Monday, June 27, 2011

How to blow the boom: cocoon manufacturers

The fusspots are right when they say we must make sure the nation gains lasting benefit from the resources boom. But doing so is as much about what we shouldn't do as what we should.

The first thing to note is that, even if the boom were to end a lot earlier than the policy-makers expect, the main thing we will be left with is a very much larger mining sector, producing and exporting a lot more minerals and natural gas than we do at present - and earning a good living in the process.

The sceptics who fear we'll be left with nothing when the present sky-high prices fall back - as they will - need reminding that higher prices are just one way to make a quid. The other way is with increased volume. And that is what we'll end up with.

Mining will account for a lot higher proportion of gross domestic product than its present 9 per cent. It is true that, mining being so highly capital-intensive, its share of total employment is likely to be just a few per cent.

It is true - but irrelevant. What matters is how much income mining brings into the country. When that income is spent - by the companies, their employees, governments and shareholders - jobs are created somewhere in the economy. Where exactly? In the services sector, where else?

Those who worry about us suffering Dutch disease - in which the high exchange rate caused by a minerals boom wipes out the manufacturing sector, leaving us with nothing when the boom's over - are themselves suffering from various misconceptions.

For a start, as a matter of historical accuracy, the manufacturing industry in the Netherlands wasn't wiped out in the 1970s and is alive and kicking to this day. Industries are invariably more resilient than they fear they will be - especially when seeking special assistance from governments.

Next, we need to avoid the mercantilist fallacy that the only way to make a living is to sell things to foreigners. At least three-quarters of our workforce makes its living selling things to other Australians. The only reason we need exports is to pay for imports - but the money earnt by the miners will help us with that.

We also need to avoid the physiocratic fallacy that the only way to make a living is to produce something that can be touched. If that is true, please explain how the three-quarters of the workforce toiling in the services sector - from the Prime Minister down to the lowliest cleaner - make their living.

We won't wipe out our manufacturing sector but even if we did, there is no shred of doubt where the jobs would come from: the same place all the extra jobs created in the past 40 years have come from - the services sector.

Yet another point to remember is that, with the economy already close to full employment in the early stages of the resumption of the resources boom, and with the ageing of the population causing the demand for labour to outstrip the supply of it, the one thing we won't have to worry about in coming years is: ''Where will the jobs come from?''

No, the problem here is not the threat of mass unemployment; it's just the matter of making sure we don't pee too much of the proceeds of our resources' good fortune up against a wall.

Why is that a worry? Because that is what we've done in the past.

In terms of export income, our economy has been riding on a sheep's back or on a coal truck since its earliest days.

What we've never had is a vibrant manufacturing sector. Our economy has been too small to get sufficient economies of scale, too far from North Atlantic markets and too good at mining and agriculture (by definition, you can't have a comparative advantage in everything).

But, for most of the past century, we hankered after a big manufacturing sector like all the other rich countries had. So we erected huge tariff barriers and set up a manufacturing industry behind them, thus forcing Australians to pay a lot more for their manufactures than they could have paid had they been given access to cheaper imports.

In other words, we took a fair bit of the proceeds from our rural and mineral wealth and used it to cross-subsidise a manufacturing sector far bigger than could have stood on its own feet. And now, with all the cries about the high exchange rate, we are being asked to do it again.

Since old-style protection in the form of tariffs and import quotas is now so unfashionable, the industry's lobbyists - including its unions - are pushing for disguised protection in the form of tighter anti-dumping restrictions and handouts in the name of ''innovation''.

There is no denying our manufacturers will need to be - and will be - innovative in their efforts to survive in an era of high exchange rates. But the more governments yield to rent seeking by pretending to be subsidising ''innovation'', the longer it will take the industry to accept responsibility for its own destiny.

No, if ever there is a time when it is obviously stupid for rich countries to prop up their manufacturers against competition from developing Asia, it is now.

The obvious way to maximise our lasting benefits from the resources boom is to let secondary industry take its chances and put all our effort into boosting tertiary industry - with all its clean, safe, well-paid, high value-added and intellectually satisfying jobs.

And the obvious way to do that is to invest in a lot more education and training, thereby increasing the nation's human capital and the saleability of Australians' labour.