Monday, August 24, 2015

Having Small Government Should Never Be a Reason for Making It Bigger

It seems that the Grattan Institute argues in its submission to the National Reform Summit that because Australia's government is relatively small by the standards of other developed countries we can or should increase its size. This argument makes no sense to me, though it seems to be often made. Perhaps other countries spend inefficiently or perhaps Australians are not interested in spending on some of the things that those countries spend on. We should look first at the outcomes we have as a country and, if there are poor outcomes that Australians would like improved, we then need to ask whether government can make a difference. Only then does it make sense to ask whether spending or taxes should be higher. I don't think this is really a political statement, as I leave open the final choice on whether to increase the size of government or not. But it makes no sense to talk about increasing the size of government simply to be nearer OECD means.

As for whether we should change the taxation arrangements for superannuation the simplest, fairest, and possibly relatively efficient  approach is to use the same approach as US 401k and 403b funds and tax payouts at normal income tax rates but not tax contributions or earnings in the accumulation stage. It's simple to show that under reasonable assumptions that this approach generates higher retirement incomes than the current Australian approach. It also has the huge advantage of reducing bureaucracy. Self managed superannuation funds are costly to run in Australia because of the need for accounting and auditing to make sure that they are paying the correct taxes. In the US, an IRA is just like another brokerage account except for the rules on contributions and withdrawals, which can be managed by the broker.

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