Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Gavin Mooney Memorial Oration (with Rev Tim Costello), Melbourne University, Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I didn’t know Gavin Mooney, but I do know that, unusually for an economist, he had a deep concern for fairness or, as economists call it, ‘equity’. So it’s highly appropriate that, in this the inaugural Gavin Mooney Memorial Oration, we address ‘the case for a more equitable Australia’. I want to talk about the economic case for a more equitable Australia. But before I do I want to enter a major caveat.

Why should we seek a more equitable Australia in which income and wealth and opportunity are shared more fairly between the top and the bottom? For no better reason than that it’s the ethical, moral, right thing to do. If it’s the moral thing to do - the thing that, for Christians, Jesus wants us to do, and most other religions and humanist ethical codes tell us we should do - we don’t need any supporting arguments. I’ve often heard the ethicist Simon Longstaff say that if you’re ethical in your business practices because you believe it’s good for business, you’re not being ethical at all. Ethics as a profit-making strategy isn’t ethics. One of the things I’ve learnt from my reading of psychology is that it’s always better to do things from intrinsic rather than extrinsic motives. It’s better to do things for their own sake - because you enjoy doing them or believe it’s your duty to do them - than because doing them brings you some sort of external reward - money, power, fame or status.

I’m often sorry when I hear people in noble occupations defending what they do with instrumental arguments. I’d like to hear more vice chancellors say they believe in increasing and spreading knowledge for its own sake, that a rich country like ours can afford to spend a far bit of its wealth on satisfying our insatiable human curiosity, that the better educated people are the more they can get out of life, even if they never put that education to use in the workforce, rather than arguing that investing in education is good for the economy. I’m sorry when I hear people in the arts arguing that the arts create many jobs. When we do this we’re giving in to the hyper-materialism of our age.

But having said that, I have to acknowledge that Tim is more qualified than me to make the moral case for a more equitable Australia - and he’s just done that - and as an economic journalist it’s more appropriate for me to make the economic case. So it may seem that I’m about to do what I just said other people shouldn’t do: argue that we should be more equitable because this would make the community better off materially. I actually believe that to be true - just as it’s true that spending more on education would make us all better off materially - but actually I’m going to make the mirror image argument: that making Australia more equitable wouldn't make us worse off.

Why am I mounting such a negative argument? Because there’s a widespread belief among economists and their fellow travellers that making Australia more equitable would leave the community worse off materially, that it would come at the cost of a lower material standard of living overall.

The longstanding conventional wisdom among mainstream economists is that ‘equity’ is in conflict with ‘efficiency’ - that is, the efficient allocation of resources so as to maximise the community’s material standard of living and foster economic growth. Economists are comfortable with objectives being in conflict because a key part of their expertise is knowing how such conflicts are resolved: by trading off one unit of equity for one for one unit of efficiency (or vice versa) and continuing to do this until you’ve achieved the particular combination of equity and efficiency that gives you maximum satisfaction overall. Once you’ve achieved that ideal trade-off you’ve achieved economic nirvana: equilibrium.

In practice, however, it’s worse than that. Economists specialise in efficiency, but not in equity. Their contribution to society is to explain to the community how to organise the economy in ways that maximise our utility or satisfaction from the production and consumption of goods and services, and how to keep our material standard of living improving every year. If you believe that efficiency and equity are always in conflict, so anything you do to improve equity will always be at the expense of efficiency, but you, as an economist, happen to specialise in efficiency, it’s easy to decide to focus on efficiency and ignore equity. After all, we live in an age of ever-increasing specialisation - which is actually a primary source of productivity improvement and thus our ever-rising material affluence. So you focus on efficiency and growth, and leave equity for others to worry about.

You bolster this decision by observing that, whereas efficiency is objective and measurable, equity is highly subjective; fairness is in the eye of the beholder. So you tell yourself - and anyone who asks - that you stick to the science and leave the value judgments to those more qualified, such as the politicians. (This would be fair enough, were it not for the fact that, in proffering their advice, economists rarely attach product warnings. Though the advertisers of patent medicines warn people to see a doctor ‘if problems persist’, economists don’t warn politicians to check with sociologists or prelates before they act on the economists’ advice.)

The problem is, if it’s not true that efficiency and equity are in conflict - or not always true - then the economists will be failing to advise politicians of cases where equity can be improved without any loss of efficiency - that is, failing to advise the community when there’s a free lunch to be had. And if, because of their lack of interest in equity as an objective, economists fail to draw attention to those cases where improving equity can lead also to improved efficiency, then economists are failing in their own specified role to maximise efficiency and failing to point out cases where we can kill two birds with one stone.

I’m sure there are plenty of cases where equity and efficiency really are in conflict. But I’m equally sure there are many cases - far more than we realise - where they aren’t; that there are delicious free lunches going begging and opportunities to increase efficiency that the efficiency experts themselves haven’t noticed because of this kink in their thinking.

Let’s start by looking at the limited case: where is the evidence that greater equity damages efficiency? The opponents of government intervention have been searching for years for cross-country or other evidence that developed economies with a bigger public sector (and thus a more redistributive tax and transfer system) have inferior records on economic growth. They haven’t found it. Nor have they found evidence that countries with a less unequal distribution of income between households have inferior economic growth. In his book, The Price of Inequality, the Nobel Prize- winning economist Joe Stiglitz observes that various European countries enjoy a standard of living much the same as America’s while doing much more to reduce income inequality than America does. So there’s little evidence we have to accept a highly unequal society to preserve an efficient, growing economy. Studies show the US has surprisingly low social mobility: few people with poor parents go on to have high incomes and, conversely, few people suffer a decline in income between generations. If you can stay rich in America without trying, and stay poor despite trying, it’s hard to believe this won’t lead to a long-term decline in the dynamism of the US economy.

So let’s move on to the evidence for the more positive case: that equity and efficiency can pull together, that reduced inequality can actually enhance efficiency and growth. There’s a growing amount of such evidence. But before we get to it I need to acknowledge the contribution of Gavin Mooney. One of his great research interests was in what health economists and public health medicos call ‘the social gradient’ or ‘the social determinants of health’. There is much evidence that the health of people with low socio-economic status is much worse than that of people with high socio-economic status. The obvious response to this evidence is to say that measures to improve the health of people on the bottom ought to lead to a very real improvement in their wellbeing. That’s the equity objective. But health, like education, is one of those things that are both a means and an end in themselves, an instrument as well as an objective. The better educated a population is, the more its labour is worth and the richer we can expect it to be. Similarly, the healthier a population is the more able it is to work and the richer we can expect it to be. So the more we do to improve the health of the bottom half, the more efficient the economy should be and the faster it should grow.

Stiglitz cites an IMF study finding that the less unequal a country’s income distribution is, the further apart its recessions are likely to be - that is, the less macroeconomic instability it’s likely to suffer. His book contains much similar evidence and arguments, but I want to refer to the work of one other American Nobel laureate, James Heckman, before I move my argument closer to home. Heckman’s work demonstrates the almost magical power that attending to the early childhood development of at-risk children has in reducing the likelihood of them getting into trouble with the police, dropping out of school, being in and out of employment and in and out of jail. It’s obvious that the success of such a program would do much to improve equality of opportunity, and it’s not hard to see it would also greatly improve the beneficiaries’ contribution to the paid labour force (not to mention the pressure on government spending).

The most obvious case of increasing equity also increasing efficiency is unemployment. We think it’s unfair to have people who want to work unable to find a job, not just because it leaves them with less to spend but also because we know the unemployed are particularly unhappy. Sure. But it’s also glaringly inefficient to have people who’re able to work lying around idle and not contributing to national production. Finding ways to get those people back to work would often make a far greater contribution to efficiency than many of the micro-economic reforms economists hanker after.

Two prominent - and now apparently bipartisan - policies in this campaign are seen as primarily about equity, but nonetheless should bring significant efficiency benefits. The first is the Gonski reforms to school funding, which are intended to increase the assistance able to be given to students suffering one form of disadvantage or another regardless of which school system they’re in. If this results in more young people gaining a better education, the value of their labour is increased as well as their degree of participation in the labour force. It’s a similar situation with the national disability insurance scheme. It can be expected to increase workforce participation and the acquisition of skills. And where unpaid carers with high skills are able to return to the workforce after being replaced by paid carers with lesser skills there’s obviously some increase in the skills of the workforce. According to the estimates of no less an authority than the Productivity Commission, the disability scheme could be expected to lead to an annual increase in real GDP reaching 1 percentage point by 2050.

Finally, in an issue that’s dear to my heart, there is growing evidence that organising work in the workplace in ways designed to increase the satisfaction workers derive from their work - by making sure you put round pegs in round holes, or having them work in teams, or giving them greater personal autonomy or a say in the way things are run - leads them to make a better contribution to the success of the firm. Since most of us are doomed to spend 40 hours a week working for most of our lives, it amazes me the populous hasn’t long ago insisted that work be made as satisfying as possible. The growing evidence that doing so would also increase efficiency makes it even more amazing.

The case for greater equity in Australia is fundamentally a moral one: we should do it because it’s the right thing to do. But the economic efficiency case for not making Australia more equitable is weaker than many economists assume. There is evidence we can increase equity in ways that don’t reduce efficiency. And if we look for them there are many ways we can reduce inequality and increase efficiency at the same time. Let’s do it.