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.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Breaking news: classical Athens had an economy

Did you know that classical Athens didn't have an economy? If you find that hard to believe, you should - because it's not possible.

But if you read the many hundreds of books written about Athens in the classical period, you could be forgiven for imagining that all those philosophers, poets, artists, politicians and generals existed in a world where the mundanities of making a living and raising a family didn't exist.

This may be because the authors of those books thought that, beside the glories of Athens' literature, art, architecture and history, mere economics wasn't worth mentioning. Soo boring, darling.

Or it may be that, in the minds of the authors of earlier centuries - maybe even in the minds of the Athenians themselves - an association with "trade" carried a social stigma. Like using the lavatory, it was a necessary evil not to be mentioned in polite society.

But when Peter Acton, who studied classics at Oxford but ended up as a management consultant, finally got the chance, he decided to search out whatever information he could find to set the record straight and complete the picture of Athenian life.

Athens' classical period ran from the defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes to when Athens and the rest of Greece came under the control of Alexander the Great. So, the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Whatever they did to keep body and soul together that long ago must have been small and primitive, right?

Well, no. Acton found Athens at the time had a large and thriving manufacturing sector, defined broadly to include both mining and construction.

He set out his discoveries in the book Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens, which I'll summarise. "Poiesis" comes from the same Greek root as "poetry", but means "to make".

It seems the Athenians had a lot of manufactured items in their homes. They were at the stage of economic development where the more accoutrements you could acquire, the better off you were (whereas we're closer to satiation with goods and prefer acquiring experiences).

"Athenian Man was as likely as not to have made many of the products used in his own home and probably depended for a good part of his sustenance on manufacturing for sale," Acton says.

"However rich he was, his wives and daughters would make their own clothes, working alongside some of their slaves and perhaps supervising others in the household's workshop.

"Every time he went outside, he would be surrounded by evidence of production: the smells and the smoke of smithies and pottery furnaces, the clack of looms, the hammering of carpenters and sculptors, carts rattling through the streets full of stone or wood or bales of fine cloth or jars of imported oils."

It seems likely that more than half the city's residents would have spent at least some of their time manufacturing products for sale or home consumption, Acton estimates.

This would involve almost all the slaves, of course, either helping with household production or working in a gang for one owner.

"A reasonable estimate is that around a quarter of the free population of all status levels, men and women, worked at making things," he says.

Manufacturing activity ranged in size. "It is a common mistake to see manufacturing as having undergone a steady progression from self-sufficiency based on home crafts to mechanised mass production.

"In reality, individual craftsmen, small workshops, co-operative production arrangements and large factories have coexisted over millennia in various societies, not least in classical Athens."

Although written accounts of economic life are sparse, archaeological finds are a different matter. Material evidence gives us clues about the occupations followed.

Wood, for instance, suggests foresters, sawyers, carpenters, furniture makers and boat builders. Stone suggests quarrymen, stonemasons, sculptors, mosaicists and haulers.

Metals imply miners, blacksmiths, armourers, silversmiths, goldsmiths and coiners. Clay implies potters and tilers; hides say tanners and cobblers; reeds say rope and basket makers; herbs say healers and perfumers, and wool says fullers, dyers and weavers.

Manufacturing, Acton contends, was the great leveller. Whereas agriculture was real capitalism, contributing to social inequality, trade and industry helped to level income and status.

"The social mobility, employment opportunities and relatively even distribution of wealth that accompanied the rise of commerce helped Athens to avoid the revolutions that the Peleponnese suffered regularly."

By Acton's estimate, the classical Athenians enjoyed a high standard of living - not just compared with other people at the time, but even compared with any other society until recently.

Economic growth in Greece was up to 0.9 per cent a year, twice as fast as in England and Holland before the Industrial Revolution.

By classical times the basic daily wage was about six times that required for subsistence, and half Athens' population lived a life that was better than the typical Briton's in the 18th century.

Conspicuous consumption became increasingly common in the fourth century BCE. "Some couches and tables were highly ornate and inlaid with gold or silver.

"Men and women wore jewellery of outstanding craftsmanship and decorative ceramics or silverware for festivals might take several years of work."

Health, as measured by bone density, increased rapidly, even though urbanisation tends to have the opposite effect.

Houses, though not luxurious, were large and comfortable, typically with roof space larger than the median single detached house in the United States in 1997. The extra space accommodated more furniture and possessions.

Athens engaged in much trade. Massive imports of grain allowed her farmers to pursue their comparative advantage, producing olive oil and wine for export.

They also imported luxury items such as fine cloth, spices, dyestuffs and precious metals, often for further processing in Athens.

But it was rich in raw materials, including marble, limestone, clay and silver.

Sounds like Athenians then were doing better in relative terms than many of them are today.