Political media, revisited

Remember when I complained about how Australian press doesn't do much policy analysis? Michelle Grattan today not only doesn't do it, but writes in a way that suggests there isn't any meaningful analysis to be done, or debate to be had.

This is a seriously bad article. It largely consists of repeating the arguments of a Grattan Institute paper, bracketed with variants of the phrase "the paper argues". After we've gone through that rigmarole, we get some uninsightful commentary about how reform is not always popular, politicians have to be brave to attempt it and it often takes a great deal of time.

All true (albeit trivially true), but what about the actual reforms? If I had to nail down the place where Grattan loses the plot here, it's with that word - reform - and its use in a phrase like "big economic reforms".

In the context of this article, it's effectively taken for granted that a "big economic reform" is a good thing. That is not necessarily the case! The carbon tax and the resource rent tax are both examples of economic reform; they have millions of opponents all over the country. Or, to make the point even clearer with a hypothetical, raising the minimum wage by ten thousand percent or setting a maximum wage at $300 000 would be huge economic reforms, but in no way does that mean they are good ideas.

'Reform' is a neutral word. The next sentence will reach new heights in tautology, but it's something Grattan seems to have missed. A reform is only good if it is a good reform. One that is economically efficient but also ethically acceptable, one that balances practical and principled considerations - that kind of reform is good because it is good, not because it is reform.

So to pick on some specific examples, the kind of sales/consumption tax increase that the paper apparently argues for would probably be extremely regressive.* Now Michelle Grattan may not care, but that doesn't change the fact that there are - and have been for decades! - significant numbers of economists, policymakers and political philosophers who think that kind of thing is economically a bad idea, morally unacceptable, or both. The article admits - nay, its central point is - that among the broader population this kind of thing might not be popular, but for some reason it refuses to acknowledge that there is a similar kind of disagreement in the world of technocrats and policy as well. To gloss over this proposal as if it's indisputably an 'economic reform' over which there can be no disagreement is either disingenuous or ignorant.

Or perhaps this one:
''Female workforce participation can only change significantly if more mothers have jobs,'' says the paper, and this requires reducing high effective tax rates and the net cost of childcare.
Well, does it? This one's probably clearer than the previous example, but it's still not immune to question: it's far from intuitively apparent that women stay at home to look after their children because their taxes are too high. It might be some other quaint notion like wanting to stay with your child. Or it might not. I'm not even asking that Grattan question or criticise this claim - agreeing with it would be fine, if you're going to do some analysis of why it's true. If you're not, though, then the article is nothing more than a repeat of the paper's conclusions without new content or thought - which is not without value, but is not an opinion piece and certainly not an analysis piece.

It comes down to that - there's no opinion being given here. There's no analysis being provided. There is just assertion and a confused approach that suggests policy debate doesn't even exist.

Here are the last two paragraphs of Grattan's piece. I have reformatted them: in bold are the sections on the actual policies and their effects; in italics, the sections about the politics that might surround their implementation.

In contrast, the plan to push out further the pension and super eligibility ages, though desirable, would require spending a fair bit of political capital. As for broadening the GST, that could make the imposition of a price on carbon look like a doddle.
In general, all the ''game-changers'' are the sort of ambitious plans the next decade needs. After all that has happened, finding politicians who will not be deterred by the political fallout of bringing about difficult reform will be the real challenge.
The imbalance is rather striking. And more importantly, neither of the bold statements are backed up by anything, here or earlier in the article. Why are those changes "desirable"? Why are these the plans vital for "the next decade"?

Either Michelle Grattan doesn't know, or she's not telling. It doesn't much matter which - whatever the reason for it, the media makes barely any contribution to policy debate and sometimes refuses to acknowledge that the debate exists. One thing is obvious enough that it doesn't need much explaining - that is undesirable.

*It's been pointed out that a consumption tax with targeted exclusions (food and rent, for example) is not necessarily regressive, or at least much less so. The Grattan Institute paper was arguing for the inclusion of those things in GST, so this proposal would be even if that is not true for the general case.