Monday, July 15, 2013

Sorry, productivity isn't almost everything

To be frank, I don't lay awake at nights worrying about how Australia is going to lift its rate of productivity improvement back to 2 per cent a year. Contrary to the impression Kevin Rudd is trying to convey with his seven-point productivity plan, higher productivity would do little to help us make the transition to the post-resources boom world.

The biggest risk in the potential hiatus between the waning of the boom and the return to healthy growth in the non-mining economy is an unacceptable rise in unemployment, and higher productivity won't fix that.

For one thing, the threat to employment is immediate and relatively short term, requiring deft management of the macro-economic levers, not the longer-term measures needed to enhance our productivity performance.

More fundamentally, improved productivity is about increasing our material standard of living - real income per person - not about increasing employment (which, in any case, shouldn't be more than a temporary problem).

I worry a lot more about whether our existing high material standard of living is compatible with the preservation of a healthy natural environment - including one that avoids excessive global warming - than about how we can drive our consumption levels even higher. The origins of the very resources boom we're struggling to adjust to - and our hand-rubbing contemplation of Asia's rapidly growing middle class - ought to be making us wonder whether the globe's natural resources and ecosystem will be able to cope with so much affluence.

So if we fail to get productivity improving at the rate of 2 per cent a year rather than 1.6 per cent, I won't be shedding too many tears. Apart from ecological sustainability, I give improving our non-material quality of life a much higher priority than increasing the number of cars, TV sets and gadgets per home.

But for all the business people, economists and politicians who profess to care so deeply about accelerating our rate of consumption let me offer some advice: you won't get far until you can see past your sectional interests and ideological hang-ups. If the hyper-materialists were genuine in their drive for faster productivity improvement they'd be ascertaining those measures likely to do most to enhance productivity and resolving to pay whatever price was necessary to bring them about.

But that's not what they're doing. Rather than asking which measures would be most effective, they're asking which measures they'd be most comfortable with. Whether the most comfortable measures would be particularly effective doesn't seem to worry them. Take the business lobbies. They're proceeding on the theory that anything making life easier for business must surely be good for productivity. So top of their list is a return to individual bargaining in industrial relations, followed by measures that reduce the tax burden on business and increase it for everyone else. As for the economists, they're really only interested in measures that fit their model's built-in presumption against government intervention in the economy.

So their preference is for measures that reduce intervention - micro-economic reform - and do little to add to government spending and taxation. The first problem with this approach is that it's generally unpopular with the electorate and invokes fierce opposition from vested interests, mainly business interests.

Successive governments have been reluctant to undertake further micro reform for well over a decade. So if more micro reform is the key to faster productivity improvement don't expect to see much improvement.

The second problem with the economists' approach is it means they have little enthusiasm for productivity enhancing measures that involve significantly increasing government spending.

Trouble is, this includes the two areas where big productivity gains are most likely to be found: greater investment in education, training and research to increase human capital, and greater investment in public infrastructure to improve the conditions in which our businesses operate.

It shouldn't be assumed that all we need to improve education and infrastructure is a lot more spending. But nor should it be assumed - as many economists do - that all that's needed is reformed government intervention in these areas. In truth, both better intervention and a lot more spending are needed. The first part is tricky, the second is ideologically unfashionable (as well as requiring higher taxes).

To be sure, the Labor government is already spending a lot more on education and training, and this should favourably affect productivity in due course. Ideological blinkers have prevented many people from seeing that the Gonski reforms to direct greater funding to disadvantaged students should have a productivity pay-off - as should the national disability insurance scheme.

My guess is any improvement we see in our productivity performance will happen more in spite of all the speech-making on the topic than because of it.