Did the Ratchet Effect Apply to Post-War Government Spending in Australia?

The ratchet theory suggests that government spending tends to ratchet up in times of crisis (wars, social upheavals, recessions) and then to remain at the new higher level. It has been put forward as an alternative to Wagner’s law (discussed in an earlier post).

In terms of the ratchet mechanism, the explanation for upward movement in government spending may appear straight forward, reflecting public demands for the government to ‘do something’ to help solve a problem. The process is not entirely mechanistic, however, because public demands for government action can vary depending on ideological factors e.g. changing perceptions about the role of government in helping people who are adversely affected by a recession and about the effectiveness of deficit spending. It is also possible for the upward movement to occur for opportunistic reasons e.g. politicians with an ideological leaning toward big government ‘never want a serious crisis to go to waste’.

A variety of reasons have been put forward to explain why public spending might remain at the new higher level after the end of the crisis. The most mechanistic explanation is status quo bias – the tendency of people to choose to maintain the status quo rather than to change a policy. For example, once tax rates have been increased to fund war time spending, status quo bias may favour retention of higher tax rates.

In addition, new programs created during a crisis may tend to develop a life of their own by creating interest groups with a vested interest in their continuation – including newly created bureaucracies that will fight to prevent themselves from being eliminated.

However, the ratchet theory does not provide a complete explanation of the growth of government. In his review of Robert Higgs’ book, ‘Crisis and Leviathan’, Gary Anderson notes that while most historians argue that the Civil War was the pre-eminent crisis in American history, ‘following this particular crisis, government sank like a stone relative to the growth of the private economy’.

Dick Durevall and Magnus Henrekson did not find strong support for the ratchet theory in their recent study of trends in size of government in the UK and Sweden from the beginning of industrialization until the present:

There is no consistent evidence of a ratchet effect in either country. There is some evidence of an asymmetric effect in both countries in the post-war period, but this is reversed in subsequent periods. Hence there is no clear evidence that government exploits recessions and crises to permanently shift the government spending ratio upwards’ (p. 22).

In New Zealand, government spending as a percentage of GDP seems to have fallen during WW2 as well as in the latter half of the 1950s and the 1990s. At the same time, as noted by Bryce Wilkinson, ‘the timing of the increases in the state’s share looks opportunistic’. Wilkinson suggests that growth in government spending reflects ‘changing ideas about the role of the state and the increasing power of vested spending interests’ (‘Restraining Leviathan’, 2004: Figure 5, p.41).

It is also difficult to see a consistent ratchet effect in the following chart for Australia showing estimates of government spending as a percentage of GDP over the period from 1939 to the present. The increase that occurred in the 1970s has not been reversed, but during the 1950s the Menzies government seems to have managed to defy the ratchet effect by reducing government spending to levels close to those in 1939.

I have never previously thought that I might one day have reason to praise the economic achievements of the Menzies government. It seemed to me that the Menzies government’s greatest claim to support free enterprise was to have removed war-time price control, rationing and import controls (more or less and belatedly). However, the efforts of this government in reducing the size of government during the 1950s deserve high praise.

Summing up, it seems to me, to be important not to downplay the role of ideology in influencing trends in government spending. During some periods there may be a tendency for government spending to ratchet up in response to crises. Changes in government spending may also be influenced by changes in the power of interest groups (for example as changes occur in the age structure of populations). In the end, however, ideas about the role of government matter a great deal.

Can New Zealand catch up to Australia?

Is New Zealand disadvantaged by economic geography to such an extent that it cannot hope to catch up to Australia’s average income levels, even with further improvements in institutions and policies? That is probably the most important question considered in the second report of the 2025 Taskforce that was released a few days ago.

The 2025 Taskforce was set up by the New Zealand government after the 2008 election to recommend how the gap between average incomes in Australia and New Zealand could be closed. Incomes of New Zealanders have generally risen less rapidly than those of Australians over the last 40 years, resulting in a gap between average incomes of around 35 percent in recent years. After the 2008 election, the NZ government committed to closing this income gap by 2025.

Since the Taskforce presented its first report last year, Philip McCann – an economist with expertise in economic geography – has advanced the view that New Zealand’s geographical disadvantages prevent it from becoming a high productivity economy. McCann has implied that structural features that are advantageous in the current era of globalization differ so much from those exhibited by New Zealand that this economy could not reasonably be expected to have relatively high productivity. He suggests ‘this is true irrespective of the degree of flexibility in the domestic labour market, the degree of transparency in the local institutional environment, or the levels of cultural aspirations for success’ (‘Economic geography, globalisation, and New Zealand’s productivity paradox’, New Zealand Economic Papers, Dec. 2009: 299).

The particular aspect of geography that McCann considers to be most disadvantageous to New Zealand is its relative lack of agglomeration economies associated with large cities. These agglomeration economies arise from knowledge exchanges, better networking and coordination, a nursery role for new enterprises, improved labour market matching processes and greater competition.

McCann argues that agglomeration economies can explain the decline in New Zealand’s per capita incomes relative to Australia because of the way the world has changed. One strand of the argument has to do with the increasing importance of knowledge-intensive activities that can often be undertaken at lower cost where face to face contact is possible among the various participants. Another strand is that with closer economic integration between Australia and New Zealand the economy with relatively larger agglomeration economies, i.e. Australia, has become a relatively more attractive location for capital investment and employment of highly skilled workers.

McCann sums up: ‘ … although New Zealand underwent fundamental institutional reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, at exactly the same time as this was taking place the landscape of global economic geography was shifting in favour of other places. It may well be that the deregulatory reforms limited some of the most adverse aspects of these shifts, thereby minimising the productivity gap. Yet the point still remains that the world changed, and the world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is very different from the world that provided New Zealand with almost a century and a half of productivity advantages’ (p. 300).

How does the Taskforce respond? The Taskforce acknowledges that both New Zealand and Australia have been disadvantaged by geography. It notes that according to recent OECD research the impact of greater distance to markets is equal to around 10 percent of GDP per capita for both countries. However, it judges the evidence in support of the view that New Zealand’s small population limits the potential to obtain agglomeration effects to be weak. In particular, Auckland’s position within the regional hierarchy of Australasian cities is not declining – the population of Auckland has been growing faster than the populations of Sydney and Melbourne. The Taskforce also points out that there is no evidence that New Zealand suffered an adverse shock from globalization during the 1980s; that migration from New Zealand to Australia is disproportionately of highly skilled workers as agglomeration theory implies; or that the relative performance of small countries has declined in the past 20 years.

The Taskforce concludes: ‘… modern growth theory provides stronger support for the importance of institutions and policy than it does for geography, especially in the deterministic interpretations of economic geography’ (p. 41).

Sitting in Australia, current concerns in public policy discussions about the emergence of a two-speed economy in this country make the agglomeration theory of relative decline in New Zealand’s economic performance seem rather odd. Rather than a concern that agglomerations centred on Sydney and Melbourne are leaving the rest of Australia behind, the main concern is that New South Wales and Victoria (along with other states) are being left behind as economic growth steams ahead in Western Australia and Queensland, as a result of rapid expansion of the minerals sector and related industries. There is also reason for concern that, over an extended period, the particularly poor performance of the New South Wales government has detracted from the substantial location advantages that Sydney should enjoy.

If we reject the idea that Australia’s alleged agglomeration advantages make it impossible for New Zealand to close the income gap, where does that leave us in terms of explaining New Zealand’s relatively poor economic performance? The Taskforce pours cold water – correctly in my view – on another geographical explanation, namely Australia’s good luck in having plentiful supplies of mineral resources to export to rapidly growing markets in China and India. It is only in the last few years movements in Australia’s terms of trade have been much more favourable than in New Zealand. Moreover, New Zealand also has substantial mineral and hydrocarbon resources.

I think that leaves us with having to explain New Zealand’s relatively poor economic performance in terms of policies that are less favourable to economic growth. That also poses a problem because the impression given by various international comparisons of institutions and policies is that since the mid-1990s there has not been much to choose in overall terms between the economic policy environments in New Zealand and Australia. It seems likely, however, that New Zealand has not performed so well in the areas that have mattered most from a growth perspective. For example, one major problem discussed by the Taskforce is the effect of relatively high levels of government spending in discouraging investment in export industries – via impacts on the real exchange rate as well as tax rates.

The Taskforce has expressed the view that closing the gap in average income levels by 2025 will require policies that are superior to those in Australia in their focus on growth. It seems to me that those who believe that New Zealand has geographical disadvantages should logically be strong supporters of that view (unless they reject the objective of closing the income gap). The greater the geographical disadvantage, the greater the policy superiority New Zealand will need in order to meet the objective of closing the income gap by 2025.

How Much Does Overwork Effect Happiness?

The results of a survey conducted recently by the Australia Institute apparently shows that half of Australians (61 per cent of those working overtime) were prevented from spending enough time with family in the preceding week as a result of over-work. According to the press release (which is the most detailed description of the study I could find) a lot of people don’t have time to exercise, eat healthy meals or go to the doctor when they should.

If we take the results of this survey at face value it would appear that over-work is a huge problem in Australia. I suspect, however, that the problem or over-work is not as widespread as the Australia Institute suggests. I also suspect that over-work has a much smaller adverse impact on happiness than does under-work.

Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au

The results of a study by Bruce Headey, Ruud Muffels and Gert Wagner, based on a long-running German panel survey, shows working hours to be one of the factors that has a long-term impact on life satisfaction. One of the things I like about the study is that the variable used is a measure of the extent to which respondents achieve their preferred tradeoff between work and leisure, rather than divergence of working hours from some arbitrary standard chosen by researchers. The relevant variable was the gap between the number of hours a week respondents said they would prefer to work and the number of hours per week they actually work. Those who worked over 3 hours per week more than they preferred were treated as overworked and those who worked over 3 hours per week less than they preferred were treated as underworked (‘Long running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes matter for happiness’ PNAS, 2010).

The results indicate that the negative impact of under-work on life satisfaction was about four times greater than the negative impact of over-work. The authors suggest that this ‘is presumably because lost consumption rankles worse than lost leisure’. (It would seem that the regression analysis does not control for income levels.) The study suggests that the negative effect of unemployment is much worse than that of either over-work or under-work (about four times greater than for underwork).

Some of the other results of the study might help further to put these findings into perspective. The study shows that social participation – a measure of frequency of meetings with and helping out friends, relatives and neighbours – has a substantial positive effect on life satisfaction of around the same magnitude as the negative effect of under-work. The positive effect on life satisfaction of frequent exercise is of about the same magnitude as the negative effect of over-work. The adverse effect of having a neurotic personality is about ten times greater than that of being overworked, but having a neurotic partner has only about half the adverse effect of being overworked.

What should we make of these findings? One obvious qualification is that it isn’t clear to what extent they might apply outside Germany. Leaving that aside, it seems to me that the most important implication is the importance to individual happiness of having the opportunity to work as many hours as individuals the individuals concerned want to work. Under-work is not as bad as unemployment, but it is likely to be a much worse problem for the individuals concerned than is over-work.

It is hard to see how anyone could argue that overwork could be a huge problem when people are free to choose among jobs on the basis of hours of work along with other employment conditions. Some individuals may make bad choices, allowing themselves too little time for social participation and exercise, but that is not a systemic problem.

Big Week, Big Decisions

Well, in case you had not noticed this is a rather big week in the markets so allow me to jump the bandwagon of market participants in dire need of some action after past’s weeks calm before the tempest. I will consequently be featuring Alpha.Sources’ first insta-blogging event which will take place in this post. Of course, I am rather busy this week too so I am not sure how much live blogging I will actually do, but do stay tuned anyway … I might surprise you.

Speaking of surprises, the RBA initiated the central bank action by saying ‘f’ck off, we can take it’ to all actual and soon-to-be QE wielding central banks out there.

(quote Bloomberg)

The Reserve Bank of Australia unexpectedly increased its benchmark interest rate on concern stronger growth will cause inflation to accelerate, driving the nation’s currency toward parity with the U.S. dollar. Governor Glenn Stevens raised the overnight cash rate target a quarter point to 4.75 percent in Sydney, saying the economy has “relatively modest amounts of spare capacity” and citing risk of “inflation rising again over the medium term.” It was the RBA’s first move in six months.

The move signals Stevens wants to avoid a repeat of 2007, when he held off raising rates for months as slowing inflation masked a buildup in price pressures. Growth in Australia, which skirted a recession during the crisis, may strengthen as energy companies such as BG Group Plc add construction jobs.

Now, on the basis of the economic dynamics in Australia I can see why this makes sense but in a global economy where the Fed, the Boj and soon, I think, the ECB are in full QE mode it takes a brave soul to go the other way and actually offer yield for all that leveraged carry that is about to flow Stevens’ way.

Gold and the Punchbowl

I have just been listening to Ben Davies’ podcast (see also FT Alphaville here) from Hinde Capital about the funding issues of the Japanese government and the points he makes are important. I have used the metaphor of Japan as a bumblebee before and while I believe that the story on Japanese savings may just be a little more complicated than many believe I think Ben points his finger at two very important points. One is how Japan has difficulty with both deflation and potential inflation (higher yields) at the same time which not only puts the economy in a very tight spot, but also locks in Japan towards a balance between veering to far in either direction, a balance which can be difficult to strike. The second is that while Ben believes that Japan will ultimately pop, the central bank (and indeed Japan itself) will try to do everything it can before that happens. Especially the last point is very important. Coupled with the need for Japan to attempt to maintain a structural external surplus it brings me back to a point I have made before (and which I will continue to make again and again).

Ageing societies are not, in the main, characterised by aggregate dissaving but rather by the fight against it.

So, Japan will fight and the central bank will do the government’s dirty work and the most intriguing question here is how long it will take of unsterilised hyper-QE before an economy such as Japan stuck in both a fertility and liquidity trap [1] implodes in hyperinflation; will it happen at all(?) and what can the country do to balance the trade-off between deflation and inflation.

Finally, on Ben, he is bullish on gold but then again, he would be wouldn’t he as runs a gold fund. But there is a subtler point underneath the reaffirmation of the bull market in gold since Hinde is also, following Ben’s comments, long volatility, a bet which has not, yet, paid off (and one would assume the “position” has some carrying/opportunity costs even if volatility is flat). Or put differently, gold (precious metals) have performed strongly alongside risky assets as liquidity has been plenty but what has not happened yet is the ultimate shakeout in which volatility spikes and investors buy gold and not the dollar. I think that you need to fit two stories in your head. One is why gold might move alongside risky assets as fiat currencies are slowly debased as well as how gold should do also do well in a situation where volatility suddenly increases quickly and abruptly although I suspect this last situation is the ultimate endgame with the interim mainly being one of dollar strength in times of sudden reversals in market fortune.

But even gold can’t be a free lunch, right? Perhaps, this is one way to rationalize that fact that investor performance currently seem to be demarcated by those who climbed on the gold train a year ago (or 2-3 years ago if you will) and those who didn’t. When times are tough and volatility spikes, the USD rallies but as such events almost inevitably carries an immediate response of more liquidity so will gold (and other non-printable assets) do well. But then as liquidity manages to smooth over markets and as the SP500 starts to tick back up this should again be constructive for gold since after all; the whole precondition for low volatility at the moment is the promise of more QE from the Fed (well not quite, but still very close I think). This is then good for a long gold position but not a long volatility position although I am intrigued by the ultimate punt on the final coup de grace in which gold and volatility becomes the only place to be. Still you got to have that acking feeling on gold, I mean; either it trades as a risky asset or becomes the safe haven of choice in times of volatility. So, which is it? I don’t know, but perhaps we are going to find out very soon.

The Punchbowl

Indeed, I suspect that many readers would have counted on me pointing to gold as the ultimate punchbowl  and while I can certainly envision a situation is which gold takes a 10-15% correction (or even more) the point is that this would not counter the trend (not even close). This brings me to the real punchbowl at the moment; equities, emerging markets and high beta EM currencies (Asia and Latam). I am largely indifferent to the first in the long run, long term bullish on the second, and by consequence pretty constructive on the latter as well in the long run [2].

However, in the short run I think that while the punchbowl never left the table, talks about a new round of QE and how Japan’s intervention might actually be a leading indicator of more to come from OECD central banks all at the same time as the SP500 breaks 1160 is extraordinary.

(quote Bloomberg)

The Bank of Japan may have acted first in a new round of central bank action to prop up the global economy as recoveries in industrial nations falter.

The unexpected decision by the Japanese central bank yesterday to drop its interest rate to “virtually zero” and expand its balance sheet follows the U.S. Federal Reserve’s move toward more unconventional easing. Bank of England officials will consider further stimulus tomorrow, while the central banks of Australia, Canada and New Zealand are among those now holding fire on further interest-rate increases.

It reminds me of a point made recently [3] that the marginal returns of additional QE measures (Q1, Q2, Q3 … QN) are declining rapidly. I mean, how much QE do we need before the SP500 hits 1200 or 1250 perhaps? Certainly, I think this is a worthwhile consideration when talking about the effects of QE even if the ultimate policy rationale for additional measures has intensified with the macro environment definitely turning darker in the OECD.

Actually, if you will allow me a mathematical description of this.

The first derivative of QE with respect to the macroeconomy and risky assets are positive but the second derivative appears to be negative for the macroeconomy. More and more is needed to have a smaller and smaller effect. But it is more complicated than that and some asset classes clearly have a very positive second derivative (gold for instance) and look at those poor emerging markets as well. More and more liquidity chasing relatively few assets and high yield opportunities are relatively scarce. This is then a positive second derivative and a clear risk of a bubble.

Quote Bloomberg

Emerging-market borrowers are on course to sell more bonds than ever this year after yields hit record lows and developing economies rebounded faster from the credit crisis than advanced nations. Governments and companies in developing countries including Vale SA, the world’s biggest iron-ore exporter, and Korea Electric Power Corp., South Korea’s largest electricity producer, borrowed $196 billion from July to September, the most for any quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Bond sales surged from $157 billion in the second quarter of 2010 as yields in developing countries slid to an all-time low of 5.4 percent on Aug. 23 from as high as 6.8 percent in February, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI+ index shows.

(…)

Brazil doubled the tax yesterday on foreign investment to 4 percent on fixed-income securities to stem the currency’s two- year rally and help shore up exports. The move coincided with the Bank of Japan’s reduction of the overnight call rate target to a range of zero to 0.1 percent, the lowest since 2006, and said it would set up a fund to buy bonds. Brazil’s benchmark interest rate, at 10.75 percent, is the second-highest among the Group of 20 nations after Argentina’s and is luring demand for local-currency debt. “The IOF tax isn’t enough to contain the flows coming from the liquidity injection by the Japanese central bank and global dollar weakening,” said Luis Otavio Souza Leal, chief economist with Banco ABC Brasil SA in Sao Paulo.

(…)

Governments from South Korea to Brazil are stepping up attempts to control their currencies as investors pour a record amount of money into emerging markets.

Regulators in Seoul will start an audit of lenders handling foreign-currency derivatives on Oct. 19 to curb volatility caused by capital flows, the finance ministry said today. Brazil doubled a tax it charges foreigners on investments in fixed- income securities to 4 percent yesterday. The yen fell the most in three weeks after the Bank of Japan cut benchmark interest rates and pledged 5 trillion yen ($60 billion) to buy bonds and other assets, having sold $25 billion worth of its own currency last month in the first intervention since 2004.

This is just a small smørrebrødsbord then of the effects this is having in emerging markets where more and more creative policy measures are being tried to keep the money out. This is then a strongly positive second derivative effect and one which is a key mechanism to be aware of in the global economy.

The point here is of course that there is a lack of stability. It is fairly well established from Japan’s experience that once caught in a liquidity trap and with a rapidly ageing society the extra effect of more liquidity is almost 0 with respect to the macroeconomy (until of course the balance tilts, but sufficient unto that day and all). Yet, there is always a bubble waiting to inflate elsewhere as such the Japans of the world create a huge externality in the global economic system by filling the proverbial punchbowl for risky assets.

Yet for now and as markets seem to be wanting more and more QE to push forward it appears that investors should be careful diving too deep into the punchbowl even if it currently might appear as a golden opportunity.

[1] – For more on the fertility trap, look no further.

[2] – Although an AUD/USD at 0.97 is unbelievable to me. I think this is one of the brightest stars high  their looking for a strong correction.

[3] – I can’t for the life of me remember who it was.

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Will the Elderly Poor Fare Better Under Pensions Means Tests?

I ended my last post suggesting that it is absurd to provide pensions that are not subject to means tests because this involves taxing people of working age more heavily in order to add unnecessarily to the incomes of wealthy retirees. This raised the question of whether the elderly poor are likely to fare better in the context of the looming pensions crisis in OECD countries under means tested pensions or universal benefits.

This question is most relevant in countries that have not already adopted some form of pay-as-you-go universal aged pensions. Path dependency is involved. Once a country goes down the universal pensions path there are substantial political difficulties in back-tracking because this system encourages each generation of retirees to expect rewards for the taxes they have paid to support the preceding generations of retirees.
I expect that the political economy of how the elderly poor are likely to fare under alternative systems has been researched previously, but I haven’t yet found any papers that are directly relevant. So I will attempt to sketch out some preliminary ideas, based heavily on Australian experience.
One factor that will influence how the elderly poor fare under alternative pension arrangements will be their own political power as a group. This seems to vary greatly between countries depending on such factors as their use of voting rights. The presence or absence of means-testing could make an additional difference to the political power of this group since it identifies pensioners as a particular group of elderly people who have a common interest in lobbying for higher pensions. In that respect, means testing causes the interests of the elderly poor to differ from those of other elderly people.
Growing Public: Volume 1, The Story: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century

Pension levels of the elderly poor are also likely to be influenced by the way the political objectives of other elderly people (and of middle-aged people who are planning for retirement) evolve under different systems. Peter Lindert’s analysis of the political economy of the public pension crisis seems to provide a good starting point to consider this. He summarises as follows:

‘At first, up to the 1980s, the rise of the elderly population gave the elderly more political clout in the industrialized OECD countries. The rise in their political strength was one reason why the relative generosity of pensions rose and budgets switched from fully funded pension systems to pay-as-you-go systems, giving one lucky generation higher pensions paid for in part by the younger generation. By the 1980s, the pressure on government budgets had become acute.

From that point on, the further rise in the elderly share of population began to undermine their political strength. True, pension budgets are not declining and are projected to rise a bit more as a share of GDP. Yet, the level of pension support per elderly person is destined to go on dropping as a percentage of the average income of the whole population’ (‘Growing Public’, Vol. 1: 208).

As the number of retirees rises relative to numbers of people in the workforce, their interests are increasingly aligned with those of the community at large in maintaining incentives for the goose to continue laying golden eggs. If excessive demands by retirees result in higher tax rates the adverse consequences for economic growth will be reflected back in their future pension levels.

The demographic transition stemming from lower birth rates and increased longevity is far more advanced in some countries (e.g. Sweden) than in others (e.g. Australia). Signs that the increase in the elderly share of the population may be beginning to undermine their political strength are only now beginning to appear in Australia, with a foreshadowed increase in the age of eligibility for pensions.

Australian experience suggests that when the aging middle classes have political clout they can exercise it to look after their own interests despite means tests for aged pensions. The relaxation of means tests, combined with tax concessions to encourage investment in private superannuation, has resulted in total government support for retirees being remarkably similar across a wide range of income levels (shown here). This suggests that total government support for retirees would be much the same under a flat rate universal system without incentives for private superannuation. Complicating matters further, however, the government has allowed people to access tax-privileged superannuation funds in lump sums prior to pension age. This has provided an added incentive for people to retire early, splurging lump sums and living off accumulated wealth until they become eligible for the aged pension.

As the increase in proportion of elderly people in the population in Australia reduces the per voter political power of this group, I would expect the per voter political power of the elderly poor to diminish to a smaller extent than that of the much larger group who hope to benefit from the private superannuation tax and pension means test rorts. I expect incentives for early retirement implicit in the superannuation arrangements will be an early casualty as attempts are made to contain government spending on retirees. If a choice has to be made at some time in the future between, say, maintaining the current level of the aged pension in real terms and maintaining superannuation tax concessions, I expect that maintaining the aged pension levels would be likely to win the political debate. Similarly, given a decline in grey power on a per voter basis I doubt whether superannuation tax concession would win the political debate if a choice has to be made at some time in the future between maintaining these tax concessions and an overall lowering in income tax rates to promote economic growth.

I suspect that the elderly poor would be less able to protect their interests under a universal pension because the support arrangements would not enable them to distinguish themselves as a group whose economic interests differ from those of other elderly people.

Did the Labor Party Own ‘The Light on the Hill’?

Over the last few years quite a few political commentators have been saying that no-one really knows any more what the Australian Labor Party stands for. Some of them contrast modern Labor’s apparent absence of philosophical underpinnings with ‘the light on the hill’ that former prime minister, Ben Chifley, spoke of in 1949.

I imagined that Chifley must have been talking about the socialist objective – nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange – that Australian Labor dispensed with a long time ago.

However, when I looked, what Chifley actually said about the ‘light on the hill’ seems to have much more contemporary relevance:

‘I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for’ (Speech by Ben Chifley at the ALP conference in 1949).

Now, if you leave out the mention of the ‘Labour movement’, that statement doesn’t seem to me to define anything peculiar to the Labor Party. If anything, it seems to have a Benthamite liberal flavour to it. I can’t see how the meaning of ‘greater happiness to the mass of the people’ could differ much from ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. The ‘betterment of mankind’ sounds like a phrase that John Stuart Mill might have used. The internationalist flavour of ‘anywhere we may give a helping hand’ does not seem to me to express a sentiment that is peculiar to the Labor Party.

I don’t think that Labor ever had sole ownership of Chifley’s light on the hill. Chifley made a great speech but it didn’t define what Labor stood for in the way that Menzies ‘forgotten people’ speech a few years earlier still defines a lot of what the Liberal Party stands for. The idea of ‘bringing something better to the people’ was just as much a Menzies objective as a Chifley objective. Today, it is just as relevant to Tony Abbott as to Julia Gillard.

When a political party doesn’t have a guiding philosophy voters are largely left in the dark about how it is likely to respond to the problems it will face in government, other than that it is unlikely to bite the hand that feeds it (trade unions in the case of the Labor Party). The policies that the parties take to an election tell only a very small part of the story of what they are likely to do in government. Tony Abbott has written books about his guiding philosophy (his latest was reviewed on this blog last year). Like him or loathe him, voters do at least know where Abbott is coming from.

I think Julia Gillard could probably give Labor something distinctive to stand for – something to move forward to – if she sets her mind to it either as prime minister or leader of the opposition. There could be the germ of a distinctive objective for a social democratic party in moving toward more equal opportunity for children in some of the things that Gillard has been saying about education. But those ideals, if they exist, remain hidden beneath endless outpourings of meaningless verbiage.

SMSF Coin Ban Update

Further to my blog on the Cooper Review into Super and the recommendations on Self Managed Super Funds, see the 4 August 2010 press release below from ANDA:

Announcement of Government guidelines for SMSF numismatic investments ‘a relief’ says ANDA

The Australasian Numismatic Dealer’s Association (ANDA) says the announcement by the Federal Government that Self Managed Super Funds can continue investing in numismatics, as long as certain guidelines are followed, comes as a relief to many thousands of SMSF Trustees nationwide.

Mr Robert Jackman, Vice President of ANDA says: ‘I’ve been inundated with phone calls since the announcement was made last Friday. The reality is that many thousands of people would have been adversely affected if the Cooper recommendations on numismatics had been implemented. The vast majority of SMSF Trustees only invest in numismatics because they deliver reliable and attractive investment returns.

‘What’s more, the majority of investors already abide by most of the guidelines which ANDA has formally developed with the assistance of the Self-Managed Super Fund Professionals’ Assocation (SPAA). Those who don’t will be forced to adopt better prudential practices, which can only be to the benefit of the industry as a whole.’

ANDA has worked closely with SPAA during recent months, and expects to continue a consultation process on SMSF guidelines which ever party is elected to Federal Government. All three main parties have rejected the Cooper Review recommendations on collectibles for SMSFs.

$4 billion of “Fear” Cash Still Out There

In late 2008 Australia nearly had a full blown bank run. The Australian newspaper’s edited extract from the book “Shitstorm” details the run and is well worth a read:

“It was a silent run, unnoticed by the media. Across the country, at least tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of depositors were withdrawing their funds. Left unchecked, there would soon be queues in the street with police managing crowd control … It’s a long time since Australia has had a serious run on a financial institution, but it’s all about confidence, and you cannot allow an impression to develop generally in the public that there is any risk.”

The article states that there are “60 storerooms across the country with an average of about $35 million in each” plus “the Reserve Bank has its own cash stash … understood to be in the region of $4 billion to $5 bn”. This gives us a total of say $7b. Over an estimated adult (15y+) population of 17.8m that works out at only $400 per person.

The article also notes that “households pulled about $5.5bn out of their banks in the 10 weeks between US financial house Lehman Brothers going broke … and the beginning of December … a year later, only $1.5bn had been put back.”

So there is still $4b of what I would call “fear” money out there. Now guess how long people will continue to hold this cash if faced with increased inflation while observing a strong AUD gold price? Would they not consider gold a better store of wealth in such circumstances?

Putting the $4b in perspective, it equals 87 tonnes of gold. Perth Mint refines on average say 6t per week. Now as the article says, the cash was withdrawn over 10 weeks, so you would not see instant conversion into gold. But then consider you would have at that time additional people who weren’t freaked out last time starting to withdraw cash out of the banks.

Faced with that sort of local demand, the Perth Mint would be able to draw additional metal out of London, but either way in such a high/hyper inflationary environment I can see Australia’s gold production being locked out of international markets for at least 3-4 months. Sorry India, sorry COMEX, we are all out.

Mannkal Economic Education Foundation

For those goldbugs of a libertrian/Austrian economics bent (most seem to be, funnily enough) this organisation is likely to be of interest. Their mission:

We aim to strengthen the free market system in Western Australia and Australia, by promoting ideals of voluntary co-operation, choice, personal rights, limited government and responsible resourcefulness of individuals.

The Liberal Democratic Party may also be of interest. How can you argue with this Econ 101 on the WA branch’s site:

9. Prices Rise When the Government Prints Too Much Money. When a government creates large quantities of the nation’s money, the value of the money falls. As a result, prices increase, requiring more of the same money to buy goods and services.

10. Government Manipulation of Interest Rates and Money Quantity Causes Booms & Busts. Making money cheap (low interest rates) and abundant leads to excessive short term consumption which leads entrepreneurs to over invest in non-productive assets. Excessive demand for goods from consumers and entrepreneurs then raises the price of goods and money (higher interest rates) which results in the liquidation of non-profitable investments (mal-investments). The destroyed capital and associated production dislocation is the recession.