Saturday, July 22, 2017

Occupations are changing as the jobs total grows

Have you heard that most of the jobs being created in the economy these days are part-time? No? Good. Yes, you have? Sorry, your info's out of date.

It was true last year, but not this year. As this week's figures for the labour force from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed, of the 176,000 additional jobs created in the first six months of this year, 93 per cent were full-time.

That, BTW, was an exceptionally rapid annualised rate of growth of 2.9 per cent. Doesn't sound like the economy's dead yet.

Admittedly, it was a very different story last year. The calendar year saw growth in total employment of just 100,000 jobs – a very weak 0.8 per cent – of which 135 per cent were part-time.

Huh? Think about it: there must have been a fall of 35,000 in the number of full-time jobs. And there was.

It was a particularly bad year, and with all the happy scare stories about the rise of the "gig economy" it was enough to convince a lot of education-leavers that their chances of ever getting a decent, full-time job were low.

Moral: don't count your nightmares before they've hatched.

Dr David Gruen, a deputy secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, noted in a speech this week that "the displacement of jobs by technology ... is one of the developments that is leading to a sense of unease among many in the community."

People may fear that their own job may be taken over by a machine, or worry there'll be insufficient meaningful jobs for their kids.

Maybe, maybe not. Before we leap to cataclysmic conclusions, Gruen reminds us that fears of technological advances rendering many jobs obsolete is an idea with a long pedigree – back to the Luddites going around smashing machines in the early 1800s.

In the 200 years since then, employers have never ceased seeking out the newest and best labour-saving technology, but so far this has failed to cause mass unemployment.

Coming to today, Gruen says there's little sign of a quickening in the rate of change in occupations that might signal big, new technology-driven changes in the labour market. Nor is there any sign of the rapid improvement in the productivity of labour that you'd expect to see if there was widespread replacement of workers with machines.

But what's been clear for some time, he says, is that jobs across the economy are not equally susceptible to being displaced by technology and automation.

"Routine or predictable tasks are more susceptible to displacement than non-routine tasks. This observation applies to both manual and cognitive tasks – whether manual or cognitive, routine tasks are easier to automate than non-routine ones."

Dr Alex Heath, of the Reserve Bank, has used the stats bureau's figures on workers by occupation to see how these distinctions have affected our workforce over the 30 years to 2016.

She finds no sign of a recent quickening in the pace of change in occupations, but she certainly does find such change over the 30 years since 1986.

The proportion of routine manual jobs (such as labourers and machinery operators) in total employment has fallen from 40 per cent to 30 per cent, while the proportion of routine cognitive jobs (such as salespeople and clerical workers) has fallen from 27 per cent to 24 per cent.

In contrast, the number of non-routine manual jobs (such as nurses and hospitality workers) has risen from 6 per cent to 11 per cent, with non-routine cognitive jobs (such as management and professional occupations) rising from 27 per cent to 36 per cent.

This means routine jobs' total share of the workforce fell by 14 percentage points, whereas non-routine jobs' share rose by 14 points.

The share of routine and non-routine manual jobs fell by 5 percentage points, meaning the share of all cognitive jobs rose by the same.

(If you're wondering, over that 30-year period, total employment grew by almost 5 million jobs – an increase of more than 70 per cent – with the extra jobs spread about equally between part-time and full-time.)

Gruen says we should expect these trends to continue. But he makes a point first made by American economist Daron Acemoglu, that there's not one big trend going on in the workplace, but two.

The one that gets all the headlines is automation – jobs being taken over by machines. But the trend that gets much less notice – thus contributing to the public's excessive anxiety – is the continuous creation of new, useful, complex (that is, non-routine) jobs.

We've seen that, for at least the past 30 years in Oz, both trends have been at work. One displacing jobs, the other creating them. And so far, their effect on the composition of jobs has been roughly equal, and hasn't prevented continued growth in the total number of jobs.

Of course, it remains possible that the digital revolution will cause an acceleration in trend of displacement of jobs by machines, thus overwhelming the creation of new, complex jobs.

But another American economist, David Autor, has explained that certain tasks are particularly hard to automate.

These are tasks "that people understand tacitly and accomplish effortlessly, but for which neither computer programmers nor anyone else can enunciate the explicit 'rules' or procedures ... [The] tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those demanding flexibility, judgment and common sense – skills that we understand only tacitly".

Of course, it's possible that "machine learning" may overcome these problems, but there's another constraint on machines taking all our jobs away to remember: the need for interpersonal skills in a growing number of jobs, plus our human preference for being served or helped by humans, not robots.

Don't discount the human factor.
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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The era of neoliberalism is ending and reversing

If there's some trend in the world that we don't much like but has been happening for ages, there's a human tendency to assume it will keep on forever and just get worse. Occasionally, however, this moment signals it won't be long before it starts going away.

I'm a great believer in the pendulum theory of history: trends in human activity go on and on until they reach an unacceptable extreme, and then one day they turn and start going back the way they came.

That's certainly the way fashions in economics and government policy work. Consider the story since the end of World War II, using Britain as our guide.

There was a great reforming spirit after the war, and much that needed fixing. The economy wasn't working well and ordinary people – who'd done their duty so selflessly during the war – weren't getting a fair share of the economic rewards.

So the Brits set about installing the welfare state – comprehensive social security payments and a national health service in which most doctors became government employees – and "nationalising" many troublesome but important industries.

This new trend of nationalisation was copied in other countries including, to an extent, Oz.

But as the years rolled by it became clear that Britain's economy wasn't working well. Eventually, a new Boudica rose up, name of Maggie Thatcher, to set things right.

The problem was obvious: too much of the economy owned and run by the government and all those civil servants. Too many rules and regulations. The economy was inflexible and unresponsive. The unions had too much power and were abusing it, always on strike until they got their way.

The answer was to "privatise" most of the nationalised industries and get the unions back in their box.

We need to unshackle the power of the market, with its much greater ability to respond to changing times, greater desire to satisfy customers' needs and motivation to root out inefficiency.

This new trend of privatisation and deregulation – also pushed by Ronald Reagan in the US – has been copied in many developed economies, not least here.

By the early 1980s our economy wasn't working all that well. In a world of floating currencies, we were still trying to fix our exchange rate, battling speculators who always won.

Our banks were a joke, never able to lend enough for a home loan, so you went to a building society or they fitted you up with an expensive second mortgage from their finance company.

We'd been trying to cut ourselves off from the world with high barriers against imports, but been left with an economy that was highly inflation-prone, with much higher unemployment to boot.

Paul Keating and Bob Hawke set about modernising the economy, opening it up to a rapidly globalising world. They didn't ape Thatcher so much as start listening to the advice Treasury had been giving governments for years.

You've detected history's pendulum at work, I trust. Look at it over the decades and you see the fashion in management of the economy swinging from one extreme to the other.

Why does it swing so far? Because the truth – the happy medium – is somewhere in the middle but, because it's some combination of market forces and government management, is devilishly hard to find.

Much easier and more satisfying to champion one extreme or the other.

Why bring this up now? Because, if you hadn't noticed, this particular pendulum has just started swinging back.

As no less an authority than The Economist magazine has judged, the "neoliberal consensus" has collapsed.

For almost 40 years in the English-speaking economies, both sides of politics have accepted that businesses and individuals should be allowed to go about their affairs with as little restriction as possible.

But now both sides are stepping back from that attitude, doing so under pressure from voters growing increasingly unhappy about the state of the economy – in Oz, low wage growth, high energy costs, a seeming epidemic of business lawlessness and a lengthening list of government outsourcing stuff-ups – and the special treatment accorded to business.

You can see it overseas in the electoral popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the anti-establishment revolts in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.

It didn't do her any good, but you see it in Theresa May's Conservative Party election manifesto: "We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality."

Here, you see it in Malcolm Turnbull's reaction to the failed reform of the national electricity market, with his willingness to impose export restrictions on gas companies, buy Snowy Mountains hydro back from the states and contemplate federal construction of new coal-fired power stations.

You see it in Bill Shorten's policy of curbing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount, his opposition to cuts in the company tax rate and willingness to legislate to restore and protect weekend penalty rates.

I reckon there's a lot more government assertiveness to come. You don't fancy a lifetime of precarious employment in the "gig economy" for yourself or your kids?

Don't worry, before long governments will legislate to protect employees rights at work – just as they used to in the old days.
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Monday, July 17, 2017

Worsening school performance is everyone’s business

Amid all the uncertainty about where we'll be left by the many pressures bearing on us and our economy – climate change and digital disruption, for starters – there's one truth we can cling to: the more we enhance our natural capital and our human capital, the better placed we're likely to be.

Unfortunately, seeing the sense of this is a lot easier than ensuring it happens.

On natural capital – the preservation of species and physical resources, and the healthy functioning of the ecosystem – we've got one whole side of politics still struggling to get its climate-change deniers back in their box.

Even on human capital – the acquisition of knowledge and know-how – there's plenty of conflict, ranging from economic rationalists who think constraining the growth in government spending and taxation more important than accruing human capital, to people in the education system who think the adequacy of their present performance is no one's business but their own.

On the one hand, we've got the smaller-government brigade saying the performance of, say, school education can be fixed without spending an extra dollar.

On the other, we have teachers – some of them, anyway – arguing there's no problem that having taxpayers hand over a lot more bucks wouldn't fix.

How would the extra money be spent? That's for teachers and education departments to decide, and for everyone who isn't a teacher – and therefore knows nothing about schools – to mind their own beeswax.

The smaller-government brigade closes its eyes to the need to improve the performance of our schools and to the significant economic and social gains we stand to make by improving that performance.

The size of these gains can be demonstrated using the Fairfax-Lateral Economics index of Australia's wellbeing, compiled by Dr Nicholas Gruen and published every quarter upon the release of the national accounts.

The index overcomes the limitations of gross domestic product as a measure of economic progress by starting with the most appropriate modification of GDP – real net national disposable income – and adding to it estimates of the value of human capital, natural capital, the effects of distributional inequality, environmental amenity, health and employment-related satisfaction.

The measure of human capital takes account of early childhood risk, school performance, tertiary education, innovation (multi-factor productivity) and skills atrophy from long-term unemployment.

The indicator used to measure our progress in school education is the change in our score from the regular testing of our 15-year-olds' reading ability under the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment.

Our kids' reading score has fallen almost continually since 2000, from 528 to 503, or 4.7 per cent. By comparison, Canada's score has declined only marginally over the period, from 534 to 527.

The index's estimates suggest that, were we able to lift our score only to Canada's level, this would increase the value of our human capital by almost $17 billion a year.

That's equivalent to about 1 per cent of GDP – far more than promised by almost any other proposed economic reform, including cutting the company tax rate.

Putting it another way, had our 15-year-olds' performance not deteriorated since 2003, the estimated value of the human capital – know-how – in the heads of this year's 15-year-olds would be $17 billion greater than it is.

Our kids' academic performance in each of the areas measured in the PISA tests – reading, maths and science – has been deteriorating, though at differing rates. This is worse than the picture shown by successive NAPLAN test results, summarised as flat to down.

This is why teaching is a problem too important to be left to teachers. The more so because some teachers – a minority, I trust – have become hyper-defensive, refusing to acknowledge there's a problem, telling themselves that, if there is a problem, it's everybody's fault bar their profession's, and branding any non-teacher who dares to offer an opinion a "teacher-basher".

Julia Gillard's attempt to use the measurement (via NAPLAN) and publication (via the My School website) of students' and schools' academic performance to raise standards by fostering competition between schools was misguided – pseudo-economic – and has failed.

But too much of the resistance and criticism of NAPLAN and My School arise from some teachers' desire to continue avoiding public accountability for the quality of their work.

It should go unmeasured (because fault can be found with every form of measurement humans have tried) and, to the extent that performance information exists, it should remain confidential to insiders, because outsiders lack the expertise to interpret it correctly.

Sorry guys, but more money comes at the price of greater accountability to, and scrutiny by, the mug taxpayers who cough it up.
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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Why global trade growth has slowed

One thing you can be sure of is that international trade grows much faster than the world economy. It's the classic proof of growing globalisation, and it's been happening for ages. Except that it seems to have stopped.

For two decades from the mid-1980s, world trade – measured as exports plus imports – grew at more than double the rate of growth in gross world product.

Between 1986 and 2007, the volume of trade grew at an average annual rate of 3.4 per cent of world real gross domestic product, meaning it went from being equivalent to almost 30 per cent of gross world product to almost 60 per cent.

But then it dipped sharply in 2008 and 2009, thanks to the fall-off in trade after the global financial crisis and the onset of the Great Recession.


It bounced back in 2010 but, since 2011, its growth has been only a little faster than world production of goods and services.

In the decades before 1986, the volume of trade grew faster than production, but at much slower rates than in the two decades that followed. That's how we know to date the modern era of globalisation – the breaking down of economic barriers between national economies – from the mid-80s.

So, why has trade growth slowed so noticeably, and is this merely cyclical (temporary) or is it structural (lasting)?

According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a fair bit of both.

The study estimates that about 40 per cent of the slowdown between 2011 and 2015, as compared with the period from 1991 to 2007, is explained by the weak growth of demand in the global economy.

In particular, the crisis saw a sharp fall-off in businesses' investment spending on new physical capital – which happens to be import-intensive – but it hasn't recovered all that much in the years since then.

But that leaves roughly 60 per cent of the slowdown explained by deeper, more structural forces, ones that won't just go away if we wait a few more years.

Part of the explanation is that, in the two decades before the crisis, certain factors contributed to making trade growth exceptionally strong, but these factors have now lost their force.

The biggest cause of this exceptional growth in trade was various measures to reduce tariff and non-tariff restrictions on trade.

In 1989, and partly at Australia's instigation, the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation partnership between 21 countries was established to promote free trade.

The European Union moved to a single market in goods, services, labour and capital in 1992, increasing trade between its members. Because Europe consists of a number of separate countries, it's highly (international) "trade intensive" in a way that America – composed of states rather than countries – or even Australia, isn't.

In 1994, the "Uruguay round" of multilateral negotiations – the biggest of the many rounds of reductions in protection organised by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade since World War II – was reached.

This round extended membership of the GATT from the developed countries to about 150 developing countries – thus doing much to increase trade between the two groups. It also reached trade agreements covering new areas such as textiles, agriculture, services and intellectual property.

And, for good measure, the round turned the GATT into the World Trade Organisation.

The North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico began in January 1994.

And also hugely important to the growth of trade, China – now the world's second-largest trading nation – joined the WTO, cutting much of its protection as a condition of entry.

A second factor promoting the growth of trade in the two decades before the crisis was the widespread development of "global value chains" – value as in "value-added" – under which manufactured goods (cars, for instance) are assembled in one country using parts from many countries.

As trade liberalisation measures slowed in about 2000, continued growth in trade was supported by China's rapid emergence into the world economy.

By the second half of the noughties, however, these structural sources of growth had waned.

In this century, the WTO's Doha round of multilateral negotiations, launched in November 2001, has ground to a halt. According to the study, this halt in liberalisation explains about a quarter of the slowdown in the growth of trade between 2011 and 2015, compared with 1991 to 2007.

Many bilateral and regional trade agreements have been signed since then, but the only really significant agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership, signed in February 2016, has since been scuttled by US President Donald Trump.

Add to this, "creeping protectionism from myriad small measures" in various countries, which has put trade liberalisation into reverse.

The spread of global value chains seems to have reached its limit, even declined.

Meanwhile, China's period of export-led growth has ended, with its authorities now aiming for growth led by domestic demand.

So what happens next, and what should be done?

The study says some cyclical recovery in the growth of trade is likely but, without further trade liberalisation, a return to the glory days seems unlikely.

"Trade", it reminds us, "and the related expansion of global value chains, boosts [economic] growth through increased productivity, by improving resource allocation, increasing scale and specialisation, encouraging innovation, facilitating knowledge transfer, fostering the expansion of more productive firms and the exit of the least productive ones."

All true. But, as the study acknowledges, the benefits of increased trade aren't spread evenly between or within the countries involved.

As a consequence of this – and the politicians' failure to ensure the losers from globalisation were compensated by the winners – the electorate in many rich countries is "increasingly polarised into pro- and anti-globalisation groups".

We have a lot of ground to make up before much enthusiasm for further globalisation returns.
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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Where to next with The Great Gonski

I was in Moscow, recovering from a 12-day train trip from Beijing via Mongolia and Siberia, when I heard that Malcolm Turnbull's Gonski 2.0 shift to needs-based funding of schools had been passed by the Senate in the early hours of the morning.

So forgive me for being late to the party, but I can't let this key economic and social reform – surely one of the Coalition government's greatest achievements – go without acknowledgement and explanation.

The new act seeks to allocate government funding to schools, public and private, on a rational basis – the needs of individual students – rather than on what you got last year and what special deals you've done with politicians.

It seeks to phase out the decades-long sectarian basis for funding, where how much government assistance a student gets varies with the denomination of the church – or religion, or secular state – running their school.

Remarkably, Turnbull's success was achieved against the implacable opposition of the very people who spent the past four years professing to want "the full Gonski" – Labor, the teachers' union and, in the end, the Greens.

I'm still deciding whether Labor and the Greens were subservient to the union, or the union was staying loyal to Labor in hope of future largesse.

That Turnbull and his capable Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, were nevertheless able to win sufficient support from the minor parties, tells us the Senate isn't as unworkable as many suppose.

And whereas efforts to win minor-party support usually involve watering down the proposed measures, this time they significantly strengthened them – paradoxically, thanks largely to the efforts of Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

These improvements included a new independent body to review the accuracy of the various measures of student disadvantage (as recommended by David Gonski's review, but rejected in Labor's "full Gonski") and shortening the phase-in from 10 years to six (so that all schools reach their proper funding levels long before they would have under the "full Gonski").

Because the act will unwind the special deals the previous Labor government did with particular state- and private-school systems, moving federal funding on to a uniform basis across the country, it produces both winners and losers among the states and religious school systems. Be sure we'll be hearing more special pleading from them.

To acknowledge the Turnbull government's achievement isn't to suggest its job is done.

For a start, although the amended act includes a mechanism that would claw back federal funding to the states should they fail to maintain their own funding, the states need to realign their own funding of public and private schools to fit with the new formula under which, by 2023, the feds will fund 20 per cent of the assessed needs of government schools and 80 per cent of the needs of private schools.

So the states should provide 80 per cent of the funding needed by their own schools and 20 per cent of that needed by their private schools. This will require increasing grants to some schools, but cutting them to others.

More importantly, ensuring public funding goes to schools on the basis of their students' needs is just the first step towards the ultimate objective of improving our schools' performance.

As we well know from the regular local NAPLAN and international PISA ratings of students' academic performance, our schools' performance hasn't improved, and in some respects has deteriorated from earlier years, while slipping back in comparison with other countries.

To me, however, the clearest evidence of our schools' poor performance is the shockingly high proportion of students – about a quarter – who leave school without an adequate education. That's a terrible failure rate.

Doing more to help our most disadvantaged students do better is almost certain to require more money. That's why basing our school spending on the needs of particular students is essential.

But it's just step one. If we could be certain the extra money going to needy students would be spent well without further intervention, our schools' performance wouldn't be as poor as it is.

No, the next step is to ensure the redirected money is spent as effectively as possible, on teaching techniques and interventions proven to be most effective.

There is, for example, a lot of evidence that "targeted teaching" – where teachers keep checking to ensure particular students have actually learnt what they've just been taught, and don't press on until they have – stops kids falling behind.

Similarly, there's evidence that using expert teachers to help younger teachers improve their teaching style, and to help introduce new teaching methods, works to lift performance.

The need to ensure taxpayers' money is being spent as effectively as possible is, of course, the object of the new inquiry Turnbull has asked The Great Gonski to perform.

It would be good to see him recommend setting up a national outfit to develop a body of evidence on the most effective teaching techniques, pass this to schools, and also conduct independent evaluations of new approaches tried in particular states or schools, making the results public.

And once we've lifted our schools' ability to teach conventional academic subjects, we should turn our minds to helping kids gain the softer skills – to communicate well, think critically, be creative and resilient – they'll need to survive in an ever-changing working world.
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Monday, July 10, 2017

How Treasury lost its way on economic reform

From the almost stony silence of the nation's economists, you'd never know that Malcolm Turnbull's successful move to needs-based funding of schools is the most significant economic reform in many a long year.

It's notable, too, that this reform seems to have been achieved with little or no involvement by the high priests of economics at Treasury and the Productivity Commission.

Only a few economic reform projects are more important than raising the efficiency and effectiveness of federal and state spending on primary and secondary education.

Allocating that spending according to student need is the necessary first step towards the ultimate goal of reducing the shockingly high proportion of students who leave school without an education sufficient to go on to further study – in a trade course, for instance – or even to a life in which the normal state is employment, not recurring periods of unemployment.

The Australian economics profession's slowness to see the economic – not just the equity – significance of "Gonski" is a sign it's yet to learnt the lessons leading economists in America and Britain are drawing from the populist revolt against the way developed countries' economies have been managed during the era of "neo-liberalism" – better called economic fundamentalism.

Consider how well needs-based funding fits with former US Fed chairman Ben Bernanke's list of the economic managers' "errors of omission" in recent decades:

They failed "to expand job training and re-training opportunities, especially for the less educated; to provide transition assistance for displaced workers, including support for internal migration; to mitigate residential and educational segregation and increase the access of those left behind to employment and educational opportunities; to promote community redevelopment, through grants, infrastructure construction and other means; and to address serious social ills through addiction programs, criminal justice reform and the like."

It needs to be said that the first decade or so of "micro-economic reform" in Oz – floating the dollar, financial deregulation, eliminating protection, reforming the tax system, decentralising wage-fixing and reducing intervention in a host of highly regulated industries – was necessary, often unavoidable given what was happening in the rest of the world, and on balance, of great benefit to the populace.

It's impossible to imagine returning to the bad old pre-reform economy. Treasury and the Productivity Commission's predecessor body must be given most of the credit for promoting and designing these reforms.

But it's equally impossible to avoid the thought that, sometime been then and now, Treasury lost the plot, allowing the reform push to degenerate and be captured by business rent-seekers, politicians with ulterior motives and other government departments that didn't understand what they were doing.

To a fair extent the present populist revolt is explained by Bernanke's errors of omission: governments' failure to help the victims of the structural change their policies promoted and to ensure most of the cost of that assistance was borne by the winners from the change.

How could Treasury forget such an obvious way to minimise popular resistance and resentment of government-promoted change in the structure of industry?

Because it was misled by the mistaken notion that economic efficiency and distributional fairness are always at daggers drawn, and by the dubious ethic that economists should stick to promoting efficiency in the allocation of resources and leave fairness for others to worry about.

But also because Treasury allowed itself to be seduced away from strictly economic objectives to the essentially political objective of "smaller government".

We've got an economy heavily affected by multiple forms of market failure – including huge areas with public goods characteristics – but our overriding goal must be less government intervention in markets, less government spending and lower taxes, particularly on high income-earners.

There's little empirical evidence that economies with large public sectors perform worse than those with small ones, and no evidence that high marginal tax rates do much to discourage economic activity among high-paid full-time workers.

But Treasury's embrace of the smaller government objective does much to explain the Abbott-Turnbull government's loss of interest in budget repair (because cutting government spending turns out to be politically impossible), the neglect of measures to assist the losers from structural change (because they would add to government spending) and the lack of interest in reform of spending on education (because the need to go easy on the losers from spending reallocation means greater spending during the transition to more rational, cost-effective arrangements).

In the new era of populist backlash against the mounting evidence of stuff-ups in the later years of micro-economic reform, Treasury will continue to flounder and its influence wane until it switches its goal from smaller government to more effective government.
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Saturday, July 8, 2017

How economic neglect has fed the populist revolt

Recent political shocks – Brexit, Trump and the failure of Theresa May – are prompting much soul-searching and rethinking among the world's leading economists.

Last week, for instance, Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave a speech to a forum of the European Central Bank in which he admitted that "recent political events" had "cast a bright light on some disturbing economic and social trends in the United States".

"Unfortunately, policymakers in recent decades have been slow to address or even to recognise these trends, an error of omission that has helped fuel the voters' backlash," he said.

"If the populist surge we are seeing today has an upside, it is to refocus attention on both the moral necessity and practical benefits of helping people cope with the economic disruptions that accompany growth."

It's true that the American economy's cyclical recovery has entered its ninth year and appears to have room to run, Bernanke says.

Although the Great Recession was exceptionally deep and the recovery was slow, real gross domestic product is now up about 12.5 per cent from its pre-crisis peak and real disposable income is up more than 13 per cent.

Since the trough in employment in early 2010, more than 16 million new jobs have been created – compared with a workforce of about 160 million – bringing the rate of unemployment down from 10 per cent to 4.3 per cent, its lowest since 2001.

Fine. But Bernanke's new insight is in the title of his speech, "When growth is not enough".

Americans seem exceptionally dissatisfied with the economy and have been for some time, he says. Those who tell pollsters that the economy is "on the wrong track" consistently outnumber those who believe that America is moving "in the right direction" by about two to one.

Bernanke highlights four "worrying trends" that help explain the sour mood. First, stagnant earnings for the median worker.

"Since 1979, real output per person in the US has expanded by a cumulative 80 per cent, and yet during that time, median weekly earnings of full-time workers have grown by only about 7 per cent in real terms."

And almost all of that tiny growth is explained by higher wages and working hours for women. For male workers, real median weekly earnings have actually declined since 1979.

So despite economic growth, the middle class is struggling to maintain its standard of living.

Second, declining economic and social mobility. One of the pillars of America's self-image is the idea of the American Dream, that anyone can rise to the top based on determination and hard work.

But upward economic mobility in the US appears to have declined notably since World War II. One study of census figures found that 90 per cent of Americans born in the 1940s would eventually earn more than their parents did, but only about 50 per cent of those born in the 1980s would do so.

The trend to increased inequality of income and wealth is worse in the US than other advanced economies. This tends to impede economic mobility by increasing the relative educational and social advantages of people in the upper percentiles.

Third, increasing social dysfunction in economically distressed areas and demographic groups. Studies show that rates of midlife mortality among white working-class Americans (those with only a high-school education) have worsened sharply relative to other groups.

These are often "deaths of despair" because of their association with declines in indicators of economic and social wellbeing and the important role played by factors such as opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide.

Indeed, in 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than died from car accidents and firearms-related accidents and crimes combined.

Among the most worrying economic trends is the decline in labour force participation among prime-age men – 25 to 54 – from 97 per cent in 1960 to 88 per cent today. The fall has occurred across demographic groups (an American euphemism for racial groups).

Studies suggest most of these men are idle – neither looking for work nor caring for family members. One part of the explanation is that America's high rate of incarceration leaves many men, particularly African-Americans, with prison records, which hurts their employment opportunities for many years.

Fourth, greater political alienation and distrust of institutions, both public and private. Americans generally have little confidence in the ability of government, especially the federal government, to fairly represent their interests, let alone solve their problems.

"Stagnant median wages, limited upward mobility, social dysfunction and political alienation are a toxic mix indeed. The sources of these adverse trends are complex and interrelated. But at a fifty-thousand-foot level, they appear to be the product of some broad global developments ... together with the US policy response (or lack thereof) to those developments," Bernanke says.

Missing from the response was a comprehensive set of policies aimed at helping individuals and localities adjust to the difficult combination of slower growth and rapid economic change.

Whatever the reason for this failure, "it's clear in retrospect that a great deal more could have been done, for example, to expand job training and re-training opportunities, especially for the less educated; to provide transition assistance for displaced workers, including support for internal migration; to mitigate residential and educational segregation and increase to access of those left behind to employment and educational opportunities; to promote community redevelopment, through grants, infrastructure construction and other means; and to address serious social ills through addiction programs, criminal justice reform and the like".

Bernanke concludes that "the credibility of economists has been damaged by our insufficient attention, over the years, to the problems of economic adjustment and by our proclivity towards top-down, rather than bottom-up, policies.

"Nevertheless, as a profession we have expertise that can help make the policy response more effective, and I think we have a responsibility to contribute where we can."

That's putting it mildly.
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Monday, June 12, 2017

Labor’s professed preference for policy purity is phoney

For the growing number of us who care more about good policy and effective governance than party loyalties, the news isn't good. With one main exception, Labor is allowing the supposed perfect to be the enemy of the good.

The exception is a good one: although the "clean [or low] emissions target" for the national electricity market recommended by the Finkel report is far from perfect as the chief means by which the Turnbull government seeks to reduce our carbon emissions in line with our Paris commitment, Bill Shorten has indicated that the opposition would be open to supporting a "well-constructed LET" in the Senate.

There aren't many issues more important than filling the policy vacuum left by Tony Abbott's abolition of the carbon tax three years ago. And, in the process, greatly assisting efforts to fix the ailing electricity market, reducing the risk of blackouts and further price rises.

Everyone bar the Coalition's crazy backbench climate-change deniers knows coal's days are numbered, which is why both sides of the electricity industry – fossil fuels and renewables – are desperate for greater certainty about how the government plans to manage the transition.

But it's not just that the government needs to make up its mind. It's also that the alternative government isn't planning to change the Coalition's arrangements.

This explains why pretty much all the adults involved have agreed that a CET or LET is the best way forward, given the aforementioned crazies' rejection of anything more sensible.

And why Labor deserves a tick for seeking bipartisanship by moving from its own, better policy for an "emissions intensity scheme" and accepting a LET, provided it isn't too badly compromised.

Now it's up to Malcolm Turnbull to get his troops' agreement to a "well-constructed" LET – which won't be easy.

Sorry, but it occurs to me to wonder whether, should Turnbull fail, Labor isn't positioning itself to claim the moral high ground on both climate change and a workable electricity market.

I wonder about Labor's motives because, on most other policy issues, Shorten is putting his electoral ambitions well ahead of the nation's interest in good policy and effective governance.

All in the name of more nearly perfect policy, naturally.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that, though he wants to be seen as positive and co-operative, his true motive is to pay the Coalition back for the way Abbott tried to destabilise and neuter the Gillard government and to keep alive the policy differences – on health, education and budget fairness – that brought him so close to unseating Turnbull at last year's election.

Take Shorten's utterly unreasonable position on needs-based funding of schools, that because Labor's version is supposedly superior to the Coalition's, Labor should do all in its power to block the government's legislation in the Senate and leave needs-based funding in limbo until Labor's re-election.

Shorten professes to care deeply about disadvantage students, but it makes you wonder.

As Dr Peter Goss, of the Grattan Institute, has argued, "Gonski 2.0 is a precious opportunity to lock in fairer deals on school funding. It should be seized by all sides of politics.

"Australia's long and toxic funding wars must end so we can move onto other much-needed education reforms."

In any case, Goss's analysis suggests that most of the extra $22 billion over 10 years that Labor says should be spent wouldn't be directed to student need.

Next is Labor's opposition to covering the rising cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme with a 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy, in two years' time.

Since such an increase would be roughly proportional – hitting high and low income-earners by a flat percentage increase – Shorten wants to impose the increase just on those earning more than $87,000 a year.

For good measure, he wants to continue the Coalition's temporary 2-percentage-point budget repair levy on income above $180,000 a year, beyond its promised expiry at the end of this month.

All very virtuous (and I wouldn't object to paying either impost). But not if it's used as an excuse to block the government's increase in the Medicare levy.

It's easy for those out of power to advocate making the tax scale more progressive, but this would be a first for Labor in office.

Should Shorten win the next election, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for him to reimpose the 2 per cent levy. And he doesn't want us to remember that funding the disability scheme with a 0.5 percentage point Medicare levy increase was perfectly fair enough for the Gillard government.

Somehow, I don't think these guys are fair dinkum.
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Saturday, June 10, 2017

We've slowed a lot, but we're not about to go backwards

There's no denying the economy has slowed down, by far more than we were expecting. But don't conclude it's likely to subside into recession any time soon.

This week's national accounts for the March quarter, from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, show real gross domestic product grew by a pathetic 0.3 per cent during the quarter, and by just 1.7 per cent over the year to March. This compares with its "potential" annual growth rate of 2.75 per cent.

This time last year, the government's budget forecast was for growth averaging 2.5 per cent in the financial year just ending, accelerating to 3 per cent in the coming year.

So what's gone wrong? And why is it unlikely get a lot worse?

First point: don't think the economy's running down like a battery-powered toy. Looking back over the past four quarters, we see OK growth of 0.7 per cent in the June quarter of last year, then a contraction of 0.4 per cent, then super-strong growth of 1.1 per cent and now weak growth of 0.3 per cent.

This unnatural, saw-tooth pattern says some transactions may have been recognised in the wrong quarter. For instance, investment spending by federal and state public corporations leapt by 37.8 per cent in the December quarter, but then contracted by 20.9 per cent in the March quarter.

Neither figure should be taken literally.

Two major drivers of activity at present are home building and exports of coal and iron ore. Both have been disrupted by unusual weather that's not been smoothed away by normal seasonal adjustment. Climate change?

Home building has been growing strongly for several years, but it contracted by 1.2 per cent in September quarter and by 4.4 per cent in the March quarter. Most of this is explained by unusually wet weather in some parts of the country.

The volume (quantity) of exports was up 2 per cent in the June quarter, then slowed to growth of 1.4 per cent, then leapt by 3.7 per cent and now has actually fallen by 1.6 per cent.

Much of this volatility is explained by extreme weather disrupting shipping carrying coal from Queensland or iron ore from Western Australia.

We could expect the figures for the present quarter to be boosted by a catch-up from the weak March quarter – were it not for the further disruption in April and May we know has been caused by Cyclone Debbie.

Note that a sudden build-up in business inventories contributed 0.4 percentage points to growth in the March quarter. Much of this was a jump in mining industry stockpiles, suggesting a lot of coal was produced, but couldn't be shipped.

But to explain much of the quarter-to-quarter volatility in GDP growth in terms of misallocation and wild weather doesn't alter the fact that, when you add up the four quarters, you get only to utterly weak annual growth of 1.7 per cent.

One major component of growth that's unlikely to be affected by either factor is consumer spending. It's been unusually weak in all quarters bar December, growing by a pathetic 1.3 per cent over the year to March.

And this despite households cutting back their rate of saving from 6.9 per cent of household income to 4.7 per cent over the year.

This weakness in consumption ain't hard to explain: growth in household income has been held back by weak growth in employment and, more particularly, negligible growth in real wages, notwithstanding a 1.2 per cent improvement in the productivity of labour over the year.

Real labour costs per unit – a measure of the race between real wages and labour productivity – fell 1.7 per cent in the quarter and 6.3 per cent over the year to March.

Wanna know why the economy's growth is so weak? You won't find a more powerful explanation than that.

Remember, however, that the weakness isn't spread equally across the country.

State final demand is a poor substitute for gross state product, but the best we get each quarter. Across the whole economy, domestic final demand also grew by 1.7 per cent over the year to March.

But state final demand grew by 4.5 per cent in Victoria, 3.3 per cent in South Australia and Tassie, an above-par 1.9 per cent in NSW, and a below-par 1.6 per cent in Queensland.

Now get this: in Western Australia, final demand contracted by 6.6 per cent. So the West is still bearing the brunt of the bust in the mining construction boom. This explains a fair bit of the weakness in the national average.

The West's contraction in the March quarter was just 0.2 per cent, however, suggesting the inevitable end to its contraction phase isn't far off. That's the first reason things won't continue weakening nationwide.

As part of that, the long-running fall in mining investment spending must also be within a few quarters of ending. You need to be good at arithmetic to see that, when our focus is on rates of growth, "the removal of a negative is a positive".

The housing construction boom has a few more quarters to run, and strong grow in infrastructure spending is in the pipeline.

But much depends on what happens to real wages. Certainly, the government's forecast of economic growth returning to our potential growth rate of 2.75 per cent in 2017-18 as a whole, rests heavily on a resumption of real growth in wages.

To the extent the present weakness in wage growth is merely cyclical, wages will recover soon enough. This is hardly the wildly optimistic expectation that some, who've forgotten the economy moves in cycles, have claimed.

But to the presently unknown extent that the weakness in wage growth has deeper, structural causes, we won't get back to a decent rate of growth until the government acts to fix the problem.
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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Turnbull must act on climate if he's not to be a Trumpette

We are trying – admittedly, without much success so far – to make our home a Tr*mp-free zone. It's just too depressing. Watching a great nation disgrace itself before the rest of the world.

The former proudly self-proclaimed leader of the free world suffering a loss of confidence and applying for early retirement.

A nation that every year scoops the pool of Nobel prizes, electing a crazy, ignorant, wilful old man, not so much Trump as Chump.

His latest stroke of genius – reneging on America's commitment to the Paris climate agreement – has been almost universally condemned, including by a great number of Americans, especially many business leaders.

But, congenital optimist that I am, I see some perverse comfort in all this. The American people are being brought face-to-face with what it means for their future when the world's second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases decides that the minor disruption of doing something to protect itself from the huge disruption of continuing global warming just isn't worth it.

This rational self-interest?

I'm prepared to bet that the next elected president will have climate protection at the top of his to-do list. Indeed, Donald Trump's becoming such an embarrassment to his compatriots I'd bet the next president's platform will be to do the opposite to Trump on 'most everything.

Then there's the band of American state governments – led by the two most powerful, California and New York – willing to step into the leadership vacuum their federal government has left. And the mayors of many cities.

Of course, as we know from earlier this year – when our federal government sought to use South Australia's blackouts for political point-scoring rather than a cue for policy correction, thus obliging the SA Premier to step in with expensive local interventions to a national problem – having states try to make up for a federal government's refusal to accept responsibility is far from ideal.

Which bring us to Malcolm Turnbull, whose statements and actions as Prime Minister contrast markedly with what every voter knows are his long-held views on climate change.

One thing to be said for Trump is that at least he's made an honest man of himself. He has no concern about global warming and isn't willing to do anything to combat it, but doesn't pretend otherwise.

Here, Turnbull professes eternal loyalty to the Paris Agreement and reaffirms our (inadequate) target to achieve a 26 to 28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels, without having any credible policy by which to achieve it.

Actually, we haven't had a credible policy to reduce emissions since Tony Abbott abolished Julia Gillard's carbon tax-cum-emissions trading scheme in July 2014.

Abbott's professed reason for doing so was the claimed huge increase in the price of electricity and gas the scheme caused, and the massive economic damage this would lead to.

Prices did come down a bit, but soon continued on their upward way. Truth is, the carbon tax – and the renewable energy target – were never a major part of the reason for the big increases in energy prices since the turn of the century.

Even so, concerns about climate change are at the heart of the problems we're having maintaining an energy system that avoids blackouts without costing the earth (in the earlier sense of that phrase).

That, plus the various problems that have emerged with that finest flower of micro-economic reform, the national electricity market (the greatest source of price increases).

Ancient coal-fired power stations are being closed down, while no business in its right mind would invest in new coal-fired stations that are unlikely to be used for much of their 30 to 50-year potential working lives.

At the same time, however, businesses are reluctant to invest in industrial-scale renewable energy when the Coalition government has displayed such hostility to renewables and created such uncertainty about their future.

Have you noticed how our response to climate change and our problems with electricity have morphed into the same issue?

There's little concern to limit emissions except from the generation of electricity. And there's no solution to reliable, reasonably priced power that doesn't involve controlling emissions.

On Friday the chief scientist, Professor Alan Finkel, will deliver his long-awaited report on "the future energy security of the national electricity market".

What's needed is a mechanism to regulate the transition from fossil fuels to renewables in a way that reduces emissions while providing certainty to both kinds of energy providers.

Last year all the key players agreed the best approach would be an "emissions intensity scheme". All bar the Turnbull government, which ruled it out the moment its climate-change denying backbenchers objected.

So now, we're told, Finkel has come up with a compromise, a "low emissions target", or LET, which sets the proportion of electricity production that must come from low-emission sources.

It's similar to the present RET – renewable energy target – except the list of low-emission sources would be expanded to include gas-fired power and "clean" coal-fired power with carbon capture and storage (should such a thing ever exist).

This compromise has been widely canvassed, and has a lot of support in business. Even the Labor opposition has indicated its willingness to accept some form of mechanism rather than continuing inaction.

The heat will now be on Turnbull to get his Trumpettes across the line.
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