For policymakers, the question often arises, should policy dictate budgets or should budgets dictate policy? For natural-born political leaders, the former is axiomatic. For Hong Kong policymakers, the yoke of "keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenue in drawing up its budget, and striving to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficits and keep the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product", as dictated in Basic Law article 107, seems too overpowering to allow new thinking.
These principles of public finance management inherited from the colonial days have no doubt served Hong Kong well. Year after year, our financial secretary tries to dispose of embarrassingly large budget surpluses by siphoning them off to one-off funds or handing them out as tax rebates or public housing rental waivers, and so on.
The handouts have become so mechanical, always favouring the same groups of tax- and rates payers, recipients of social security and public housing tenants, that they have become a privileged class. Is there no smarter way of drawing up our budgets which helps to spur growth, redistribute wealth and so enhance social justice without infringing the Basic Law?
Yes, it can be done, if you budget with a vision. A comparison of our financial secretary's budget speech with US President Barack Obama's state-of-the-union address shows a marked difference, and one cannot attribute it to the former coming from a bureaucrat who has functioned as a cog in a wheel and the latter from a historic mover and shaker. The difference is one of vision.
Two themes stand out in Obama's address - increasing the size of the middle class and strengthening investment in America's future by improving education and upgrading the capabilities of US industries. The two tasks are interrelated, in that upgrading the economy involves equipping the workforce with cutting-edge skills and capabilities. Education and the workforce go hand in hand.
The middle class rightly deserves our attention as the most important substratum of any healthy society. Contrary to some popular conjecture that we have an "M-shaped" society, a bell curve showing Hong Kong's real income distribution from 1991 to 2011 shows that the percentage of mid-range income remained the same between 1991 and 2001, but increased significantly between 2001 and 2011. Our society has become richer, but discontent has increased as disparities widened.
Disparity has increased not only between rich and poor, but also within the broad spectrum of the middle class. The established middle class bask in satisfaction as the value of their homes rises, and their children graduate from the world's best universities. New entrants to the middle class struggle to buy or rent a decent home and put their children into the best local schools.
The civil service itself is a good example of this disparity - those who joined after June 2000 no longer enjoy lifelong pensions. Other fringe benefits have been scaled down or discontinued, while those retiring at 60 lose medical and health benefits while they await their payouts from their "enhanced" mandatory provident funds.
Other than buying homes, no other concern commands greater priority for the middle class than the education of their children. Hong Kong's middle class is well known to breed "monster parents", who place their children in two kindergartens to learn better English and other skills from a young age.
Obama laid out a comprehensive vision of education in his address: quality education should start at the earliest possible age. "Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road," Obama stressed. For that reason, he pledged to work with states "to make high-quality preschool education available to every single child in America".
To ensure high-school students leave school with the equivalent of a technical degree from a community college - somewhat equivalent to our associate degree - Obama announced he would "redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a hi-tech economy", The emphasis is on raising, not "dumbing down", standards.
On higher education, which studies affirm as an important driver of economic and social mobility, Obama would publish a new "college scoreboard" to make the affordability and value of colleges more transparent.
In John Tsang Chun-wah's speech, there was no attempt to grasp the nettle of the hottest educational issues of the day. As the holder of the city's purse strings, he offered a financial solution - injecting another HK$5 billion into a language fund, the cost-effectiveness of which is not apparent, and HK$480 million to an ill-conceived overseas scholarship fund for majors in English and pre-school education.
Nor was there any rallying cry to revive the old Hong Kong conviction, akin to the American spirit of reward for free enterprise and individual initiative, that if you work hard, you go up.
And that's an address which came from a self-proclaimed member of the middle class, whose income is in the top 3 per cent of our city, who has gone up but is not pointing a realistic way for others to follow.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party