“Government is stuck in a fiscal holding pattern”

Bernard Hickey thinks that the Government is “stuck in a fiscal holding pattern” this term due to their commitment to Budget Responsibility Rules, which committed them to get net debt down to 20 percent of GDP and keep the budget in surplus across the economic cycle.

This fiscal straightjacket has been criticised by those who want the Government to launch into significant (and expensive) tax, benefit and social reforms.

Hickey (Newsroom):  ‘Let’s do this’ in a holding pattern

Jacinda Ardern’s first big economic speech of the year warned of global economic headwinds, but it lacked action in response, or a major plan to improve wellbeing. Instead, it exposed how her Government is stuck in a fiscal holding pattern before the 2020 election, when it hopes it can throw off its debt target and capital gains tax shackles.

The breakfast speech to a polite audience of Auckland’s business elite at the Hilton Hotel on the waterfront showed the Prime Minister at the top of her game. She is a smooth operator with a knack for a self-deprecating quip or an aside that can win over even the most sceptical audience.

“Our starting point for the Wellbeing Budget is that while economic growth is important, it alone does not guarantee improvements to New Zealanders’ living standards,” she said, going on to make a strong case to address our obvious wellbeing problems.

“An everyday New Zealander – hearing of the “rock star economy” while their housing costs are skyrocketing, or they can’t afford to send their kids to school with a proper lunch or their mental health is strained – tends to have their faith in the system and in institutions undermined.”

She went on to detail the plans and the priorities for the first Wellbeing Budget in May, and suggested it would help New Zealand cope with economic headwinds from overseas.

“It will ensure that those closest to the margins are protected and that no one is left behind,” she said.

Really?

How can that be true when Kiwibuild is behind schedule and there are massive infrastructure deficits in housing, health, education and transport, which can only be addressed with tens of billions of extra public investment. New Zealand’s population is growing five times faster than the OECD average and Ardern acknowledged in her speech that governments had encouraged population growth without investing in infrastructure to deal with it.

That’s what National had been criticised for (with some justification).

I asked Ardern afterwards if the Government was planning to respond to the slowing economy and higher unemployment by loosening fiscal policy with extra operational or investment spending.

She stuck to the usual line that the Government would keep operating within its Budget Responsibility Rules.

Ardern and right-hand-man and now-Finance Minister Grant Robertson agreed with Green Leader James Shaw shortly after her election as Labour leader to essentially sign up to the same fiscal settings as National had up until earlier that year.

They imposed those rules on themselves to stick with a campaign promise, made to promote Labour as fiscally responsible to combat attempts by National to portray them as loose with money.

Ardern and Robertson are playing a longer game here, but that is frustrating those who want rapid and meaningful reforms.

The only exception to this rule is the need to spend up large to cope with either natural or man-made financial disasters such as the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes.

The irony is they need a new global financial crisis to give them the excuse to do what they need to do to make a real improvement in wellbeing.

So should the Government use its strong balance sheet to fix New Zealand’s massive infrastructure deficits? Yes should be the answer, but the timing should be now, not in two years time.

Unwilling to break its promise, it is now in a holding pattern and hopes voters keep the faith for long enough to give it a chance to throw off the shackles.

The Government has already committed to some extra spending – they boosted the Families Package, rushed in a tertiary education fees policy, and gave NZ First a $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund kitty. They will also end up with significant increases in teacher and nurse wage bills.

There are pressures to address what Labour had claimed was underfunding in health, but there seems to be no urgency there. They are now seem to be kicking the ‘mental health crisis’ down nine separate working group roads (see Mental health crisis -> 1 working group -> 9 working groups), and have stretched out their promised rebuild of the Dunedin Hospital (now due for completion in ten years).

Ardern has promised big in this year’s ‘wellbeing’ focussed budget, but has also promised small in debt targets, so Grant Robertson will have quite a balancing act to do.

Hickey sees this as a virtual holding pattern for the next two budgets, unless the world economy turns to custard and gives them an out clause.

 

Finland’s basic income trial boosted ‘wellbeing’ but not employment

New Zealand isn’t the only country trying to improve wellbeing.

Reuters:  Finland’s basic income trial boosts happiness but not employment

Finland’s basic income scheme did not spur its unemployed recipients to work more to supplement their earnings as hoped but it did help their wellbeing, researchers said on Friday as the government announced initial findings.

The two-year trial, which ended a month ago, saw 2,000 Finns, chosen randomly from among the unemployed, become the first Europeans to be paid a regular monthly income by the state that was not reduced if they found work.

Finland — the world’s happiest country last year, according to the United Nations — is exploring alternatives to its social security model.

The trial was being watched closely by other governments who see a basic income as a way of encouraging the unemployed to take up often low-paid or temporary work without fear of losing their benefits. That could help reduce dependence on the state and cut welfare costs, especially as greater automation sees humans replaced in the workforce.

Finland’s minister of health and social affairs Pirkko Mattila said the impact on employment of the monthly pay cheque of 560 euros ($635) “seems to have been minor on the grounds of the first trial year”.

But participants in the trial were happier and healthier than the control group.

“The basic income recipients of the test group reported better wellbeing in every way (than) the comparison group,” chief researcher Olli Kangas said.

Chief economist for the trial Ohto Kanniainen said the low impact on employment was not a surprise, given that many jobless people have few skills or struggle with difficult life situations or health concerns.

“Economists have known for a long time that with unemployed people financial incentives don’t work quite the way some people would expect them to,” he added.

Giving unemployed people more money should improve their wellbeing and it should also help with improving happiness if it makes it easier for them to survive financially.

But going by this, on it’s own it isn’t a solution to unemployment.

If so then the question for a basic income is how much more money a country wants (and can afford) to give people living on benefits. The amount could make a significant difference – if they make it too generous then it’s likely more people will choose unemployment as a financially viable option, further increasing the costs.

I wonder if Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson have something like this in mind for their ‘wellbeing’ budget.

Grant Robertson explains how his ‘wellbeing’ budget will work

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson was interviewed on Q+A  last night on how ‘wellbeing’ will be woven into next year’s budget.

Wellbing in the budget  is described as ‘a new way of delivering public policy and measuring economic success, and now in a world first GDP won’t be the only indicator of our prosperity. Happiness indicators like mental health and poverty will be given weight”.

Is this a new approach? Or is it the ‘social investment’ ambitions of Bill English renamed and repackaged? Possibly a bit of both.

Beehive: Wellbeing of New Zealanders at the heart of Budget priorities

The five Priorities for Budget 2019 are:

  • Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy
  • Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities
  • Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities
  • Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence
  • Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.

“These priorities are focussed on the outcomes that will make real improvements to New Zealanders’ wellbeing,” Grant Robertson said.

“All Ministers and agencies will be collectively responsible for delivering on the priorities. For the first time, they are being tasked with developing their own Budget bids through the lens of the priorities. They are being asked to work together, across portfolios, on initiatives that will deliver the outcomes identified by the priorities.

“New Zealanders will see a difference with next year’s Budget. It will show how we are building an economy that is more productive, more sustainable and more inclusive,” Grant Robertson said.

“Strong economic fundamentals and sustainable economic growth remain integral to New Zealand’s success but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We are widening our Budget focus to look at the wellbeing of our people, the health of our environment and the strength of our communities,” Grant Robertson said.

Q+A:

Robertson:

The caveat to all of this is of course is there are a certain amount of things in a budget that you have to spend on, for example the demand driven expenditure, welfare benefits and funding for children…and that includes some really basic capital needs that we’ve got. And actually we’ve got a lot of left over legacy needs that weren’t invested in.

As any new government does. Labour have kept hammering the ‘lack of investment’ of the last National Government (who kept spending more each year).

Each minister has to put all of their bids for new spending through the lens of wellbeing. There are twelve specific areas (domains) that range all the way from the impact on health to the impact on someone’s life satisfaction…

Who does a budget consider the impact on everyone’s life satisfaction?

These budgets will be based on the evidence of what makes a difference.

Bill English said similar things.

Why is it the Government’s job to address loneliness in the community?

It is never just the Government’s job to do something like that, and I’m absolutely clear about the fact that wellbeing is not something that the Government controls, but by making it part of our purpose therefore we can contribute to supporting an individual or community or a family to reach you know a state of wellbeing that they’re happy with.

We know that if people are disconnected from their communities that can see them becoming unwell, it can see for some people it leads them into mental health issues…

Science or subjective?

There’s no doubt we are putting together here the tangible and the intangible.

What would you do to help someone who is lonely and isolated, what can a Government do to ensure that they’ve got friends?

Well it’s not about ensuring that they’ve got friends, it’s about ensuring they are connected to their communities.

I’m not sure how that will be done via a budget.

ACT Party:

Great question from : “Why is it the Govt’s job to address loneliness?” The Govt’s “wellbeing” approach is about nanny-state politicians and bureaucrats deciding what your best life is, even though every New Zealander is different.

The panel discuss the interview:

Liam Hehir:

It’s all very laudable and unobjectionable in principle.

I do take exception to the idea that it’s the first time the Government has ever been concerned with anything other than GDP, a claim he’s made on several occasions. Governments have always been concerned with the wellbeing of citizens.

I just see this as a mushy PR job.

John Tamihere:

It’s a global movement.

There’s no doubt that the narrative has changed quite dramatically under this government.

The wellbeing, collective impact it’s called, it was championed out of Stanford University 15, 16 years ago, it is running globally and been tested. New South Wales Treasury has been tasked with running a wellbeing budget next year, so there’s a global movement about this wellbeing’s narrative.

It’s a response to supply side economics as the be all and end all, and you’ve got to actually shift your public investments to where you can measure the bang for the buck on whether it’s actually working.

It sounded to me like a great new idea from Labour. Sounds quite similar to where English and National were heading, they just didn’t frame it as “collective impact”.

Jennifer Curtin:

It’s actually about investing in more than economic growth…

You need economic growth to have the money to invest – we have good economic growth at the moment, so a good time to invest.

…and using that as the sole measure of how the country is doing. So it’s about measures. It’s almost a follow on from what Bill English was doing with his social investment strategy.

It’s using the term wellbeing, picks up on what the OECD and what serious economists there are recommending.

I hope it is angled more at ‘collective impact’ than ‘impact on the collective’.

The guidance issued to Ministers and departments:  https://treasury.govt.nz/publications/budget-policy-statement/budget-policy-statement-2019