Monday, October 3, 2016

If the economy’s acting dumb, don’t blame the econocrats

Has it occurred to you that, with the Reserve Bank now run by Dr Philip Lowe and his deputy Dr Guy Debelle, Glenn Stevens may have been the last governor we'll see without a PhD?

All Stevens and his predecessor, Ian Macfarlane, could manage was a master's degree.

Of course, nothing is certain. After Dr Ken Henry was succeeded as Treasury secretary by Dr Martin Parkinson, I convinced myself the era of PhD-only secretaries had arrived at Treasury.

Wrong. It didn't occur to me that Tony Abbott would intervene, sacking Parkinson and replacing him with John Fraser (honours degree), a throwback to Treasury's (John) Stone Age.

My point is to remind you that the nation's top econocrats get ever-better educated. And take my word for it – they're not just highly qualified, they're whip smart.

When you spend as much time talking to them as I do – mainly before they make it to their top slots – you have to keep reminding yourself how exceptionally bright they are to stop you underrating your own brainpower.

They're the kind of people who – while you were at uni chasing the opposite sex, playing at politics or just goofing off – were swatting flat out, preparing for every lecture and starting early on every essay. You skimmed the texts; they read every word.

While chatting about other people's academic qualifications I suppose I should disclose my own: scraped through a bachelor of commerce, pass level.

Had to repeat several subjects, and the last pass I got, for international economics, was conceded. I couldn't see the point of economics until long after I left uni.

If by now I do know a bit about the topic, it's thanks mainly to long telephone tutorials from the aforementioned and their predecessors.

As citizens we should find it reassuring that our politicians are being advised by such smart people.

For the most part they're more intelligent (and better qualified) than their political masters – and than the politically ambitious young punks in the minister's office who stand between them and the boss.

We'd be better governed if more of the people in ministers' offices came from the department, if there was a less adversarial relationship between the office and the department, and if ministers and their private advisers were more conscious of their need for policy advice from the more expert.

After Scott Morrison's major speech about "the taxed and the taxed-not" I stopped myself saying it was clear Treasury hadn't written it because of all the bad grammar in it.

The broader point is that, although the nation may not be doing as well as we should be in increasing the human capital of the workforce, there's no doubt our workforce is getting better qualified.

Over just the 10 years to 2015, the proportion of our population aged 20 to 64 with a bachelor degree or above rose by 7.5 percentage points to 29.3 per cent.

This would include a lot of our brighter young people getting double degrees – the benefits of which I'm yet to be persuaded of. (Whether too many of our workers have actually become overqualified is a worry for another day.)

So rest assured, the economic bureaucracy is at least keeping up with the trend to better qualified workers, and probably exceeding it. Of course, people with doctorates are popping up throughout the workforce, not just the bureaucracy.

Most of the Reserve's PhDs are home grown. As you may remember from Peter Martin's fascinating biography of its new leadership, Lowe joined straight from school, meaning the Reserve funded his education all the way from undergrad university medal to doctorate from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Since the Reserve earns a fortune each year by printing bank notes for less than 10¢ a pop and selling them to the banks at face value (only most of which it eventually passes on to the government), it's well able to afford to ensure its troops are well educated.

It's harder for Treasury, whose bright young things compete against the rest of the public service for a limited number of scholarships (one of which was endowed by the will of a former Treasury secretary).

You could be forgiven for wondering whether having our top econocrats so well-qualified academically is such a wonderful idea. Fortunately, there's a big difference between an econocrat with a PhD and a university lecturer with one.

Too many trainee academic economists are just learning to do mathematical tricks that will impress their peers. A post-grad from the bureaucracy knows they're learning how to prescribe better economic policy.