When the Money Runs Out – the government’s guide to policy

Simultaneously reading today’s papers on the Commission of Audit report and the Economist and The Financial Times 2013 book of the year, Stephen D. King’s When the Money Runs Out: the End of Western Affluence, I can see what the latest fashion in economic policy has become. Here I heave a sigh of despair. This from page 54 sums it up:

With poorly performing asset markets and much lower prospective economic growth, our entitlements are about to take a hammering. On current plans, only wishful thinking on economic growth stops government debt from spiralling out of control in the decades ahead. If the wishful thinking proves to be wrong, we will be in serious trouble.

And if you doubt that the wise heads of Treasury and the Government have not been reading this book, this is how it is described by the publisher:

It’s not just the end of an age of affluence, he shows. We have made promises to ourselves that are achievable only through ongoing economic expansion. The future benefits we expect—pensions, healthcare, and social security, for example—may be larger than tomorrow’s resources. And if we reach that point, which promises will be broken and who will lose out? The lessons of history offer compelling evidence that political and social upheaval are often born of economic stagnation. King addresses these lessons with a multifaceted plan that involves painful—but necessary—steps toward a stable and just economic future.

And so here we are.

I am the last person in the world to argue that wasteful and unproductive spending can go on forever. Cut waste. Live within your means. Do what is required to cut non-value-adding expenditure. But this book is half the story of what needs doing or possibly even less, just as the Commission of Audit doesn’t to my mind get there either. So far I have not come across a single sentence in the book that indicates the importance of the “private sector”, “the role of business” or “entrepreneurial activity”. The words don’t show up in the index and nothing in the contents goes anywhere near these issues. It is all about government policy, the financial system, the level of entitlements and containing outlays on entitlements. Nothing about what is needed for growth, and as the subtitle suggests, “The End of Affluence”, is entirely pessimistic about our economic possibilities.

And if you follow the guidelines found in the book, you would have to agree. We can no longer afford our way of life, our living standards must contract and therefore the only thing governments can do is cut various entitlement programs but strangely leave public sector infrastructure spending more or less as it is. No discussion of cuts to public waste, those useless money-losing operations that are everywhere absorbing our scarce savings for a negative return. If the real economy is discussed at any point along the way, I have not come across it. It’s all money, finance and interest rates. Encouraging business investment, cost containment, reducing government regulation – of these there’s not a word.

You want growth, cut back on government take up of resources. I love the headline on this story because of its cluelessness: UK AUSTERITY TO STAY DESPITE GROWTH PICK-UP. This is re-stated in the first para:

Austerity will remain the U.K. government’s mantra, Treasury chief George Osborne said Wednesday — even as he lauded the stronger than expected economic recovery.

The people who write such stories think “austerity”, the name its enemies give to cutting back on public sector waste, is bad for the economy, and because of their Keynesian mindset can only be harmful. They have no idea that it is the austerity itself that has led to the higher than expected growth. They cannot even understand what possible connection there could be. Moreover, a return to a stronger economy is not a warrant for higher public spending. The lesson that ought to learned and understood is that non-value-adding outlays slow an economy down. Reducing those outlays allow the economy to re-adjust towards faster growth. And already the Treasurer is talking about personal tax cuts in the lead-up to the next UK election. If only the same would happen here.

What’s the matter with our own economic managers in this country? If they really do want to take Australia down into some kind of American never-ending recession, then maintain or possibly even increase public sector outlays, raise taxes and do next nothing to encourage private sector growth. That way, the money most surely will run out but it didn’t have to be that way at all.