Monday, November 11, 2019

Confessions of a pet shop galah: much reform was stuffed up

As someone who, back in the day, did his share of being one of Paul Keating’s pet shop galahs – screeching "more micro reform!" every time they saw a pollie – I don’t cease to be embarrassed by the many supposed reforms that turned into stuff-ups.

My defence is that at least I’ve learnt from those mistakes. One thing I’ve learnt is that too many economists are heavily into confirmation bias – they memorise all the happenings that affirm the wisdom of their theory, but quickly cast from their minds the events that cast doubt on that wisdom.

Well, let me remind them of a few things they’d prefer to forget.

Of course, it’s not the case that everything done in the name of "micro-economic reform" was wrong-headed. The floating of the dollar was an unavoidable recognition that the era of fixed exchange rates was over. And the dollar’s ups and downs have almost always helped to stabilise the economy.

The old regulated banking system wasn’t working well and had to be junked. With the rise of China in a globalising world, persisting with a highly protected manufacturing sector would have been a recipe for getting poorer. Nor could we have persisted with a centralised wage-fixing system or a tax system that failed to tax capital gains, fringe benefits and services – to name just a few worthwhile reforms.

Many privatisations were justified – the government-owned banks, insurance companies and airlines – but the sale of geographic monopolies (ports and airports) and natural monopolies (electricity and telephone networks) was a step backwards, mainly because governments couldn’t resist the temptation to maximise the sale price by preserving the businesses’ pricing power at the expense of consumers.

The conversion of five state monopolies into the national electricity market proved a monumental stuff-up at all three levels: generation, transmission and retail. It quickly devolved into an oligopoly with three big vertically integrated firms happily overcharging consumers at every level, with collateral damage to the use of carbon pricing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve learnt that “markets” artificially created by governments and managed by bureaucrats are – you wouldn’t guess – hugely bureaucratic, with the managers susceptible to “capture” by market players. The gas market has also been an enormous stuff-up, threatening the survival of what remains of Australian manufacturing.

The ill-considered attempt to treat schools and TAFEs and universities as being in some kind of market, where fostering competition between them and paying teachers performance bonuses would spur them to lift their performance, proved an utter dud.

Had the harebrained plan to deregulate uni fees not been stopped, it would have made even worse the chronic disorientation of the nation’s vice chancellors on what universities are meant to do and why they’re doing it. Lesson: trying to turn non-market parts of society into markets, while blithely ignoring all the obvious reasons such "markets" would fail, is a fool’s errand.

Which brings us to the half-baked idea of trying improve the provision of taxpayer-funded services by making their delivery “contestable” by for-profit providers. It's been an expensive failure pretty much everywhere it’s been tried: childcare, employment services, vocational education and training, and aged care (see present royal commission), not to mention privately run prisons and offshore detention centres. How long will it be before we’re having a royal commission into the abuses of the largely outsourced national disability insurance scheme?

Why have so many reform programs ended so badly? Partly because of the naivety of econocrats and other proponents of "economic rationalism". They had no notion of how far the grossly oversimplified neo-classical model of markets they carry in their heads misrepresented the big bad real world.

And many of them, having spent their working lives solely in the public sector, had no idea of how wasteful or bureaucratic the supposedly rational private sector could be. Actually break the law if they thought they wouldn’t get caught because corporate law-breaking wasn’t being policed? Sure. Rip off the government because the bureaucrats wouldn’t notice? Love to.

But there’s another reason so many reforms blew up. Because naive econocrats failed to foresee the way reforms intended to leave consumers or taxpayers better off could be hijacked by Finance Department accountants looking to cut government spending and produce "smaller government" by whatever expediency possible (see uni fee deregulation) and politicians looking to win the approval of big business or to move money and influence from the public sector column (them) to the private sector column (us).

Lesson: if a venal politician can find a way to sabotage micro-economic reform to their own advantage, they will.
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Saturday, November 9, 2019

Weak wages the symptom of our stagnant economy, but why?

If you don’t like the term "secular stagnation" you can follow former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and say that, since the Great Recession of 2008-09, we’ve entered the Great Stagnation and are "stuck in a low-growth trap".

On Friday we saw the latest instalment of our politicians’ and econocrats’ reluctant admission that we’re in the same boat as the other becalmed advanced economies, with publication of the Reserve Bank’s latest downward revisions of its forecasts for economic growth.

This time last year, the Reserve was expecting real growth in gross domestic product of a ripping 3.25 per cent over the present financial year. Now it’s expecting 2.25 per cent. Even that may prove on the high side.

What their eternal optimism implies is our authorities’ belief that the economy’s weakness is largely "cyclical" – temporary. What the past eight years of downward revisions imply, however, is that the problem is mainly "structural" or, as they used to say a century ago, "secular" – long-lasting.

If the weakness is structural, waiting a bit longer won’t see the problem go away. The world’s economists will need to do a lot more researching and thinking to determine the main causes of the change in the structure of the economy and the way it works, and what we should be doing about it.

Apart from dividing problems between cyclical and structural, economists analyse them by viewing them from the perspective of demand and then the perspective of supply.

Obviously, what you’d like is demand and supply pretty much in balance, meaning low inflation and unemployment, with economies growing at a good pace and lifting our material standard of living. In practice, however, it’s not that simple and demand and supply don’t always align the way we’d like.

For about the first 30 years after World War II, the dominant view among economists was that the big problem was keeping demand strong enough to take up the economy’s ever-growing potential supply – its capacity to produce goods and services – and keep workers and factories in "full employment". Keynesian economics was developed to use the budget ("fiscal policy") to ensure demand was always up to the mark.

From about the mid-1970s, however, the advanced economies developed a big problem with inflation. After years of uncertainty and debate, the dominant view emerged that the main problem wasn’t "deficient" demand, it was excessive demand, always threatening to run ahead of the economy’s capacity to produce and thus cause inflation.

The answer was to get supply – potential production – growing faster. Most economists abandoned Keynesian economics and reverted to the former, "neo-classical" macro-economics, in which the central contention was that, over the medium-term, the rate at which an economy grew was determined on the supply side, by the three key determinants of production capacity, "the three Ps" – population, participation (by people in the labour force), and productivity – the rate at which investment in more and better machines and structures allowed workers to produce more per hour than they did before.

If so, the managers of the macro economy could do nothing to change the rate at which the economy grew over the medium term. Their role was simply to ensure that, in the short term, demand neither grew faster than the growth in the economy’s production potential (thus casing inflation) nor slower than potential (thus causing unemployment).

And the best instrument to use to achieve this balancing act was, as Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy explained recently, monetary policy (moving interest rates up and down).

Everyone agrees that the problem with the advanced economies at present – including ours – is weak demand. The question is whether that weakness is mainly cyclical or mainly structural. If it's cyclical, all we have to do is be patient, and the old conventional wisdom - that, fundamentally, growth is supply-determined - doesn’t need changing.

But the conclusion that fits our circumstances better is that the demand problem has structural causes. Consider this: we’ve had plenty of episodes of weak demand in the past, but never has demand been so weak that inflation is negligible. Nominal interest rates are way down in consequence, but even real global interest rates have been falling since even before the financial crisis.

That’s why monetary policy has almost done its dash. It doesn’t do well at a time of negligible inflation, and fiscal policy is back to being the more effective instrument. But if the demand problem is mainly structural, then a burst of stimulus from the budget may help a bit, but won’t get to the heart of the problem.

As former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating has argued consistently, weak growth in real wages seems the main cause of weak growth in consumer spending and, hence, business investment, productivity improvement and overall growth – both in Australia and the other advanced economies.

Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe would agree. But he tends to see the wage problem as mainly cyclical: wait until we get more growth in employment, then the labour market will tighten, skill shortages will emerge and real wages will be pushed up.

Other economists stick to the supply-side, neo-classical approach: if real wages aren’t growing fast enough it can only be because the productivity of labour isn’t improving fast enough, so the answer is more micro-economic reform. Not a big help, guys.

The unions say the root cause is that deregulation has robbed organised labour of its bargaining power – and there may be something in that. But Keating’s argument has been that skill-biased technological change has hollowed out the semi-skilled middle of the workforce, with wage increases going disproportionately to the high-skilled, who save more of their income than lower-paid workers.

So Keating wants any budget stimulus to be directed towards the lower-paid, and a lot more spending on all levels of education and training, to help workers adopt and adapt to the digital workplace.
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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Mental health: the smart way to increase happiness


You have to hand it to Scott Morrison. He is, without doubt, the most skillful politician we’ve seen since John Howard. He runs rings around his opponents. It’s just a pity he puts so much time into strengthening his own position by making his opponents look bad and so little into strengthening our position by working on some of our many problems.

Speaking of problems, on the very day the Royal Commission into Aged Care was revealing how appallingly we treat so many of our parents and grandparents, the Productivity Commission released a draft report on how much our treatment of the mentally ill leaves to be desired.

Sometimes I think that if hastening the economy’s growth is intended to increase our happiness, why don’t we do more to increase it directly by reducing the unhappiness of, for instance, those in old people’s homes and those suffering mental illness, not to mention their families?

Why do you and I somehow imagine it won’t be us being mistreated in some institution in a few years’ time? Why could mental ill-health never reach us or our family and friends?

The commission’s report found that almost half of Australian adults will meet the diagnosis for a mental illness at some point in their lives. In any given year, however, one person in five will meet the criteria. And, although it can affect people of any age, three-quarters of those who develop mental illness first experience problems before they’re 25.

And yet we’ve gone for years providing quite inadequate help to the mentally troubled. Why? Because physical problems are more visible and less debatable. But also because the stigma that continues to attach to mental problems makes sufferers reluctant to admit to them, and the rest of us reluctant to dwell on it.

Mental illness includes more common conditions such as anxiety, substance use and depression, plus less common conditions such as eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And suicide, of course.

The report says that many who seek treatment for mental problems aren’t receiving the level of care necessary. As a result, too many people suffer additional and preventable physical and mental distress, relationship breakdown, stigma, and loss of life satisfaction (the $10 words for happiness) and opportunities.

A big part of the problem is that the treatment of mental illness has been tacked on to a health system designed around the characteristics of physical illness, especially acute rather than chronic illnesses.

Five long-standing and much-reported-on problems causing the mental health system to deliver poor results are, the report says, first, the underinvestment in prevention and early intervention. This is what makes the fact that mental problems tend to start early and get worse good news, in a sense. It means that, if you get in early, you can stop people experiencing years of unhappiness (not to mention cost to the taxpayer).

Second, the focus on clinical services – things done by doctors and nurses – often means overlooking other things and other people contributing to mental health, including the important role played by carers and family, as well as the providers of social support services.

Third, the frequent difficulties finding suitable social supports, sometimes because they just don’t exist in regional areas. This is despite suicide rates, for example, being much higher outside the capital cities.

Fourth, the social support people do receive is often well below best-practice, isn’t sustained as their condition evolves or their circumstances change, and is often unconnected with the clinical services they get.

Fifth, the “lack of clarity” about roles, responsibility and funding between the federal and state governments. This means persistent wasteful overlaps existing side by side with yawning gaps in the services provided. And it means no level of government accepts responsibility for “the system’s” poor performance.

It’s clear we’re not spending enough on mental healthcare. But this is where we get into an old argument. Ask the people running the system and their answer is always “just give us a shedload more money and we’ll decide how best to spend it”. But ask the Smaller Government brigade and they’ll say “we’re already spending far more than we did and spending even more would improve nothing”.

As usual, the truth’s in the middle. It’s true we’re spending a lot more without much evidence of improved results, but equally true we need to spend more – particularly on social support, such as suitable housing. Fix people, throw them onto the street, and see how well they do.

Sorry, but the days of “trust me, I’m a doctor/teacher/public servant/whatever” are gone. Too many occupations have abused our trust. We need to spend what we’re already spending a lot more effectively – particularly on prevention and early detection, on the non-clinical aspects of the problem, and on better coordination of federal and state roles – as a condition of spending more.

And that will mean paying a bit more tax. After all, if we’re so willing to spend on a big-screen TV or overseas holiday or new car to make us happier, what’s the hang-up with spending via taxes to improve our treatment in old age or should we or a rello strike mental problems?
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Monday, November 4, 2019

Aged Care: the crappy end of the Smaller Government mentality

What do you get when politicians and econocrats go for decades trying to foist Smaller Government  on an unwilling public? Bad government. And the delivery of crappy services – often literally in the case of aged care.

The interim report of the royal commission into aged care is absolutely scathing about the appalling state the system has been allowed to fall into. Its summary is headed: 'A Shocking Tale of Neglect'.

Aged care services are “fragmented, unsupported and underfunded. With some admirable exceptions, they are poorly managed. All too often, they are unsafe and seemingly uncaring.”

“We have uncovered an aged care system that is characterised by an absence of innovation and by rigid conformity. The system lacks transparency in communication, reporting and accountability. It is not built around the people it is supposed to help and support, but around funding mechanisms, processes and procedures,” the report says.

“Many of the cases of deficiencies or outright failings in aged care were known to both the providers concerned and the regulators before coming to public attention. Why has so little been done to address these deficiencies?”

“We have heard evidence which suggests that the regulatory regime that is intended to ensure safety and quality of services . . . does not adequately deter poor practices. Indeed, it often fails to detect them. When it does so, remedial action is frequently ineffective. The regulatory regime appears to do little to encourage better practice beyond a minimum standard.”

Here’s where you see the fingerprints of the econocrats and accountants: “the aged care sector prides itself in being an ‘industry’ and it behaves like one. This masks the fact that 80 per cent of its funding comes directly from government coffers. Australian taxpayers have every right to expect that a sector so heavily funded by them should be open and fully accountable to the public and seen as a ‘service’ to them.”

Get it? Don’t ask us to publish performance indicators. They’re “commercial-in-confidence” – especially because many providers are for-profit providers. Why don’t the regulators insist? Because, like so many regulators, they’ve been “captured” by the providers, which have Canberra-based lobbyists, are generous wine-and-diners and employers of retired ministers and senior bureaucrats, and could make a lot more trouble for the government than a thousand mistreated mums aka silent Australians (whose vote for the Coalition is rusted-on).

The obvious reason the Smaller Government brigade has to shoulder the blame for the appalling treatment of so many (but not all) people in aged care – and many of the overworked and underpaid nurses working in it – is that, as part of the eternal crusade to keep government smaller, aged care is, as the commission finds, seriously underfunded.

But it’s worse than that. Part of the Smaller Government mentality is having aged care provided by someone other than the government – including for-profit providers which, as every Smaller Government crusader knows, are far more efficient than the public service.

Except that, as the commission’s report demonstrates yet again, they’re not. And when they can’t use greater efficiency to cover their profit margin, they extract it by cutting quality. The report doesn’t say so, but it’s a safe bet the for-profits are at the forefront of the “poor continence management,” “dreadful food, nutrition and hydration,” and “common use of physical restraint” and “overprescribing of drugs which sedate residents” to make them easier to manage, it uncovered.

Trouble is, so long as so much of the “industry” is profit-maximising, no amount of increased funding will be sufficient to stop residents being mistreated.

The more fundamental problem is that the Smaller Government zealots have never persuaded voters that less is more. Almost all of us think more is more. That’s what we want and what even conservative politicians promise us at every election.

So they have no mandate for Smaller Government and, since the disastrous 2014 budget, lack the political courage of their convictions. But they persist with their efforts to keep the lid on government spending, continually cutting away at the people they consider to be political weak and enemies of the Coalition: the ABC, people on welfare, and the deeply despised public service - particularly those bureaucrats offering policy advice (who needs it?) and those regulating and policing the public funding received by the party’s generous business donors.

In practice, Smaller Government means underspending on essentials such as aged care until the neglect is no longer tolerable politically, feigning shock and promising to spend big and crackdown on miscreants when voters react with horror to the revelations of the inevitable royal commission then, once the media circus has moved on, quietly welching on much of what you promised to do.
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Saturday, November 2, 2019

It may upset you to think about climate change and the economy

It’s coming to something when we get so little leadership from the bloke we pay to lead us that the unelected have to fill the vacuum. Now 10 business organisations have united to urge Scott Morrison either to set out the climate policy rules to drive action by the private sector, or end up spending a shedload of taxpayers’ money fixing the problem himself.

It’s not just business that’s dissatisfied. The Morrison government may be dominated by climate-change deniers, but almost all economists accept the science of global warming and believe we should be doing our bit to help limit it.

And though our elected government may be in denial, the Reserve Bank – like other central banks – isn’t. Nor are the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

The Queensland Treasurer, Jackie Trad, asked federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg if the Reserve’s deputy governor, Dr Guy Debelle, could be invited to talk about climate change and the economy at the recent meeting of treasurers, but Frydenberg declined.

So what was it Frydenberg didn’t want his fellow treasurers thinking about? Well, we can get a fair idea of what Debelle would have said from a speech he gave earlier this year.

But first, why do so many economists accept the science? Because they know very little about the science and so accept the advice of the experts, especially since there’s so much agreement between them.

And there’s another reason. Economists believe they can use their expertise to help the community make the changes we need to make with the least amount of cost and disruption to the economy.

As Debelle reminds us, “the economics profession has examined the effects of climate change at least since Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus in 1977. Since then it has become an area of considerably more active research in the profession. There has been a large body of work around the appropriate design of policies to address climate change (such as the design of carbon pricing mechanisms), but not that much in terms of what it might imply for macro-economic policies” – that is, for efforts to stabilise the macro economy as it moves through the ups and downs of the business cycle.

Debelle says the economy is changing all the time in response to a large number of forces, but few of them have the scale, persistence and risk to the system that climate change has.

Macro economists like to classify the various “shocks” that hit the economy as either positive or negative and as hitting the demand side of the economy or the supply side. For instance, they know a positive demand shock increases production (gross domestic product) and prices. The monetary policy response to such a shock is obvious: you raise interest rates to ensure inflation doesn’t get out of hand.

Shocks involving the climate affect the supply (output) side and are common. An unusually good growing season would be a positive supply shock, whereas a drought or cyclone or flood would be a negative supply shock, reducing output but increasing prices.

This is a trickier shock for monetary policy to respond to because it’s both contractionary (suggesting a cut in interest rates) and inflationary (suggesting higher rates). The Reserve’s usual response is to “look through” (ignore) the price increase, assuming its effect on inflation will be temporary.

Historically, the Reserve has assumed all climate events are temporary, with things soon returning to where they were. That is, they’re cyclical. It’s clear from the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, however, that climate change is a trend - a lasting change in the structure of the economy, which will build up over many years.

Of course, though climate change’s impact on agriculture continues to be great, it presents significant risks and opportunities for a much broader part of the economy than agriculture.

Debelle says we need to reassess the frequency of climate events and our assumptions about the severity of those events. For example, the insurance industry has recognised that the frequency and severity of tropical cyclones has changed. It has “repriced” how it insures against such events.

Most of us are focused on “mitigating” – reducing – future climate change. But Debelle says we also need to think about how the economy is adapting to the climate change that’s already happened and how we’ll adapt to the further warming that’s coming, even if we do manage to get to zero net emissions before too long.

“The transition path to a less carbon-intensive world is clearly quite different depending on whether it is managed as a gradual process or is abrupt,” he says euphemistically. “The trend changes aren’t likely to be smooth. There is likely to be volatility around the trend, with the potential for damaging outcomes from spikes above the trend.”

Both the physical impact of climate change and the adjustment to a warmer world are likely to have significant economic effects, he says.

Economists know from their experience with reducing import protection that the change from the old arrangements to the new involves adjustment costs to some people (workers who have to find jobs in other industries, for instance) even if most people (consumers of the now-cheaper imports, for instance) are left better off.

Economists press on with advocating such painful changes provided they believe the gains to the winners are sufficient to allow them to compensate the losers and still be ahead. But Debelle admits that, in practice, the compensation to the losers doesn’t always happen, leaving those losers very dissatisfied.

That’s bad enough. But Debelle fears that, with climate change and the move to renewables, the distribution of benefits and costs may be such that the gains to the winners in new renewables industries aren’t great enough to cover the losses to the losers even in principle, let alone in practice.

Nah, all too hard. Let’s just ignore it and hope it goes away.
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