Economics Dumbed Down

Given the distortions in the Opposition’s rhetoric on economics, it’s worrying that polls consistently show voters rate the Coalition so highly on economic management, writes Ian McAuley

Notice something strange in the opinion polls? Essential Media polling has surveyed Australians on a number of specific issues, asking which party they would trust to handle various issues. On education, jobs, industrial relations, housing affordability, climate change and the  environment Labor easily scores ahead of the Coalition.

Yet on the question “management of the economy”, the Coalition still leads by a comfortable margin.

There is a strange contradiction in these figures. If economic management isn’t about ensuring high employment and harmonious labour relations, conserving scarce environmental resources, keeping housing affordable, and investing in education, what is it about?

The answer lies in the rhetoric of the Opposition, for whom “economic management” has come to mean keeping a balanced budget. Counter-cyclical economic management to stave off the recession suffered by most other countries has been framed as “reckless spending”. Spending on infrastructure can be sacrificed in the interest of bringing the budget back to an early surplus. And a responsible market-based policy to put a price on carbon is called a “big new tax”.

This dumbing down of the economic debate is serious. Most seriously it has frozen us into inaction on climate change. Rather than seeing environmental sustainability as a basis for economic sustainability, we have come to accept the notion that meaningful action on climate change requires economic sacrifices – as if we place no value on our (and the planet’s) environmental resources.

Budgetary management is but one aspect of economic management. Most economists agree that over a business cycle recurrent government expenditure should be balanced by tax and other income. Similarly, economists do not have a terror of public debt: what counts is the use of that debt. If it is used to finance current consumption then that is reckless, but if it is used to fund productive infrastructure then our economy is strengthened. If anything can be called “reckless” it is a policy which puts a “balanced budget” ahead of investment in productive infrastructure. (Imagine how shareholders would respond if a public company were to cut its capital expenditure and reduce its debt to zero.)

Already in this election campaign the Opposition has exploited this puerile construction of “economic management” to stymie carbon pricing and to devalue even the Government’s paltry infrastructure spending. The blame lies not only with the Opposition, however; political parties are opportunistic and to expect any different behaviour from the Opposition would be as naïve as to expect sailors to practice celibacy on shore leave. The Government too must take some blame, for it has had three years to explain economic policy to the electorate, and has failed to do so.

More Than Luck is a collection of ideas for citizens who want real change edited by Mark Davis and CPD Executive Director Miriam Lyons. A to-do list for politicians looking to base public policies on the kind of future Australians really want, More Than Luck shows what’s needed to share this country’s good luck amongst all Australians – now and in the future. Click here to find out more. Like what you’ve read? Donate to help make good ideas matter.

Blog Comments

[…] Go and read the rest of Economics Dumbed Down here. […]

I have noted over the years the conservative ability to demonise Labor Governments on economic matters. This is despite the fact that in my 70 years of association with the business world I have noted the fact that economic downturns have occurred mostly in times when the Conservatives have occupied the Treasury Benches. The recent financial crisis was well forecasted in the conservative period but they did nothing to prepare for it. Thank god they lost ofice and we saw Keynesian responce and we managed to avoid the worst of it so far. Conservatives have learnt well from Goebbels, (tell a lie ,tell a big one and keep telling it and pepole will believe it).

Most economic commentary (both from the lips of politicians and within the media more generally) is unmitigated blather. Partly because most political party leaders are economically illiterate (as are most of the “journalists” who report their utterances), but also because politicians regard the dumbing down of important issues as being helpful to their mission to misinform and mislead the electorate. Modern politics has degenerated into organised spin and outright lying. How else can one explain the electoral success of myths about interest rates being allegedly lower under one party’s administration than under that of the opposing party. And this one is entirely a myth, as evidenced by the official statistics – which are readily available. But hey, lets not allow the facts to get in the way of a good political story.

This comment is entirely flippant, so please excuse.

I am just the teensiest bit alarmed that here, after a wholly serious piece about economics for which a minimum requirement might be assumed to be an ability to count, above the Leave a Reply comment box I’m currently typing in are currently 2 (two) comments, before which is a heading stating (and I paste): “3 Responses to Economics Dumbed Down“.

There’s probably a sensible reason. Maybe someone put something up but then deleted it. It’s disconcerting, though! 🙂

OK, that’s seems to have fixed it. It still says there’s 3 comments, and now it’s right. Or was until now, at least . . .

Hi there – I think the source of confusion is that what’s known as a ‘pingback’ is counted as a response (see the white box above, immediately below the ‘5 responses…’ header). A pingback is a reference and link on another website to this post.

[…] Economics Dumbed Down July 25, 2010 ”There is a strange contradiction in these figures. If economic management isn’t about ensuring high employment and harmonious labour relations, conserving scarce environmental resources, keeping housing affordable, and investing in education, what is it about?  […]

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