This goal/wish might seem even more unlikely than world peace, but I feel it is worth a stab none the less – so much so that I thought I’d even risk putting something as potentially boring as economics at the start of my Ne Year’s list (which is of a still indeterminate length). Perhaps convincing people that economics can be interesting is also a fairly remote hope, but doing so would help turn the public and political conversations in a much better direction.
In a piece in New Matilda last month, Ian McAuley argued that the Left “dealt itself out of the economic debate”, basically leaving the field to the conservatives to frame the public discussion. He backed this up with a result from the comprehensive Vote Compass survey on the ABC website which included a result where “only 4 per cent of Greens voters and 5 per cent of Labor voters nominated ‘the economy’ as important, while 24 per cent of Coalition voters thought it important.”
I think this Vote Compass result is probably distorted by the likelihood that many Greens and Labor voters would think of and express economic concerns and interest through the prism of employment or education or the environment, perceiving the general label of “the economy” to be more narrow and limited to things like deficits, stock markets, terms of trade and the like, in isolation from these wider but related issues.
None the less, I think there is some truth in the suggestion that people on the Left tend not to engage as much with discussions about budget deficits, productivity, economic growth/health, government spending and revenue, credit ratings, etc, which makes it easier for the conservatives to get away with the claim they are better economic managers – a claim which tends to get pretty shaky the more scrutiny gets applied to it.
People like John Quiggin (who runs what is possibly Australia’s longest running individual political blog) and Paul Krugman, amongst others, already do a pretty good job at trying to make economics interesting. (Readers are encouraged to provide other examples/suggestions in the comments section). With plenty of people already doing some heavy lifting in this space, it makes it easier for people like me to just point to that work and help highlight why it is important to put some focus on. This is particularly necessary these days because the hollow mantras that pass for economic ‘insights’ from most politicians and mainstream media commentators have become so empty, leading to people either believing nonsense or understandably switching off all together.
So my wishing/aiming for a country where fewer people bang on about a budget emergency to justify spending cuts which will impact most significantly on the less well off is NOT because I think there doesn’t need to be some modifications made to our overall fiscal situation, but rather because it isn’t necessary or desirable for poorer people to have do the lifting when it comes to fixing the situation.
The various components that make up our long term budgetary outlook are such that there clearly does need to be changes made to the current locked-in spending and revenue components that make up our federal fiscal situation going forward. Calling it an “emergency” is probably over stating it at the moment, but not doing much about it will eventually lead to that description being more justified. There does need to be changes made to our ongoing expenditure/revenue mix to avoid problems down the track which would impact negatively on everyone.
So my wish/vision doesn’t at all preclude people saying we need to fix our long-term budget outlook at the federal level. What it does preclude is people saying that this should be done by sticking it to welfare recipients or whacking people with university degrees that cost over $100 000 or any approach which generally promotes austerity. There are far better ways to fix the budget – not just because they are fairer, but also because they are more economically sustainable.
There are really only so many savings that can be made by squeezing poorer people and families that already have little if any disposable income left over after the continuing costs of everyday living. It also can have the unfortunate impact of reinforcing softness in the economy, while further increasing inequality, which isn’t good for the economy either. (Greater inequality is also very much not good for society of course, but I’m trying to stick with dry fiscal factors here).
The amounts that can be derived to help repair our long-term budget through revenue measures aimed at the better off – both individuals and corporations – is not limitless either, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger, a hell of a lot fairer, and – as long as it’s not overdone – less likely to cause much by way of wider harm to the overall economy.
So I reckon progressive people need to talk more about the narrower aspects of the economy ad economy policy. It may not thrill people to hear that I will try to do more of that myself. And people can bang on all they like about fixing our budget (although a bit less shouting of the word “emergency” in the process might help keep the debate a bit saner), but it is time to cut all the crap about it being necessary to hit the less well off to do so. Let’s do more to spotlight readily available revenue measures – superannuation tax breaks for the wealthiest, capital gains tax breaks for the wealthiest, tax dodging by overseas owned corporations, subsidies for fossil fuel industries – that will fix that budget faster and fairer than any GP-tax will.