Monday, December 18, 2017

A bigger, better public sector will secure our future

There are important lessons to be learnt from the latest news about where our strong growth in employment is coming from. But if we listen to the nostrums of the Smaller Government brigade, we'll get them exactly wrong.

The (trend) figures we got from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week showed employment growth of 370,000 – or 3.1 per cent – over the year to November. More than 80 per cent of the new jobs were full-time.

Great news.

But my esteemed colleague Peter Martin delved deeper and came upon a bigger story: the strong growth in employment has not been spread evenly across the economy, but is heavily concentrated in just two industries: "healthcare and social assistance" and construction.

It's also concentrated disproportionately in Victoria and NSW, and among women workers.

Why? Because, though employment in health and aged care has been growing strongly for years, the latest bout can be attributed mainly to the delayed rollout of the national disability insurance scheme initiated by Julia Gillard. Most of these extra workers would be female.

And because the strong growth in construction employment can be attributed mainly to a boom in infrastructure spending by the Victorian and NSW governments, much of it induced by Joe Hockey's incentive payment to state governments which engaged in "asset recycling" by using the proceeds from privatisation to build new infrastructure.

Oh no! You mean the growth in employment isn't the real deal? It's just some kind of temporary budget stimulus? It's not coming from the productive private sector, just from the unproductive, parasitical public sector, which wouldn't exist without the private sector's blood to suck upon?

Remember what I said last week about neoliberalism being ideology masquerading as economics? That last paragraph was a classic case.

It's true that, in some sense, the disability scheme and state infrastructure projects are instances of fiscal (budget) stimulus. But the notion that government deficit spending "crowds out" private sector spending is true only when the economy is booming and already at full employment – which we clearly aren't at present.

Just imagine how much weaker the economy would be now if government spending hadn't caused full-time employment to grow by up to 300,000 jobs over the past year.

The news that so much of the past year's employment growth has come from public deficit spending is actually vindication of the Reserve Bank's longstanding call for monetary policy (interest-rate) stimulus to be backed up by fiscal stimulus.

Note, too, that while even all full-time construction jobs are temporary in the sense that all projects end, employment associated with the disability scheme will continue indefinitely.

And, since governments tend to outsource both their construction projects and their disability care packages, most of the new jobs would actually be classed as in the private sector.

Of course, the notion that the private sector is productive but the public sector isn't is sheer economic illiteracy. We've long lived in a "mixed economy" in which most goods and services are produced by the private sector but, for good reason, some services are produced (or, at least, funded) by the public sector.

As I also wrote last week, economists are doing battle against the misapprehension scaring our youth that robots will reduce the amount of work needing to be done – the latest incarnation of what economists have long called the (fixed) "lump of labour fallacy".

While it's true new technology has been destroying jobs since the start of the Industrial Revolution, it's equally true that in those two centuries we've never yet run out of other jobs we'd like to pay someone to do for us.

Since the 1960s, a large share of these green-fields jobs has gone to women, facilitating their (continuing) mass movement back into the paid workforce after child-bearing.

But here's the most important lesson to learn from the news that most of the growth in good, full-time jobs in recent times has come from the government: much of the new demand for people to do new things for us will involve new jobs delivering services in, or funded by, the public sector.

That's because almost all the services best provided or funded by the public sector are "superior goods" – things we want more of as we get richer: education and training, healthcare, aged care, disability care and much else, even law and order.

So the greatest threat to continued growth in the "lump of labour" comes not from robots, but from those wanting to put some arbitrary cap on the size of government – and, of course, on the amount of tax we pay.