If it’s not in itself value adding don’t do it

I share Judy’s exasperation at the push for more infrastructure spending which is a code word for more government waste. If it is government spending, it will never repay its costs. Occasionally a government will grab hold of some natural monopoly – Telecom in the old days – from which even with all of the usual incompetence they were able to take in more money than they paid out. But past those few and far between projects, I cannot think of a single instance where governments take on projects which leave us economically better off. So this from The Australian this morning fills me with tremendous foreboding:

Joe Hockey says state treasurers will find it “very hard to resist” a federal proposal to recycle government-owned assets and boost spending on infrastructure.

State treasurers are in Canberra this morning to discuss spending on infrastructure and the carve-up of the good and services tax.

The federal Treasurer expressed optimism about the discussions ahead of today’s meeting.

The Abbott government is pushing for a deal that will unlock billions of dollars from the privatisation of state government assets to be reinvested in significant new infrastructure projects.

It’s understood proposals put to state treasurers will include new incentive payments from the commonwealth which will be linked to qualification deadlines.

“I have no doubt that the states will find it very hard to resist what the commonwealth is prepared to offer them,” Mr Hockey said.

Mr Hockey said the proposal would be “for the recycling of state government assets and investment in new productive infrastructure that is going to create jobs and improve the capacity of the economy”.

Governments do not create jobs. If you believe that government spending leads to an outcome where there are more jobs in an economy than there would have been had the government not indulged in this kind of spending, or that the economy will end up stronger and more productive, you will never understand a thing about how an economy works. And as an added extra, with increased government spending there will be lower real earnings as well. So let me repeat what Judy said below:

The bigger issue is with all this talk of INFRASTRUCTURE, what we are about to witness is just a monumental waste of taxpayer money on politically popular and excessively expensive projects for which there have been inadequate assessments. Just a continuation of Albo, really, who ramped up infrastructure spending from 1 to 2 per cent of GDP.

The disaster that overcame the Victorian economy in the dismal Cain-Kirner years were built on just those same “hollow logs” they thought they could tap into. If it’s not value adding – that is, if it does not pay for itself after every cost is taken into account – it makes us worse off, not better. Call it charity or welfare or whatever else signifies that it draws down on our productivity if you must do it. But for heaven’s sake, don’t pretend it is a contribution to economic growth.

UPDATE: Here is the Treasurer’s press release, Treasurers agree to boost infrastructure.

The Commonwealth’s incentive will be 15 per cent of the assessed value of the proposed asset being sold for capital recycling. If proceeds are used by the States and Territories for the retirement of debt or other purposes, rather than for agreed, new productive infrastructure, they will not be eligible to receive payments under the initiative.

This is an important initiative to remove debilitating infrastructure bottlenecks, stimulate construction and drive real activity in the economy when it is most needed, as investment in the resources sector declines.

Infrastructure Australia estimates that at least $100 billion in commercial infrastructure assets are currently tied up on government balance sheets and could be sold.

The partnerships could overcome the fiscal constraints Governments face to increase the pipeline of projects and improve Australians’ quality of life, tackle congestion, reduce business costs and help firms better link with their employees and customers.

Those who think this will be of the roads-rail-and-sewers variety of expenditure will just have to wait to see what gets floated instead. At least on the up-side, the States will have to sell up various capital assets to private owners to secure the funds so it’s not all bad.

Just don’t do it

Two articles at opposite ends of today’s AFR both discuss public spending on infrastructure but with a different message from each. There is firstly on the front page, Project spree risks AAA rating ,which begins:

The government’s AAA credit rating may be at risk if it embarks on major infrastructure initiatives before sweeping changes to how projects are funding are made, according to the ­Productivity Commission.

The rest is behind the paywall but the article discusses the views of Peter Harris, the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, who is trying to get the government to think long and hard before it spends our money. Infrastructure is seldom the best use of our resources and before we commit to such spending there needs to be a very thorough cost-benefit analysis undertaken with a real intent to ensure we are getting value for money.

Pet projects have been an ongoing disaster. There is only one reason for a government to enter into such expenditure and that is because there is a net dividend to the economy. If you think, for example, that Building the Education Revolution contributed anything at all to the Australian economy, you should not be making infrastructure judgments. Only if you are able to articulate why the BER was an almost total waste of money and resources could you be trusted to assess our future infrastructure needs.

Then at the back of the paper we have Peter Sheehan with an opinion piece, The new Keynesians: accident or design?. And his point: however it may have come about the Abbott government is about to launch into a Keynesian stimulus which he thinks is a great idea. As he writes:

Strong underlying growth cannot be assumed. The Keynesian response is clear: there needs to be a major program of infrastructure investment. This should be large-scale additional spending of 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent of GDP a year for five years.

If the government listens to this kind of thing they will end up as bad as Labor. They should dwell instead on this before they start spending money as if we are in some deep depression, also from today’s AFR:

Employment jumped in February by the most in almost two years, led by an oversized 80,500 surge in full-time work, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows.

Some small part of government spending is productive, some is necessary because it provides assistance to those who are in need, but for the most part government spending is a drag on the economy not a stimulus. Cut the deficit. Get unions out of the road. Reduce unnecessary regulation. And leave recovery to the private sector which is already starting the process we need to continue along.