodes scholar and Sydney University economics graduate chided his audience.
Certainly, the comment raised some eyebrows. But mostly, the reaction seemed one of “well, he would say that wouldn’t he?”
Tony Abbott has made it abundantly clear that the arguments set out in economists’ textbooks do not impress or interest him.