Tuesday 9 April 2024

In a structural deficit, the only real tax cut is a spending cut

This week's column in the Stuff papers. A snippet:

Tabarrok warned that America had two political parties – “the Tax and Spenders and the No-Tax and Spenders” – and neither was fiscally conservative. In the two decades after Tabarrok’s warning, the federal government never achieved a balanced budget. America’s federal deficit ranged from 1.1% of GDP to over 14% of GDP and gross federal debt doubled, rising from 60% of GDP to 120% of GDP.

New Zealand’s Public Finance Act aims to avoid those kinds of outcomes.

The fiscal architecture is neutral about whether core government spending should be about 27% of GDP, as it was in 2018, or over 33% of GDP, which it is forecast to be in 2024.

The six-percentage point difference in core Crown expenditure, as a proportion of GDP, might not sound like much. But in a $405 billion economy, it amounts to almost $25b in increased core government spending per year across a population of just over 5 million people. Or over $18,000 for a family of four.

Some of that substantial increase in spending has been funded by a higher tax take. Core Crown tax revenue increased from just over 27% of GDP in 2018 to over 29% in 2024. The rest, after accounting for other bits of government spending and revenue, is funded by what is now a substantial structural deficit.

Taking on debt during the depths of lockdown to deal with the crisis was one thing. Now, that crisis has long since passed – but the structural deficit remains. The One Big Task for the coming budget is providing a credible path out.

It is not just a test for the current government. It is also a test of the Public Finance Act.

I'm all for tax cuts. Start by balancing the structural budget. That's the most important tax cut to make. Then see whether there are opportunities to go further. There should be. The government takes in a lot more in tax than it did in 2018, and is spending a lot more than was projected in the 2019 Wellbeing Budget. 

I'd filed the column a few days before having a chat with RNZ's Morning Report on proposed staff reductions in government agencies. I was a bit frustrated about that RNZ rarely informs listeners about whether cutbacks in an agency simply undo the last couple years of hiring, whether they revert staffing levels to levels comparable to pre-Covid, whether they go back to where things were when National left office, or whether they go further than that. If an agency has stayed fairly constant over time, and there haven't been substantial productivity improvements or other shifts, a 40% cut would mean they can't keep doing stuff they've been doing for a long time. But if one has tripled in size recently, and then cuts back by 40%, well, there are options around what things no longer get done.

Checking the last five years' data is really easy at the Public Service Commission's website. Click the link, scroll down to the table, click the tab to open the 'Five Year Trend' view. Done. 

I don't know why Radio New Zealand doesn't check. They were really outraged about proposed 40% staffing reductions at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. That Ministry had 40 staff in Q2 2018 and 136 by Q2 2023. They reduced a bit at the end of 2023 to 121 staff. If a 40% reduction comes off that figure, they'd still be left with more staff than they had in Q2 2020.

Update: Kate MacNamara does some checking

No comments:

Post a Comment