24 February 2008

One for Chris Berg

No wonder The Sunday Age is getting a new editor. The genius who gave us a double serving of Jase (it is still only a fortnight since his last Pine 4 Pete) and Chris Berg needs to move on as soon as possible.
ANYBODY who remembers that photograph of Peter Costello gleefully surrounded by newborn infants knows one thing:

... you are a political tragic from Melbourne who needs to get over your Costello fetish.

Let's fossick through this train smash and see what, if anything, we can pull from the wreckage.

Chris says the baby bonus is poor policy, and he may even have a point. It has come in mighty handy here at PoHo. The general and the specific collide once again, a dilemma bedevilling both governments and institutions analysing public affairs. Does Chris Berg face this challenge squarely? You have to be kidding. All we got was this lazy piece:
Costly, blunt and poorly designed policy instruments have just as many unintended negative consequences as benefits.

So when the Federal Government this week announced an inquiry into the possibility of paid parental leave, it was tough to remain optimistic.

Oh no, the Federal Government has announced an inquiry! Better for the current government to keep on keeping on and avoid all those costly inquiries, surely.
... most proposals for paid parental leave would require the Government to pay a nominated parent roughly the minimum wage for a dozen or so weeks.

Certainly, this is far better than simply requiring businesses to pay the cost of the leave out of their own pockets. The biggest risk that government-mandated workplace entitlements pose is that they make it more costly to hire workers — and the unintended consequence is that employers are reluctant to hire in the first place.

Have you learned any lessons at all from similar proposals for compulsory superannuation, Chris, and if so what were they? At a time of skill shortages and NAIRU, could this be any more than a scare campaign?
Paid parental leave could also break a fundamental principle of good welfare policy — the most effective policies are means-tested policies.

I'd have no trouble with the baby bonus being means-tested, but we're talking about paid parental leave - which looks like becoming a condition of employment rather than a transfer from the state. As a working condition it is partially determined by my own ambitions, talents and capacity for hard work, rather than arbitrarily-defined means tests from the dead hand of the state.

It is the sort of campaign that used to come from the union movement, and the fact that it is now coming from a government inquiry gives an interesting insight into the role of the union movement under a Rudd Labor Government.
At least the issue of parental leave has been referred to the Productivity Commission — the government's independent research department that can claim much of the credit for advancing the cause of economic reform since its inception. This contrasts with the worrying reluctance of Labor to trust the commission with anything else important.

Inquiries into climate change, car manufacturing and international trade have all been established separately — Kevin Rudd may not trust the government's experts to give him the answers he wants.

One would have thought that putting the Productivity Commission to work on the Australian car manufacturing industry would have been an exercise in cognitive dissonance, similar to driving a Mercedes Benz into a lake. To have the PC take on these many weighty matters would require of it the kind of bloat we have seen from the various security organisations, an increase in quality not necessarily matched with quality and decried by people not dissimilar to Chris Berg.
But the biggest problem with a paid parental leave scheme is how it encourages the redefinition of our relationship with government.

No it doesn't. There have been enough examples of poor outcomes resulting from the absence of parental leave, plenty of kite-flying and submissions from various organisations - this is a clear example of government responding to community concerns as it should.
The baby bonus has already established in the mind of Australians that having children is more than just a personal decision — it is part of a long-running negotiation between parents, the Federal Government and the tax office.

Rubbish! It was a policy determined by a political party which won an election. The Tax Office did what it was told - no negotiation there. The Federal Government that introduced his policy was voted out. That just leaves parents - if there's money available by filling out a form, then fill out that form!

This poor framing leads Chris to an inevitable bout of silliness which could have been avoided:
soon no one will start a family without lengthy consultations with the Australian Taxation Office and Prime Minister's Department.

Oh dear. Put down that copy of Brave New World and take a serious look at the community in which you live, Chris. Only then should you be assessing policy against that. Instead, it's once again with the silliness:
But the people whose decision could be influenced if they are given a few grand by the government may not actually be the best parents.

Who are these people? Where are they? If the government taxed people every time a child was born to them, would this really - no, not in theory - discourage irresponsible people from becoming parents?

We can't have government policy hostage to figments of your imagination. That's probably why there's an inquiry. Is the Eye Pee Yay making a credible submission to that inquiry, Chris, or are you going to slap something together in your careful way?
And the problems of ageing populations and skills shortages don't have to be resolved by funnelling subsidies to young families. It would instead be better for children if individuals were allowed to come to their own decisions about parenthood uninfluenced by politicians desperate to pay their way out of the latest political crisis.

I always thought the link between the baby bonus and the skills shortage was fairly tenuous. Your article would have been better had you stuck to that, Chris.

Who are these individuals whose decisions about parenthood depend upon a sum of money that doesn't begin to meet the medical bills associated with childbirth, let alone the costs of child-rearing? Who are they, Chris, and why do you flay imaginary people for bending weak politicians to their will?
Perhaps if the government really thinks that we have a population problem, it could be looking carefully at increasing immigration — skilled and non-skilled — and relaxing the high costs of work visas.

Considering that Australia has one of the world's largest migration programs - skilled and unskilled - already, this off-the-cuff suggestion might not be the thunderbolt you seem to regard it as. Plenty of studies have examined the pros and cons of that in the current context - go review some and stop wasting everyone's time.
Nevertheless, introducing subsidies to new parents conveniently supports Rudd's working families narrative. It's politically savvy to pay off your supporters.

Considering that the whole idea of the baby bonus was to forestall the very idea of a Rudd Government it can't have been that savvy. You wouldn't know political savvy if it bit you, Chris.
The fundamental question that the Labor Government's proposal for parental leave raises is whether parents should have children for themselves, or for society.

No, the question it raises concerns the nature of remuneration for labour, Chris.
what parent spends time thinking about how starting a family could help Australia's OECD rankings? Hopefully none.

You've lugged this straw man through your whole article and now you've finally let it drop. How much better if you'd set fire to it and gone and done some research instead.

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