Have you ever wondered why anyone becomes a football (soccer) referee? You are almost certain to be hated by one team and its fans because of the decisions you make. Any mistakes you make will be subject to detailed media scrutiny. Your financial rewards are dwarfed by those earned by the people you attempt to control, and to thank you for that they regularly abuse your attempts to do your job.
One final thought from my trip to Paris is that we can ask the same question of those who run national fiscal councils. There is no glory and little power to their positions. At some time or other, they will almost certainly incur the wrath of some senior politician, who will publicly assert that the head of the fiscal council is either incompetent or politically motivated. They will have committed the sin of questioning the financial logic behind the minister’s pet project, or the assertion that certain tax breaks or spending projects can be afforded on a sustainable basis. While sections of the media can be the fiscal council’s friend, because they recognise unbiased analysis when they see it often enough, other – more partisan – sections of the media will have no scruples in doing the politician’s dirty work by slandering the fiscal council and its head.
Who are the people who run fiscal councils, and why do they take on this thankless role? They are people like Alice Rivlin, the first director of the Congressional Budget Office in the US, who would not go along with Reagan’s optimism about self financing tax cuts. Or like Lars Calmfors, the first director of the Swedish Fiscal Council, about which the finance minister said “I have established the earned income tax credit and the Fiscal Policy Council. I am convinced that at least one of the two is very useful. I am very doubtful of the other” (Calmfors and Wren-Lewis, 2011). Like George Kopits, director of the Hungarian Fiscal Council which was abolished after only two years existence. Like Kevin Page, head of Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Office, whom the Finance Minister recently called “unbelievable, unreliable, incredible” after he questioned the rationale for pension reform.
Having talked to them all, I can suggest one common motivation: a belief that economic decisions should be based on sound analysis rather than political calculation or whim. A view that not only should a proper analysis be done, but that the public has a right to know about it.As I have suggested, this role can be thankless at the time. The silver lining is that in the longer term it may be more appreciated. It has been said that Alice Rivlin is now one of the most respected figures in Washington. Like the public finances themselves, short term unpopularity may be appreciated in the longer term.