So, the much-touted and long-awaited government surplus looks unlikely to arrive this year. Is that a surprise? No. Does it matter? Not much.
The only reason for sparing much time on the failure to eliminate the government deficit is that it relates to a target that the government itself identified as the crucial test of its ability to manage the economy. In doing so, it exploited the confusion in most people’s minds – and that includes the minds of many media commentators – as to what deficit we are really talking about.
Just a few days ago, in reporting the probability that the government would remain in deficit, Radio NZ news described it as “the country’s deficit” as though the two deficits were the same thing. Sadly, the government deficit, about which so much fuss is made, is only a minor factor in an economy which continues to remain in substantial deficit in its total operations.
Far from running the economy in a prudent fashion, the government presides over a New Zealand economy that continues to chalk up foreign payments deficits, year after year. We continue, in other words, to go on spending well beyond our means. We fill the gap by selling assets to foreigners and by borrowing at high interest rates to overseas lenders – a classic instance of a rake’s progress that makes a day of reckoning eventually inevitable.
That foreign payments deficit is about to get a lot worse, as the overvalued dollar (about which so much jingoistic celebration was enjoyed) makes it more and more difficult for us to pay our way. Those cheaper Aussie holidays today are bought at the cost of Kiwi jobs and living standards tomorrow.
So, let us be clear about the deficit we are talking about – the country’s deficit, the one that matters, the one that is getting worse all the time, or the government’s deficit, that simply defines how much the government takes in tax revenue from the rest of the economy by comparison with how much it spends.
Is there are any link between the two? Yes – the priority given by the government to its own deficit has almost certainly made the country’s deficit worse. This is because, in a recession, which by definition arises when people (that is, households and corporations) are earning and spending and investing less, the slow-down can only deepen if the other major sector – the government – also cuts its spending.
Our recession was longer and deeper than it should have been, in other words, because the government gave priority to balancing its own books, and ignored what was happening to the whole economy. An economy that went backwards for several years was even less able than usual to pay its way in the world when the world economy began to improve.
But surely, many will say, it must be a good thing for the government to tighten its belt when the economy slows down? That would be true if the government were a business, but running an economy is not the same as running a private business. The paradox is that the government’s preoccupation with its own finances has meant a more sluggish economy and reduced tax revenue so that it becomes more and more difficult for the government to balance its books.
This is the lesson taught by both history and recent experience. It is a lesson that has now been painfully learnt all over again by the world’s central banks, some of which – the European Central Bank, in particular – wasted six or seven year insisting on austerity as the proper response to recession. The people who paid the price for that mistake were Europe’s poor and unemployed; we were saved from worse only because our Australian-owned banks remained relatively stable and because our main export markets in Australia and China remained until recently reasonably buoyant.
If the government’s finances are only a small part of the picture, why have they attracted so much attention? It is worth noting in passing that, while the Labour government of 1999-2008 recorded a surplus in eight of its nine years, the current government has now chalked up six successive deficits. So why focus on this particular factor?
The answer is that focusing on the government deficit has been driven by political rather economic considerations. It has served the government very well as the justification for policies that come straight from the neo-liberal handbook. We can be sure that the next round of cuts in the level of public services will be misleadingly explained as “necessary to eliminate the deficit”.
In the end, in any case, facts cannot be denied. As any accountant will tell you, borrowings and lendings must, as a matter of accounting identities, match each other. Our perennial foreign payments deficit – what we need the rest of the world to lend to us – must be matched by the borrowings our economy makes in total. If the focus is entirely on achieving a government surplus, that makes it inevitable that the private sector (households and corporations) must borrow even more.
The truth is that, by looking only at the government deficit and ignoring the country’s deficit, we create an unbalanced and broken-backed economy that will survive only as long as overseas peddlers of “hot money” are willing to go on lending to us.
12 April 2015