Saturday, July 31, 2010

Now the good news, if you can believe it

Strange things happen in election campaigns. When we learnt this week that consumer prices rose only modestly in the June quarter, the media greeted this as great news for Julia Gillard and even for the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens.

But no one observed it was great news for all those voters who, the pollies inform us, have been whingeing loud and long about the rising cost of living.

And you wouldn't believe it: Joe Hockey portrayed it as bad news for voters. Proof positive they had plenty to whinge about.

The figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed the consumer price index rose by 0.6 per cent during the quarter and by 3.1 over the year to June. Doesn't sound too terrible to me.

But the jubilation conferred on Gillard rose from the news on "underlying inflation" - the general trend in prices, with exceptionally large price changes removed - which showed a rise of 0.5 per cent for the quarter and 2.7 for the year.

This is the first time the underlying rate has been within the Reserve Bank's 2 to 3 per cent target range for almost three years, and was a lot lower than economists were expecting. It eliminated the likelihood the Reserve Bank board would see a need to raise the official interest rate another notch at its meeting on Tuesday.

You'd think this was good news primarily for people with mortgages and other loans (and bad news for people with fixed-interest investments), but for political journalists it's good news for Gillard and her government.

But how did the opposition contrive to believe it was bad news for people worried about the rising cost of living? Easy. The prices of some items in the basket of goods and services that makes up the index have risen a lot in recent times, whereas other prices have fallen a bit.

Put the two together and you're left with the overall cost of living rising only a little faster than usual.

But why do something so sensible? Why not ignore the prices that fell or rose only moderately and focus solely on those that rose a lot? Just what Hockey did. He pointed to increases in the price of electricity (up 18 per cent over the year to June), gas (10 per cent), water rates (14 per cent) and health services (6 per cent).

"For everyday Australians, the bills that they have to pay have gone up dramatically," he concluded.

And all he had to do to reach that convenient conclusion was ignore the falls in the prices of cheese, breakfast cereals, beef, pork, bacon and ham, fruit, eggs, jams and spreads, tea and coffee, and fats and oils, which helped to limit the annual increase in the cost of food (a major item in any household's budget) to just 1.4 per cent.

Clothing and footwear prices were down by almost 4 per cent, furniture and furnishings prices were down 1 per cent, major household appliances prices down 2 per cent, toiletries and personal care product prices down 2 per cent and motor car prices down almost 1 per cent.

Audio, visual and computing equipment prices were down 20 per cent, sporting equipment prices down 3 per cent, toys and game prices down a fraction and domestic holiday prices down 2 per cent.

All those were changes over the year to June. Looking just at the June quarter, only 49 of the 90 price categories recorded rises, the lowest number in more than five years.

So for Hockey to conclude this week's figures justified people's complaints about the rising cost of living, all he had to do was ignore about 86 categories where prices were well-behaved - with

. a surprising number of them falling -

. and focus on four categories that really were bad.

Those categories account for less than 14 per cent of household budgets. So ignore 86 per cent of your budget and focus on just 14 per cent of it and, yes, you do have a real gripe.

Does this make Hockey a liar and a cheat? No, just a politician on the make. The worst of it is that he's doing only what the whingeing punters are doing: focusing on a few bits that are going badly and ignoring all the many bits that are going fine.

Like politicians on both sides, these days, Hockey has no desire to educate the electorate - help people see they're misinformed or not thinking logically. Government pollies are happy just to humour people's mistaken notions; opposition pollies seek to exploit them.

Because humans aren't the rational calculation machines economists assume them to be, we all do this. It's the way our brains work: we remember the things that stick out (big price rises, for instance) and tend to forget things that are normal.

We remember price rises (bad news) more clearly than price falls (good news) and we simply ignore any items in our budget where the price doesn't change. In our mental consumer price index, the items whose prices rose a lot get a weight of up to 100, while those that don't change get a weight of zero and those don't rise by much or even fall don't do much better.

It's a crazy way to work out what's happening to your cost of living, but it's the way most people do it. And it explains why so many people are convinced the consumer price index has been cooked up by the government.

But what's going on with prices? Why are a few going through the roof while others are falling? What Hockey will never tell you is that a big part of the reason for the hefty rises in utility prices - electricity, gas and water - is the success of Peter Costello and his Liberal successors in demonising deficits and debt.

These outfits have delayed borrowing to expand their capacity (in the case of water this neglect has prompted heavy investment in desalination plants) and, even now, are trying to minimise their borrowing by making the present generation of users cover more of the capital cost in their quarterly bills. Thanks, Pete.

Why are so many prices falling? Partly because the appreciation of the dollar has reduced the cost of imported items, but mainly because the weakness of consumer demand following the recession the pollies say we didn't have has obliged many retailers to discount their prices to attract sales.

But all that discounting, we're asked to believe, has had no effect on the cost of living.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Don't take the bait on debt

I've had to cut short my leave because of the election campaign, but those who follow the political debate faithfully might be better off taking an overseas holiday for the next three weeks. It's clear they'd miss little but aggravation.

The paradoxical truth is that modern election campaigns are aimed at those who aren't much interested in the topic. Swinging voters are assumed to be completely self-interested and short-sighted, driven by emotion rather than intellect, ill-informed and easily conned by slogans and television ads.

Hence all the nonsense we're hearing from both sides. For those of us who do take an intelligent interest, the best response is to conduct our own debate, ignoring the silliness as much as we can.

This election is the battle of the scare campaigns. Pollies are trying to frighten us about big new taxes, the return of Work Choices, the threat from boat people, and deficits and debt. I've written a lot in recent times about why we don't need to be too worried by budget deficits and public debt. But observing all the trouble the major developed countries are having has caused me to see the matter in a different light.

Many of the European economies and, to a lesser extent the United States, are worried about the huge levels of public debt they have racked up and the risk that the financial markets will begin to doubt their ability to repay those debts.

As a result, the British, German and other governments have embarked on austerity campaigns, cutting government spending and increasing taxes at a time when their economies are very weak. To slash budget deficits at such a time is likely to make their economies even weaker, meaning the actual progress they make in reducing their deficits is likely to be small, notwithstanding the pain the austerity measures are inflicting.

How did they get themselves into such a predicament? Well, the global financial crisis left them with no alternative but to borrow heavily to rescue their mismanaged banks, and then borrow again to try to reflate their economies. Had they failed to prop up their banks - as happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s - things would have been much worse. Fortunately, the worst was averted. But it would be wrong to conclude all the borrowing of recent times is what has got the main economies into trouble.

No, the real problem is they went into the crisis with such high budget deficits and levels of public debt. Throughout the long boom that preceded the crisis, most governments were running annual deficits rather than surpluses, thereby adding to accumulated debt rather than paying it off. They had failed to get their houses in order during the good times and so were badly placed when the bad times struck.

Why were they caught out? Because their politicians had been indulging voters who want ever-increasing government services but are most resistant to higher taxes. Rather than forcing their voters to face financial reality, they just went on year after year putting the shortfall on tick.

When you consider the genuine worries of the big countries, you realise how silly it is for us to worry about our tiny budgetary problem. They have levels of public debt up about 80 or 90 per cent of their annual national incomes (gross domestic product). Our present budget deficits and consequent borrowing are expected to leave us with a net public debt that peaks at $94 billion in 2013.

Does that sound a lot? If it does it's because you don't realise how big our government and the Australian economy really are. It will represent just 6 per cent of our annual national income.

Let me ask you a personal question: how big is your mortgage relative to your annual income? If it amounted to just 6 per cent of your annual income, how worried would you be? It's common for people to take out home loans that are three or four times their annual income.

Unlike the rest of the developed economies, we went into the global financial crisis with no net debt. Peter Costello and the Howard government get the credit for this.

They introduced and stuck to a "medium-term fiscal strategy" of keeping the budget in balance on average over the economic cycle. That is, it's OK for the budget to go into deficit during recessions, provided it goes back into surplus during the recovery, thereby eventually paying off the debt incurred during the period when the economy was weak and the budget was propping it up. The Rudd/Gillard government is following this same strategy. Indeed, so successful has the opposition been in putting the frighteners on the public over deficits and debt that Labor is on its best behaviour, promising to find spending cuts to offset all new spending promises. The usual vote-buying auction has turned into a Dutch auction. Amazing.

As I've argued all along, the Liberals' relatively recent obsession with deficits and debt (it was the creation of Costello, never being part of John Howard's rhetoric when he was treasurer or in opposition) is way overdone. But when you look at the problem the Europeans' and Americans' budgetary laxity has got them into, you realise our antipodean obsession with avoiding public debt has its advantages.

We've been more frugal than we've needed to be, but it has certainly kept us out of trouble.

In economics, however, there are no free lunches. Everything comes at an (opportunity) cost. So successful has Costello been at demonising all government debt - state and federal - that we've failed to invest in enough economic and social infrastructure. Our debt level is minor, but we're living in the worst house in the street.


Is it our future to be China's quarry? Decision 2010

Australia's traditional economic challenges will be turned on their head in this decade.

WHAT our economy needs in the 2010s is success in balancing supply and demand. Does that sound obvious and not very hard? It's neither.

A big part of the problem is neither you nor I nor the politicians are used to thinking of the economic problem in those terms. And even when we do, we define the problem in conventional terms, failing to take account of the ultimate provider of both supply and demand: the natural environment.

Speaking at the nationwide level, when demand exceeds supply we get inflation. When supply exceeds demand we get unemployment. So we need to keep them in alignment to minimise both problems.

But both demand and supply are moving targets. The economy keeps growing, so we need to keep both demand (spending on goods and services) and supply (capacity to produce them) growing at much the same rate.

If the severe difficulties facing European economies were to spread - including to China, India and the developing world - our problem would be one of deficient demand relative to supply, leading to slow growth and rising unemployment.

But the greater likelihood is that our overarching problem will not be deficient demand but deficient supply as we struggle to greatly expand our capacity to meet developing Asia's voracious appetite for our minerals and energy.

Supply is by far the better deficiency to have. It's the problem of the prosperous and successful, not the waning and struggling. But that doesn't stop it being a problem.

In early 2008, before the global financial crisis hit, we were in the midst of a resources boom. Relative to the prices we were paying for our imports, the prices for our exports were the highest in 50 years.

Our economy was operating at close to full capacity. Unemployment was down to 4 per cent, shortages of skilled labour were emerging, factories and other businesses were flat-chat and real wages were rising, although inflation pressure was building and the Reserve Bank had pushed its official interest rate to a 14-year high.

Mainly because Asia's demand for our exports scarcely missed a beat, but also because our domestic recession was so mild, the likelihood is that the resources boom will soon resume and we'll soon return to full capacity.

Everyone assumes it is hardest to manage Australia's economy in bad times. Recessions are painful and economic managers come in for criticism, but it's the good times that are hardest to manage.

Why? It is easy to stimulate demand - with increased government spending, tax cuts and much lower interest rates - but hard to conjure up increased supply. That requires more skilled workers, housing, machines, factories, mines and offices, as well as more public infrastructure: roads, bridges, public transport, power stations, coal loaders and ports.

In the past the solution was to minimise inflation by using high interest rates or tax increases to suppress demand. But we've usually done too much too late and ended up in recession.

However, past booms have been temporary, "cyclical" events caused by brief periods of strong growth in the developed world. This boom, which began in 2003, seems more lasting ("structural") because it arises from the two most populous countries entering decades of economic transformation from underdeveloped to developed.

We're likely to go through an extended period in which supply grows rapidly - we greatly increase the economy's productive capacity. But we're already close to full employment.

Assuming Asia's strong demand for commodities continues, an increase in our capacity to produce coal, iron ore and natural gas is already in train. Business spending on physical investment will soon take its highest share of gross domestic product in half a century.

But when our labour and capital are already pretty much fully employed, the only way we can put more resources into new mines, gas terminals and related infrastructure is by taking those resources from somewhere else.

Some industries (and states) have to give up resources so the mining industry (and the states it is in) can have more resources. This doesn't necessarily mean other industries and states have to contract in absolute terms, it may just mean the lion's share of future annual growth in employment and physical capital goes to mining and the mining states.

Governments can help by adding to the supply of skilled labour (through increased training and skilled migration), well-located land for home building and necessary public infrastructure. But even though the nation's supply constraint moves out each year, and can be made a little faster, it's still a constraint. It still limits how much more we can do. If we try to exceed that limit, all we get is inflation.

A big part of the political problem governments will face is that, after 30 years of high unemployment, the public is locked into a mentality that our key problem is deficient demand, with the implication that any proposed project claimed to create jobs is unquestionably worthy of government support.

The notion that if project X is to create 500 jobs, those workers will have to be taken from jobs elsewhere is foreign to our thinking. What's more, the higher wages it needs to attract workers could provoke a wages bidding war that adds to inflation.

Can you imagine any politician saying a new project requiring 500 workers didn't sound like such a good idea? Welcome to the future challenge.

The economy has a natural mechanism for helping the needed geographical and industrial change in its structure: the floating exchange rate. By going high during resource booms, it squeezes those export and import-competing industries whose demand isn't booming.

But this automatic mechanism will need reinforcement from overt government policy. Adding to supply often involves adding to demand in the first instance. Demand can be divided into spending on consumption and spending on physical investment.

If supply constrains the demand we can accommodate without inflation, but an increased share of demand needs to be devoted to investment - in business plant, housing and public infrastructure - that leaves less room for consumer spending.

A lasting resources boom needs to constrain growth in consumer spending if it's not to involve runaway inflation. Households need to spend less and save more.

The economic managers have ways of combating inflation pressure and discouraging excessive growth in consumption (particularly spending on consumer durables such as cars and major household items, which are usually bought on credit): raise interest rates.

So the bigger and longer the resources boom, the higher you can expect interest rates to be.

Don't like that solution? A better (but only partial) substitute would be for the federal government to run ever-increasing budget surpluses even after its debt is paid back, with the money invested anywhere but in Australia.

We look like we'll need some unfamiliar and controversial policies from the next and future federal governments if we're to exploit our geological and geographical luck without coming unstuck.

And that's just the conventional analysis, which conveniently ignores the natural environment. Responding to the way economic growth is damaging the ecosystem and starting to feed back adversely on the economy will require an extra dimension of unfamiliar and controversial policies.


Saturday, July 24, 2010


Talk to Independent Scholars Association, Sydney
July 24, 2010

I’m not a historian, philosopher or even an independent scholar, so I confess I find today’s topic rather daunting. So I’ll make a few general observations and then comment on the topic very much from a journalist’s perspective, which I imagine is the most useful contribution I can make.

I’m old enough to believe there is such a thing as objective truth, if only we could find it. But the truth is elusive. It’s known to God, but we mere mortals merely seek it, never knowing for certain how close we’ve come to it. Of course, in the search for truth some people try harder than others. Plenty of people are happy to give us ‘the truth as I see it’ without making any great attempt to offer a balanced account. It’s often a safe bet that such accounts are far from even-handed. And some of us are happy to repeat that version - sometimes unadorned, sometimes as part of a more conscientious attempt to discern the truth of the matter.

As for memory, it’s highly fallible. Last year I was invited to speak to the annual dinner of the old boys’ association of my school, Newcastle Boys’ High. I did a lot of thinking back to my time at school in the early 1960s, and mentioned to a friend that one of the things I planned to mention was my memory of being in the school playground when the news came through that President Kennedy had been shot. My friend said I’d better check it because he was sure the news came through on a Saturday. I checked and he was right. So what it is that I have such a clear memory of I now have no idea.

The illustrious psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for discovering behavioural economics, has more recently turned his mind to the study of happiness, particularly the definition and measurement of it. His recent research - too recent to be included in my new book, The Happy Economist - draws a distinction between experienced happiness and remembered happiness. He found that when you ask people how happy they are during an event - a holiday, for instance - you get a different answer to the one you get if you ask them after the event how happy it was. People are generally happier about things in retrospect than they were at the time. Which of the two perspectives represents the truth?

Earlier, Kahneman did a famous experiment that asked people how they felt about their colonoscopy examination, which in those days seems to have been a lot more painful than it is today. What emerged from this was the psychologists’ ‘peak-end rule’. How people felt about their experience was determined by two factors: how it felt at its worst, and how it felt at the end. This meant that doctors could influence how painful people remembered the procedure as being simply by leaving the scope in for an extra minute or so without moving it and making it painful. I think this tells us something about the fallibility and susceptibility of memory.

It’s often said that newspapers provide ‘the first draft of history’. I guess that’s true, but since I imagine many of you refer to newspapers in your research, I want to stress what a rough and ready first draft it is. Newspapers - and the media more generally - offer only the roughest and potentially quite misleading first draft for many reasons. One is the haste with which the first draft is prepared. Media outlets are increasingly understaffed these days and, in any case, journalists are required to produce their reports in only a few hours. Economic and political journalists, for instance, have to summarise the purport of lengthy government reports or budget documents before they could possibly have had time to read them properly.

The more the media turn to ‘breaking news’ - as even the morning newspapers are now doing on their websites - the more they’ll be telling us things that are undigested, ill-considered, incomplete and probably wrong in some respects. That’s true almost by definition. With breaking news, the highest priority goes to getting the news out within minutes of it occurring. In the case of a set-piece event (such as the announcement of a change in interest rates) it has be on the site within seconds. It’s all about racing your competitors, and accuracy runs a very poor second. An editor once said to me that the only way you could produce breaking news was to use the principle: ‘Never wrong for long’. Trouble is, the media are reluctant to admit and correct their mistakes. More generally, they pass judgment too quickly and are reluctant to return to stories they regard as old hat. They’re weak on follow up, often not following stories to their conclusion.

People are always claiming to have been misquoted or misrepresented by the media. The media’s attitude is generally ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they’. And it is true that people say things then, when they see them in the paper for all the world to see (including their boss), have second thoughts and claim to have been misreported. But I’ve been interviewed and reported on by print journalists a few times in my life, and I’ve been quite unimpressed by the results. They’ve not understood what I was on about, they’ve misquoted me or taken me out of context, or they’ve filled in facts without asking me and not got them right.

There may have been a time when newspapers took a pride in being ‘journals of record’, but those days are long gone, even for the broadsheets. Much that transpires - even government decisions - is these days regarded as too boring to waste space on. Newspapers face a lot more competition from the electronic media - radio, television and now the internet - which means they’re often bring their readers news the readers have already heard. They compensate for this by search for new ‘angles’, reporting reaction and by ‘taking the story forward’ - which means they assume their readers already know the basic facts of the story and don’t bother repeating them, or allude to them only well down in the fine print of the story.

But the main thing I want to say to you is that the media simply aren’t in the truth business. You may be seeking the truth, but we aren’t. You’re entitled to expect us to be truthful - that is, to get our facts right and resist the temptation to distort - but not to imagine we’re seeking the truth. We’re not in the truth business, we’re in the news business. We’re literally in the business of selling news. That is, our primary motivation is commercial - to make a profit - not ideological or scholarly. What’s more, humans’ evolutionary drive to compete means that, despite its lack of commercial motivation, the ABC behaves much the same way as its profit-motivated rivals do.

Why aren’t we seeking the truth? Because much of the time the truth is dull. Media owners are dedicated to profit maximisation, and their minions seek to do this by selling a product called ‘news’. What is news? Whatever sells. What sells - what’s ‘newsworthy’ as journos say? Anything happening out there that our audience will find interesting or important, although the interesting will always trump the important. Paris Hilton is interesting but of no importance; the latest change in the superannuation rules is important but deadly dull - guess which one gets more media coverage?

Maybe 99 per cent of what happens in the world is of little interest: it’s the old, not the new; the good, not the bad; the usual, not the unusual. It’s dog bites man, not man bites dog. Much of the criticism of the media rests on the unspoken assumption that the media’s role is to give us an accurate picture of the world around us. We don’t have first-hand experience of much of what’s happening around us and we need the media to inform us.

Sorry, but that’s just not what we do - because we don’t think there’s much of a market for it. Let me tell you a story or two to demonstrate how we select news - how what we do bears no relation to the scientific method that guides so much of what scholars do. Once when I was answering a question at a Treasury seminar in Canberra it occurred to me to say this: when social scientists take a random sample they may examine the sample and discard any outliers that could distort their survey, throwing them on the floor. A journalist is someone who comes along, finds them on the floor and says, ‘these would make a great story’.

Final story: I happened to be in the Herald’s daily news conference in February 2009 on the day Kevin Rudd’s $42 billion stimulus package was announced, with all its (then) $950 cash handouts. We discussed searching for a farmer who’d get $950 because he was in exceptional circumstances, $950 because he paid tax last year, $950 because his wife also works, $4750 because he has five school-age kids, and maybe another $950 because one of the kids is doing a training course. And, of course, he’d have a big mortgage, meaning he’d also save $250 a month because of the 1 per cent cut in interest rates announced the same day. Had we found such a person and taken a good photo of him he’d have been all over our front page. The point is that we were search for the most unrepresentative person we could find. Why? Because our readers would have been fascinated to read about him. It’s reasonable to expect the media to be accurate in the facts they report but, even if they are, it’s idle to expect them to give us a representative picture of the world. They’re not in that business.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Economists waive any responsibility on climate

Julia Gillard's stop-gap substitutes for Labor's abandoned emissions trading scheme is unlikely to produce much reduction in emissions or be cost-effective. I reckon just about every economist would agree with that proposition, just as they'd agree with its corollary: the key to reducing emissions is to put a price on carbon.

Yet the nation's economists were neither unanimous nor active in supporting the Rudd government's carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Why weren't they? Why do so many economists behave in such an uninterested and even disinterested way on the subject?

Dr Martin Parkinson, the secretary of the Department of Climate Change, observed in a recent speech that, unlike with other, earlier economic reforms, ''there has not been a broad consensus within the economics profession on the merits of action to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, nor on the general approach to how it should be implemented''. With a few notable exceptions, he said, it had been surprising ''how little serious engagement we have seen from economists in the carbon pollution reduction scheme debate''.

Economists' preference for a carbon price signal was where agreement among economists ended. ''There is disagreement on the detail required for practical implementation, such as the timing, level and nature of the mechanisms that should be used to provide a carbon price signal, and in some cases disagreement on whether action should be taken at all,'' he said.

So why is there this lack of broad consensus and engagement by economists? Parko suggests four possible reasons.

First, some economists see climate change as an environmental problem rather than a multi-disciplinary problem. If it's an environmental issue, it's probably being dominated by environmentalists who are interventionist and anti-growth. In truth, the policy response to climate change is based on work coming from scientists, not greenies.

Note that Parkinson is a former deputy secretary of Treasury and has a quite a few ex-Treasury people around him. Emissions trading is an ''economic instrument'' and it was being designed and implemented by highly orthodox economists.

''When it comes to climate change science and projections, it is probably reasonable that economists without expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines should let scientists be the professional experts in this area,'' Parko said.

Even where some economists are genuinely sceptical of the scientific evidence, ''it has been surprising that some economists have resisted serious consideration of the professional application of the precautionary principle - that is, that taking action on climate change today is a form of insurance''.

Second, economists usually deal with marginal issues and have little experience with issues having potentially catastrophic outcomes. To a neo-classical economist trained in ''marginal analysis'', marginal doesn't mean of little importance, but quite the reverse. All the interesting things happen on the margin.

But climate change has the potential to involve a complete change in the state of the world, including the possibility of catastrophic outcomes. Economists have little experience in dealing with ''non-trivial'' (that is, worth taking seriously) probabilities of such outcomes occurring, or the related application of the precautionary principle and need for risk management.

This is the ''fat-tailed'' or ''black swan'' problem that's very difficult to assess using economists' conventional ''expected-value'' risk analysis: that is, a tiny probability of an unthinkable event.

The third reason economists have failed to provide strong support may be that, though they understand ''externalities'' in principle, in practice they have a strong preference for leaving things to the market.

The existence of market failure doesn't automatically justify government intervention in the market. You also have to be satisfied intervention will do more good than harm, otherwise all you end up with is ''government failure''.

This highlights the cost of inaction, which both Britain's Stern report and our own Garnaut report have shown is very high. This being so, the chances are high that, without guidance from economists, governments will pursue remedies involving high efficiency costs.

Parko's fourth possible explanation for economists' lack of support is that they prefer to be pure in their proposed solutions to problems and are suspicious of politically negotiated outcomes and transitional assistance.

Academic economists in particular love an ''elegant'' solution to a complex problem, but policy action is a messy, compromised business, that never starts with a clean slate and involves building coalitions around concrete policy proposals.

No sooner had the Rudd government fixed on an emissions trading scheme than economists came out of the woodwork arguing a carbon tax would be better. That trading schemes had long been the centre of international efforts to achieve a co-ordinated reduction in emissions troubled them not a bit.

''These proposals are generally put forward at a conceptual level, where they may be models of elegance and simplicity, untrammelled by questions of practical implementation or political reality,'' Parko said.

As for the objection to transitional assistance, ''no one ever suggested that tariff reform wasn't worth doing because it was implemented gradually and with generous transitional assistance packages - yet despite the careful attention paid to preserving the abatement incentives and ensuring that assistance is provided for a transitional period only, this is exactly what many are saying about the carbon pollution reduction scheme''.

Parkinson concludes that economists' lack of agreement on key implementation questions renders their preference for a carbon price signal largely meaningless in practice. In fact, it undermines public support for least-cost solutions. Well done.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why economists didn't see the big crunch coming

Psychologists call it "framing". When rarely they think about it, economists call it "models". What it means is that our understanding of things and our reactions to them are heavily influenced by the way we choose to look at them.

Macro-economics - the idea that governments can manage the economy as it moves through the business cycle - has really only been going since World War II. But it involves a particular way of looking at national economies, a way heavily influenced by the priorities of John Maynard Keynes and his followers.

Economic variables come in two kinds: they're either "flows" or "stocks". When you watch something increasing or decreasing over a period of time you're watching a flow variable.

It might be your wage, which comes in every week over a year, or it might be your spending on groceries, which is added to every time you go to the supermarket over a period.

When you measure something at a point in time you're looking at a stock variable. It might be how much you've got in the bank on a particular day - June 30, for instance - or how much you owe the bank. Or you could get a real estate agent to value your house.

That value applies at the time it was assessed, but may not be accurate a few months later. So a stock value is like a photograph: it shows you what the world looked like at the moment the photo was taken.

If you know anything about company accounts, you know about flows and stocks. The profit and loss statement shows flows: the flow of sales over the period, the flow of expenses over the period and the profit or loss made over the period.

The balance sheet, on the other hand, shows stocks: the stock of assets owned by the business on the last day of the period, the stock of debts and other liabilities owed by the business on that day, with the difference between the two being the value of the business to its owners on that day.

Here's the point: from the start, macro-economists developed the habit of focusing on flows and taking little interest in stocks. They studied the economy-wide equivalent of the profit and loss statement - the components of gross domestic product - and ignored the balance sheet. (National balance sheets have been added to the national accounts only in recent years.)

Another way to put it is that economists tend to focus on the "real" economy of getting and spending, production and consumption, not on the "financial" economy of who owns and owes what - assets and liabilities.

Yet another kink in the way macro-economists look at the economy is that they focus on the demand side of the economy (what people are spending their money on, consumption or investment) rather than the supply side (the economy's capacity to produce goods and services for people to buy).

The rationale for this focus on the demand side is that governments can influence demand in the short run, but supply (the number of machines and factories, the size of the labour force and its degree of skill) can be influenced only in the longer run. Hence macro is called "demand management".

Why am I telling you all this? Because all these biases in the way economists tend to think about the economy help explain the global financial crisis - which the world's sharemarkets' recent reaction to developments in Europe shows isn't over - and why economists didn't see it coming.

The global financial crisis had its origins in the financial economy (which most macro-economists don't take a great interest in), but this inevitably damaged the real economy of spending and employment.

What's happening in Europe (and to a lesser extent the US) is that people are getting increasingly worried by governments' high and rapidly rising levels of debt. What happens if the financial markets lose confidence in governments' ability to repay their debts?

Debts are a stock, incurred as a consequence of deficits, which are a flow. You have to borrow to allow a deficit to be incurred during a period and that leaves you with a (higher) stock of debt at the end of the period.

Because deficits - budget deficits, trade deficits, current account deficits - are flows, they're part of the purview of macro-economists. But deficits matter only because they add to debt levels, and if it's not your practice to take much interest in debt (because it's a stock) you face a great temptation not to worry too much about deficits, not to be aware of how they're starting to mount up.

Economists didn't cause the public debt build-up. It was caused by politicians pandering to electorates that want more and more government spending, but don't want to pay higher taxes. But economists, with their focus on annual flows, failed to raise the alarm over mounting debt levels.

Then you have a global financial crisis that threatens to bring down the banking system and the real economy with it. You have no choice but to borrow heavily to prop up the banks and borrow again to try to get the economy moving.

One small problem: put all that borrowing on top of already high levels of public debt and suddenly everyone in the financial markets is worried about "sovereign risk" and whether you'll be able to repay your debts.

(That some of the people now carrying on about governments' huge debts were the same people whose reckless behaviour - and accumulation of huge levels of private debt - required the government to bail them out, allows you to call them rude names but not to ignore their ability to bring down those governments.)

Urged on by financial-side economists, governments in Europe are seeking to stave off a possible loss of financial market confidence in those governments' ability to repay their debts by slashing their spending and raising taxes, even while their economies are weak and the austerity programs will make them weaker.

But Keynesian macro-economists are appalled by this and locked in a furious debate with the financial economists. The financial guys are saying it's stocks (of public debt) that matter most and they must be cut at whatever cost; the macro guys are saying it's flows of spending and production that matter most, and to cut them now is madness.

Thankfully, our Liberal Party's obsession with budget deficits and debts has left us in the clear.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Show us your ticker, Gillard, before we vote

Excuse me, but what's the tearing hurry? We've had a new Prime Minister for five minutes, but we're being rushed off to an election before we can get her measure. Why? Is there a fear, if the election were delayed until October, the gloss would have worn off and we'd see Julia Gillard in a less hopeful and flattering light?

Is the new leader's fleeting honeymoon all that stands between Labor and electoral defeat? Is Labor's record in government that bad? Is Tony Abbott such a formidable opponent?

I'm not impressed by what we've seen of the Gillard government so far. We've seen the triumph of political expediency over good government. From her first day she's left little doubt three running political sores - the mining tax, resentment of boat people and the vacuum left by Labor's abandonment of its emissions trading scheme - needed to be staunched quick smart if the government's re-election were to be secured.

But what hasty, amateurish patch-up jobs we've seen. Wayne Swan has fudged up figures purporting to show the revenue cost of the deal done with the three biggest mining companies was minor, whereas sharemarket analysts are saying the extra tax to be paid by the companies will be minor. Then we had the fearful muddle over the Timor solution the Timorese hadn't agreed to, and now we're getting the climate change policy you have when you don't have a climate change policy.

The trouble with all this is it's terribly reminiscent of Kevin Rudd. Lacking in courage, not thought through and thrown together at the last moment. None of these stop-gap solutions will have been legislated before the election. So is that to be Gillard's agenda for Labor's second term: finishing off all the stuff not finished in the first term? Is that to be as inspiring as it gets? First re-elect my government and then I'll have time to think up my own agenda?

I'm sure the government has plenty of announcements up its sleeve to make between now and election day, but I'm not sure they'll add up to anything more than a grocery list. Bit of this, bit of that, tinker with this, fine-tune that. Nothing controversial, of course, and (given the budget deficit) nothing too expensive.

Before we vote on whether to retain Gillard we need to know a lot more about her and, more particularly, where she proposes to take us.

She tells us she believes in hard work, egalitarianism and the value of education, and she's proud of her mum and dad. I doubt if there are many who'd disagree, but if that's as big as her vision gets she's not ready to be our leader.

One of Rudd's biggest problems was he couldn't set priorities for himself. He took on too much, wanted the biggest and best in everything, and ended up not getting much achieved. He took on a couple of big economic reforms - the emissions trading scheme and the resource rent tax - but took them far too cheaply, underestimated the amount of explaining that needed to be done, then when the going got tough, turned turtle.

So what are Gillard's priorities? What does she plan to devote most of her attention to at the expense of all the other things she could focus on? Does she know but doesn't want to tell us, or hasn't she had time to think about it? Will she work it out as she goes along?

We know, despite her protestations, climate change won't be one of her second-term priorities. She says (correctly) we need to put a price on carbon, but then says she won't get ahead of public opinion and won't act on a carbon price until after 2012. Her next term will be spent doing the explaining that should have been done this term.

I fear most of what passes for economic debate in the election campaign will be of little consequence. Labor dumped its emissions trading scheme and emasculated its resource super profits tax for fear of being accused of introducing "a great big new tax", but that won't stop both sides accusing each other of planning to do just that.

Both sides will express their determination to get the budget into surplus as soon as possible and eliminate our (tiny) public debt post haste, while accusing the other of profligacy.

If there's one thing we don't need to worry about it's deficits and debt. Why not? Because we worry about it so much. The Libs make such a fuss about it it's a crime Labor wouldn't dare to commit.

The big economic issues facing us include how we'll make room for a greatly expanded mining sector in an economy already close to full employment, whether there's more tax reform in the Henry report we should be getting on with, and how we'll fix the ever-growing shortage of housing, including improving public transport to make homes in the outer suburbs more accessible.

Far from spending the next three years chatting about whether to get serious about combating climate change, we need to debate our unquestioned commitment to unlimited economic growth.

Does ever-rising affluence - much of it used to fuel an unending status competition - make us happier as both sides of politics assume? Are we paying a hidden price for it in damage to our family and social relationships? Is it really possible for the rich world to keep increasing its consumption of natural resources while the developing world - led by China and India - rapidly raises its standard of living towards Western levels without this irreparably damaging the ecosystem?

A bit too much for a prime minister from the left desperate to prove she's not left-wing? Far too threatening a subject for either of the political parties? I fear so. Much safer to have a furious argument about great big new taxes and the budget deficit.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Swan's sleight of hand hides mining concession

Tony Abbott is right. Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan have grossly misled the public on the cost of their abject surrender to the three big mining companies over the former resources super profits tax.

They claimed that almost halving the rate of the tax - from 40 per cent to an effective 22.5 per cent - and making various other concessions demanded by the companies would reduce tax collections by just $1.5 billion over its first two years, a mere 12.5 per cent of the originally budgeted $12 billion.

How was that unbelievably small cost achieved? Partly by shifting the goal posts. As we now know, the revenue to be raised by the new version of the tax was estimated using higher prices for coal and iron ore than were used in estimating the revenue to be raised by the original version. The new estimates also used different assumed production volumes.

To what extent do these "parameter" revisions cause the revenue cost of the policy changes to be understated? Gillard and Swan are still refusing to say. Apparently, this is none of the electorate's damn business. So we're forced to rely on estimates by people not in full command of the facts.

These suggest the government's figure of $1.5 billion over the first two years understates the value of the concessions to the big miners by

$1.6 billion (according to sharemarket analysts at Goldman Sachs JBWere), or $3 billion (according to mining tax consultants quoted by David Uren of The Australian, who deserves special mention for pursuing this issue).

Let's be clear: there's nothing wrong with the government using more up-to-date parameters when it redoes its budget figuring. No, the crime is to do so without acknowledgement, let alone without indicating the value of the parameter changes. Swan not only failed to acknowledge the change, he avoided answering a direct question on whether he had changed any of the assumptions that underpinned the revenue estimates. (These figures have not been made public - you won't find them on Swan's website - but merely "circulated" to gallery journalists, presumably because Swan had something to hide.)

Coming from a treasurer, this isn't tricky behaviour, it's dishonesty. If you can't trust the Treasurer to be honest about the cost of measures, who can you trust? I can't think of a previous treasurer who betrayed our trust so badly.

But the other part of the sleight of hand is to change the tax in ways that have implications over many years, then tell us only about the first two. Telling us more would involve making assumptions about commodity prices and exchange rates, but that's just as true of the four years of estimates produced for every budget and budget review.

It's a weak excuse that could be overcome if the government wanted to do so. So again we're forced to rely on figuring by outsiders lacking the Treasury's knowledge. The Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that, on a like-with-like basis and using quite pessimistic assumptions about commodity prices, the cost to revenue of the changes imposed by the big three will total about $35 billion by 2019-20.

With the original tax package (that is, including all the tax concessions on which the resources tax revenue was to be spent) we were given no idea of whether it was revenue neutral beyond the first two years. It may not have been because the loss of revenue arising from lifting the superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent by 2019-20 will be huge.

But whatever the position originally, it's a safe bet it will be worse now the chief payers of the minerals resources rent tax have been allowed to redesign it.

Even so, there are a few points to make. Few people have noted that, according to Swan's figures, revenue will be $1 billion higher in the first year, but $2.5 billion lower in the second. These differences partly reflect the secret parameter changes, but they also seem to reflect the choice companies were given between writing off their assets at book value at an accelerated rate over five years (36 per cent in the first year, 24 per cent in the second), or writing them off at market value over 25 years (4 per cent a year).

Since we can be sure the companies will pick the method that favours them, this choice will end up reducing the amount the tax collects. In the early years, however, those companies opting for market value will pay more tax rather than less.

But it doesn't follow that all the tax saved by the big companies equals the amount lost by the taxman. Why not? Because Gillard and Swan have allowed the big three to rejig the tax in ways that suit them at the cost of the smaller miners, particularly those in the early years of their projects and those mining ventures yet to be born.

The original tax's now-abandoned guarantee to pick up 40 per cent of losses was of little value to the big boys, but (despite their claims to the contrary) of great value to the new small boys (as was also the now-abandoned plan to give a refundable rebate rather than a simple deduction for exploration costs).

Whereas under the original tax 2500 firms would have been affected, now only about 320 will be. But this means about 2200 mining companies will now not be relieved of paying state royalties. And those remaining in the tax net will get only a deduction against profits (and a carry-forward in the event of losses), not an automatic refund.

This greatly reduces the economic efficiency gain from the new tax because so many miners will remain subject to royalties based on volume or price, not profits. Well done.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why 600,000 out of work is a magic number

Who would have expected it? A year ago we thought we were headed for a severe recession and this week we learn the rate of unemployment is down to 5.1 per cent. Do you realise that's just a fraction above what economists - and the Gillard government - regard as full employment?

Huh? If 5 per cent of the labour force - 600,000 people - is still looking for work, how on earth can economists say we're at full employment? Good question. Unfortunately, economists don't have a good answer.

This year's budget papers - which seem to have been overtaken by events already - say the unemployment rate is expected to fall to 5 per cent by the middle of next year and to 4.75 per cent by mid-2012, "around levels consistent with full employment".

Last month a senior Treasury officer, Dr David Gruen, told a Senate committee it was "a longstanding practice" to regard full employment as 5 per cent, although there was "a reasonable band of uncertainty around that number".

"With the best will in the world, we cannot really tell whether it is 5 per cent or anywhere in the range, say, from about 4.75 per cent to 5.25 per cent," he told

the committee.

I guess the first thing to understand is that, to an economist, "full employment" does not mean what you and I think it does. It does not mean everyone who wants a job has found one.

Rather, it refers to the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment. That is, the lowest rate to which unemployment can fall before shortages of labour lead to excessive wage increases and start pushing up inflation.

In the jargon, this is the "non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment" (NAIRU). So in an economist's mind the NAIRU is synonymous with full employment.

As Gruen implied, no one knows for certain where the NAIRU is, though we do know it can shift over time.

So, though economists do make calculations to estimate where it lies, you really have to discover where it is by real-world experience.

When the unemployment rate got down to 4 per cent in early 2008, most economists would have regarded that as clearly below the NAIRU. The private-sector wage index rose by 4.3 per cent over the following year - hardly a wage explosion, but clearly on the high side, particularly when the productivity of labour has been improving so slowly.

And the underlying rate of inflation has now been above the target range of 2 per cent to 3 per cent for more than three years. So I guess that does confirm that the NAIRU is nearer 5 per cent than 4 per cent.

Economists actually regard 5 per cent as good because, not that long ago, they believed the NAIRU was up somewhere between 7 per cent and 8 per cent. The rest of us, on the other hand, are shocked by the idea that economists could be satisfied with unemployment no lower than 5 per cent.

And oldies can remember the 1950s, '60s and early '70s when full employment (and the NAIRU) was regarded as an unemployment rate no higher than 2 per cent.

The 2 per cent was easily justified as "frictional unemployment". At any time, roughly 2 per cent of the labour force are unemployed simply because they are moving between jobs, and thus of no concern. In those days people were unemployed so briefly many did not bother to register for the dole.

But how do economists explain why the lowest point at which inflation pressure can be quiescent has shifted from 2 per cent to 5 per cent over the past 35 years or so? Well, the reason you can get inflationary wage pressure while still having 600,000 people looking for jobs is "structural mismatch": the remaining unemployed either don't have the skills employers are seeking or don't live in the parts of the country where those workers are being sought.

But that does not explain why structural mismatch is a much greater problem today than it was 40 years ago. So the truth is, economists can't offer a thorough explanation for why the full-employment rate has risen, as many of them will admit.

It is worth noting, however, that since the postwar Golden Age ended with the arrival of stagflation in the mid-1970s, NAIRUs have risen significantly in most developed economies.

And just because economists can prove it, that doesn't stop them having theories - rival theories, naturally.

Economists of a neo-classical disposition incline to the view that the full-employment rate is higher these days because a combination of increased interventions in the economy - minimum wage rates that are too high, unemployment benefits that are too generous and unfair dismissal laws - have stopped the labour market functioning as efficiently as it used to.

Limits on employers' freedom to dismiss unsatisfactory workers have made them more reluctant to hire those workers at the bottom of the barrel, it's argued.

Or, unduly high minimum wages effectively price unattractive workers out of a job, while generous unemployment benefits reduce the incentive for people to find work.

There may be other reasons why people don't try as hard to find work these days: because the stigma of being unemployed has declined, because dual-income households reduce the pressure on one partner to find work, which may be particularly true of married women.

But these arguments aren't terribly convincing. Relative to average income, our dole payments are very low.

And while it's true our minimum wage is quite high relative to average income, our NAIRU isn't that much higher than America's, even though its minimum wage is terribly low.

So economists of a more Keynesian disposition try to explain the higher full-employment rate more in terms of how the structure of the economy has

changed (as opposed to how governments have made prices more inflexible). When you get down to an unemployment rate of 5 per cent, most of those who have been unemployed for any length of time are unskilled, with a chequered work history. It may be that the kind of jobs suitable for such people no longer exist to the same extent they once did.

And there's a suspicion that where the NAIRU lies is affected by how rapidly you approach it. If unemployment falls rapidly, you may hit the NAIRU at a

higher level than if growth is more sedate and it takes a lot longer to get unemployment down.

Sorry, but all this is about the best explanation economists can offer. There is a lot economists do not know.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Green jobs just muddy the climate-change waters

A cartoon by Jon Kudelka shows Julia Gillard ticking off items on her to-do list: first, appease billionaires; second, appease xenophobes; third, appease climate sceptics. Too true ... although, actually, when she has finished appeasing those who live in fear of boat people her last bit of pre-election deck-clearing will be to appease those who regret the government's decision to walk away from its emissions trading scheme by announcing a program of government subsidies to induce people to reduce their emissions directly.

Amazing though it may seem, the climate-change-denying opposition has a post-trading scheme policy to encourage "direct action", whereas the government - which still protests its acceptance of human-caused climate change - doesn't.

It's a fair bet that when we see Gillard's direct-action policy it will come complete with boasts about how many "green jobs" it will create.

Creating green jobs is all the rage. About a year ago Kevin Rudd promised to create 50,000 of them. Tony Abbott has plans for a standing army of 15,000 green workers who could be deployed across the country. And every environmental group or renewable energy lobby group wants to tell us how many "green-collar jobs" could be generated if only we'd do as they say.

It seems the notion of green jobs arose as a response to the claims of the opponents of climate policy that moving to a low-carbon economy would destroy lots of jobs. No it wouldn't, environmentalists cried, it would create lots of jobs. What's more, they would be green jobs.

But as the Australia Institute warns in a policy brief to be released today, there's a lot of woolly thinking about green jobs. It seems to be little more than a propaganda tool.

For a start, there has been little attempt to define what constitutes a green job. If, for instance, a job maintaining a wind turbine is a green job, what about a job in the business that makes the turbines?

And if it's green to manufacture steel turbines, what about the jobs of the people who mine the iron ore and coking coal needed to make the steel? But if it's not green to be a miner, would it be better for us to import all the turbines we need so the sin of being non-green was on someone else's head?

Should people who work in industries with a low environmental impact be regarded as having green jobs? If so, a significant proportion of all our existing jobs - particularly those in health, education and community services - are green.

But what about jobs in industries that have reduced their ecological footprint, even though it remains substantial? Are these jobs more green or less green than jobs in industries whose footprint has always been small?

As a general rule, industries that are capital-intensive are likely to have a bigger footprint than industries that are labour-intensive, such as service industries. Does this mean we could make the economy greener by abandoning our age-old quest to use machines to replace workers wherever possible?

Do workers whose job is to return a mine site to nature after it has been worked out qualify as green-collar workers? If so, what about workers who clean up after oil spills?

And what about jobs that make the natural environment more accessible to people? If, for instance, you employ some young people to improve the signs on a bush-walking track (for which I'm always grateful) are these green jobs? The advocates of such projects seem to think so.

Visiting the great outdoors may make people more environmentally conscious. But what if the greater accessibility attracts more people and thus adds to the degradation of the area? Would the green jobs then turn brown?

If I were to drive all around the state - or fly all around the world - educating people about the damage the use of fossil fuels does to the climate, would that make me a green-collar worker?

Give up? I reckon it's virtually impossible to come up with a watertight definition of green jobs. But I don't think that matters. As the Australia Institute's report argues, focusing on green jobs is at best a distraction and at worse a snare and a delusion. The object of the climate change exercise is to move to an economy where little of our energy needs are met by burning fossil fuels, thereby making us a "low-carbon economy" and greatly reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Focus on that and the jobs will look after themselves. What seems to be missing from the preoccupation with green jobs is an understanding that all economic activity creates jobs. Moving to a low-carbon economy may well involve reducing jobs in industries that produce fossil fuels, but it will also create them in renewable-energy industries. And even should producing a quantity of energy from solar, wind or whatever involve fewer jobs than producing the same quantity from coal, that's not a problem either. This greater productivity of labour would leave income to be spent elsewhere in the economy - probably the services sector - where it would create jobs.

Our businesses have been using "labour-saving equipment" to replace workers for 200 years and it hasn't cause mass unemployment yet. (It's true, however, that the workers displaced from fossil-fuel industries may not be well placed to take the jobs created in the renewable industries or elsewhere, but that problem - which does need to be dealt with - is common to all the changes in the structure of the economy that continuous technological advance has caused over the centuries.)

It's OK for governments to spend money for the dominant purpose of creating jobs when they're fighting to urgently reduce the impact of recession. Apart from that, however, the money they spend should be aimed at achieving its nominal purpose. The number of jobs this spending creates should be incidental.

If we continue our muddled thinking about green jobs, we risk having politicians trying to curry our favour by wasting money on schemes that will do little to combat climate change.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Economists help cause gutless government

I hope I'm wrong, but I fear the all-in fight over the resource super profits tax will in time be seen to have brought the era of micro-economic reform to an end. If so, the economics profession will bear its share of the blame.

You could argue (as I did on Saturday) that, though the compromise deal Julia Gillard came up with is far from perfect, it still represents a net increase in economic efficiency relative to the present arrangements. But that ignores the psychological scars this dog fight will leave on the pollies.

You have to ask yourself what conclusions the politicians - of both sides; they're very similar animals - will draw, first from Kevin Rudd's palpable loss of credibility following his decision to dump the emissions trading scheme, and second from the government's near-death experience with the resource tax.

There is a host of useful lessons you'd hope the pollies would draw: don't over-promise and under-deliver, don't announce contentious reforms just before an election, don't take on too much, don't underestimate the attention and effort needed to sell unpopular reforms to a confused electorate, and more.

But the lesson the pollies are more likely to draw is much more damaging: don't let economists sell you complex reforms that are almost impossible to explain to mere mortals because the economists will fall to arguing among themselves and leave you in the lurch.

Think about it: what is reform? It's governments making changes that economic theory says will make us all better off, but in the process arousing intense resistance from those who fear their rents are threatened.

Governments then face the problem that the great number of modest winners stay mute while the small number of big losers scream blue murder. As we've just seen, the political problem is greatly compounded by the ease with which powerful vested interests can convince the public the interests' problem is actually the public's problem.

The antidote to this propaganda involves economic reasoning that's beyond most of the public's comprehension and which the pollies find almost impossible to explain without the help of economists capable of speaking plain English.

When people don't understand policy debates and don't know what to believe, they fall back on the opinions of presumed experts, such as prominent business people. But business people are either on the make or they're adhering to an honour-among-thieves ethic that you keep mum while fellow business people are trying it on (we've just seen the Business Council doing exactly this on the resource tax).

The other, better qualified authority source is the economics profession. But reforming pollies have learnt economists always let you down. You think you're fighting their good fight, but they're more inclined to attack you or muddy the water than support you. There are different kinds of economists, of course. The econocrats generally aren't free to speak publicly on policy.

Most market and private sector economists are prevented by their employers from joining the non-macro policy debate, prevented from offending clients or potential clients and sometimes required to spruik their firm's interests.

Then you have the self-employed economic consultants, whose arguments are for hire - sometimes by governments trying to side-step the econocrats, but usually by vested interests battling the government.

Apart from a handful of media economic commentators who are free to express their opinions (those working for Fairfax, anyway) that leaves only the academic economists free to take sides and speak out.

The great majority of academics don't say boo beyond the staff room. But the few who do are far more likely to argue the toss with government policies than support them.

(The 21 academic economists who issued a statement supporting the resource super profits tax are an honourable exception.) I have sympathy for the Treasury secretary's expression of the frustration ministers of both colours feel at the unsupportive contributions of academics.

Ken Henry acknowledged the value of the academic "contest of ideas", but said there were "occasions on which economists might, at least for a period, put down their weapons and join a consensus".

The reaction of the academics wasn't just defensive, it dripped with righteous indignation. Professor Warwick McKibbin, of the Australian National University, said Henry "can't believe you should have consensus because it is better to have bad policy that everyone agrees with than eventually get good policy that will work".

Note the assumptions in that remark: the policies governments advance are always bad and always in need of correction by that fount of wisdom, W. McKibbin. It tells you more about his personality than the state of public policy. I don't remember him ever doing anything but criticise. McKibbin was among the first economists to propose a detailed solution to climate change and is an expert of international rank. But no government has accepted his solution and now he tears down every proposal different from his own.

He's so negative the opponents of action see him as an ally.

Professor Joshua Gans, of Melbourne Business School, said "you have to believe Ken Henry really doesn't understand academics at all when he publicly says stuff like this". He had supported various government policies, but was never invited to help improve those policies ("something they could clearly use"). Failing that, he would "speak my mind from the sidelines".

It's a free country, and if academics are willing only to advocate (their personal version of) policy perfection and not support policies that inevitably and unavoidably are less than first-best, no one can make them.

But let's not hear any economists whose only contribution is a counsel of perfection complain governments lack the "political will" to implement economic reform policies even economists refuse to support.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Battle over tax leaves Labor with bloody nose

The deal Julia Gillard has done on the mining tax is bad for her government's reputation, bad for democracy and bad for the future of economic reform, but not too bad for the economy.

The immediate reaction of most parties will be relief. What was seen as a great threat has gone away.

The big miners will be quietly congratulating themselves on the extent of their victory, but leaving it to their friendly business commentators to do the crowing for them.

Concessions extracted from the government because the big mining companies were holding a gun to its head will be interpreted as proof that all the miners' dubious arguments against the resources super profits tax were valid.

But the initial emotional reaction to the deal is one thing, the longer-term consequences are another.

Although Gillard, being a new prime minister, will be given a lot of slack by the electorate, the Labor government's backdown on the mining tax, coming on top of its retreat on the emissions trading scheme, will entrench its reputation for weakness and lack of conviction, and further embolden vested interests to actively resist legislation they don't like.

Labor will be looking for people to blame, but it should consider its own part in this political disaster. Its decision to adopt such a controversial reform so close to an election was a basic political miscalculation.

Its belief that, simply by naming the tax a "super profits" tax, it could harness all the public's envious resentment of the rich mining companies, which would be sufficient to outweigh all the propaganda the miners would put up, was another bad call.

This government has shown an inability to set priorities for itself, tried to do too much, and grossly underestimated the degree of ground-preparing, consulting and explaining needed to ensure a controversial reform makes it from announcement to reality.

Professor Ross Garnaut said early in this war that it would be a test of whether difficult economic reform remained possible in Australia, or whether powerful interest groups now had too much sway over the political process.

By that test we haven't done well, even if a significant element of reform remains in the compromise forced on the government. It's now clear to all that governments daring to take on the mighty mining industry can expect to lose.

The big miners have won their fight against the emissions trading scheme, and now they'll be seen as achieving major concessions in the attempt to make them share with the owners of the resources a larger proportion of the windfall gains from the resources boom.

These guys are giant killers. They saved themselves $1.5 billion over the first two years - and probably a lot more in later years - for the price of an advertising campaign estimated to have cost just $7 million.

They prove that if you're big enough, rich enough and aggressive enough you can push around the elected government of Australia.

This Labor government has always been afraid of big business and now its drubbing at the hands of three big companies will deepen that fear. What do you reckon are the chances of a re-elected Labor government returning to the Henry report for further ideas on tax reform?

I fear this is the end for controversial micro-economic reform from Labor. And it's hard to see the cause being taken up by a future Liberal government. Don't forget the major part the Abbott opposition's unprincipled opportunism played in this affair and in the abandonment of the emissions trading scheme before it.

The deal involves changing the (dumb) name of the resources super profits tax to the minerals resource rent tax, turning it into a more generous version of the existing petroleum resource rent tax and extending the coverage of the petroleum tax.

That's not the end of the world. The miners had been expecting something similar to petroleum tax and, had that been what the government decided to introduce, it would have been greeted by economists as a big improvement in the efficiency of resource taxation.

In theory, the originally proposed tax was more economically efficient than the petroleum tax - that is, it would have done less to distort miners' choices about what projects to undertake. But some of the miners' criticisms of it - namely, that bankers would discount for purposes of collateral the value of the government's guarantee to cover 40 per cent of project losses - were genuine.

The main difference in changing the original tax to be more like the petroleum tax is to drop the guarantee to pick up 40 per cent of losses, in return for the cut-in point for the application of the rent tax being raised from the long-term bond rate to the long-term bond rate plus 7 percentage points.

This is just a change in the way the tax allows for "risk" in the universally accepted proposition that economic rent is what projects earn in excess of their risk-adjusted rate of return (the long-term bond rate being taken as the risk-free rate of return). Don't forget that those minerals that remain covered by the new tax - iron ore and coal - will still have the new tax effectively take the place of the states' volume- or price-based (but not profit-based) royalty charges. This feature does much to improve efficiency.

What's hard to understand about the deal is that so many changes could be made at such a small net loss of revenue from the new tax: $1.5 billion over the first two years. Three possible explanations come to mind. First, the original costings had a lot of leeway built into them in anticipation of some concessions having to be granted.

Second, the ultimate cost of the concessions won't be felt until after the first two years of the tax (the estimates for which we've never been shown).

Third, the exclusion of many other minerals from the tax may involve a net saving to revenue because those firms would have gained from not having to pay state royalties while paying little or no resource rent tax. If so, the small miners have only themselves to blame for throwing in their lot with the big boys and then being dudded.

And the same goes for all those businesses now facing a cut in company tax of only 1 percentage point rather than 2 points because they stood back while their big mining mates did over the government at their expense.