The best the Minister for Economic Development, Steven Joyce, could do in response to my recent report on corporate welfare was nit-picking. Joyce said my definition of corporate welfare was flawed and that spending on R&D will grow the economy. He said
“To brand things like tourism promotion and building cycle-ways as corporate welfare is, I think, creative but not accurate at all.”
Joyce also said my report was
just somebody picking out a whole bunch of government programmes that in many cases don’t involve payments to firms at all…
Those that do involve payments to firms are specifically designed to encourage the development for example of the business R&D industry. Politicians don’t choose them.
Payments in kind are business subsidies. R&D is so important to the economy that the last thing you want is its direction to be biased by funding from government. Bureaucrats have a conservative bias and do not fund oddballs and long shots. The oddballs and hippies in the picture below could only afford the photo because they won a radio competition in Arizona.
The R&D expenditure that was criticised in my report was commercialisation, not basic research, which was specifically praised. Which research to commercialise is for entrepreneurs.
There is no reason whatsoever to think bureaucrats administering R&D subsidy budgets set by politicians are any better than private entrepreneurs at picking the next big thing.
If bureaucrats were any good at picking winners, were any good at beating the market, they would go work for a hedge fund on an astronomically better salary package. The salary package of one top hedge fund manager exceeds the entire payroll budget of most New Zealand government departments including those administering R&D subsidies and other hand-outs.
Government expenditure in vital areas such as innovation should be justified on the basis of cost-benefit ratios and a rationale for why bureaucrats have superior access to information about the entrepreneurial prospects of unproven technologies and product prototypes.
Subsidies should not be defended because of their popularity and sexiness as Mr Joyce did for the film industry, tourism promotion and ultra-fast broadband
If they told New Zealanders that in their view tourism promotion should be cancelled, the film industry should close down, that their shouldn’t be any ultra-fast broadband…I don’t think people would be that enamoured with it.
On irrigation funding, Mr. Joyce cited a report by NZIER that found irrigation contributes $2.2 billion to the economy. Irrigation is a private good which can funded by pricing it properly including the recovery of capital costs. There is no case for a subsidy.
Public goods have spillovers, private goods such as water and irrigation do not. Users can fund the irrigation themselves buying as little or as much water as they are willing to pay out for out their own pockets. The NZIER report noted that it was not about the case for public funding:
… we are not able to quantify the environmental or social impacts if irrigation had never occurred. We also do not attempt to investigate the relative merits of public versus private sector funding of the schemes.
My latest corporate welfare report is out at the Taxpayers Union website. The company tax could be 6 percentage points lower but for this generosity of politicians picking winners.
Source: New Zealand Budget Papers, various years.
It is not as bad as you think under the last Labour government budget. $700 million of those hand-outs to business was seed capital for agricultural research institute. That institute to be run out of the investment income on that $700 million one-off injection which the incoming National Party-led government cancelled.
Another $675 million in that last Labour budget was to KiwiRail and OnTrack. Other than that, the Labour Party ran a pretty tight ship on business subsidies. There are no particular record of picking winners. Labour did buy a real loser in KiwiRail. You heard it here first.
Electric cars have joined the long list of mendicant mendicant businesses that have been backed by the New Zealand government of late. Picking winners again.
The payrolls of entire government departments in New Zealand are not enough to hire a single successful hedge fund manager to pick winners for their political masters. To get on the list of the top 25 hedge fund managers, you need to earn at least $300 million a year.
The 25 highest-earning hedge fund managers and traders made a combined $12 billion in 2015, slightly less than the $12.5 billion the 25 top-earning hedge fund managers together made in 2014.
Why do investment advisors sell and often give away their sage advice? If their insights were any good, they could trade on the share market before others caught on and make a killing!
I will give a personal example based on the skills of bureaucracies in picking winners. The test of my hypothesis is based on the transferability of human capital across jobs.
My graduate school professors in Japan included many retired bureaucrats from the Ministry of Finance and MITI. These agencies were heralded by Joe Stiglitz and others for picking winners and guiding Japanese companies to choose the right technologies and what to export.
The skills that my graduate school professors learned at picking winners over their careers with the Ministry of Finance and MITI in the high-growth years in the 1970s would now be available to them in their retirements to trade on their own account.
My graduate school professors should quickly become very rich after retiring because of the skills they learned in picking winners while at the Ministry of Finance and MITI, which should cross over into their private share portfolios. The rich lists world-wide should be full of retired industry and finance ministry bureaucrats.
Instead, my graduate school professors took the train and bus to work and their families lived off their salaries in standard sized Japanese government apartments. All looked forward to their annual bonus of 5.15 months salary.
If governments are any good at picking winners, people should be willing to pay big time to get jobs at ministries of finance and ministries of international trade and industry to get access to their unique and highly secret skills they learn therein on how to pick winners.
I am still waiting for that tell-all book by an insider on these skills. Why is there no Picking Winners for Dummies on Amazon kindle as yet?