Wednesday, February 13, 2013
I'm hoping to keep hanging around until it's obvious I've worn out my welcome with the readers or with my boss, but I doubt I'd stay long were Fairfax to fall into the hands of people who lacked a commitment to the preservation of quality independent journalism.
Scholars argue over what Keynes meant by that aphorism. Like many such quotes, people use it to mean whatever suits them. I've always taken it to mean we should focus on managing the short-run fluctuations in demand (spending) and not worry about the supply (production) side of the economy, which neo-classical economics teaches can change only in the long run.
If that's what Keynes meant then he WAS wrong. As he well knew, the long run of economic theory isn't long enough for many of us to have died. But if you ignore the supply side for long enough it starts to malfunction, and this inevitably makes it harder to manage the demand side and keep unemployment and inflation low.
That's the point we'd got to when I started as an economic journalist in the mid-1970s: both inflation and unemployment were out of control - here and throughout the developed world - and economists were at a loss to know what to do about it.
In the end Australians stumbled on the solution half by accident. Paul Keating championed a program of extensive supply-side reform (he called it "micro-economic reform") and Johns Hewson and Howard supported him. This reform intensified the competition in many of our industries, reducing firms' pricing power and unions' bargaining power and making the economy much less inflation-prone. With inflation back under control by the early '90s, we slowly ground the official unemployment rate down to 5 per cent or so.
What's kept me going all these years - this year will be my 39th federal budget - is that I keep learning more about the economy and economics and as I learn my views evolve.
I'm very much aware of the material benefits supply-side reform and greatly improved demand management have brought us: ever-rising real incomes and more than 20 years since the last severe recession - something no other rich country can say.
But I'm also becoming more aware of the less tangible, less easily measured price we've paid for our greater affluence: a more materialist culture (where, for instance, education is valued mainly for the better jobs it brings), a wider gap between rich and poor, a more commercialised approach to entertainment and sport (with intrusive sports betting, drug-using athletes, unapologetic exploitation of pokie addicts and now maybe even corruption), a more degraded natural environment, a chief-executive class that expects everything its own way, a lot more job insecurity, more pressure on families and, I dare say, a lot more stress all round.
Let me be clear: most of us ARE better off materially as a result of the harsher, more demanding, less fair world we've built for ourselves. Were we to try to slow down the merry-go-round there WOULD be a material price to be paid.
But too much of the message we get from our business people, economists and politicians demands we go further and faster down this track and fails to acknowledge the choice we could make to live in a less-pressured, more leisurely, less uncaring world were we willing to get richer more slowly (and, heaven forbid, allow other countries to pass us in the eternal race for riches).
Paradoxically, all my time specialising on the economy has convinced me there's more to life than economics. We're giving too high a priority to the material and paying too little attention to the social, the relational and the spiritual. The community and its elected leaders are allowing economists to dominate policy advice when we should be consulting a much wider range of experts, including psychologists, sociologists, ethicists and even clerics.
But the people with most influence aren't the economists, it's the comparative handful of macho-man (and the odd alpha-female) chief executives whose interests the economists too often serve (along with a Greek chorus of business lobby groups and think tanks).
With assurance as to their rightness and righteousness, our big business leaders promise us more jobs and greater prosperity if only we'll see reason and give them freedom to do as they see fit and as soon as possible.
They're right about the jobs. If all we want is more jobs for more people, giving business freer rein will deliver them. What they rarely if ever admit (and the economists often neglect to warn us of) is that in many cases the extra jobs will be less secure and more pressured and the greatest beneficiaries of the extra income will be the business leaders themselves.
Central to big business's high pressure tactics is urgency. All "green tape" must be cleared away. Consider the community concern about the exploitation of coal seam gas. I suspect many people's worries about the wider effects of fracking are unfounded. But the scientific investigation is incomplete. Do we have time to wait until we know more? Gosh no. Projects must start immediately. What exactly is the hurry? A good question our politicians too seldom ask.
We're being hurtled towards a world I fear we will increasingly dislike. But in this democracy, that will be OUR fault, not anyone else's.