Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Facts count, because what's mined is yours

By far the biggest development in the economy in recent years is the mining boom, and it's likely to roll on for at least the rest of this decade. But Australians are having a lot of trouble getting their minds around the boom's implications. The area abounds with worries and misperceptions.

Economists keep banging on about the mining boom because it's the biggest factor driving the economy's growth. We've had a surge in export income because the world is paying such high prices for our coal and iron ore. And we're also getting huge spending on the construction of new mines and natural gas facilities.

The other reason economists get so excited about the topic is that this is hardly the first commodities boom Australia has experienced (the first was the gold rush) and most of our previous booms have ended in tears. We've quickly spent all the extra money coming our way, but that's led to rapidly rising prices. The authorities' efforts to stamp out inflation have ended up causing a recession and rising unemployment.

The present managers of the economy are determined to ensure that doesn't happen this time by keeping spending and inflation under control. This explains why, until recently, the Reserve Bank was always thinking about putting up interest rates, and why the Gillard government has been so keen to get its budget back into surplus.

But all the fuss people like me have been making about the boom has left many Australians with a quite exaggerated impression of the size of our mining sector. According to a poll conducted by the Australia Institute, on average people imagine mining accounts for 35 per cent of the goods and services the nation produces (gross domestic product).

But while mining's share of national production has increased significantly in recent years, it's still up to only 10 per cent.

Many of us see the main pay-off from an expanding industry as all the jobs it generates. So what proportion of the workforce is employed in mining? According to the Australia Institute's polling, our average answer is 16 per cent.

The truth? Even after all that expansion, less than 2 per cent. How could an industry responsible for 10 per cent of our production account for just 2 per cent of employment? By being intensely ''capital-intensive'' - by using a lot of machines and not many workers.

So, does that mean mining isn't really worth all the fuss? A lot of its industrial rivals will tell you so, but it ain't true. The true test of the worth of an industry is not how many people it employs but how much income it generates. And, particularly at present, mining is generating huge income. Do you realise it accounts for more than half the nation's export income?

The reason income trumps employment is that as income is spent it generates jobs. When you spend a dollar it percolates through the economy, supporting and creating jobs as it goes. So if mining creates 10 per cent of national income but only 2 per cent of national employment directly, that just means it supports another 8 per cent of national employment indirectly, in other (labour-intensive) industries.

Which other industries? For the most part, service industries. How can I be sure? Because after you allow for the 2 per cent of Australians employed in mining, the 3 per cent in agriculture and the 9 per cent in manufacturing, the remaining 86 per cent are employed in the many service industries: wholesaling and retailing (15 per cent), healthcare (11 per cent), construction (9 per cent), education and training (8 per cent), the professions (8 per cent), hospitality (7 per cent), public administration (6 per cent), financial and business services (6 per cent), transport (5 per cent) and many more.

Another reason I can be sure most of the jobs created indirectly by mining are in the services sector is that, for at least the past 40 years, all the net increase in national employment has come from the services sector.
Am I touching a nerve here? A lot of people are uncomfortable about the mining boom because they see it as temporary and they see digging stuff out of the ground as a pretty unsophisticated way to make a living. What do we do when it's over and what else do we do to make a buck?

It's true the sky-high prices we're getting at present won't last, but nor will they crash back to what we used to get. And we'll have a much bigger mining industry selling a lot more of the stuff than we used to. They may be non-renewable resources, but we've got a mighty lot of 'em.

What else can we do? What most of us have always done: sell services to one another and to foreigners. In these days of the information and communication revolution, most of the highly skilled, highly paid jobs are in the services sector. Those who find this intangibility discomforting are hankering after a bygone century.

It is true, however, that we must ensure we end up with something to show for this boom and that too much of the huge profit being made doesn't just end up in the hands of the mining industry's owners (about 80 per cent of whom are foreign). After all, the minerals they're mining are owned by all Australians, not the miners.

That's why it's good to see Julia Gillard's profit-based mining tax finally being passed by the House of Representatives, even though Tony Abbott's mindless opposition to it allowed the three big foreign mining companies to butcher the tax.