Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.
A few weeks ago, when I offered my list of our top 10 economic reforms of the past 40 years, I was surprised by the number of people arguing I should have included compulsory employee superannuation in the list. Really? Sorry, I can't agree.
It is, after all, merely a way of compelling people to save for their retirement. That's probably no bad thing in principle, countering our all-too-human tendency to worry excessively about the here and now and too little about adequate provision for our old age.
But compulsory saving hardly counts as a major reform. I suspect some of my correspondents see it as a boon for workers because it extracts a benefit from employers over and above the wages they're paid.
If so, they have been misled by appearances. Economists are in no doubt it all comes out in the wash: that when the government obliges employers to contribute to workers' retirement savings, the employers eventually make up for it by granting smaller wage rises than they otherwise would have.
It's true that compulsory super contributions - and the subsequent earnings on them - attract tax concessions, being taxed at a flat rate of just 15¢ in the dollar. But while upper-income earners do disgracefully well out of these concessions, people on incomes around the average gain little advantage and those earning less than $37,000 a year gain nothing. Hardly sounds fair to me.
My other reservation about compulsory super is the way it compels employees to become the victims of the most shamelessly grasping, overpaid industry of them all, financial services. These are the people who made top executives and medical specialists feel they were underpaid.
Compulsory super delivers a huge captive market for the providers of investment services to make an easy living from and for the less scrupulous among them to prey upon. The pot of money the government compels us to give these people to manage on our behalf has now reached $1.6 trillion. Most of us have little idea how much these people appropriate from our life savings each year to reward themselves for the services we're compelled to let them provide to us - and little desire to find out.
We should be less complacent. For many workers it's more than we pay for electricity each year. Think of it: we put so much energy and passion into carrying on about the rising price of power - and Tony Abbott used our resentment to get himself elected - while the men in flash suits dip into our savings without most of us knowing or caring.
To be fair, I have to admit that industry super funds dip into our savings far more sparingly than the profit-driven ''retail'' funds backed by the big banks, insurance companies and firms of actuaries. Since most workers do have a choice, you'd need a very good reason not to have your money with an industry fund.
But even this worries me. It means the union movement - the people whose job is to protect workers by being full bottle on the tricks the finance industry gets up to - has divided loyalties. Those who should be holding the industry to account are also part of it.
For years the industry campaigned for an increase in the super levy of 9 per cent of salary, arguing it was insufficient to provide people with an adequate income in retirement. This is a dubious argument, rejected by the Henry Tax Review.
But look at it another way: here is a hugely profitable industry arguing the government should increase the proportion of all employees' wages diverted to the industry for it to take annual bites out of it before giving us access to our money at age 60 or later.
This is classic rent-seeking. The Howard government was never tempted to yield, but as part of the Labor government's mining-tax reform package, it agreed to phase compulsory super contributions up to 12 per cent by 2019. Why? I don't doubt Labor was got at by the union end of the financial services industry.
Contributions increased to 9.25 per cent last July, but the Abbott government came to power promising to defer the phase-up for two years. I'd lay a small bet this deferral will become permanent - though probably not before contributions rise to 9.5 per cent on July 1.
I wouldn't be sorry to see the phase-up abandoned. The Henry report recommended against it, arguing that action to reduce the industry's fees could produce a similar increase in ultimate super payouts. And it's doubtful that low-income earners are better off being compelled to save rather than spend their meagre earnings.
The government's policy of compelling workers to hand so much of their wages over to the finance industry surely leaves the government with a greater-than-normal obligation to ensure the industry doesn't exploit this monopoly by misadvising and overcharging its often naive and uninformed customers.
This - along with the millions lost by investors in Storm Financial and other dodgy outfits - prompted Labor's Future of Financial Advice reforms, which focused on prohibiting or highlighting hidden commissions and requiring advisers to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.
But now Senator Arthur Sinodinos is seeking to water down these consumer protections in the name of reducing ''red tape''. The financial fat cats live to rip us off another day.
Ross Gittins is a senior columnist.