G20’s shaky growth base

For the sake of global prosperity, you have to hope that the pro-growth commitments made by the visiting national leaders at Brisbane’s G20 are of a higher quality that those proposed by the host.
Laudable as the G20 goal is to boost collective growth among member countries by 2.1 per cent by 2018, it comes with a big asterix attached. There are measures whose benefits are difficult to quantify. There are measures that are contingent on the actions of others to come to fruition. There are measures whose prospects are definitely cloudy.
And then there are measures for which any claim of benefit is dubious, at best.
In this category belongs two measures the Australian Government has included in its contribution to the G20 growth goal – the introduction of a $7 co-payment for GP, pathology and diagnostic imaging services, and the deregulation of university fees. (Note of disclosure: I am currently employed by the Australian Medical Association, which is campaigning against the Government’s co-payment proposal).
It is hard to see how it can be argued that either, particularly the co-payment, will enhance growth.
Both are essentially exercises in cost-shifting – removing a liability from the Commonwealth’s books and putting it on to individuals.
In the case of the co-payment, patients face an extra $7 for each visit to their GP, while doctors are set to lose $5 from each Medicare rebate and incur extra practice costs arising from increased red tape and more patient bad debts.
In the case of university fee deregulation, an increased proportion of education costs are dumped onto students as a liability against future earnings – in effect, an increase in the tax on higher education.
Leaving aside arguments about the equity or economic efficiency of these policies, the grounds on which either could be said to contribute to growth appear weak.
It has been demonstrated that cost is a consideration for some when seeking health care, so upfront charges will discourage a proportion from seeing their GP – in fact, this was one of the Government’s explicit aims when announcing the policy.
Furthermore, though some patients might be going to see their doctor for what the Government considers to be frivolous reasons, most have legitimate health concerns.
Some of these might resolve themselves. But deterring people from seeking timely care raises the risk their health will deteriorate further and their problems become more complex, raising the likelihood of more dramatic and costlier care later on. Care in hospitals in multiple more times expensive than in a family doctor’s surgery.
Regarding university fees, it defies all that we know about price signals and human behaviour to suggest that ratcheting up university course fees will have no effect on demand.
Sure, university degrees are a sound investment in enhanced future earning capacity, so the incentive for individuals to incur larger debts for the lifelong advantage a degree confers is strong.
But as the cost of education goes up and wages growth slows, the cost-benefit equation because more finely balanced, and the weight given to other options increases – particularly from the viewpoint of someone with limited financial resources.
The Government argues that students won’t be required to begin repaying their debts until they start earning reasonable money, so any deterrence is overstated.
But even if higher fees don’t discourage many, the debts students will carry through much of their adulthood will have other significant economy-wide effects, including delaying the age at which they might begin a family or buy a house. These are major drivers of consumer spending, and by delaying or diminishing these activities, university fee deregulation will help undermine the strength of a major component of growth.
(The policy is also likely to turbocharge the brain drain, and heavily-indebted graduates increasingly look for better-paid opportunities offshore).
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the fact that the OECD and the IMF will audit the progress of G20 countries in fulfilling their growth commitments will provide robust reassurance that the growth goal will be met.
But don’t expect the umpires to red card countries not seen to be pulling their weight.
Realpolitik means it is highly unlikely any G20 member will be marked down, especially when there are so many plausible get-out clauses and other excuses that countries can invoke.
Let’s face it, if the Australian Government can get away with calling a GP co-payment a growth measure, it is a pretty low base from which to start.

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