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Saturday, September 9, 2017

150th Anniversary of Capital : Marx still Highly-Relevant Despite the Critics

Debating Marx's ‘Labour Theory of Value’ and 'Marx on the Environment' on the 150th Anniversary of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ (Vol I) ; Responding to the Critics.

Dr Tristan Ewins  ; September 2017

At the ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’ Facebook group we’ve been discussing Marx’s ‘Labour Theory of Value’.  This is notable because this year is the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ (Volume One).

In the relatively-near future I intend restructuring, editing and partially-re-writing a speech I made on that subject.

But for now I would like to discuss Marx's famous 'Labour Theory of Value' specifically.  (and also whether or not Marx 'valued' the natural environment)  Another contributor basically argued that ‘labour theory of value’ (as argued in Capital Volume One) was defunct ; and that it led a lot of people to reject Marx.   This is a pretty common response ; and certainly ‘bourgeois’ responses to Marx have often fixated on discrediting his ‘labour theory of value’.  This has arguably been partly for reasons of interest – and hence a wish to discredit the argument that labour is responsible for all ‘values’ in terms of goods and services. (with the exceptions of land and the natural environment)   But there have been philosophical arguments about the nature of ‘value’ as well.  And there has been much confusion because for Marx ‘value’ is an analytical category with a specific (non-mundane) meaning.

Typically respondents have argued that ‘value is subjective’.   And indeed in my PhD Thesis I approved of (Marxist Revisionist) Eduard Bernstein’s merging of ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ elements in his critique of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.  Therein I argued that Marx did not account sufficiently for the relative privilege of what may be called the ‘labour aristocracy’.

Anyway: Having studied Capital more closely now, though, I feel in a better position to respond with greater confidence.  Here’s my understanding, now, of ‘Labour Theory of Value’.

My understanding is that Marx's labour theory of value is in some ways a self-referential system ; and it makes sense on its own terms. To begin you have to distinguish between the price of labour power sold to employers as a commodity and 'labour theory of value' where ‘value’ is ‘the amount of labour congealed in commodities’.  Though truly the idea of "average socially necessary labour time" does not distinguish between different *kinds* of labour.  That said: Marx does not deny a subjective element to items' values - or to the use values AND exchange values of different kinds of labour power ; He even recognises differences in the relative value of different kinds of labour power at some points in Capital ; but it's true that he doesn't explore that in enough detail. It’s a complication with regard his system and perhaps hence he neglects it. We are unclear how different qualities of labour should be recompensed under socialism for instance.  So yes, there are deficiencies in some of Marx’s notions even though they are internally consistent.

To elaborate: There is a problem not only with the *mechanism* or ‘process’ of Surplus Value Extraction (in the context where all value is ultimately created by labour ; so Surplus Value can be argued for as ‘unpaid labour time’)  ; there is also a problem that while some workers experience extreme alienation (ruinous working conditions, lack of creative control or fulfilment) in return for bare-subsistence, other workers (while technically exploited) experience superior conditions (including pay, creative control, prestige, career paths) ; and historically this is played upon to disrupt solidarity within and across the working class.

But also: While Marx DOES recognise the role of Demand and Supply on the price of labour power ; he does not consider as such ‘the relative worth’ of different kinds of labour once skill, difficulty etc are accounted for.  So under democratic socialism what kind of differences of recompense are possible – or even desirable?  How for instance do we promote solidarity and mutual respect ; but also some reward for skill, difficulty, effort and so on?

Nonetheless *Surplus Value* makes perfect sense. That is: workers *broadly* are paid the means of (relative) subsistence (a privileged minority (labour aristocracy) receive considerably more than the average) ; but there is not "an exchange of equivalents" ; the employer extracts surplus value from workers' labour.  The worker is only recompensed proportionate to a fraction of what he or she creates. That much makes sense. Also 'Labour theory of value' makes sense in that values (as defined by Marx) are created by labour ; and Capital is 'value in motion' ; a process for the cyclical creation of values ; and the production of surplus value ; and hence the reproduction of the capital relationship ; and capitalism generally.  Wages maintain workers at the relative level necessary for subsistence. The surplus is extracted both to pay for the maintenance and expansion of production ; and also for the maintenance of bourgeois lifestyles. All that makes sense. And no wonder capitalists and their apologists have strived to discredit Marx ; because the analytical category of surplus value implies a devastating moral critique of capitalism.

Theoretically some return on (small) investments of capital may be warranted ; because of the real sacrifices the small (working class) investors and some petty bourgeois make. But once you start talking about the bourgeoisie proper it's a different story. Only the bourgeoisie proper has access to such credit or reserves so as to overcome the barriers to entry into certain markets. And whatever risks and initiatives the bourgeoisie take ; the fact remains that Surplus Value is extracted. And what is more that the working class is separated from the means of production ; does not control the means of production ; must labour under the capitalists’ terms and labour discipline ; does not usually have creative control over its labour ; is often employed in monotonous, partial tasks which are profoundly alienating.

So there are big problems with capitalism that Marx is still very useful in analysing. Though he also observes capitalism's inbuilt tendency to drive innovations ; in search of what he calls Relative Surplus Value.  (think of it as a 'temporary advantage' in terms of quality or productivity - often driven by technological advances) That - in tandem with what Marx calls 'the Coercive Laws of Competition' - means that capitalism still drives an enormous amount of innovation and technological development. But capitalism proceeds at a terrible cost to some workers. Especially if you're at the wrong end of the Imiseration process ; ie: if you're a textiles labourer in Bangladesh.

‘Imiseration’ refers to class bifurcation ; as well as absolute impoverishment and ruination – which Marx anticipated.  Relative Western prosperity – largely delivered by technological innovation, qualitative developments, as well as improvements in technology-driven productivity ; has been argued as a refutation of this. But arguably absolute ‘Imiseration’ has also been ‘displaced to the Third World’ ; with an ‘outer dialectic’ where Colonial/Imperialistic exploitation of ‘peripheral’ economies provides ‘relief’ in Western (core) economies.  (eg: cheap consumer goods for Western workers) Nonetheless we do see ‘relative imiseration’ WITHIN Western (core) economies as well ; as with the exploitation of the working poor within the United States. (hence perhaps an ‘external’ aspect to the ‘inner’ dialectic  of class struggle within the US ; ie: middle income (working class) living standards are supported by the exploitation of the working poor) And the global capitalist economy (having integrated economies the world over ; and having integrated the labour-power of women) is again pressing its limits ; leaving the question “what next for growth (and hence capitalism) – if not greater intensity of labour?  (and hence further attacks of the rights of labour)

In summary, David Harvey argues that Marx's Capital (Vol I) makes the most sense when applied to 'economically Liberal' or 'neo-liberal' capitalism especially.  This makes Capital (Vol I) highly useful for understanding Anglosphere economies which have largely gone down that path.  But admittedly Marx did not anticipate the rise of modern mixed economies, advanced welfare states, Keynesian demand management and so on.  Arguably these could comprise ‘stepping stones’ towards a socialist economy and society – while at the same time ‘stabilizing capitalism’.  (reducing cost structures and the like)   Marx is still highly RELEVANT ; but perhaps he is not on his own SUFFICIENT in responding to modern economic and social problems.

As for arguments that Marx did not recognise the  ‘value’ of Nature (one person at our Facebook Forum argued this) ; that is demonstrably untrue if you understand Marx in context.  Marx defines between use values and exchange values. Hence 'a beautiful rainforest' may have no 'value' in the sense of exchange value ; or Marx's schema of 'value' according to his specific (non-mundane) definition as ‘the labour congealed in commodities’.  But remember this is just a technicality based on Marx's definitions... It does not mean (literally) that Marx thinks 'nature has no value'.  Again; In Marx's scheme 'value' refers to the labour congealed in a commodity. But 'USE VALUES' are something else entirely. Marx recognises that things can have USE VALUE without comprising 'values' according to Marx's particular (contextual) definition. So 'a beautiful rainforest' can have a 'use value' in the sense that human beings can appreciate its beauty. And 'nature' may have the 'use value' of being necessary for the reproduction, health and happiness of the human species. Though it’s true Marx doesn't consider what some might call the 'intrinsic value' of nature.  Deep Ecologists may not find as much of interest to them in Marx.

Similarly “work/life balance” has value ; as do domestic and voluntary labour ; as does education, philosophical and scientific enquiry , and art ‘in their own right and for their own sake’.  But capitalism does not ‘see’ or ‘encourage’ the identification of these – EXCEPT insofar as they can be manipulated to somehow magnify exchange value ; ‘creation of ‘values’ in the capitalist context ; production of surplus value ; the self-expansion and reproduction of the capital relationship on which bourgeois power, privilege (and arguably purpose) rest.

On the 150th Anniversary of Capital (Volume I) it is worth revisiting Marx ; and questioning some common assumptions.  In-so-doing we encounter a thinker still highly relevant for the current day. 
Even though some (eg: the ‘Post Marxists’ Mouffe, Laclau and others) have suggested revisions and alterations which are also highly useful, and sometimes inspiring.  The 150th Anniversary is as good a time as any to ‘return to Marx’ and to work out what he’s really saying ; and not just depend on the second-hand accounts of bourgeois-Liberal economists.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Das Kapital by Karl Marx - 150th Anniversary Event -- NIB Melbourne September 7th, 7pm Start

150th Anniversary Of Marx's Das Kapital ;
Questions and Answers Event ;
New International Bookshop Melbourne,
September 7th.

Please come along and show your interest and support. I will be there as an ALP Left activist who draws deeply from Marx and Marxism.


Monday, August 7, 2017

'Class War' from Labor? Or more Liberal Lies?

It seems like we've heard it all before. (because we have) Liberal cries of 'Class Warfare' at even the mildest redistributive tax reform.  But in fact those with a sense of proportion and history will note that Shorten Labor's current commitments are mild at best. Labor needs stronger action on reforming the tax mix and funding new policies which improve the provision of everything from Aged Care to Health, and Welfare and Infrastructure. 

nb: This post will also appear at the Australian Independent Media Network starting on the morning of Tuesday August 8th.  Your comments and opinions would be very welcome there as well as here!

Dr Tristan Ewins

“Bill’s low-rent class war” is scrawled across the pages of the “Herald-Sun” (6/7/17). Liberal operator and Opinion columnist Peta Credlin in full flight: defending the rights of the very rich against unconscionable calls to contribute to the common good.

Defending the wealthy and corporations against the ungrateful masses – who in the face of a cost of living crisis are feeling inequality more acutely than before ; and who scandalously expect tax evasion loop-holes to be closed ; for affordable housing ; for an end to punitive welfare ; for a modern living wage ; high quality public Health and Education, and so on.

Credlin asserts that “the top one per cent pay nearly 20 per cent of all tax.” And: “there are nearly four million households that pay no net tax after transfer payments.”

Further, Credlin draws on Roger Wilkins to argue “Australia is more equal today than forty years ago.”

And so Credlin infers that any kind of redistribution: whether through welfare or the social wage will drive “businesses and people offshore”; and hence Shorten is “[pushing] a hard left agenda.”

How to respond to this?

To begin, ‘the top 1%’ comprise people on incomes of over $227,000 a year ; and these would still end up with post-income-tax incomes of over $150,000. (calculated according to the income tax scales) They are not ‘battlers’.

Joe Hockey made similar claims in 2015 when he argued that “50% of all income tax in Australia paid [was] by 10% of the working population”.

We will deal with Hockey’s claims as a way of responding obliquely to Credlin’s arguments.

‘The Conversation’ concluded that Hockey’s claims were accurate , but put it down to Australia’s progressive taxation system. Without progressive taxation distributive outcomes would be skewed even further towards the rich, and against everyone else, especially the poor.

Therefore these figures must be considered in the context of rising income and wealth inequality. That is – the rich (including the top one per cent) are paying more tax because they are bringing in much more money. (at other peoples’ expense ; it does not ‘trickle down’ ; exploitation is a reality)

As I have observed elsewhere: Professor Robert Wilkins conceded that the portion of national income going to the top 1 per cent has approximately doubled since the 1970s to over 8 per cent, and that inequality is “high by modern standards” (‘the Australian’ (22/7, pp 1, 8).

And if we include the GST in our calculations we might acknowledge the fact that the wealthy also pay more GST because they can indulge in so much more conspicuous consumption.

The Conservatives in this country have also been concerned at the possibility that Australia may develop a European-style welfare state. But when put in context we see (admittedly according to 2009 and 2013 figures) that in 2009 Australia devoted just over 7 per cent of GDP to cash payments (welfare) ; compared with roughly 17 per cent in France. And in 2013 France devoted roughly 34 per cent of GDP to “social expenditure” compared with roughly 19 per cent in Australia. Even with very significant reforms such as I project in this article – we are nowhere near a “European style welfare state”.

The Conservatives also say nothing with regard the fact the Aged Pension takes the lion’s share of the social security Budget. They take the ‘aged demographic’ for granted ; but ultimately want a retirement age of 70. And when a greater proportion of Australians start retiring on their superannuation savings we might expect a more “frontal assault” on pensioners.

At only about 26 per cent of GDP overall levels of tax in Australia are in fact very low. Australia’s $154 billion social security and welfare bill (2016 figures) is also low by international standards, despite an obvious tactic by the Liberals of cultivating ‘downwards envy’ – intended to create resentment against the vulnerable ; often involving the distortion and misrepresentation of statistics. In fact the cost of social security and welfare in 2016 (approximately $154 billion) was somewhat less than 10% of a total $1.6 trillion dollar economy ; but is larger proportionate to the total tax take only exactly because overall Australian tax levels are comparatively so-very-low.

So again ; when you factor in a dramatically rising cost of living – as well as levels of personal indebtedness for those on lower and average incomes, or with lower to average wealth – the problem of inequality is becoming far more urgent.

This personal indebtedness includes mortgage stress. Indeed while some banks have behaved in an irresponsible and predatory way, there is the danger that the unsustainable personal debt which fuelled the housing boom (and perhaps consumption levels more generally) may finally give way to bust ; flowing into overall consumer confidence as well.

Factoring the housing affordability crisis in, that makes a strong difference to those on average or lower incomes attempting to pay off a mortgage, or even to afford the rent in an established suburb with decent amenities and infrastructure. Indeed home ownership is down to 31% from 41% in 1991, reflecting the concentration of housing in the hands of investors – to the detriment of first home buyers. The plight of those forced to the urban margins ; or to forsake the ‘Australian Dream’ of their own home also cannot be grasped by mere considerations of income inequality. Again, because of a broader cost-of-living crisis inequality is more urgent than any time in decades.

So Wilkins talks at length about income, but not so much about wealth ; this in a context where home ownership (or the lack thereof) is becoming a crucial socio-economic fault line.

And yet the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Maloney observes research from ‘Credit Swisse’ to the effect “the top 1 per cent of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent combined.” And that according to ACOSS research “someone in the highest wealth group had 70 times as much wealth as someone in the lowest.” Maloney further observes the selective nature of the statistics Wilkins draws upon. Had Wilkins began by observing inequality from 2004 onwards that would have revealed a radical increase in inequality during the 2003 to 2008 period. This applies to income as well. According to the OECD, for instance, “Real incomes for the top quintile of households [in Australia] grew by more than 40 per cent between 2004 and 2014 while those for the lowest quintile only grew by about 25 per cent.”

Also since the 1970s profit-share has risen from 16.5 per cent to 26.5 per cent ; but the wage share of the economy has fallen from 62.7% to 52.3 per cent. (2016 figures) It had been assumed that increasing the profit share was necessary to spur investment ; while a falling wage share (and a largely neutralised trade union movement) would prevent a ‘wage-price spiral’. But in fact workers have less capacity to consume ; have turned to private debt to maintain lifestyles ; and the whole arrangement is beginning to look very precarious.

Neither pre-tax or after-tax income is enough to grasp the growth of inequality. While taxes have grown ‘flatter’ (less progressive) but nonetheless lower, the ‘user pays principle’ has been applied less and less discriminately , to the point where it applies now to everything from education and energy to communications, transport infrastructure and water. This intensifies the impact of inequality. Appallingly, ‘user pays’ for residential Aged Care especially has become akin to a ’death tax’ . But unlike progressive inheritance taxes or ‘death duties’, this impacts disproportionately upon families with lower to middle incomes, including those for whom the family home is the only significant asset they have.

As opposed to the earlier post-war mixed economy, the user-pays element has been increasing proportionately, and privatised entities are no longer providing cross-subsidies for ‘battlers’. Also: arguably privatised entities are abusing their market power to reinforce their bottom line. Hence the cost of “essential items such as food, electricity and insurance” is rising at almost double the rate at which wages are rising. And the position of the poor and welfare-dependant is even more precarious. A look at Medibank Private’s increasing premiums is enough to hammer these points home ; along with soaring profits.

Meanwhile policies such as capital gains tax discounts, superannuation tax concessions, and negative gearing – overwhelmingly benefit the well off – to the detriment of social programs which may otherwise further social solidarity and the common good. According to Treasury in 2015 $10 billion out of $30 billion in superannuation tax concessions alone are lining the pockets of the wealthy. (the top 10%) With time the problem could worsen markedly.

Bill Shorten’s agenda is not ‘hard left’by any reckoning. Michael Pascoe of the Sydney Morning Herald has observed that Shorten’s reforms to family trusts only scratch the surface (saving less than a third of what may have been possible). And that Shorten is even using 10 year projections to make his reforms look more substantial.  Pascoe concludes that if this is ‘class war’ Shorten is “firing blanks”!

We need much stronger policies from Labor: reforms of the tax mix, and new progressive taxes to provide for significant new social policies. End inequitable superannuation tax concessions. Wind back user pays in Aged Care and Education for equity and fairness ; and improve the quality of service. Reform welfare to further ameliorate poverty (raise all full pensions by $1000/year). A big investment over time in public housing to increase supply, deflate the bubble, provide for the vulnerable. Consolidate and extend Medicare. Provide the necessary resources and apply the political will to maintain transport, communications and other infrastructure as natural public monopolies. Consider strategic re-socialisations ; maybe re-establish a public-owned savings bank. Properly fund mental health.

The lower end of the labour market needs re-regulation as well ; though this is not necessarily linked with tax.

Arguably decades of privatisation and austerity have resulted in inferior cost structures for areas of the economy properly the domain of natural public monopolies. Meanwhile in Australia a limited welfare state has restricted ‘collective consumption via tax’. That also has impacted upon cost structures ; and has given consumers worse value for money in the end analysis.

The consequence has been less consumer demand for the remainder of the economy. Capitalism is desperately striving to expand existing and new markets to stave off its contradictions. But ironically perhaps the best way it can do this is to transition to a ‘hybrid economy’ which cedes ground to socialisation (public and other democratic ownership). Efficiencies via socialisation (natural public monopolies, collective consumption, enforcement of competition in specific sectors, eg: banking, insurance – by government business enterprises with competitive charters) would mean more income left over for consumers to spend elsewhere (ie: in non-socialised sectors). Many capitalists would resist such a transition for political and Ideological reasons ; but many others still could stand to gain from such a compromise. As could the public at large.

Public investments in services and infrastructure can also comprise a ‘pull factor’ for investment (for instance an educated workforce). This gets forgotten in the constant push for more austerity and lower taxes. And it is one reason why the Nordics are so successful with their welfare states, mixed economies, industry policies and active labour market programs. The opposite of the catastrophe scenario suggested by Credlin in response to Labor’s modest policy agenda.

As things stand a Shorten government could ameliorate social injustices including economic inequality. But Labor’s existing policies are very mild. Shorten has time to develop a stronger policy profile ; though the modesty of past ALP policy is such that Labor’s recent announcements appear ‘radical’ to some.

Token reforms are not enough to deliver, even though they may convince those without a sense of proportion and history. Rather than reforms bringing in $1 billion Labor needs to think bigger ; perhaps in the vicinity of 2 per cent of GDP in a first term. (approximately $32 billion in a $1.6 trillion economy)  And gradually more in subsequent terms. Not because that is just some ‘silly’ arbitrary figure ; but because Labor needs to think of what is necessary for its policy ambitions ; but also what is politically ‘do-able’ – and over what timeframe.

Meanwhile those claiming a $1 billion tax reform (one sixteenth of 1% of GDP) is ‘class warfare’ are frankly kidding themselves.


Dr Tristan Ewins is a Social Sciences PhD, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne.  He also blogs at ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’, ‘Left Focus’ and ‘The Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy’.  He has been a member of the Socialist Left of the Labor Party for over 20 years.  The opinions he expresses here are his own only.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Labor Turning Left on Inequality ; Let’s Make Sure the Policies Match the Rhetoric

In a very-welcome move, Bill Shorten (above) is talking about Action on Inequality (specifically progressive tax reform) ; Labor Activists need to support this move, while at the same time appraising the associated Policies, and engaging in such a debate as to ensure the Policies match the Rhetoric. 

Dr Tristan Ewins

Apparently Federal Labor under Bill Shorten is considering significant reform of Australia’s tax system to bring in potentially billions in new annual revenue, and to address the scourges of disadvantage, inequality and poverty.   

Labor had already long since committed to reform on capital gains tax concessions and negative gearing ; with some modest changes on superannuation tax concessions as well. 

But according to ‘Age’ journalist, Peter Martin, additional possible options now being canvassed include:  (‘The Age’ 22/7, p 17)

·         cracking down on the abuse of family trusts by the rich, bringing in maybe over $3.5 billion a year

·         and “ending the diesel fuel rebate” for miners and farmers ; again bringing in perhaps over $4 billion

These would be very-welcome announcements should they eventuate. Though to aspire to an extended social wage and welfare state Labor really needs to be considering ‘in the ballpark’ of 5% of GDP in progressive new annual spending – arrived at over several terms. 

And a figure of increasing Federal Government expenditure by 2% of GDP may be appropriate and realistic under a first term Labor government.  (ie: increase progressive tax and associated expenditure by around $32 billion in a $1.6 trillion economy)

We will consider other possibilities to reach that vicinity later in this article.

The Herald-Sun has responded to this recent positioning on distributive justice by Shorten ,  proclaiming that: “Bill Shorten has ratched up his class warfare rhetoric”. For the Herald-Sun instead Labor must cut “wasteful spending”  and not target “so-called” “rich and big business”.   Here inequality is to be considered not a reality. Rather according to the Herald-Sun it is Shorten who is “dividing us” into a “Have and Have-Not nation”.   (Herald-Sun, 22/7, p 12, 38)  There is talk of rewarding and not punishing “aspiration” ; and a rising cost of living is blamed on renewable energy.  (as opposed, for instance, to abuse of market power and inferior cost structures in the wake of privatisation)

But  ‘the Australian’ (22/7, pp 1, 8)  talks itself into a corner while unwittingly providing ammunition to refute the Herald-Sun’s suggestion that ‘inequality is a mirage’ conjured up by Shorten , and is not real. 

It quotes labour market economist Professor Robert Wilkins to the effect that inequality has not been “ever rising” since the Global Financial Crisis. (2008)  But then has to concede that the portion of national income going to the top 1 per cent has approximately doubled since the 1970s to over 8 per cent.  Wilkins also interestingly concedes that inequality is “high by modern standards”. 

Wilkins also concedes that we do have wage stagnation. And when you add a rising cost of living the reason inequality is becoming a far more urgent and resonant issue is clear.   

Further ; ‘The Australian’ observes that Shorten and Bowen are drawing on pre-tax figures on inequality ;  But if anything taxes have long been becoming lower, more broad-based, and less progressive ; at the same time as we have observed a growth in the application of the ‘user pays principle’ for everything from education to water.

Briefly, arguments about ‘the size of government’ also flounder in the face of statistics.  Whereas Australia enjoyed a general tax rate of 26 per cent of GDP and expenditure levels of 35 per cent of GDP in 2014,  the figures for Finland were at 43 per cent of GDP and 55 per cent of GDP respectively.   Meanwhile Germany enjoyed a total tax take of 37 per cent of GDP, and expenditure levels of 45 per cent of GDP. 

So Australia is lagging behind some of the most successful economies in the world in this respect. Despite Ideological claims to the contrary from the Business Council of Australia (‘The Australian’, 22/7/17) and elsewhere, the reality is that ‘bigger government’ can be good for the economy, and even ‘good for business’.

While Labor has recently only been courageous enough to target the very rich with admittedly very-modest reforms, ACOSS observed in a 2015 report that inequality was marked in our supposedly-egalitarian nation. 

Drawing on ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) research, ACOSS depicted the average income and wealth according to five “quintiles” ;  “a statistical value representing 20% of the population, of which the first quintile represents the lowest fifth of the population, 1-20%; the second quintile represents the second fifth, 21-40% and so on”.

Here the bottom 20% of Australian households enjoyed a total averaged income of under $34,000/year ; while the quintile immediately above enjoyed a total averaged income of only $67,113.  The middle or third quintile amounted to $97,570  ; the fourth to $134,127 ; and the final and wealthiest layer $232,175.

Household wealth was similarly measured ; and here the bottom 20% enjoyed average total household wealth of $31,100, but the top 20% enjoyed average wealth of $2,212,200.

This gives us some idea of the extent of income and wealth inequality.  Though these statistics may also admittedly be influenced in the context of ‘asset rich, income poor’ households ; those who may own a family home for instance, but who may fall into one of the bottom two quintiles for income. 

Also the top 20% wealth and income quintiles may be affected by the weighting of the extremely wealthy.  Again: after all, research quoted by Robert Wilkins in ‘The Australian’ (22/7/17)  has it that the top 1 per cent alone account for over 8 per cent of total wealth in Australia.

Labor needs a nuanced approach: assisting the income poor and the asset poor ; while redistributing from those who are income and asset rich.  Deflating the housing bubble and making home ownership a real prospect for families again is crucial. Labor’s Negative Gearing reforms are essential here.  Expanding public housing is necessary to assist low income families and vulnerable individuals as well: while also boosting supply ; with a ‘flow on effect’ to affordability for everyone.

But that’s not the end of the story.  In short Labor needs to redistribute from a broad enough economic base to fund redistribution via the tax mix, tax-transfer system, social wage and welfare state.  That must mean redistribution from the upper middle class as well as the outrageously wealthy.

Yet tax may need to rise for the ‘middle income’ layers as well. 

The rationale for this is as follows.

Tax comprises not merely a burden as if taxpayers received nothing in return.  It is also the means of funding collective consumption and social insurance.  Despite complaints from the banks,  the recently-implemented Federal tax upon them was a way of paying for an effective ‘government guarantee’ – a form of ‘economic insurance’ which originated with the Rudd Labor Government during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. (GFC) 

Morally-speaking, the ‘middle income layers’ should also show some solidarity with those who are struggling.  That’s part of the picture. But by ‘collectively consuming’ infrastructure, services and social insurance they also ensure they get a much better deal for their tax dollar than they would as atomised private consumers. Consider communications, transport, water, energy infrastructure, health and education infrastructure - and the costs of the associated services. And taxes also must be levied so citizens are ‘covered’ in the case of accident, illness, disability, job loss and so on.

Also there is a growing crisis of what some would call ‘corporate welfare’.  Ostensibly in order to be ‘competitive’ in attracting capital we have seen an increasing phenomena of tax payers, workers, citizens – effectively subsidising business. Governments ‘look the other way’ on tax evasion, tax havens, abuse of trusts and so on.  Or ‘talk the talk’ while taking only token action.  (Labor could do with some introspection here as well) 

Corporate Taxation falls lower and lower to ‘remain competitive’. A ‘race to the bottom’.  The ultimate consequence of this is that business is no longer paying its fair share for the services and infrastructure it benefits from.  That means workers and other tax  payers have to ‘pick up the tab’. 

But as well as being unfair, ironically this ‘comes back around’ to harm certain businesses as well.  Workers and taxpayers therefore have less disposable income , which means less scope for discretionary consumption.  This is why some businesses are beginning to worry about falling wages. Though others remain narrowly self-interested – looking only at their own sectional interests, and for instance supporting attacks on penalty rates.   

The other possibility is that crucial services and infrastructure will just be neglected.  But much of that infrastructure and services is a ‘drawcard’ for investment as well.  For instance an educated workforce. ‘Social disintegration’ can also mean added costs in the form of crime, ill health and so on.  This is without even considering the question from the viewpoint of striving for ‘The Good Society’ and not just ‘economic goals in abstract’. 

There are other possibilities for tax reform, also, not examined by Martin’s article. Those could be crucial in lifting Australia closer to the examples set by successful economies such as Germany and Finland. We will consider a number of those:

·         further (and genuinely substantial) cuts to superannuation concessions for the unambiguously well-off (the upper middle class and higher); with the potential to save tens of billions a year with that one measure alone

·          Fix the Company Tax rate at 30 per cent and take serious action on corporate tax evasion, use of tax havens etc.

·         Gradually wind back Dividend Imputation (tax credits ostensibly to stop ‘double taxation’ – the rationale of which has weakened with falling Company Tax rates);  That would have the potential to save $5 billion a year from reducing Dividend Imputation to a 75% rate alone in a first term Labor Government ; and much more over time depending on the reaction

·         Seriously restructure the PAYE income tax mix for progressivity ; including indexation of the bottom two or three brackets thereafter – to prevent future unfair bracket creep ;

·         Raise and restructure the Medicare Levy into a more-progressive multi-tier tax; and index to prevent unfair bracket creep ; Also cover Aged Care costs within the Medicare Levy – and raise enough revenue to eliminate unfair user pays costs for lower income, middle income and working class families , while improving services, and hence improving quality of life and happiness for residents , and those remaining at home.

·         Introduce a progressively-scaled ‘infrastructure levy’ to provide for all manner of infrastructure (transport, communications, energy, water etc) ; and to stem the trend towards privatisation – which is worsening cost structures and arguably fuelling nepotism.

·         Introduce a modest inheritance tax on inheritances valued over $2 million ; again indexed for progressivity ; perhaps excluding the family home

·         Introduce a ‘Buffett rule’ – or ‘minimum income tax’ affecting the wealthy

Importantly, though, Labor’s consideration of increasing the top income tax rate by 2 per cent is not substantial enough to make serious inroads into the deficit , provide for social wage and welfare expansion , or to render indexation of the income tax mix sustainable thereafter.  Compared with other taxes, income tax has great progressive and redistributive potential ; and its significant reform must be prioritised to achieve the best outcomes.

It’s encouraging that Labor is considering serious reform of the tax system for fairness.  We need such reform to promote distributive justice, and provide the means for social wage and social security expansion.  But Labor activists need to hold their politicians to a high standard as well.  There is a history of rhetoric on these issues, combined with a failure to match that rhetoric with the necessary action in the 'end analysis'.   Not every measure considered here will be implemented by a first term Shorten government.  But extension of progressive tax and associated social expenditure by 2 per cent of GDP, or $32 billion in a $1.6 Trillion economy, is a very good place to start.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Unpublished Letters from a Labor Activist ; March-July 2017

The following are a series of unpublished letters to ‘The Age’ and ‘The Herald-Sun’ from Labor activist Dr Tristan Ewins from March to July 2017.

They are presented chronologically.

Increasingly I'm finding it impossible to get any of these letters published ; I hope at least they may spur some discussion here at this blog.
Please feel welcome to link to this page via Facebook.

The position of modern Christianity is complex

(Herald-Sun, March 2017) As a democratic socialist I am loathe to concede anything to Andrew Bolt.  But regarding his recent op-ed on Christianity I had to concede there is a growing ‘cultural assault’ against the faith.  In some quarters there seems to be a double standard in how Christianity is treated in comparison with other faiths.  During the French Revolution – which Bolt alludes to – Catholic clergy enjoyed entrenched privileges as the so-called ‘First Estate’.  More recently (from the 1930s) the Roman Catholic Church was involved in fascist regimes in Spain (Franco) and Austria (Dolfuss)   The Papal Encyclical “Rerum Novarum” also alienated many Catholics from the Left.  But there is more to Christianity than this.  Churches – including wings of Catholicism – have been vehicles for progress also.   Consider Martin Luther King Junior,  Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero ; and even consider Francis’s attempts to reform Catholicism.  And across the country various churches and various denominations have embraced causes like indigenous rights, the environment, civil rights, peace, the fight against poverty and homelessness, queer rights and so on.  Today’s diverse Christian church is not uniformly the bastion of privilege and conservatism it once was.  That said, Christians must enjoy the same dignity and liberal rights as everyone.

What’s wrong with the Swedish Model?

J.Muir (Herald-Sun ,Letters 18/4) suggests those who look to the Swedish (democratic socialist) model have let go of all “logical thinking”.  Yet for decades Sweden’s famous welfare state has been the source of greater happiness, equality and security compared with the US, Australia and Britain.  At its height the ‘Swedish model’ also achieved close-to genuine full employment (hence ‘running the economy at full bore’) ; and that was comprised largely of high wage jobs thanks to Sweden’s interventionist industry policies.  The Swedish welfare state and industry policies also meant Sweden could revolutionise its industries without displacing and impoverishing workers in the process.  The Swedish welfare state’s universality also meant there was little in the way of resentment from the well-off.  All this was not a disincentive to work ; but nonetheless Swedes have enjoyed very high quality public health, education, and social security systems.  What is ‘illogical’ about all that?

What does Peta Credlin know about ‘Australian values’?

Peta Credlin (Herald-Sun, 23/4) argues we must “Stand Up for our Values”. (that is, ‘Australian Values’) But who determines what Australian Values are?  Traditionally we have thought of ourselves as an egalitarian nation.  Historically that was confirmed with our labour market regulation (with a fairer go for the low paid) ; through the rights enjoyed by workers and their trade unions ; and through our progressive welfare state (including Medicare), and our mixed economy. ( which involved cross-subsidies for the poor)  Further ; Australian POWs in Changi survived through human solidarity ; which is the opposite of the ‘survival of the fittest’ Ideology preached by today’s Right-wing. Those egalitarian values have been under siege for a long time now ; including from Peta Credlin’s Liberal Party. Just remember when you hear Conservatives speaking of ‘Australian values’ that we don’t all agree on what those values actually are.

Bolt wrong on Education Again

Andrew Bolt (4/5/17) argues there is at best little connection between levels of funding for schools and actual results.  And yet there has been a trend to a growing defection of parents to the private school sector on account of better infrastructure (eg: libraries, computers and so on), as well as better student to teacher ratios. Some private schools also offer better wages and conditions which enables them to ‘take their pick’ when hiring staff.  Clearly the emphasis on ‘teacher quality’ is a means of distracting from the question of funding ; providing an excuse for education austerity which is destroying ‘equality of educational opportunity’ in this country.  Here Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Gonski 2.0’ needs to be considered in its context of an actual multi-billion dollar  annual cut compared with the original Gonski agreements. Further: If we are to attract the best teaching staff arguably we need to hold the profession in higher esteem. And more could be done, here, with reductions in course fees and improvements in wages, conditions and career paths for teachers. Instead the government is putting tertiary education fees and repayment schedules through the roof : even for those on roughly HALF the average yearly salary.  (ie: approx. $40,000/year)

Is Turnbull really ‘Turning Left’?  Ask Abbott: ‘What happened to Catholic Economic Centrism?”

Andrew Bolt (11/5) claims Turnbull and the nation are ‘turning Left’ on the basis of insufficient austerity and new tax measures intended to ameliorate the deficit. In reality, however, Turnbull is hitting students and the unemployed hard – with policies which target students on half the minimum wage for thousands ; and which could force low income earners to exhaust their meagre savings before receiving Newstart only after 6 months should they lose their job.  Despite this the Budget does move the Government closer to the relative economic centre in the sense that overall cuts are ameliorated by comparison with the disastrous Hockey Budget of 2014.  And there is finally acceptance that there was ‘a revenue problem’.  Ironically,  the “Abbott Purists” will likely claim the austerity has not gone far enough. Though they may be upset by the attacks on Catholic education.  But it is THEY who have abandoned ‘traditional Catholic Centrism’ on welfare, labour and the economy.  (a tradition which interestingly had parallels with other ‘Christian Democratic’ parties in Europe)  By comparison Abbott, Bolt and others would have us drift into a US style scenario with a class of utterly destitute, and a class of working poor.

Robert Menzies was a Social Conservative ; But might appear ‘leftish’ on the Economy by Today’s Standards ; Bolt wrong again

In the Herald-Sun (May 22nd) Andrew Bolt compares today's Liberals with Robert Menzies - and finds them wanting. Specifically he infers that Menzies would have nothing to do with narratives of fairness. (narratives Bolt rejects)  But in reality Menzies presided over a much more steeply progressive income tax system than we have today - with a top rate around 67 per cent.  Both Labor and the Liberals have moved way-Right on the economy since then.  In reality 'market forces' do not guarantee just economic outcomes. And as against narratives of meritocracy, most of the very rich inherit rather than earn their wealth.  Inequality is not 'natural' or 'inevitable'.  But a degree of redistribution can ensure equal opportunity in education, equal outcomes in health, and 'baseline' living standards that no citizen should be allowed to fall beneath. It is a matter of compassion ; but also of decency and justice. Australia's egalitarian traditions and culture are worth saving. Bolt is wrong.

Slashing the HECS Repayment Thresholds is Unjust by any Reasonable Measure

Ross Gittins (‘The Age’ , 24/5) rightly condemns the Federal Government’s assault on job seekers, including requirements that those people exhaust much of their personal savings before receiving a cent. It received very little coverage in Budget analyses.  Perhaps there is a cold calculation that ‘no one has sympathy for job seekers’ given the constant resentment and callousness whipped up in much of the monopoly mass media.  There wasn’t a word from Labor that I saw. But I don’t understand Gittins’ attitude towards students.  Someone on $42,000 a year is better off than a person struggling to feed themselves on Newstart.  But the Government is abrogating basic principles of progressivity by reducing the repayment threshold to $42,000/year ; or approximately only half the average wage.  Those on half the average wage are not receiving a significant financial benefit compared with workers and tradespeople who had not attended university.  And given other pressures – including housing unaffordability and a rising cost of living – surely HECS repayment thresholds and rates need to be fairer.  Just because you can make ends meet doesn’t mean principles of progressivity and fairness should not apply.  The minimum repayment threshold should be raised to at least $60,000/year ; then indexed.

Root and Branch Reform of Tax and the Social Wage Necessary

“Peter Martin (‘The Age’ 25/5) makes a good case to get rid of poverty traps in the tax and welfare systems which hurt vulnerable groups like single parents and provide little incentive for work.  We have a tax system which needs root and branch reform.  The whole tax mix needs to be restructured for fairness ; as do the PAYE income taxation scales on their own – which thereafter ought be indexed.  Dividend Imputation could be gradually withdrawn to a 50% rate (maybe more over time), saving  $10 billion a year. Superannuation concessions could be withdrawn for the wealthy , but also the upper middle class ; saving over $20 billion.  A ‘Buffet Tax’ (minimum income tax for the wealthy) could bring in over $2 billion.  The Medicare Levy could be reformed on a progressive scale ; where everyone contributes – but by an increasing proportion depending on income.   Finally inheritance taxes ought be reconsidered for those with truly large inheritances ; say over $2 million.  All this could be passed on with a mix of tax cuts for low to middle income earners, improvements in social security , and improvements in the social wage.  (including infrastructure, health and education)”

Terms like ‘Class Warfare’ and ‘Soak the Rich’ Demand Criticism

Peter Hartcher (‘The Age’ June 13th) seems critical of the recent upsurge in Left-wing politics, with good performances by Sanders and Corbyn , and the return of democratic socialism to ‘respectability’. Terms like ‘class warfare’ and ‘soak the rich’ are thrown around without any real critical consideration of the meaning, assumptions and historical context behind that kind of language.  Progressive taxation hence appears summarily dismissed, despite the fact  that taxes were effectively more steeply progressive under Menzies then they ended up being under any government since Hawke and Keating.   Regressive taxes, ‘small government’ and austerity are today considered ‘natural’ despite impacting negatively against the majority on lower and middle incomes. There is no talk of ‘class warfare’ where it is workers and the vulnerable under attack.  But somehow a fairer spread of taxation is dismissed as ‘redistribution’ – which apparently has been established as a political and economic ‘cardinal sin’.  Australia needs a new culture of social solidarity – where everyone contributes on the basis of their capacity – and where health services, aged care, social security, education, social and public housing – as well as transport, energy and communications infrastructure and services – are made fully available on the basis of need.

Terms like ‘Labor Lite’ to Describe Turnbull Expose Loaded Political Assumptions around the Australian Economy

Andrew Bolt describes Malcolm Turnbull as ‘Labor Lite” - ‘big spending’ and ‘high taxing”.  (3/7)  But in reality taxes and spending have over the long term been falling effectively by tens of billions under both Labor and Liberal Governments.  Compared with the OECD average Turnbull is low spending and low taxing.  Policies that Abbott and Bolt describe as ‘Left’ would be considered ‘neo-liberal right-wing’ in much of Europe and Scandinavia – including by Christian Democrats and Centrists.  Is so-called ‘small government’ really a good thing?  Paying for goods and services: including health, aged-care, education, infrastructure – through progressive taxes – gives citizens in general better value for money than if they paid for these as private consumers.  Look at the outrageously-expensive US private health insurance system for proof of this. This ‘social wage’ also means we don’t have a US-style underclass.  To get an ‘angle’ from which to undermine Turnbull Abbott is also betraying the traditions of Christian Democracy and Catholic economic Centrism which have historically supported welfare and labour market regulation.

What does Bolt know about Socialism?

Andrew Bolt (13/7) writes of Venezuela that it should “be taught in schools” how “socialism ruins countries”.  But surely that kind of official indoctrination would itself be a hallmark of totalitarianism? Instead we need a curriculum that informs students about the interests and value systems of both the Left and the Right , and of different social groups – and encourage them to make their own commitments – in an active and informed democracy. As for socialism: done correctly it has resulted in full employment, high wages, equal educational opportunity, and health care based upon need.  Consider Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway. But capitalism increasingly survives on unsustainable private debt ; and ‘corporate welfare’ as big business escapes taxation for the infrastructure and services it benefits from. (the rest of us must pay)  Also there is abuse of market power in the wake of privatisation of natural public monopolies.  (eg: energy) ; and this is why those on lower incomes are suffering.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Neither Opportunism nor Self-Destruction - Standing up for Socialism in today's ALP

Dr Tristan Ewins

This is a response to comments at the ALP Socialist Left Forum Facebook page where contributors argued to the effect that Labor is "a party of government" ; that being a defining difference between us and the Greens. But do we sometimes take compromise too far?

I'm hoping this leads to some genuine debate.

As we argue in the ALP "We're a Party of Government".  But how do we govern? Do we press democratic socialist reform as hard as we can? Do most of our MPs even believe in democratic socialism anymore - let alone talk about it openly and publicly? Do we walk the best line between opportunism and self-destruction? Or are we too opportunistic?

There have been improvements under Shorten ; for instance action on Negative Gearing. But we need more ambition. For instance - aspire to raise progressively sourced revenue by 5 per cent of GDP over several terms ; to fund progressive social wage and welfare state initiatives from that. To remove regressive policies such as superannuation concessions for the unambiguously well-off.  (including the upper middle class) And re-regulate the lower end of the labour market.

The Greens can make proposals they will never have to implement, yes. Though the inverse of that is that they say things we feel we cannot ; Whatever their flaws (there are many ; including the occasional distortion of the truth to better their position as against us in marginal inner city seats) - at least it adds to debate and puts more radical ideas up for open deliberation.

But there is a long history of regressive tax restructuring and tax cuts ; privatisations ; deregulation and user pays ; capitulation to the Ideology of small government.

As the Socialist Left we are meant to be the main internal obstacle to opportunism in the ALP ; and the main impetus for democratic socialist reforms.

We need more policy and ideological ambition ; but to further this we need tolerance and acceptance of internal debate and the rights of our rank and file to mobilise around socialist ideological and policy agendas.

We look to SL MPs to lead and inspire ; but they are also caught in a bind ; in Canberra they represent the Party ; they compromise heavily when pressed if that is what is dictated by the ambition of taking government in the midst of disinformation from the media and elsewhere.

Yes compromises need to be made. But do we take it too far? And if we don't maintain a robust internal culture and a more general counter-culture - how long before we abandon socialism entirely? How long before young small 'l' liberal activists declare 'the Emperor has no clothes' ; Because we mouth platitudes about socialism - but so many of us no longer know what it means. Already many speak of 'the Left' and not only 'the Socialist Left'.

The relative centre has shifted in this context where progressive ideas were seen as a 'threat' to the dictates of opportunism. Internal discipline and structures of patronage will not save the cause of socialism ; the ground will shift under peoples' feet ; and what remains of the radical edifice will collapse. Unless WE stop it from collapsing ; by working to restore a socialist counter-culture within the Party ; within the Left ; and more broadly as well.

And if we see the job of building a counter-culture as the work of a Party and not of a Faction ; Well what happens when there is no one significant left to do that job? What happens is that our ideological and cultural base is eroded until there is nothing left. Or we are only a 'tendency' within a much broader ALP 'liberal-left' which views us as an anachronism.

We cannot accept this.  Both the development of a counter-culture and participatory development of socialist inspired public policy are goals we must advance at every opportunity"

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Scott Morrison’s 2017-18 Federal Budget:  Some Good Measures Amidst the Typical Austerity

Admist the Usual Austerity there are some Welcome Surprises in this 2017 Morrison Federal Budget. Though the monopoly mass media is tending to overstate any perceived 'leftward shift' ; inappropriately using terms like 'Labor lite' , where in reality there are very significant assaults on the rights of students and job seekers.

by Dr Tristan Ewins, 10/5/2017

Many media commentators are responding to the 2107-18 Morrison Federal Budget by branding it as ‘Labor Lite’ or ‘worse’.  But how much of that actually stands up to scrutiny? 

Yes the Government is attempting to appear ‘fair’.   And many media figures are throwing around terms like “cash splash” which are commonly reserved to use against Labor governments.  There are pressures in the right-wing monopoly mass media for a ‘right-turn’ in response to any moderation of economic policy under Turnbull.   Bernardi’s ‘Australian Conservatives’ and the libertarian ‘Liberal Democrats’ stand to gain most from this.  But despite years of conditioning from the monopoly mass media Australians may resist these trends given the remnants of our ‘egalitarian spirit’.   The point of all this appears to be stigmatisation of social investments and expenditure ; ultimately leading to a US-style political culture.  Which in turn would support a US style class system based on the absolute destitution of many , and the blatant exploitation of a class of working poor. To the extent Turnbull and Morrison resist pressures for an ‘economic hard right turn’ then that is welcome.

Some Budget changes do appear at the least superficially ‘Labor-esque’.  Many of the billions in cuts and savings originally proposed in the nightmare 2014 Hockey Federal Budget are laid to rest permanently here. The increase to the Medicare Levy will be welcomed by many, and will help provide for the NDIS. (National Disability Insurance Scheme)  The Government claims a ‘$56 billion shortfall’ for the NDIS ; though most of that could have been made up for immediately by jettisoning the Government’s $50 billion in planned corporate tax cuts over 10 years.  (much more over time) $8.2 billion will be taken via the Medicare Levy increase over the first four years.  
A so-called ‘Google tax’ targeting corporate tax evasion is also expected to net more than $3 billion over four years.   (though it is quite insignificant compared with corporate tax  cuts elsewhere)

Further, the ‘big banks’ (including CBA, ANZ, Westpac, NAB) will be hit for $6 billion over 4 years ; apparently including an effective payment in return for the ‘government guarantee’ for the sector. (which began with Rudd’s response to the Global Financial Crisis)   In response there is the question : will the banks hit customers or will they hit shareholders?  If somehow larger shareholders could be targeted that would ensure the most equitable outcomes.  A payment by the big banks in return for an effective government insurance policy makes sense.  Without it ultimately there could be impositions on workers, citizens, tax-payers.  So on this front at least the Government is doing the right thing.  And if the Banks respond by upping fees and charges arguably the co-operative and mutualist sector could ‘step into the breach’.   Were the Commonwealth Bank still in public hands then assuming a ‘competitive charter’ it could have held the rest of the sector accountable , countering tendencies to pass costs onto consumers.  That’s also a good reason for Labor to consider restoring a public-sector bank – perhaps taking advantage of existing Australia-Post infrastructure.

Meanwhile, foreign home owners who leave properties vacant six months or more will be taxed – a measure apparently borrowed from the Andrews Labor State Government in Victoria.  As well as raising some revenue, this measure should also influence investor behaviour ; and effectively increase available housing supply ; with downwards pressure on housing and rental affordability. 

The ‘Gonski 2.0’ measures, meanwhile, are a significant improvement on past Liberal policy, and include needs-based funding.  David Gonski is due to present another report by the end of the year.  The Catholic sector appears to be in the firing line.   More broadly, Shorten points out that despite the gains, here, (including some cuts to some of the richest private schools) the proposals nonetheless still involve an overall $22 billion cut to the sector over ten years compared with the deals previously negotiated by Labor. 

Other constructive policies include significant tax breaks for ‘empty nesters’ to ‘downshift’ to smaller, lower-maintenance accommodation.  That could also increase effective housing supply.  The housing bubble will eventually deflate (or ‘burst’ disastrously). But government could step into the economic breach with public housing.  There is still the need to expand supply to meet underlying human need.  Planned Negative Gearing and Capital Gains Tax reforms from the Government are welcome, but do not go anywhere near far enough, saving just $1.6 billion over 4 years . Stronger action on Negative Gearing is necessary to lessen competition between first home buyers and investors , correcting the Housing Bubble over time.

Also there’s $10 billion for rail as part of a suite of infrastructure commitments. (though these are not as significant as some think when compared relative to infrastructure investment under a ‘traditional’ Labor Government)    

A once-off payment of $75 for singles, $125 for couples – to assist with energy costs – is very insignificant when you consider the rising cost of living.  The Liberals point to renewable energy as the alleged ‘culprit’ here ; but what of privatisation? 

Finally ;  Annual TV Licenses are scrapped in favour of a much lower ‘spectrum fee’ – which makes sense given the changing media landscape – which is hurting traditional media. Arguably the licenses aren’t worth as much anymore.  But diluting media ownership laws will still enable the likes of Murdoch to dominate traditional media.

The Down-Side

But there’s a very significant ‘down-side’ to this Budget as well ; including ‘traditionally Liberal’ attacks on vulnerable groups ; and treating tertiary students like ‘cash-cows’.
Higher Education stands to lose almost $3 billion a year – with students hit hardest.  The Turnbull Federal Liberal Government claims that its fee increases – and its reduction in the minimum repayment threshold to $42,000 a year (down from $55,000) “better reflects the lifetime benefits reaped by higher education graduates”.  But these measures will start ‘kicking in’ affecting people on approximately half the average wage.  Hence in places the measures really bear no relation to any alleged private financial benefits for students. The logic behind these measures also neglects entirely the gains by business and society at large from a more highly educated populace.   There is some progressivity as those with much higher incomes will repay at a significantly higher rate.  But this does not excuse or make up for a 7.5% average increase in tuition fees.  In response Labor needs to raise the threshold somewhere much closer to the average wage ; and higher over time ; while entrenching a progressive scale in the rate of repayments.   Exceptional groups such as the disabled should probably be forgiven their debts, here : or at least have them frozen. The inevitable effect of this will be to deter many poorer students from study, reducing the nation’s pool of ‘human capital’ over time, and impacting on ‘equal educational opportunity’.  It is dubious at best to consider educational investments a ‘bad debt’.

The 0.5 per cent increase in the Medicare Levy is supposed to reassure voters that Labor’s warnings on health are only a ‘scare campaign’.  But while the Levy is re-indexed the forsaken increases to Medicare’s coverage in recent years are not made up for.  Medicare might still be eroded by stealth ; and that is ‘de-facto privatisation’ in the sense of intermittently eroding the coverage of ‘socialised’ public health proportionately.  This was always what Labor alluded to , but for some reasons ‘the waters were always muddied’ in the mass media, with throw away lines like ‘Mediscare’.

Also , while the Medicare Levy is rising, the 2 per cent Deficit Levy is gone – directly benefiting the wealthy in the final balance. There are ‘traditionally Liberal’ distributive  outcomes, here, despite claims of the Budget being ‘Labor Lite’.   (that is, the Budget favours the wealthy) 

Payroll tax on foreign workers will also be replaced with a levy of $1500 to $5000 per employee raising $1.2 billion over four years “to improve Australian workers’ skills”.  To an extent this will take some of the wind from Labor’s sails on related issues. 

Other measures include punitive attacks on the rights of the  unemployed, with the threat of payment suspension for those who miss a job interview or refuse a job offer they don’t want.  And reversion to a ‘cashless welfare card’ for anyone found to have illegal drugs in their system.  5000 people will by thus tested – and effectively humiliated – in order to create a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the introduction of cashless welfare.   Already Australia has one of the most negligent and punitive unemployment benefit regimes in the advanced capitalist world.  But ‘cashless welfare’ will see Australia revert to Depression era ‘Susso’ style ‘payments’.  The ‘Susso’ basically provided threadbare material subsistence (rations and vouchers) for the long-term unemployed.


Claims to the effect this Budget is ‘Labor Lite’ do not really stand up in the longer view historically when you consider pre-1980s relativities on the Economy ; and more recently with the ‘relative economic centrism’ of former Liberal leaders like John Hewson. The reality is ‘convergence’ on right-wing, economically Liberal policies ; though Shorten has begun to ‘break away’ to something more recognisably ‘left of centre’. Ironically,  the “Abbott Purists” will likely claim the austerity has not gone far enough. Though they may be upset by the attacks on Catholic education.  But it is THEY who have abandoned ‘traditional Catholic Centrism’ on welfare, labour and the economy.  (a tradition which interestingly had parallels with other ‘Christian Democratic’ parties in Europe)

This government is restrained by its own inflexible “small government no matter what” Ideology.  (spending is set at no more than 26 per cent of GDP ; well below the OECD average)  This drives various ‘cuts to the bone’ (as Gillard would have put it) , because it leaves no other option than harsh austerity.  Ultimately, Scott Morrison will have to make a choice: real people or Economically Liberal ‘small government’ Ideology.

Terry McCrann of the Herald-Sun calls the Budget ‘a disgrace’ for not sufficiently addressing government debt.  And Jeff Whalley (also of the Herald-Sun) argues that government debt amounts to “$375 billion” or “$15300 for each man, woman and child” .   But while government spending can have a positive ‘multiplier effect’ on economic activity,  austerity also has a negative multiplier effect ; dragging the broader economy down in sympathy.  

Also we must remember  that private household debt is the much bigger problem, and is connected with falling real wages.  (Why the cuts in Penalty Rates, therefore, we might ask! ; which will lead to lower tax revenue also)  And reducing investment in PUBLIC owned infrastructure presents its own associated problems of passing inferior cost-structures on the broader economy. Indeed, investments in some services (eg: Education) and infrastructure add to productivity – and the public sector (natural public monopolies) can often do the job more efficiently.  So Morrison’s ‘good debt’ and ‘bad debt’ has some substance. (a pity in the past they did not apply those principles to Labor governments!)

In conclusion ;  The Herald-Sun reports with an air of alarm that taxes will be up $23 billion over four years ; and spending up $15.7 billion over four years.   Indeed, Commentators are complaining that income tax is becoming more significant proportionately.  Though really, this need not be a problem if total income tax is progressively restructured, and also the rest of the taxation mix.   Also keep in mind the economy is worth approximately $1.6 trillion.  So in reality spending is up by less than a quarter of one per cent of GDP.  The revenue gap has at least been appreciably narrowed.

In some ways this Budget is better than we might have expected from the Liberals after the horror Hockey ‘Lifters and Leaners’ Budget from 2014. But a lot of that Ideology is still there.  And the cuts are still significant ; with the introduction of ‘cashless welfare’ setting a precedent for the further future humiliation of job-seekers.  And shutting many lower-income Australians out from Higher Education.  An Opposition with strong, traditional Labor policies on distributive justice can still ‘outflank’ a Liberal Government which cannot help but govern primarily in the interests of its core constituency: the unambiguously well-off.