Monday, January 21, 2019

Positions vacant: economists (women preferred)

Never in the field of economic conflict was so much analytical effort devoted to so few... as in Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe’s one-man crusade to save the economics profession.

This latter-day Lord Kitchener wants more young Australians studying economics at high school and university, then enlisting as economists in the holy war against economic inefficiency.

His message: Your country needs you. Opportunity cost is being flouted on every hand, yet we have just 3000 professional economists fighting the tide of economic illiteracy.

Young women, in particular, should look at themselves in the mirror and ask the hard question: what good reason have I not to become an economist? Why should I squander my life on any lesser calling than the orderly regulation of mammon?

And let’s have no weak excuses that you know nothing about being an economist – what kind of people they are, what they do, where they work, how hard it is to find a job. Not forgetting a question that could cross the mind of someone with the right stuff to be a dismal scientist: how well does it pay?

Field marshal Lowe has had his people working night and day scouring data bases far and wide to answer all such questions. Rochelle Guttmann (ably assisted by James Bishop, a mere male) does so in the subtly titled paper, Does It Pay to Study Economics? taken from my rapidly dwindling pile of unused reports, seasonally adjusted from 2018.

According to the 2016 census, fewer than 3000 people work as economists, even though there are 73,000 people with post-school qualifications in economics. What’s worse, only about two-thirds of people working as economists actually hold a qualification in economics.

But this is misleading. It’s not nearly that bad. For a start, the 3000 excludes about 2000 academic economists, who are classed as university lecturers. More significantly, to be classed as holding a qualification in economics, you must have that word in the name of your degree.

This is silly. In the day, the title of your degree said as much about which uni you went to as about the subject you majored in. Economics majors at Melbourne or UNSW walked away with a BCom, whereas accounting majors at Sydney got a BEc.

Little wonder people holding an “economics” degree are more likely to work as an accountant than as an economist. And you can forget the notion that a third of working economists are unqualified academically.

Returning to the recruiting drive, the authors make two observations about the huge disparity between those having done an economics degree and those getting a job as an economist.

First, it probably shows it’s hard for someone with an economics degree to actually get a job as an economist (ie, S > D). But it probably also shows that an economics degree is generalist in nature and provides a breadth of skills that allows you to work in a broader range of jobs compared to other degrees.

Get this: “80 per cent of economics graduates work in high-skilled white-collar occupations”.

More than a third of economists (narrowly defined) work in public administration, well over a quarter in private-sector professional services and about 15 per cent in financial services. But people with economics degrees work in a broader range of occupations and industries than people with degrees in most other fields.

Whether you’re talking economists or people with economics degrees, more than 60 per cent of them are men. Lowe believes – as does his teenage daughter, apparently – this disparity must be corrected. (The daughters of powerful men are far more influential than is commonly understood.)

Now to the question no economist would regard as sordid. Figures from the Australian Tax Office say economists have hourly earnings that put them in the top 3 per cent of earnings by occupation.

Graduates with economics degrees typically have higher full-time earnings than other graduates. They’re comparable with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees, and higher than for business and other social science degrees.

Guttmann and her male sidekick say the labour market tends to pay the highest wages to people with the skills, abilities and knowledge that are in shortest supply [relative to employers’ demand].

So which skills make economists well-paid? Apart from their knowledge of economics, economists have skill in maths that’s way above the average for other skilled occupations, and above-average analytical skill, for reasoning and problem solving (which is what brings the big bucks).

Looking for the catch? You’ve found it. If you’re weak on maths, you might be happier as a journo.
Read more >>

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Squaring the world's waste circle ain't that easy

If you think we’ve been standing still – even going backwards – on reconciling the economy with the natural environment, that’s not wholly true. While our refusal to get real on climate change drags on, we’ve started our journey to the nirvana of a “circular economy”.

Never heard the term? Heard of it, but not sure what it means? Really? It’s the great intellectual fashion statement of 2018.

And, since it has more merit than I suspect many of its advocates realise, we must hope it doesn’t fall out of fashion long before it’s done any good.

Governments around the world are doing things about it. Mainly, saying what a nice idea it is, writing reports and designing “road maps”.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has taken up the cause in its RE-CIRCLE project. And no lesser bunch of worthies than the World Economic Forum (the Davos brigade) is enthusiastic.

Here in Oz, last year saw a favourable report from a Senate committee. The Victorian, South Australian and NSW governments have recently signalled their support, with the latter issuing a “circular economy policy statement” in October.

Some of my information comes from an explainer by the Victorian Parliamentary Library, written as recently as October. Circularity is hot, hot, hot.

The explainer explains that, as presently organised, market economies are linear. You take natural resources, process them into many and varied goods – from food to fancy electronic gizmos – which you and I consume before eventually disposing of them. Then we take more natural resources and start the process again.

In contrast, the goal of a circular economy is to keep natural resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their serviceable life.

Get it? The ultimate goal is to “decouple” economic growth from the consumption of natural resources.

The OECD points out that, over the last century, global use of raw materials grew at almost twice the rate that the population grew.

To minimise the – to some extent irreparable - damage that economic activity does to the natural environment, we need to ensure it involves less net use of natural resources.

The idea that natural resources should be recycled is one Australians – and people throughout the rich world – happily embraced ages ago. Almost all of us divide our garbage between recycling and the rest before we put it out.

But the concept of a truly circular economy requires us to go a lot further than that. We need to repair the durable products we use rather than throwing them out and buying another.

But that means changing the design of those products from disposable to repairable – and upgradeable. It means making much greater use of recycled materials in the manufacture of “new” products, as well as doing something sensible about all that packaging.

In my limited reading of all the circular economy bumf, I haven’t seen it explained that the basic problem arises from the first law of thermodynamics, which says that matter can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed.

In other words, something has to happen to all the natural resources we use to produce and consume. They don’t cease to exist, they just change form. They turn into multiple forms of waste, which we dispose of down the sewer and in landfill.

One important form of waste created by the economic process – particularly if it involves burning fossil fuels – is the emission of greenhouse gases. For more than 200 years we couldn’t see this happening, so we didn’t think it was a problem.

Now we know the gases hang around in the upper atmosphere, trap the earth’s heat from the sun like the roof of a greenhouse, and raise the earth’s temperature.

When you consider how much trouble we’re having agreeing on a solution to that small part of our waste problem, don’t kid yourself dealing with the rest of the waste will be a simple matter of everyone seeing the light and doing the right thing with a bit of encouragement from the government.

What worries me about the circular-economy push is not the objective – it’s dead right - it’s the naivety of those doing the pushing. They want to radically transform the economy, but haven’t seen the need to consult any economists about how you might go about it.

All the governments know better, of course, but they seem to have decided that, as long as it stays on the level of appealing to people to Do The Right Thing, it could keep the greenies diverted without doing much harm.

No one seems to have asked the obvious question: just why is the economy presently linear not circular? Answer: because all the powerful economic incentives push us in that direction.

Because the resources the environmentally aware care about – natural resources – are relatively cheap, whereas the resource they don’t think about, but everyone else does, labour, is relatively dear.

Why do you think the nation’s local councils have been taking most of our recycling and shipping it off to China? Because processing that stuff in a rich country like ours is uneconomic.

Why have the Chinese been taking it? Because their wages were low enough to make processing profitable (that is, economic).

Why have the Chinese now stopped taking it? Because their economic success has raised wage rates and made it no longer profitable.

So, how on earth could we make our economy circular?

Ask economists to figure out a plausible way of reversing our incentive structure. That's the kind of job they do when asked.
Read more >>

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

We are too busy for our own good

Years ago, I took a sabbatical and we lived a few months in California and a few in the backblocks of New Zealand’s South Island. I’d just got used to how impatient shop assistants were if you couldn’t immediately spit out exactly what you wanted to buy, when we moved back Down Under and I was expected to wait politely while the person ahead of me in the queue passed the time of day with the lady behind the counter.

We’re not yet as bad as America, but there’s no doubt life in big cities such as Melbourne and Sydney is a lot faster and more furious than it used to be – and still is in quieter parts of the state.

We have to move faster in the big cities, of course, because we have so much to do, so much to fit in. Or so we imagine. We blow our horns at other motorists who slow us down as we hurry to our next commitment. (When did we become a nation of horn-blowers? Yuck.)

And that brings me to your summer break. Did you – or are you still – enjoy the chance to take it easy, get up late, stay in bed reading, potter about, read the paper, avoid doing much?

Or did you rush about, keeping busy, trying to fit in as much fun as possible, keep the kids entertained?

In other words, did you really get a break, or were you as busy as ever, just doing a different list of things?

When I was young, annual holidays were almost synonymous with being bored. There was never anything much to do apart from go for a walk. My big sisters sat on their beds reading – they had eiderdowns, I remember – so I hung around them doing the same. They fed me issues of a little children’s magazine called Sunny Corner, continuing the adventures of Milly-Molly-Mandy. (I’ve had a weakness for chick-lit ever since.)

I became a bookworm at an early age partly because everyone else at home was reading books but mainly because there was nothing else to do. And, in my very religious family, reading was allowed on Sunday between going to meetings. Even comics.

And that brings me to weekends. Do you see them as a chance to do a lot of pleasant things you can’t do during the week? Do you start with a list of great things to do, but end with a lot of the pleasures you’d hoped to achieve not crossed off?

Sometimes I think being so busy at the weekend is a form of greed. Of having eyes bigger than your stomach. I doubt it’s much of a recipe for the good life.

But have you noticed how, when you try to tell a friend how exceptionally busy you’ve been, they invariably counter that they’ve been busy, too? No one wants to admit to being unbusy.

Even the retired claim to be terribly busy. Everything’s relative, I guess.

In his latest book, Australia Reimagined, social guru Hugh Mackay reflects on the “culture of busyness”, about which he has many reservations. “No matter how we try to dress it up, disguising it as a virtue or a badge to be worn with pride, relentless busyness is a health hazard – yet another contributor to our epidemic of stress and anxiety,” he says.

“For too many of us, holidays have been compressed into ‘short breaks’, the pleasure of walking or running in the open air has been swapped for a quick burst at the gym, the therapeutic joy of aimlessness has been overwhelmed by the need for everything to have both a purpose and an outcome.”

A sane person would regard excessive or sustained busyness as a warning signal, he says. “No time to read? No time to walk? No time to play? No time to nurture a neglected relationship over a cup of coffee? Surely there’s something awry in a life like that.”

Sometimes we keep ourselves busy because we feel we need to be – and be seen to be – busy, especially at work. Many bosses keep themselves busy making the easy decisions so they can put off the really hard ones.

Sometimes we’re busy because we’re not as efficient as we should be. Sometimes we’re busy at work because it’s better than being at home with our not-so-loved ones. Sometimes we keep busy because it leaves us no time to think about the meaning of our lives.

Mackay says our addiction to busyness has three adverse consequences. First, we’re becoming a sleep-deprived society.

Second, we’re becoming afraid of stillness, solitude and inactivity.

Third, busyness can both distract us and insulate us from the needs of the people around us. Busyness “decompassions” us, he concludes.
Read more >>

Monday, January 14, 2019

How canny treasurers keep the tax we pay out of sight

We can be sure that tax and tax “reform” will be a big topic (yet again) this year, but what will get less attention is how behavioural economics explains the shape of the existing tax system and makes it hard to change.

I read that this year we may attain the economists’ Holy Grail of replacing state conveyancing duty with a broad-based annual tax on the unimproved value of land under people’s principal residence.

Economists regard taxing homes whenever they change hands as highly economically inefficient because it discourages people from moving when they need to move, whereas taxing the ownership of land as highly efficient because it’s hard to avoid and is naturally “progressive”, hitting the rich harder than the poor.

Holy grails are, however, wondrous things, but almost impossible to attain. Economists have been preaching the virtues of such a switch for at least the past 30 years, with precious few converts (bar, in recent times, the ACT government).

Why have state politicians been so unreceptive to such a patently good idea? Because politicians instinctively understand what most conventional economists don’t: the wisdom of Louis XIV’s finance minister’s declaration that “the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”.

Or, to put it another way, because conventional economists don’t know enough behavioural economics – the study of how the world actually works thanks to human fallibility, rather than how it would work if we were all as rational as economic textbooks assume us to be.

A central element of the political economy of taxation is that what the punters don’t notice they don’t worry about.

And to every revenue-hungry state treasurer (which is all of ’em), the great virtue of conveyancing duty is that when you’re buying a place for $1 million and someone presents you with a tax bill for $40,000, it looks a relatively small amount and the least of your worries right now.

By contrast, when you open your mail one day and find the government demanding to be paid, say, $5000, you tend to get resentful. Because we’ve spent all our lives in a market economy, we’re used to the notion that, if you want something, you have to pay for it.

And with the converse: you don’t shell out good money without getting something you want in return. Annual land tax breaches that rule: you write a cheque for five grand and just post it off into the void. (This was also part of the reason the old “provisional tax” was so unpopular.)

Behavioural economists demonstrate empirically what politically astute treasurers know instinctively: you greatly reduce the hissing if you can whip the tax away without it being seen. This is why, when introducing the goods and services tax, Peter Costello wrote into the act the requirement that retail prices be quoted inclusive of the tax, without the tax being shown separately.

Of course, for wage earners, personal income tax has worked that way for decades. The pay office extracts an estimate of the tax you’ll have to pay and sends it to the taxman before you even see your pay.

After a while, you pretty much forget you’re paying tax on much of what you buy and are being paid much less than you’re earning. Which also demonstrates the wisdom of a saying familiar to treasurers: a new tax is a bad tax; an old tax is a good tax.

We object loudly to almost all proposals for new taxes – land tax on the family home, a road congestion tax and many more. We spent 25 years working up the courage to impose a value-added tax on “almost everything we buy” (during which time we copied the Kiwis’ crafty idea of renaming it the more innocuous “goods and services tax”).

But here’s the trick: once the new tax has been passed and taken effect, it takes only a year or two for us to accept it as part of the furniture. Behavioural economists call this quirk of human nature “status-quo bias”.

And, of course, just about the oldest tax of all is what Malcolm Fraser used to call “the secret tax of inflation” aka bracket creep.

It’s the tax increase you have when you don’t like tax increases.

Our “revealed preference” (not what we say, but what we do) is that bracket creep's our favourite tax.

Which is why treasurers of both colours give us so much of it.
Read more >>

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Japanese speedboats tell us how women and men compete

What would an economist know about Japanese speedboat racing? Why would they want to know? Ah, that would be telling.

It’s a spectator sport that’s hugely popular in Japan, but little known elsewhere – perhaps because it’s so Japanese. That’s to say, odd to Western eyes. Even its fans admit it’s more mesmerising than entertaining.

It’s been going only since 1952, but is held most days in 24 locations across Japan. These “stadiums” are built on lakes, rivers or the sea, with others on artificial concrete ponds in the midst of cities. The course is just a 600-metre-long oval.

Each race consists of six boats going just three times round the course, and lasts less than two minutes. But they string it out by having a practice race, and then individual 150-metre time trials before the race.

The boats are quite small, with a detachable engine. They get off to a flying start, with boats that jump the gun, or pass the starting line more than a second late, being disqualified.

As you can see from YouTube, much of the skill comes from manoeuvring into the best position at the start. But being first round the first turn is also important, and usually means you’ll win. What we’d call sledging is another competitive tactic.

All the boats are identical and owned by the stadium, being issued to each competitor for each race at random. Same with the engines. Each driver – all of them professional - gets a short time to tune their allotted engine for better performance. You’re allowed to supply your own spark plug, but that’s all.

Drivers crouch down in the straight to give less resistance, but then stand up, using their body to slow the boat for the turn. They crowd so close together on the turns it’s amazing more of them don’t collide.

Why do so many Japanese get so excited about all this? Sorry, didn’t I mention it? Speedboat racing is one of the few sports in Japan on which it’s legal to gamble.

Extensive statistics are kept on the past performance of drivers, boats and engines to help the punter with their bets. All the race preliminaries are there to give the punters more information before they place their bets.

But why would any this be of interest to economists? Well, as you may know, economists are great believers in competition, and are curious about how it works.

In this case, however, there’s another attraction. Japanese speedboat racing involves competition between men and women. Better, competition between men and women in the same races, but also all-male and all-female races.

There is great controversy over whether men and women are equally competitive or women are, in general, less competitive. And, if less competitive, whether this is innate or is learned behaviour.

Many people’s answer to these questions is based on their beliefs (and some use social media to tear into those who say things than conflict with their beliefs) but these days, surprisingly, academic economists search for empirical evidence to shed light on such controversies.

Which means academic economists spend their days searching for good “data sets” of empirical information to which they can apply their statistical tests and reach conclusions about issues of interest.

Guess what? In speedboat racing those meticulous Japanese have produced a fabulous data set with which to compare the competitive behaviour of men and women.

The more so because, though men outnumber women by more than seven to one, they all receive their one-year training at the same college and are treated equally in the race, being randomly assigned to races. In mixed-sex races there’s usually one woman and five men.

Such a “natural experiment” with real drivers competing professionally for big money is far more persuasive than some lab experiment where student volunteers compete for tiny amounts.

Two economics professors, Alison Booth of the Australian National University, and Eiji Yamamura of Seinan Gakuin University in Japan, have examined more than 140,000 individuals’ racing records in a study.

They found that women’s race times are slower in mixed-sex races than in all-women races, whereas men’s race times are faster in mixed-sex races than in men-only races.

In mixed-sex races, they found that men were more aggressive – as shown by lane-changing – in spite of the risk of being penalised if they contravene the rules, whereas women followed less aggressive strategies.

So the same woman performs relatively worse in mixed-sex races compared with single-sex races, while for the average male racer the opposite is true.

This shows that female competitive performance – even for women who have chosen a competitive career and are very good at it – is enhanced by being in a single-sex environment rather than in a mixed-sex, in which they are a minority.

But they found no difference between the genders on number of disqualifications. So while male racers do more lane-changing than females, the men are no more likely to be caught.

“We suggest that gender-differences in risk attitudes and confidence may result in different responses to the competitive environment, and that gender-identity is also likely to play a role,” the authors say.

According to the “gender-identity hypothesis”, a society’s prescriptions about appropriate models of behaviour for each gender might result in individuals experiencing a loss of identity should they deviate from the relevant code.

The gender imbalance in mixed-sex races may trigger awareness of gender-identity for both men and women, and this may go some way to explaining each gender’s different behaviour in mixed-sex races to same-sex races.

“For example, a man’s gender-identity may lead him to consider being defeated by women to be more dishonourable than by men, and he will try to avoid it,” the authors conclude.
Read more >>

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

In the pursuit of happiness, extroverts get a head start

When Bob Hawke famously said economists were in the happiness-raising business, he wasn’t wrong. But he didn’t endear himself to the profession, which these days prefers to think of itself as in the incentives business.

A few economists study happiness, but for the most part they leave it to psychologists – who prefer to call it by the more scientific sounding “subjective wellbeing”. How satisfied you feel with your life or, as I prefer to think of it, how fulfilled you feel.

One finding we got last year from the world of happiness research is that people with certain types of personality tend to be happier than the rest of us.

Social psychologists have put decades of work into studying personality, and are widely agreed on the “big five” personality traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extroversion.

Conscientiousness refers to being industrious, orderly and dependable. It’s about the way we control, regulate and direct our impulses. Conscientious individuals avoid trouble and achieve success through planning and persistence.

Agreeableness refers to co-operation and social harmony. Agreeable people value getting on with others. They're considerate, friendly, generous, helpful and willing to compromise their interests with others’ interests.

The trait psychologists call neuroticism would be better labelled by its inverse: emotional stability. So it’s one on which you’d like a low score. Neurotics have a tendency to often experience negative feelings such as anxiety or depression – or always getting angry. They can be moody and irritable. People who score low on neuroticism are less easily upset and less emotionally reactive. They tend to be calm and emotionally stable.

Openness to experience refers to being intellectually curious, imaginative, creative, inventive and insightful. Less open people prefer familiarity over novelty and tend to be conservative and resistant to change.

Extroversion refers to being outgoing, talkative and bold. Extroverts want to engage with the outside world. They tend to be enthusiastic, action-oriented, assertive and want to draw attention to themselves (some of them wear loud ties or go everywhere in sneakers).

Although surveys often show us to be wildly overconfident about our own capabilities – a recent survey shows 65 per cent of Americans think they’re more intelligent than the average person, for instance – a study last year by Stefano Di Domenico of the Australian Catholic University and others has found we’re quite accurate in assessing our own personality.

You give yourself a score out of 10 for each of the five factors, where 5 is average, 1 is very low and 10 is very high.

I’ve written before about the benefits of being an optimist – which, fortunately, about 80 per cent of us are. Unsurprisingly, optimists are happier than pessimists.

Optimists score well on four of the big five personality traits – emotional stability, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness – with only openness being of limited relevance.

But last year’s big news about the effect of personality on happiness concerned the benefits of extroversion. Psychologists have long known that extroverts rate highly in measures of wellbeing. And they’re less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health problems.

So much so that some studies seem to be encouraging us to act in more extroverted ways in the hope of becoming happier. Fake it till you make it.

A study by Dr Luke Smillie, of the University of Melbourne, and others has found it’s not that simple.

Their randomised control trial confirmed that people told to “act extroverted” did become happier. But it turned out that those who were naturally extroverted benefited the most, whereas those who were relatively introverted didn’t seem to benefit at all.

This - and other evidence – suggests that our personality has a bigger influence on how happy we feel than many have assumed. That is, how happy we are with our lives is less susceptible to our conscious control than we thought.

Smillie (who must be terribly tired of hearing the words “nominative determinism”) and colleagues say that’s not as bad as it sounds, however. Our personality may shape our lives, but it also changes. “Personal change may not be easy,” they say, “but we now know personality is not ‘fixed’.”

Research suggests personality is most likely to change between the ages of 20 and 40, but can occur at older ages.

This fits my own experience. When I first became a journalist, I dreaded having to phone people I didn’t know. But I must have become more extroverted over the years because, when I try to tell people I’m actually quite shy, they just laugh.

In any case, I think it’s possible to be more extroverted in some aspects of your life – some “domains”, as psychologists say – and less in others. Just ask my wife.

Smillie & Co say they’re not meaning to imply you need to be extroverted to be happy. Scoring well on other character traits will get you there.
Read more >>

Monday, January 7, 2019

In poor countries income does trickle down

Try this test of your economic literacy: has world poverty decreased or increased since 1990? If you said decreased, congratulations. You’re smarter than the average bear.

If you were sure it had increased, you’re the victim of a news media gone overboard in indulging your preference for bad news over good.

A lot of bad things are happening in the world, but also some really good things, and we immiserate ourselves when we fail to give them the notice they deserve.

In October the Word Bank issued a report announcing that world poverty had fallen in the two years to 2015. But since this was the continuation of a longstanding trend, the media took little notice.

So let me give it the fanfare it deserves. World poverty has been falling continuously – and rapidly - for the past quarter century. In 1990, 36 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, but by 2015 this had fallen to 10 per cent – the lowest in recorded history.

This means the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by a billion, from almost 2 billion to 736 million. And that really does make it “one of the greatest human achievements of our time”.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $US1.90 a day, which has been adjusted for the US dollar’s differing purchasing power in different countries in 2011.

But how did this great achievement come about? It’s the result of rapid economic growth in the developing countries over the past three decades, particularly in China (and its trading partners in east Asia) and India (and other south Asian countries, including Bangladesh).

These countries have made no herculean efforts to redistribute income from the rich to the poor, they’ve just grown a lot over a sustained period. Which makes the fall in poverty in these countries a fabulous advertisement for the benefits of market economies and freer trade between countries.

And it’s a reminder that, in poor countries at least, a fair bit of the income generated by economic growth does trickle down to those at the bottom. Low-income households also benefit as more of the country’s income is spent on increasing primary education and spreading access to electricity, decent water and sanitation.

Actually, lower-income households in Australia have benefited from our 27 years of continuous economic growth, with their incomes growing quite strongly in real terms. That’s because of employment growing faster than the working-age population, wages growing faster than prices (until five years ago) and pensions (but not the dole) being indexed to wages.

But real wage and pension growth occur because of government policy. And since, in truth, tax cuts for companies and high income-earners do little to boost the economy and employment, their benefits don’t trickle down to any great extent.

Back to the point. Though the rate of extreme poverty has fallen in all the world’s regions since 1990, it’s fallen only a bit in Sub-Saharan Africa, while its population has continued growing strongly.

This means the Sub-Sahara now accounts for more than half the 736 million people remaining in extreme poverty, with south Asia accounting for a further quarter. It’s been largely eliminated in east Asia and the other regions.

If India’s present strong economic growth continues, its share of world poverty will fall away. The World Bank projects that, by 2030, Sub-Saharan Africa will account for nearly nine out of 10 of the world’s extreme poor.

Globally, poor people live overwhelmingly in rural areas and have lots of children. Judge poverty not by people’s income but by their access to education, electricity, water and sanitation, and the proportion in rural areas is even higher.

Note that the World Bank’s austere “international poverty line” of $US1.90 a day is an absolute measure of poverty. You work out the value of goods needed to barely stay alive, then adjust it for inflation over time, ignoring what’s happening to the incomes of the better-off.

By contrast, in rich countries like ours we measure relative poverty: how are real incomes at the bottom (often defined as half the median income) travelling relative to those around the middle and at the top?

So absolute poverty falls whenever low incomes grow faster than inflation whereas, for a fall in relative poverty, the real incomes of the poor need to grow at a faster rate than everyone else’s.

This, by the way, explains why absolute poverty in China and India can fall even while income inequality – the gap between rich and poor – increases. As it usually has.
Read more >>

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Compared to you and me, the feudal serfs had it easy

Back at work yet, or still enjoying your summer break? Either way, you probably wish you had more annual leave. I could tell you to count your blessings, that today’s full-time workers get much longer holidays than workers have ever had.

But maybe that isn't true. It’s certainly true that we get longer holidays and work fewer hours than workers did in the 19th century but, according to the sociologist Juliet Schor, the 19th century – not long after the end of the Industrial Revolution – was an aberration in the history of human labour.

Indeed, if we’re to believe Dr Lynn Parramore, senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, we’re working a lot harder than medieval peasants did. “Ploughing and harvesting were backbreaking toil,” she says, “but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off.”

The church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent holy-days. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off, quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment, she says.

There was no work on Sundays, and when ploughing and harvesting seasons were over, peasants got time to rest, too. In fact, according to Schor, during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

I’m not sure every scholar would agree with this assessment, and the 14th century was the tail end of England’s feudal system, which began after the French Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

So if you’re not sure you’d have been happier as a serf – good thinking.

Feudalism was the system of political and economic organisation that preceded England’s Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, before we got to a capitalist or market economy approximating what we have today.

According to the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, feudalism was a social and economic system defined by inherited social ranks, each of which possessed social and economic privileges and obligations. Wealth derived from agriculture, which was arranged not according to market forces but on the basis of customary labour service owed by serfs to landowning nobles.

The king owned all the country’s land, but leased much of it to nobles, often called barons. The barons ran the decentralised, feudal system. These “lords of the manor” were in complete control of their manor, meting out justice, minting their own money and setting their own taxes.

The barons divided some of their land between their knights. The knights, in turn, distributed some of their land to the serfs, also known as villeins or peasants.

That covers people’s privileges, now their obligations. In return for their land, the barons paid rent to the king and provided him with knights to fight his battles when required. In return for their land, the knights provided their baron with personal protection and military service to the king.

In return for their land, the serfs paid their master with maybe a third of the food they grew, as well as being compelled to work on his own land. They couldn’t leave the manor and needed their lord’s permission to marry. They were often charged a fee for use of any of the improvements on the manor – roads, bridges, mills and bakehouses. And sometimes they had to fight in the baron’s battles.

Serfs lived with their animals in one-room homes they built themselves with wattle-and-daub (woven twigs daubed with mud). Their clothes were self-made, mainly of wool and very scratchy. They grew rye, wheat and other grains, grazed sheep on the common, had a kitchen garden and a few apple and pear trees.

Most of what they ate they grew themselves: little meat, but lots of rye bread and a stew of peas, beans and onions, called pottage. Berries, nuts and honey were gathered from the woods.

The feudal system fell into decline for many reasons. One was that the military became full-time professionals. Another was the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348, which killed many of the serfs. Landowners desperate for workers to harvest their crops had to do the unthinkable: pay actual wages to anyone who’d work their land – and the wages were high. Thus did the lords lose their hold over the serfs.

But Professor Richard Grabowski, of Southern Illinois University, has advanced a more economic theory. Manorial agriculture wasn’t very efficient, even though productivity could have been improved by such measures as removing stones from fields, adding mineral fertilisers and making greater use of fodder crops.

But the system of forced labour precluded use of these techniques because they required more care and skill than the serfs had any incentive to apply when working in the lord’s fields rather than their own.

Creating this incentive would have required shifting to paid labour, but this would cost the lord the ability to order his serfs to help fight a rival lord trying to grab his land. The first lord to free his serfs would lose his land to the others.

So the lack of national enforcement of property rights was another barrier to greater productivity. As the feudal system gradually broke down, the basis for power shifted from how many serfs you controlled to how good you were at using your land to generate more income.

England’s long Agricultural Revolution involved moving to market relationships between land owners and labourers, and almost all rural production being sold in markets, as well as huge improvements in agricultural productivity, making the nation much more prosperous.

People may have worked more hours on more days in the year, but they were much better paid to do it.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What the economy really needs more of: trees

I think the first economist must have been named Horatio. He’s the one who had to be reminded there were more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in his model.

I try to keep my horizons wide by regularly consulting my second-favourite website, The Conversation (with academics who know a lot of interesting things about a lot of topics), to which I’m indebted for most of what follows.

We’re meant to know all about photosynthesis, but did you realise it means that, “with a bit of sun, a tree uses the natural miracle of photosynthesis to combine a little water with carbon dioxide from the air to produce the building blocks for its own growth, as well as oxygen,” according to Associate Professor Cris Brack, of forest measurement and management at the Australian National University?

So, to oversimplify a little, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, whereas trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen – making them useful things to have around when we have a problem with excess carbon emissions.

But trees do far more for us than help with our greenhouse problem. For a start, they cheer us up. Academics at the universities of Melbourne and Tasmania examined 2.2 million messages on Twitter and found that tweets made from parks contained more positive content - and less negativity - than tweets coming from built-up areas.

Why are people in parks likely to be happier? Because parks help them to recover from the stress and mental strain of living in cities, and provide a place to exercise, meet other people or attend special events.

The world is becoming more urbanised. There’s now more than half the world’s population living in cities. In Australia, two-thirds of us live in capital cities and nine out of 10 of us live in urban environments.

There are sound economic reasons why so many of us are piling into big cities, but it seems there are also health and social problems. According to the experts, cities are becoming the epicentres for chronic, non-communicable physical and mental health conditions.

But there’s growing recognition of the crucial role of urban green spaces in helping reduce these health problems. More than 40 years of research shows that experiences of nature are linked to a remarkable breadth of positive health outcomes, including improved physical health (such as reduced blood pressure and allergies, less death from cardio-vascular disease, and improved self-perceived general health), improved mental wellbeing (such as reduced stress and better restoration), greater social wellbeing and promotion of positive health behaviours (such as physical activity).

Our cities are getting hotter, more crowded and noisier, while climate change is bringing more heatwaves, according to environmental planners at Griffith University. The obvious answer is more air-conditioning, but this brings more carbon emissions, so a better answer is more infrastructure – “green infrastructure”, otherwise known as street trees, green roofs, vegetated surfaces and green walls. In reality, however, vegetation cover in cities is declining, not increasing.

Planting trees in parks, gardens or streets has many benefits, helping to cool cities, slowing stormwater run-off, filtering air pollution, providing habitat for some animals, making people happier and encouraging walking.

According to those environmental planners, shading from strategically placed street trees can lower surrounding temperatures by up to 6 degrees – or up to 20 degrees over roads. Green roofs and walls can naturally cool buildings, substantially lowering demand for air-conditioning.

By contrast, hard surfaces – including concrete, asphalt and stone – increase urban temperature by absorbing heat and radiating it back into the air.

But though scientists have much evidence that trees and other greenery improve our mood and health, they know less about the actual mechanisms by which this occurs. Japanese research, however, suggests that when we walk through bushland we breathe in three substances: beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.

We live our lives surrounded by beneficial bacteria, breathing them in and sharing our bodies with them. Gut-dwelling bacteria break down the food we can’t digest and produce substances that benefit us physically and mentally.

Plants and the bacteria living on them produce essential oils that fight off harmful micro-organisms when we ingest them.

And despite the nonsense talked about negative-ion generating machines, there’s evidence that negative air ions may influence our mental outlook in beneficial ways.

This may sound very new and scientific to some (or pseudo-scientific to others) but, as Hugh Mackay observes in his latest book, Australia Reimagined, being connected to nature is a traditional source of relief from anxiety: gardening, bushwalking, strolling in a park, walking the dog, climbing a tree, swimming in the sea or sailing on it, picnicking in a tranquil and beautiful setting, playing games that take you outdoors and into a natural environment.

We know instinctively that “grass time” – running on it, rolling in it, throwing and catching a ball across it – is vital for the health and wellbeing of children. Particularly if they’ve been cooped up indoors, glued to a screen. But adults are no different, the wise man says.
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