Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Health spending is quite sustainable

Oh dear, what an embarrassment. Thank heavens so few journalists noticed. Last month, one of the federal government's official bean-counters, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, issued its report on total spending on health in 2012-13. It didn't exactly fit with what the government has been telling us.

As you recall, Health Minister Peter Dutton got an early start this year, warning that health spending was growing "unsustainably". (Blame it all on Gough Whitlam, whose supposedly too-expensive Medibank Malcolm Fraser dismantled, only to have Bob Hawke restore it as Medicare.)

The report of the Commission of Audit soon confirmed that health was prominent among the various classes of government spending growing - and projected to continue growing - "unsustainably".

Something would have to be done.

In the budget, we found out what the something was. A new "co-payment" of $7 a pop on visits to the GP and on each test the GP orders. The general co-payment on prescriptions to rise by $5 to $42.70 each.

And the previous government's funding agreement with the states to be torn up, with grants for public hospitals to rise only in line with inflation and population growth.

Sorry, but it was all growing "unsustainably".

So how unsustainable was growth in 2012-13? Total spending on health goods and services was $147 billion, up a frightening 1.5 per cent on the previous year, after allowing for inflation.

This was the lowest growth since the institute's records began in the mid-1980s, and less than a third of the average annual growth in the past decade.

Allow for growth in the population, and average annual health spending of $6430 per person was actually down a touch in real terms.

It gets better (or worse if you've been one of the panic merchants).

That $147 billion is the combined spending on health by the federal government, state governments, private health funds and other insurers, plus you and me in direct, out-of-pocket payments on co-payments and such like.

So, total spending may not have grown much, but the federal government's share of the tab rose faster than the rest, right? Err ... no. The opposite, actually.

The feds' health spending in 2012-13 actually fell by 2.4 per cent in real terms. The states' spending rose by 1.5 per cent, but that left the combined government spend falling by 0.9 per cent.

So it was actually the private sector (including you and me) that accounted for more than all of the overall increase in spending. This is a big problem for the government?

By my reckoning, out-of-pocket payments by individuals rose by 6.9 per cent in real terms. The pollies seem to have been doing a good job of shunting health costs off onto us even before the latest onslaught.

So, all very embarrassing for the three-word-slogan brigade. Or would have been had the government's spin doctors not had the media off chasing foreign will-o-the-wisps at the time. Easily diverted, the media.

But let's be reasonable about this. One year of surprisingly weak growth in total health spending - and falling federal spending - doesn't prove there isn't longer-term problem.

Government health spending has grown pretty strongly in previous years, and the latest year's moderation may be the product of one-off factors rather than the start of a new moderate trend.

Actually, the real fall in federal spending seems to be largely the product of savings measures taken by the previous government, particularly its tightening of rules for the private health insurance rebate - which the Coalition fought so hard to stop happening.

Even so, when you look at the trend of spending in recent years revealed by the institute's figures, it does suggest that health spending may not grow as strongly in coming years as we've long been told to expect.

The spectre of ever more rapid growth in public spending on healthcare - to the point where health spending comes to dominate the federal budget - is one the federal Treasury has been warning of in each of its three "intergenerational reports" since 2002.

The state treasury versions of this exercise portray health spending positively overrunning state budgets, crowding out all other spending.

Federal Treasury has explained its dramatic projections in terms of the ageing of the population, developments in medical technology that invariably are much more expensive than the technology they replace, and the public's insatiable demand for immediate access to whatever advances medical science has come up with.

But Treasury's figures are essentially mechanical projections of past growth trends over the coming 40 years, meaning just a small reduction in the assumed annual rate of growth can make a big difference.

The institute's latest figures show the federal government's real spending on health grew at an annual rate of 4.8 per cent over the five years to 2007-08, but by just 4.1 per cent over the five years to 2012-13.

Perhaps more significantly, they show that whereas the prices of health goods and services rose faster than the prices of all domestic goods and services by 0.7 per cent a year during the first five-year period, during the second period they rose by 0.2 per cent a year more slowly than other prices.

In other words, the long-feared problem of "excess health inflation" seems to be going away.

It will be interesting to see Treasury's latest prognostications in next year's intergenerational report.
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Abbott's choice: competition v cronies

It's still too soon to tell whether Tony Abbott's government is pro-market or pro-business, but so far the evidence for the latter stacks higher than that for the former.

The difference turns on whether the pollies want markets where effective competition ensures benefits to consumers are maximised and excessive profits minimised, or markets where government intervenes to limit competition - often under the cover of claiming to be protecting jobs - and makes life easier for favoured businesses.

Will we see more rent-seeking or less under Abbott, more of what The Economist calls "crony capitalism"?

Will firms or industries with rival interests do better from government regulation if they're more generous donors to party coffers?

Abbott and his ministers' intemperate attacks on the Australian National University for its decision to "divest" itself of a few million mining company shares for environmental or ethical reasons are a worrying sign.

Investors shouldn't enjoy freedom to choose where they invest, regardless of their reasons? ANU is different from the rest of us even though its investment funds come largely from private donations and bequests? This from a government keen to complete the de facto privatisation of universities?

What is ANU's offence? Bringing ethical considerations into investment? Or sounding like it believes climate change is real and we should be doing something real about it?

Abbott attacked ANU's decision as "stupid" and believes "coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future".

If ever there was an industry whose early decline could be confidently predicted - as it is being by hard-headed investors and bankers the world over - it's steaming coal.

Yet Abbott seems keen to change the rules of the formerly supposed bipartisan renewable energy target in ways that, by breaking long-standing commitments to the renewables industry, would cost it billions and blight the future of its employees, all to provide the government's coal and electricity industry mates with temporary relief from the inevitable.

The biggest problem with governments "picking winners" is that they quickly regress to picking losers, helping industries against which technology and other forces have shifted to resist the market's pressure for change that would - almost invariably - make consumers and the economy better off.

The proposals of the recent draft report of Professor Ian Harper's competition policy review could do much to strengthen the market's ability to deliver benefits to consumers and roll back decades of accumulated rent-seeking and crony capitalism.

The enthusiasm with which the Abbott government takes up those proposals will tell us much about its choice between being pro market forces or pro certain generous business donors to party funds.

A particular area where sound competitive principles have been secondary to special pleading from various interests is the regulation of intellectual property, such as patents, copyright, trademarks and plant breeder rights. Harper says our intellectual property regime is a priority for review.

IP isn't God-given, it's a government intervention in the market to limit competition with owners of the patents and so forth for a limited period. It's a response to market failure where the "public goods" characteristics of IP would otherwise generate too little monetary incentive for people to come up with the new knowledge and ideas that benefit us all.

In other words, it's a delicate trade-off between government-granted monopolies to encourage innovation, and competition to keep prices and excess profits down.

This makes it ripe for rent-seeking: pressuring politicians to extend the monopoly periods retrospectively (despite the lack of public benefit), to allow loopholes that permit phoney "ever-greening" of drug patents that would otherwise expire, to limit poor countries' access to life-saving drugs at realistic prices and to ignore blatant gaming of IP laws by two-bit operators that have never created anything.

Most of these excesses are at their worst in the United States with its easily bought legislature. The information revolution has made IP one of America's chief export earners. And the free-trade preaching Yanks have made advancing the interest of their IP exporters their chief priority in trade negotiations such as the present Trans Pacific Partnership deal.

As always, we have a tendency to give the Yanks whatever they want. Trouble is, as Harper points out, Australia is and always will be (and should be, given our comparative advantage in world trade) a net importer of intellectual property.

Abbott has a further temptation to be less than vigilant in pursuing Team Australia's best interests: his chief media cheerleader, News Corp, happens to be the twin brother of a primary beneficiary of the Yanks' efforts to advance the interests of their IP exporters, 21st Century Fox.
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Re-writing the re-write of the GFC fiscal stimulus

Economists may be bad at forecasting - even at foreseeing something as momentous as the global financial crisis - but that doesn't stop them arguing about events long after the rest of us have moved on.

That's good. Economists need to be sure they understand why disasters occurred so we can avoid repeating mistakes. They need to check the usefulness of their various models and whether they need modifying.

One thing that causes these debates to go for so long is that economics - particularly academic economics - is based more on theories than evidence. Some theories clash, so empirical evidence ought to be used to determine which hold water.

But economists aren't true scientists. They pick the rival theories they like best and become more attached to them as they get older. They will try to talk their way around evidence that seems to contradict the predictions of their model.

This leaves plenty of room for ideology, for individuals to pick those theories that fit more easily with their political philosophy.

There's been much mythologising of our experience with the GFC. Many punters' memory is that we thought there'd be a bad recession, the Rudd government spent a lot of money, but no recession materialised so the money was obviously wasted.

This isn't logical. You have to consider what economists call "the counterfactual": what would have happened had Kevin Rudd not spent all that money? Maybe it was the spending that averted the recession.

One Australian newspaper has worked assiduously to inculcate the memory that pretty much all Rudd's "fiscal stimulus" spending was wasteful. It went for months reporting every complaint against the school-building program, while ignoring the great majority of schools saying they didn't have a problem, then misrepresented the inquiry findings that the degree of waste was small.

What got the economy growing again so soon after the big contraction in gross domestic product in the December quarter of 2008, we were told, was the return of the resources boom as China's demand for our commodities ballooned. (This ignores that China's economy was hit for six by the GFC, but bounced back after it applied massive fiscal stimulus.)

To bolster the line it was pushing, the paper did much to publicise the views of Professor Tony Makin, of Griffith University. Makin adheres to a minority school of thought among macro-economists that fiscal stimulus never works. He repeated his long-held views when assessing Rudd's efforts.

Early last month, the Minerals Council published a monograph it had commissioned from Makin on Australia's declining competitiveness. Guess what? All the subsequent events have confirmed the wisdom of his earlier forebodings.

Makin used "the classic textbook macro-economic model" to argue that, even during recessions, fiscal policy is ineffective in adding to economic growth in an open economy with a floating exchange rate because it "crowds out" net exports (exports minus imports).

Borrowing to cover the extra government spending tends to push up domestic interest rates, which attracts foreign capital inflow. This, in turn, pushes up the exchange rate. Then the higher dollar reduces the price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries, thus increasing imports and reducing exports. Any increase in domestic demand is thus offset by reduced net external demand.

Next Makin examined the national accounts showing a strong rebound in growth in the March quarter of 2009 (thus silencing the two-quarters-of-negative-growth brigade) and found the turnaround was explained not by increased domestic spending but by an improvement in net exports.

There you go: proof positive that his long-held views were spot on. He attacked the claim that the fiscal stimulus saved 200,000 jobs, saying "this assertion is based on spurious Treasury modelling of the long-run relationship between GDP and employment". He criticised Treasury's estimates using dubious Keynesian "multipliers" of the addition to GDP caused by the fiscal stimulus.

Treasury quickly released a response to Makin's criticism. His theoretical argument was based on the Mundell-Fleming model (from as long ago as the early 1960s), which assumes unilateral fiscal action, a high degree of openness to trade and perfect mobility of financial capital between countries. (It could have added the assumption that the central bank controls the supply of money rather than the level of short-term interest rates, as ours has long done.)

In reality, all the major economies applied fiscal stimulus in concert, trade accounts for much less of our GDP than it does for most developed countries, and the turmoil of the GFC meant capital mobility was far from perfect at the time (I'd say all the time).

As for his empirical checking, Makin's use of the national accounts failed to consider the counterfactual. It's likely imports fell in that March quarter not so much because the dollar fell heavily (and didn't shoot back up for about a year, once commodity prices had reversed and were on their way to new heights) as because the fear unleashed by the GFC prompted people to postpone planned purchases of imported items. If so, their spending would also have fallen, offsetting to boost from net exports.

Makin's claim that Treasury used multiplier estimates that were long-term rather than short-term is wrong. The whole idea of the stimulus was to boost spending (and confidence) quickly to counter the collapse in confidence. Since the spending measures were always intended to be temporary (and were, despite the mythology) it was always known that the effect on GDP growth would be negative before long.

The short-term multipliers Treasury used were based on the conservative end of the range of estimates calculated for our economy by the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Makin is entitled to his opinions, but he's in a small minority among economists, even the academics. The two international agencies were full of praise for our fiscal stimulus and in no doubt about its effectiveness.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Competition is a wonderful thing - up to a point

The older I get the more sceptical I become. Goes with being a journo, I guess. I've become ever-more aware that no one and nothing is perfect. Not political leaders, not parties, not any -isms, not even motherhood.

Take competition. Economists portray it as the magic answer to almost everything, but the more I see of it, the more conscious I become of its drawbacks and limitations.

Which is not to say I don't believe in it. Far from it. We could use a lot more competition than we've got. But only in the right places and for the right reasons.

The recent draft report of the review of competition policy, chaired by emeritus professor Ian Harper, argues that we need to step up the degree of competition in the economy if we're to cope with three big sets of challenges and opportunities that we face: the rise of Asia, our ageing population and the advent of disruptive digital technologies.

Dead right - up to a point.

We need more competition in the economy because it's what keeps the capitalist system working in the interests of the populace, not the capitalists. But that doesn't mean it makes obvious sense to take areas of our lives that have been outside the realm of the market and turn them over to the capitalists.

Economics is about efficient materialism; making sure the natural, man-made and human resources available to us are used in ways that yield maximum satisfaction of our material wants. It argues that economies based on private ownership and freely operating markets - "capitalist" economies - are the most efficient.

What's to stop the capitalists using markets to exploit us and further aggrandise themselves? Competition. Competition between themselves, but also between us (the consumers) and them (the producers).

Get this: the ideology of conventional economics holds that the chief beneficiaries of market economies should be, and will be, the consumers, not the capitalists.

Market economies are seen as almost a con trick on capitalists: they scheme away trying to maximise their profits at our expense, but the system always defeats them, shifting the benefits to consumers (in the form of better products and lower prices) and leaving the capitalists with profits no higher than is necessary to keep them in the game.

What it is that performs this miracle? Competition. It's not nearly as fanciful as it sounds. Since the industrial revolution, the history of capitalism is the history of capitalists latching on to one new technology after another, hoping for the killing that never materialises.

Take the latest, digital technology and its effect on my industry, news. Who's losing? The formerly mighty producers of the soon to be superseded newspaper technology, including many of their journalists and other workers. Who's winning? People wanting access to as much news as possible as cheaply as possible.

For good measure, the cost of advertising - reflected in the prices of most things we buy - is now a fraction of what it was. Tough luck for producers, good luck for consumers. Competition at work.

But, amazing though this process is, it's far from perfect. Competition doesn't work as well in practice as it does in theory, for many reasons. A big one is "information asymmetry" - producers know far more about products than consumers do. Another is the presence of economies of scale, which has led to most markets being dominated by a handful of big companies.

Perhaps most pernicious, however, is the success of some producers in persuading governments to protect them from the full rigours of competition. Some industry lobbies are particularly powerful, and the ever-rising cost of the election arms race has made the two big parties susceptible to the viewpoints of generous donors.

The report produced by Harper, a former economics professor, emphasises that competitive pressure needs to be enhanced for the ultimate benefit of consumers. With so many big companies enjoying so much power in their markets, we need laws against anti-competitive practices. He proposes refinements to make these laws more effective.

He points to industries where governments need to reform laws that limit competition at the expense of customers: retail pharmacies, taxis and coastal shipping. He advocates "cost-reflective road pricing" and an end to restrictions on "parallel imports" of books, recordings, software and so on (fear not, the internet's doing it for us) and local zoning laws that implicitly favour incumbents (Woolies and Coles, for instance) at the expense of new entrants (Aldi and Costco).

But, predictably, there's little acknowledgement that competition has costs as well as benefits. It's assumed that if some choice is good, more must be better. And competition-caused efficiency outweighs all social considerations.

So the report advocates liberalising liquor licensing, and deregulation of shopping hours on all but three holy days a year (the holiest being Anzac Day), without any serious consideration of the effects on sobriety and crime in the first case or family life, relationships and what I like to call re-creation in the second.

Similarly, it sees nothing but benefit in maximising choice and competition between schools, and wants much more outsourcing of the delivery of government-funded services to profit-motivated providers.

The inquiry we need is one to check how well previous experiments in mixing government funding with the profit motive - in childcare, for instance, or training courses for international students - have worked in practice. We need more evaluation and fewer happy economist assumptions.
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Monday, October 13, 2014

Interest rates to stay low, but lending curbs loom

With the Reserve Bank worried by fast-rising house prices, but the dollar coming down and the unemployment rate now said to be steady, can a rise in the official interest rate be far off? Yes it can.

On the face of it, last week's revised jobs figures have clarified the picture of how the economy is travelling. The national accounts for the March and June quarters show the economy growing at about its trend rate of 3 per cent over the previous year, which says unemployment should be steady.

And now the jobs figures are telling us the unemployment rate has been much steadier than we were previously told, at about 6 per cent.

If economic growth is back up at trend, we need only a little more acceleration to get unemployment falling. The Reserve is clearly uncomfortable about keeping interest rates at 50-year lows while rapidly rising house prices tempt an already heavily indebted household sector to add to its debt.

So, surely it's itching to remind us that rates can go up as well as down and, in the process, let some air out of any possible house-price bubble.

Well, in its dreams, perhaps, but not in life. Even if hindsight confirms the latest reading that the economy grew at about trend in 2013-14, the Reserve knows it can't last. Its central forecast of growth averaging just 2.5 per cent in the present financial year is looking safer, maybe even a little high.

The sad fact is that a host of factors are pointing to slower rather than faster growth in 2014-15, implying a resumption of slowly rising unemployment and no scope for even just one upward click in interest rates.

The biggest likely downer is the long-feared sharp fall in mining investment spending. To this you can add weak growth consumer spending, held back by weak growth in employment and unusually low wage rises.

Now add the point made by Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, that real income is growing a lot more slowly than production, thanks to mining commodity prices that have been falling since 2011.

Weak growth in income eventually leads to weaker growth in production, which, in turn, is the chief driver of employment. With the Chinese and European economies' prospects looking so poor, it's easy to see our export prices falling even faster than the authorities are forecasting.

Real gross domestic income actually fell in the June quarter, and Eslake sees it falling again in the September quarter.

Apart from the recovery in home building, pretty much the only plus factor going for the economy is the recent fall in the dollar, bringing relief to manufacturers, tourist operators and others.

But measured on the trade-weighted index, the Aussie is back down only to where it was in February, and since then export prices have fallen further, implying the exchange rate is still higher - and thus more contractionary - than it should be.

In other words, the usually strong correlation between the dollar and our terms of trade has yet to be restored. Why hasn't it been in evidence? Because our exchange rate is a relative price, affected not just by what's happening in Oz but also by what's happening in the economy of the country whose currency we're comparing ours with.

The Aussie has stayed too high relative to the greenback not because our interest rates have been too high relative to US rates, as some imagine, but because one of the chief effects of all the Americans' "quantitative easing" has been to push their exchange rate down.

As the US economy strengthens and the end of quantitative easing draws near - and, after that, rises in their official interest rate loom - the greenback has begun going back up. The prospects of it going up a lot further in coming months are good.

That's something to look forward to. But our exchange rate would have to fall a long way before it caused the Reserve to reconsider its judgment that "the most prudent course is likely to be a period of stability in interest rates".

But that still leaves the real risk of low rates fostering further rises in house prices, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne.

What to do? Resort to a tightening of "macro-prudential" direct controls over lending for housing. The restrictions may be announced soon, be aimed at lending for investment and even limited to borrowers in the two cities.

But though they'd come at the urging of the Reserve, they'd be imposed by the outfit that now has that power, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.
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Saturday, October 11, 2014

At present GDP is more misleading that usual

I could attempt to explain to you why the Bureau of Statistics is having such embarrassing trouble with its monthly estimate of employment, but I won't bother. It's horribly complicated and at a level of statistical intricacy no normal person needs to worry about.

What this week's labour force figures now tell us is that, though the rate of unemployment has been slowly drifting up since mid-2011 - when it was 5 per cent - it seems to have steadied this year and, using the smoothed figures, has stayed stuck at 6 per cent for the past three months.

This is reasonably consistent with what we know about other labour-market indicators, such as job advertisements and vacancies, claims for unemployment benefits and employers' answers to questions about hiring in the National Australia Bank's survey of business confidence.

It also fits roughly with what the national accounts have been telling us about the strength of growth in the economy. We know that when the economy is growing at its trend rate of about 3 per cent a year, this should be sufficient to hold the rate of unemployment steady.

The accounts told us real gross domestic product grew by 3.4 per cent over the year to March, and by 3.1 per cent over the year to June.

But now let me tell you something that, while a bit technical, is much more worth knowing than the gruesome details of the bureau's problem with the labour force survey.

One of our smartest business economists, Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has reminded us that GDP is only one of various summary indicators of overall economic activity provided by the national accounts. And the economy's peculiar circumstances over the past decade and for some years to come mean GDP is not the least misleading of the various measures.

Eslake says real GDP measures the volume (quantity) of goods and services produced within a country's borders during a particular period. (Actually, it doesn't include the many goods and services produced within households, which never change hands in a market.)

To estimate real GDP the bureau takes the nominal, dollar value of the goods and services produced, then "deflates" this figure by the prices of those goods and services relative to what those prices were in the base period.

We commonly take the value of the goods and services we produce during a period to be equivalent to the nation's income during that period. This easy assumption works for most developed economies most of the time.

But Eslake reminds us that "for an economy like Australia's, the prices of whose exports are much more volatile than those of other 'advanced' economies, abstracting from swings in the prices of exports (and imports) obscures a significant source of fluctuations in real incomes".

We've experienced a series of sharp swings in our "terms of trade" - export prices relative to import prices - over the past decade of the resources boom, which was interrupted by the global financial crisis in 2008-09. For the past three years, of course, mining commodity prices have been falling.

Trouble is, real GDP doesn't capture the effects of these swings. So the values of our production and our income have parted company, as they do every time our terms of trade change significantly. An improvement in our terms of trade causes our income to grow faster than our production, whereas a deterioration has the opposite effect.

This matters because of the chicken-and-egg relationship between production and income: we use the income we earn from our part in the production process to buy things and thus induce more production.

So if our real income slows or falls, soon enough this dampens our production.

However, the national accounts include a measure of overall economic activity that does capture the effects of movements in our terms of trade: real gross domestic income, GDI. It grew a lot faster than real GDP for most of the time between 2002 and 2011, but since then has grown much more slowly than real GDP (a big reason for our slowly rising unemployment).

Next Eslake says that as the resources boom moves into its third and final phase - with mining investment winding down and exports ramping up - real GDP growth will be an even less useful guide to what's happening to domestic income and employment.

This is because maybe 80 per cent of the income generated by resources exports will be paid to the foreigners who own most of our mining companies and who financed most of the new investment.

It's also because the depreciation of Australia's greatly enlarged stock of capital equipment and structures as a result of all the mining investment spending will now absorb a greater share of our gross income.

(A separate issue Eslake doesn't mention is that the highly capital-intensive nature of mining means the increased production of mineral exports will create far fewer jobs than you'd normally expect.)

If you've ever wondered about the difference between gross national product and gross domestic product it's that the former excludes all the income earned on Australian production that's owed to the foreign suppliers of our debt and equity financial capital, making it a more appropriate measure for us given our huge foreign debt and foreign investment in our companies.

If you've ever wondered what the "gross" in GDP, GNP, GNI etc means, it's short for "before allowing for the depreciation of our stock of physical capital".

So gross national income (GNI) is a better measure than gross domestic income (GDI), and net national disposable income (NNDI) is a better measure than GNI.

Which, by the way, explains why real NNDI is used as the base for all the further non-national-accounts-based modifications included in Fairfax Media's attempt to calculate a broader measure of economic welfare, the Fairfax-Lateral Economics wellbeing index, released each quarter soon after the publication of GDP.
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why we care about morality - apparently

The good thing about holidays is getting time to read books. I' ll look at all the museos, oratorios, cappellas and duomos in Italy provided I can go back to my book when day is done. On this trip one book I read was Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene, a young professor of psychology at Harvard.

One of the hottest areas of psychology these days is moral psychology - the science of moral cognition - which seeks to explain why we have moral sentiments and what use they are to us. It' s pretty coldly scientific and evolutionary, which may be disconcerting to readers of a religious disposition.

According to Greene and his confreres - another leading thinker in the area is Jonathan Haight, author of The Righteous Mind, which I' ve written about before - humans are fairly selfish individuals, but we are also highly social animals who like to be part of groups.

Groups, however, require co-operative behaviour, so we evolved moral attitudes to enable us to get along together in groups.

Biologists (and economists) have long stressed the importance of competition between us - survival of the fittest and all that - but it s not hard to see that humans' domination of the planet arises from our unmatched ability to co-operate with each other to overcome problems.

So humans are about competition and co-operation. Economists have schooled us to think of markets as all about competition - between sellers, between buyers and between buyers and sellers - but psychologists see markets as a prime example of human co-operation.

Co-operation through markets allows us to use specialisation - I produce what I' m good at, you do the same and we use the medium of money to exchange the things we ve produced - to increase our combined efficiency in production, leaving us all better off.

Studies have shown that people' s performance in well-known psychology games giving them a choice between selfish or altruistic responses can differ markedly between cultures. Turns out that people from cultures with more developed market systems tend to be less selfish and more co-operative.

So to these scientists, morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of co-operation within groups.

But why do we want to co-operate within groups? So our group can compete more effectively against other groups.

" Our moral machinery evolved to strike a biologically advantageous balance between selfishness (Me) and within-group co-operation (Us), without concern for people who are more likely to be competitors than allies (Them), " Greene says. This moral machinery includes our capacities for empathy, vengefulness, honour, guilt, embarrassment and righteous indignation, he adds.

The fact is that each of us belongs to a whole host of groups: our family, neighbourhood, workplace, occupation, nationality, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sporting interest, political party and more.

The groups we belong to are the tribes we belong to. We feel a great loyalty to our groups, and greatly favour their interests over those of rival groups. This group selfishness and tendency to see the world as Us versus Them is tribalism.

So, much of the conflict we see around us - both within our country and, as we' ve become more conscious of in recent days, between countries and the groups within them - arises from tribalism.

Much of the conflict between tribes is simple self-interest - I favour my interests ahead of yours, and see them much more clearly than I see yours - but there are also genuine differences in values and disagreements about the proper terms of co-operation. One major source of disagreement in political life is between individual and collective responsibility.

Some disagreement arises from tribes' differing allegiances to what Greene calls " proper nouns" - gods, leaders, holy scriptures and holy places.

Obviously, tribally based morality gets us only so far. What Greene seeks is a "meta-morality" , which can help reduce conflict between tribes rather than just within them. To this end he reaches back to an old idea now out of favour with philosophers: utilitarianism.

(This is of relevance to economists because, though they 've spent the past 80 years trying to play it down, utilitarianism forms part of the bedrock on which the conventional economic model is built.)

According to Greene, utilitarianism answers two basic questions: what really matters and who really matters. What matters most is the quality of our experience. Economists call this " utility" and the rest of us call it "happiness" .

Who matters most is all of us, equally - otherwise known as the Golden Rule.

Thus Greene summarises utilitarianism as " happiness is what matters and everyone' s happiness counts the same. This doesn 't mean that everyone gets to be equally happy, but it does means than no one' s happiness is inherently more valuable than anyone else' s ."

He claims this meta-morality involves a moral system that can acknowledge moral trade-offs and adjudicate among them, and can do so in a way that makes sense to members of all tribes.

It s a nice thought. Somehow I think it will be a while before we measure up to that ideal. But it s always good to have a vision of what we should be aiming for and how we can move towards it.
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Monday, October 6, 2014

Science runs ahead of economists' model

The failings of economists - the bum forecasts and less-than-wise advice they give us about the choices we face - can usually be traced back to the limitations of the basic model that tends to dominate the way they think, the neo-classical model.

The thinking of economists began to ossify in the second half of the 19th century, at a time when the science of psychology was in its infancy. The model was thus consolidated at a time when our understanding of human behaviour was quite primitive.

Unfortunately, the past century of progress in psychology has revealed just how far astray are many of the economic model's assumptions about how humans tick. Although a minority of economists - "behavioural economists" - have sought to incorporate these findings into their thinking, the majority have ploughed on regardless. It keeps the maths simpler.

The model is often criticised, not least by me, for its key assumption that we are always "rational" - carefully calculating and self-interested - and never instinctive or emotional in the decisions we make, but there's another assumption that's equally unrealistic and likely to lead to wrong predictions about how we'll behave.

It's that consumers and businesses always act as isolated individuals in making their decisions, uninfluenced by the decisions those around them are making, except to the extent that the combined behaviour of others affects the prices the individual faces. In other words, the model's "unit of analysis" is the individual - the "representative consumer" or "representative firm".

In truth, humans are highly social animals and our behaviour is hugely influenced by those around us. We evolved to live in small groups, which has left us with a powerful - if often unconscious - motivation to fit in with the group and avoid being ostracised.

We feel most comfortable when we're doing what everyone else is doing; we feel distinctly uncomfortable when we're doing the opposite to everyone else. We feel great loyalty to the groups we belong to, and rivalry and suspicion towards groups we don't belong to.

This means humans - "economic agents" as economists say - are prone to herd behaviour. At the most innocuous level, this makes us heavily influenced by fashion. We like to wear what others are wearing, read what others are reading and watch the movies and TV shows that others are watching.

It's remarkable that the business world could be so conscious of the need to accommodate and, indeed, exploit our susceptibility to fashion while the economists seek to analyse our behaviour using a model that assumes it away.

More significantly, our tendency to herd behaviour affects the behaviour of markets - particularly financial markets - in ways that, though we've seen it happen many times before, almost invariably catch economists unawares.

It's our propensity for "group-think" that does most to explain booms and busts in the sharemarket, but also the upswings and downswings in the economy. We swing from overly optimistic to overly pessimistic, then back again, and we tend to all do it together.

A separate aspect of the model's exclusive focus on the individual is its overemphasis on competition and underemphasis on co-operation. It's actually the human animal's unmatched ability to co-operate in solving problems that has given our species its mastery over the planet.

Human behaviour is composed of competition and co-operation. We form co-operative groups so as to enhance their ability to compete with other groups. But the economists' model captures only one dimension of the process.

The classic example of group co-operation to facilitate competition is, of course, that bedrock of modern economies, the company. Companies - often very large, multinational companies - dominate our economy, but the model tells us nothing about what goes on inside them and economists don't have much to tell us about how the existence of big companies affects the behaviour of markets.

The final and perhaps most important twist that the economic model's focus on individuals imposes on economists' thinking is an inbuilt bias against intervention in markets by co-operation at its highest level, government.

The market of individual consumers and individual (tiny) firms is assumed to be self-sufficient and self-correcting, thus making intervention by government something alien and more likely to make things worse than better.

The reality, of course, is that governments not only need to "hold the ring" - provide the protection of property rights and legal enforcement of contracts - they also need to impose rules that protect the market, and the rest of us, from the consequences of its own herd-driven excesses.
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Saturday, October 4, 2014

How mental biases expose us to exploitation

So, you're a regular reader of the business pages and you reckon you're smarter than the average bear when it comes to financial matters. Well, here are some common "biases" to which people fall victim when making decisions about financial products. See if you can put hand on heart and swear you've never made any of these mistakes. If you can, you're a lot smarter than me.

Have you ever overspent on your credit card, or paid off less of it than you know you should? And if you pass that one, try this one: are you confident you're saving enough to ensure your retirement is as comfortable as you'd like it to be?

If you fall short on any of those, you've been affect by what psychologists call "present bias" and behavioural economists call "time-inconsistent preferences" (so in the competition to make your discipline sound smarter than it is, the economists win).

People often succumb to the urge for immediate gratification, thinking too little about the problems this will create for them down the track. It's natural - economists would say "rational" - to value the present more highly than the future. But if you go too far in that direction and end up regretting the choices you made, you've overvalued the present and undervalued the future, making your preferences inconsistent over time.

Most of us have a self-control problem in some field or other. People who are overconfident about their ability to control themselves in the future - to, say, manage heavy repayments - will make their lives more of a pain than they need to be.

Those who are more realistic often use "commitment devices" to impose self-control on themselves. The most extreme example is to cut up your credit card. Compulsory superannuation contributions for employees are a kind of government-imposed commitment device to help us save for retirement - which may be why so few people object.

Businesses exploit our self-control problems by, say, designing a gym subscription that seems cheap, but only if we keep using it for the length of the contract. Or by starting a credit card or home loan with a low interest rate (known in the trade as a "teaser" rate) but then jumping to an overly high rate.

Have you ever delayed moving to a better bank account, or putting some of your savings in a term deposit paying a higher interest rate? The experts call this "procrastination" (now that's a surprise) and class it as a version of present bias.

Examples are legion: deciding to cancel something but not getting around to it, not checking to see if the accounts and the loans and phone contracts you have are still the best available, or not putting much work into searching for the best deal in the first place.

This, too, leaves you open to exploitation by businesses. Some offer a "free trial" while knowing few people will cancel the deal when the paying period begins. Even requiring cancellation by post exploits our inertia.

Have you ever driven a hard bargain to buy a new car, but then gone overboard buying extras like rust-proofing, window-tinting or an improved security system? Have you ever bought a new TV or computer, then been sold extended warranty insurance?

Have you ever hung on to shares now worth less than you paid for them, hoping they will come good and you won't have to accept you made a bad decision to buy them?

If so, you've fallen victim to the biases of "reference dependence" in the first case and "loss aversion" in the second.

It's virtually impossible to look at something and decide what you think about it without consciously or unconsciously comparing it with something else. When buying a car, we compare and contrast all the ones we could buy. Failing that, we compare the one we're thinking of buying with our old one. If we don't have an old car to compare with, we compare having one with going by bus.

Comparisons are almost unavoidable. But we're so dependent on having something else to compare with - use as a point of reference - that if a sensible comparison isn't available we'll use one that makes no sense at all.

An old experiment asks people to estimate how many African countries are members of the United Nations. Most people have no idea. But if, before or while asking the question I mention 60, many people will seize on that number. Do I reckon the number of countries is more or less than 60? How much more, or how much less? That's an easier question to answer.

This way of making decisions is known as "anchor and adjust" and all of us use it all the time, consciously and unconsciously. Trouble is, 60 was a number plucked from the air. Experiments show that if you mention 100 rather than 60 before asking the question you get higher answers.

Point is that our reference dependence makes us easy meat for clever salespeople. We go overboard buying extras for our new car because they all seem so cheap relative to the huge sum we've just forked out to buy the car.

Likewise with extended warranties, which are notoriously overpriced for what little you get back. Anyone wanting to buy "peace of mind" is usually overcharged.

It's an empirical fact that most of us hate making losses much more than we love making gains. By about two to one, they say.

This explains why we do silly things like hanging on to dud shares we should sell - and then should put the proceeds into something with better prospects of gain.

These examples come from a report on behavioural economics prepared by Britain's new Financial Conduct Authority, which has been charged with finding ways to prevent businesses taking advantage of our lack of rational thinking. Good idea.
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mixed progress on reform of power prices

Do you think you're paying too much for electricity? Would you like to see an end to hefty annual price rises, maybe even a fall in prices that goes beyond the abolition of the carbon tax? Well, be patient. The econocrats are working on it.

It may surprise you that they've been in the process of reforming electricity prices for the best part of 20 years, and they're far from finished. They got part of the power system working well, had a bad slip with another bit, and the jury's still out on a third. But they're working away and are confident of success - eventually.

The national electricity market - covering all of Australia bar Western Australia and the Northern Territory - is actually a creation of our econocrats, their grand experiment in market competition.

Before this, we had separate, state-owned monopolies that charged us pretty much what they wanted to charge, particularly because our demand for power kept growing every year. The reformers' bright idea was to link up all the eastern and southern states and turn them into a market by making all the individual power stations compete to feed electricity into the national grid at the lowest prices possible.

Buying the power at the other end of the grid would be various electricity retailers, which would deal directly with households and business users. These, too, would be required to compete with each other to win our business, since we'd be free to buy our power from whichever retailer we chose.

Linking the power stations in the wholesale market with the retailers supplying power to you and me would be the high-voltage transmission and lower-voltage distribution network (the "poles and wires", as pollies keep calling it).

Since it would never be economic to build rival networks, this would have to stay as a monopoly. And being a monopoly, whether it was sold off or remained government-owned, the prices it charged the retailers - and they passed on to us - would need to be closely regulated to prevent rip-offs.

The reform of the first part of the system has worked really well. Competition between the electricity generators has been cut-throat, prices haven't changed much over the years and no power stations are making excessive profits.

But the cost of generating the electricity makes up only about 30 per cent of the retail prices we pay. The big problem has been that faulty rules have prompted the regulators of the network operators' charges to grant them excessive increases, to the point where "network charges" now explain about half of retail power prices.

It's five years of these big increases, much more than the carbon tax or the renewable energy target, that have caused retail prices to grow so fast. A big part of the problem is that, about four years ago, the demand for electricity, which had been growing every year for a century, stopped growing and started falling.
It fell mainly because of new laws requiring appliances to be more efficient in their use of power and because all the fuss Tony Abbott was making about the price of electricity prompted us to be more price-conscious and look for ways to reduce our usage.

The network operators began investing heavily to improve the capacity of the network to meet the ever-higher peak demand for power on hot summer afternoons when a growing number of us had airconditioners going full blast.

One small problem: the fall in annual demand for electricity meant the brief seasonal peak had stopped rising. For several years the industry refused to believe the downturn in demand from the network was more than a blip.

So we've expanded the capacity of the network beyond what we're likely to need for some time. But you and I are paying extra for this expansion and will continue paying until it's paid off.

The good news is the econocrats have finally woken up to the problem. Actually, they were woken up in 2012 by the fuss Julia Gillard made when she realised Abbott was framing her for price rises she didn't cause.

In 2012 the rules were changed to give the regulators greater power to limit increases in the network charges passed on to retailers. Such changes take far longer than you'd imagine to flow through, but from now on it seems likely the network component of retail electricity bills will stay fairly steady in dollar terms.

The econocrats have proposed a further reform which, when it takes effect, will require the networks to bill retailers according to the time of day and time of year when you and I use electricity. With the spread of "smart meters" - which show the precise times when each household uses its electricity - we'll be charged according to our time of use, with those of us who show restraint during peak periods paying less, and those who don't paying more. This should produce a lasting solution to the (expensive) problem of ever-rising peak demand on hot afternoons.

That leaves the question of the effectiveness of competition between the growing number of electricity retailers, big and small. Here the jury is still out. Much depends on how smart we are in finding the retailer offering the best deal - on which quest I offer some tips in my little online video spiel.
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Monday, September 1, 2014

How the econocrats can lift their game

When we judge the performance of chief executives, most of us know the boss who's good at cutting costs isn't worth as much as the boss who's also able to improve the outfit's products and processes. Well, the same goes for treasurers and finance ministers - and their econocrats.

It seems the fiscal managers are running low on good ideas. But not to worry - the former Treasury and prime ministerial adviser Dr Ric Simes, now of Deloitte Access Economics, had some useful advice to offer in a speech to the Australian Business Economists last week.

Simes argues governments themselves have an important role to play in achieving the improved productivity performance the econocrats keep saying we need. Especially when "productivity" is better thought of as "technological progress" and the figures for measured productivity aren't as important as actual improvements in welfare.

"For those parts of the economy where market forces are paramount, government's main role is to make sure that regulation or its own actions allow competition to unfold without unwarranted intervention," Simes says.

To me, this means econocrats should urge their masters to tread carefully when powerful business interests, fighting to shore up a technologically superseded business model, demand that governments make breaches of government-granted copyright a hanging offence.

As Simes says, digital technologies have lower entry barriers and are forcing businesses to be both more productive and more responsive to consumers. So don't help incumbents resist change.

But, he says, the potential for technology to make some of the largest improvements in Australian lives lies in government-heavy sectors including health, education and transport. In these areas, progress has been too gradual.

"The exemplar is probably electronic health records, which have been the focus of considerable effort for perhaps 15 years now, but where we still seem to be a long way off the goal of having them routinely used throughout the health system.

"Or, take even an example where we have done well, the SCATS - Sydney Co-ordinated Adaptive Traffic System - for control of traffic lights. SCATS was originally developed 40 years ago, it has been constantly refined since then and is now in use in 27 countries.

"So, a success story - yet, as a Sydney driver, I know my welfare would be improved with a more refined SCATS system. It's coming - NICTA [the National Information Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence] and others are working on optical-based monitoring and improved optimisation algorithms - but more support for both the research and especially its deployment would lift my welfare!"

Simes notes that in both cases, electronic health records and SCATS, the strict efficiency improvements from the technology - the bit that would help government budgets - represent a relatively small part of the overall benefits to the community.

"Especially in health and education, many of the benefits will involve improvements in the quality and range of services rather than efficiency gains," he says.

"Making the most effective use of digital technologies in health and education - as well as other areas where government has a direct role, such as smart technologies in transport and utilities - will deliver much larger economic and social benefits than where we seem to like to focus much of our policy attention, such as whether we should get the budget back into balance by 2017 or 2019."

Another potentially major area of micro-economic reform, Simes says, is how we organise our cities. Up to 80 per cent of Australia's output and employment occurs within its major cities. This has happened in the pursuit of economies of agglomeration.

"Yet we know that the problems are mounting. Congestion, compromised open spaces, the loss of amenity all risk detracting more and more from those benefits."

As with digital, many of the benefits from fixing these problems would not show up in our standard measures of welfare derived from the national accounts.

"Ten minutes less travelling time to work, or to school, doesn't have direct effects on gross domestic product. A more vibrant space around the harbour, or convenient shopping centre in the 'burbs, doesn't get picked up. But social welfare is clearly affected," he says.

Taking Sydney as an example, if commuter travel times on its roads were reduced by five minutes per trip, the benefits would amount to $3.6 billion a year, if an individual's time is valued at average weekly earnings.

To this you could add savings for freight or commercial vehicles. And savings for going to the shops, or school, or to the beach.

Echoing the patron saint of treasurers, Simes wants to lift our gaze to "the big picture".
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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Digital revolution transforms productivity debate

A second former econocrat has joined former secretary of the Prime Minister's department Dr Mike Keating in seeking to lift the tone of the economic debate.

"We are spending too much effort debating how and how quickly we should bring the Commonwealth budget back into balance," Dr Ric Simes said in a speech to the Australian Business Economists this week.

"We need to elevate the economic debate from the level of catchcries about debt and deficits, or about productivity or even about the use of cost-benefit analyses. We need some deeper analyses being brought to the surface."

Simes, now a director of Deloitte Access Economics, formerly of Treasury and economic adviser to Paul Keating as prime minister, wants to see a more sensible discussion about productivity.
Productivity is obviously important and policy should indeed be focused on lifting it.

"But we do need to be careful about what this may mean in a particular circumstance," he said. One problem is that productivity is being used as a catchcry for myriad causes, often unjustifiably.

Simes agreed with Mike Keating's trenchant observation that "business associations, some leading employers and their camp followers in the media are insisting that future reforms must focus on alleged labour market rigidities and reductions in taxation, as if these were the most important influences on productivity".

And while "there is scope for improved labour relations to make a modest contribution to improved productivity ... the main responsibility for improvements in that regard lie with employers themselves," Keating has written.

"The best thing that employers and their trade associations could do is to stop passing the buck to everyone else for their own failings, and get on with making their workplaces more productive using the existing freedoms that they undoubtedly have," Keating concludes.

Simes adds that this is exactly what most businesses try to do. For his evidence, keep reading.

Simes' second problem with how "productivity" is being used in the debate concerns its measurement. "Productivity is simply a less than perfect measure of economic wellbeing, and having the public debate focus so much on what the Bureau of Statistics reports as productivity can be unhelpful."

Indeed, Professor John Quiggin, of the University of Queensland, had called productivity an "unhelpful concept", mainly because of problems with the way the contributions of labour and capital were measured in its calculation.

Simes agreed with Quiggin that we'd be better off using a term that was closely related to productivity, "technological progress" - that is, the introduction of technological innovations such as new products and improved production technologies.

Rhetoric - the choice of terms - did matter, Simes said, and had we been using the term technological progress instead of productivity, the debate wouldn't have been so open to distortion by vested interests.

"Tax, or industrial relations, or fiscal policy, can and should be refined, but they are not at the heart of why measured productivity weakened after 2000," he said.

But the measurement problem went further. "I think we have a fundamental problem in that our measures of gross domestic product or productivity are becoming less reliable proxies for economic welfare."

If instead of looking at productivity statistics we stand back and look at the way societies and businesses are changing, we find some profound changes under way, particularly the digital revolution.

We see consumers forcing retailers and media companies to transform. His own research had found that, without telework, only 14 per cent of new mums said they would return to work with their old employer, but 61 per cent said they would if telework was available.

His research had found how companies' information technology policies on staff use of social media at work and BYOD - bring your own device - were of growing importance in attracting young and talented employees.

He'd found that businesses able to create a "collaborative" working culture - including through use of digital technologies - succeeded in growing faster than otherwise.

What has this to do with productivity? First, most of the change we were seeing was being driven by individuals, whether they be consumers, workers, students or patients. To a trained economist, this should suggest that economic welfare had probably risen - and risen a lot.

It was hard not to conclude that individuals making deliberate decisions to do something new were adding to their own welfare, and to society's.

But, second, if this isn't showing up in our measures of welfare - such as GDP or productivity - then maybe there was something wrong with those measures. It seemed to Simes that "productivity, as measured, misses many, if not most, of the gains to consumer and social welfare that digital technology is delivering".

It didn't capture the benefits from improved convenience when we no longer had to queue for ages to renew a licence or at our bank branch. Nor the convenience of being able to search for a needed service in a fraction of the time it took before the internet.

It didn't capture the benefits of much greater choice. The Amazon books site, for instance, took costs out of the supply chain (thus reducing prices to consumers) but also provided much greater choice of books in a convenient manner.

Studies by Erik Brynjolfsson and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had estimated that the easy access to a greater choice of books generated seven to 10 times the consumer welfare that the more efficient supply chain generated (the only bit that would make it into measured productivity).

He wasn't saying we should include the benefits of convenience and choice in our measurement of GDP - that wouldn't work.

No. "What I am arguing is that we need to be careful to base policy decisions on a deeper understanding of our objectives and not be driven by simplistic rhetoric," he said.
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