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Aaron Patrick's sloppy and factually incorrect article failed to address Alberici's argument and engaged in ad hominem attacks on her supporters (Image screenshot afr.com via @JoshBBornstein)

The remarkable scale and intensity of conservative attacks on Emma Alberici and her analysis of the government’s corporate tax policies shows it has touched a raw nerve.

This is not simply a continuation of the feud between conservatives and the ABC. Nor is it an economic dispute about the impact of the proposed tax cuts on investment, employment or revenues. This is a dispute that is really about politics and power; the rolling back of social democracy and the liberation of private wealth from the constraints of public democracy.  

An excellent insight into these dynamics can be found in Aaaron Patrick’s recent article (‘ABC caught in in the pull of star power’, Australian Financial Review, 21 February 2018).

While it fails to address the substance of her arguments, this is not as strange as it might seem. For Patrick and the host of other conservative voices that have crowded in to take part in the attack, the intention is to deny the credibility of critics (especially within the ABC) and their right to challenge orthodox economics, and the growing political and social power of business.     

Patrick expresses shock that Alberici has the temerity to challenge mainstream economic thinking, when the issue of corporate tax reform is beyond the competence of someone who has only a BA majoring in Italian (in fact she also has a degree in economics and journalism — sloppy reporting).

He disputes her right to question the status of business as society’s wealth creators; to

‘... fuel the perception that business is the enemy of regular Australians and has corrupted the political process.'

Worse still, according to Patrick, Alberici is part of a wider trend where "opinion" and "sharp one-liners" replace in-depth and balanced journalism. This closely follows the line taken in editorials of the AFR contrasting the "sober" views of supporters of the tax reforms with the "emotive" campaigns and "knee-jerk" views of critics (AFR, 23 February).

Those who might support her views receive the same treatment. The credibility of former Labor Minister, Professor Craig Emerson is dismissed, because he ‘makes a living out of his political connections’. Professor John Quiggin is a ‘left wing academic’ who mentioned Marx and Engels in his economics textbook – enough to disqualify him.

Patrick goes on to ask why someone who doesn’t accept "conventional economics" is the ABC’s economics correspondent. Putting aside the question of whether the ABC should be reduced to an instrument of views sanctioned by the conservative side of politics, having a mainstream economist in this position would not necessarily solve Patrick’s problems.

There are two reasons for this.

One is that there has never been any easy consensus within the economics community on the issue of corporate tax reform and its likely effect on investment, wages and public revenues, even within such institutions as the Treasury, the IMF and the Reserve Bank.  

This is especially so in the United States, often cited by Australian conservatives as evidence of the value of tax cuts. Here, claims made by the Trump Administration to defend its corporate tax cuts are widely disputed by economists, including Larry Summers and Paul Krugman.

Even within the business community, there is scepticism. Investment guru Warren Buffett is not impressed and even Moody’s rating agency concluded that the cuts would most likely direct tax windfalls into share buyouts and shareholder dividends rather than heightened investment and employment.    

But the defence of mainstream economics is, in any case, not the sole agenda for Patrick and his fellow travellers across the conservative media and in libertarian think tanks. Their ideology derives less from supply-side economics than from the moral (public choice) political economy of James Buchanan, the syrupy libertarian novels of Ayn Rand and the millenarian nightmares of former editor of the London Times, William Rees-Mogg.

For these ideologues, the corporate tax issue is not simply one of economic efficiency, but is central to an important reordering of power within society — one which rejects the right of democratic governments to force wealthy individuals to hand over large portions of their wealth to pay for public goods, like welfare, health and education.

This is an ideology that has already become ascendant in the United States. In the world of the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) the assault on tax has been a central instrument for rolling back the social democratic state (to ‘starve the beast’) and enable a return to an era of laissez-faire.   

It is also at the heart of a new techno-libertarianism, where entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel are enthralled by the prospect of a world where cryptocurrencies will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes (‘Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand’The Guardian, 15 February 2018). 

In the meantime, for those who see society divided into an Ayn Rand world of "lifters" (the "wealth creators" of the business world) and "leaners" (the rest of us) there is little room for any debate. Where opponents are denied any legitimacy – seen as little more than predatory rent-seekers – criticism of the behaviour and policies of banks and business will only ever be "business bashing" and concerns about deepening concentrations of wealth will never be anything but the "politics of envy".

Professor Richard Robison is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences Australia and Emeritus Professor, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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