NZ Herald on Spending Cap

December 9th, 2011 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

An excellent editorial in the NZ Herald:

Sir Roger Douglas has departed the political stage again but he may have left another enduring monument in Act’s agreement with National this week. A law to cap increases in government spending could prove to be as effective as one of his great legacies of the 1980s, the Reserve Bank’s inflation target.

Like the monetary target, the spending cap will sometimes be honoured in the breach but the target is no less effective for that. When it is breached, there needs to be a good reason, and a credible path set to bring inflation back into line. So it will be for the fiscal cap.

I think many have under-estimated the political power the cap will have.

It is too easy, as the previous government proved, to take on ever larger commitments when business is booming, the workforce is fully employed and tax revenue is providing budget surpluses. The country hardly noticed that state spending was steadily becoming a greater proportion of the economy in the years that surpluses also enabled continuing reductions of public debt.

More generous medical subsidies, paid maternity leave, early education, interest-free student loans, higher public service pay rates, a “super goldcard” are not the kind of expenses that can be wound back when the business cycle turns down and revenue drops. They instantly become entitlements that a future government fears to threaten.

Exactly. And the sad reality may be that the days of debt fuelled 3%+ growth could be in the past for-ever. In a new debt-averse world, with Europe taking a decade or more to get its debt under control, we may never get growth again like we have had in the 1990s and 2000s.  We may need to get used to 2% growth being the norm. This is why we need to stop Governments from imposing costs on New Zealand we can’t pay for.

Ultimately, of course, a parliamentary majority can do whatever it wants in this country and no Parliament can bind the next. A statutory spending restriction can be breached and even repealed as readily as the Bill of Rights Act. That act requires the Attorney-General to alert Parliament to proposed legislation that would breach the rights enshrined. The public takes note, the government needs a convincing case to proceed in political safety.

Laws of such limited power should not be under-rated. The lack of any stronger sanction is a strength, it makes it harder for a future government to repeal a statute that can do more than keep governments honest.

And hopefully it will increase the financial literacy of the public. We will know how much more a Government is planning to spend over the baseline amount per capita.

National has been not much keener than Labour on a legislated spending limit but it is already living within the limit agreed with Act. The cap is a credit not only to Sir Roger who has long argued for it, but to the recently deceased director of the Business Roundtable, Roger Kerr, who maintained a lonely watch against rising public expenditure, and Don Brash whose brief leadership of Act restored its focus on economic fundamentals.

Fiscal responsibility is a prosaic, thankless contribution to public welfare but if government spending rises no faster than population growth and low inflation from here on, we should all be better off.

Absolutely. If you look at all OECD countries over the last fifty years, those who manage to have the state consume a lower proportion of GDP have on average much much higher economic growth than those with a higher proportion.

Now it is a balancing act of course. If the state only consumed 5% of GDP, then we’d probably have no publicly funded schools or hospitals. But the current level of state spending is the highest in our history, so I don’t think drawing a line at today’s spending level and saying real spending per capita should not increase beyond today’s level is if anything a little on the generous side.

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