Saturday, August 8, 2020

People on the dole don't want a job? Don't believe it

When Scott Morrison introduced the "coronavirus supplement" that temporarily added $275 a week to the dole’s $40 a day, he explained this was to help those who’d be losing their jobs "through no fault of their own". But it wasn’t long before he was finding fault.

"We are getting a lot of anecdotal feedback from small businesses, even large businesses, where some of them are finding it hard to get people to come and take the shifts because they’re on these higher levels of payment," Morrison told 2GB radio.

"What we have to be worried about now is that we can’t allow the JobSeeker payment to become an impediment to people going out and doing work."

These views would explain his decision to slash the supplement to $125 a week after September, and continue it only to December. What happens after that is still to be decided. But recipients will be required to prove they’ve looked for at least one job a week and will have their dole suspended if they refuse to take a job offer considered suitable.

Of course, it wouldn’t have escaped Morrison’s notice that this "treat ’em mean to keep 'em keen" approach would also help with his worries about the ballooning budget deficit.

I can’t say I’m surprised to hear small business people saying that, despite all the talk of high unemployment, they can’t get people to take the jobs they need to fill. I've heard that in all the previous recessions I’ve worked through.

And, indeed, the practice of denigrating the jobless goes back at least as far as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then, there were newspaper reports of huge dole frauds that threatened to cripple the system and of a lazy, chicken-eating family living in luxury on the dole.

There’s just one problem with all this. There’s no hard evidence to support these anecdotes, and growing evidence that paying decent rates of unemployment benefit doesn’t discourage people from taking jobs.

These anecdotes don’t fit with a survey of employers conducted by the federal Department of Employment in June, which found just 6 per cent of employers said they were having difficulty recruiting due to a lack of applicants.

The trouble with anecdotes is that they’re anecdotal. The people telling you the stories never give particulars of why they had no takers. Were the vacancies well advertised? Were they paying below the legal award wage or wanting to pay in cash under the table? Were they wanting people to work overtime or at weekends without getting penalty rates? Was the job dangerous or especially unattractive – split shifts, for example.

In recent years, many casual jobs paying less than the law requires have been accepted by overseas students and others on temporary visas. Since the coronavirus hit, many of these people, being denied unemployment benefits or the JobKeeper wage subsidy, have been told to go back home, and have done so. Is that the problem?

In my experience, small business people can see their own perspective very clearly, but other people’s not so much. Many people who seek part-time work do so because they have other commitments that the work must be fitted around – full-time studies, for example, or young children. Maybe that extra shift Morrison refers to would have required people to pay more for childcare.

Then there’s the special circumstances of the virus. It’s likely many single parents have given up casual or part-time work to stay home with their kids when schools are closed. Some older people would have stopped working for fear of catching the disease.

I’ve met many business people (big and small, so to speak) who fall for the economists’ occupational hazard of assuming that, because money is a powerful motivator when it comes to work, money is the only motivation.

They can’t imagine that anyone would want to work rather than sit around at home because they like working, because they like being busy, like seeing their workmates, feel that healthy people should work, or even just to avoid the stigma many unkind people attach to being unemployed.

Many people have the attitude that anyone who really wants a job can find one. But while ever the number of unemployed exceeds the number of vacant jobs, this is a “fallacy of composition” – what may be true for the individual isn’t true for everyone.

Between February and May, the number of people on the JobSeeker payment (formerly Newstart) and the youth allowance rose by more than 90 per cent to 1.8 million whereas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ quarterly survey, the number of vacant jobs fell by 43 per cent to 129,000.

So there are about 14 jobseekers for every vacancy. Which means that, no matter how punishingly low you set the unemployment benefit – say, $40 a day – you can’t incentivise people to take jobs that don’t exist.

Even when the coronavirus supplement had almost doubled the dole to $550 a week, that’s just 73 per cent of the national minimum full-time wage of $754 a week. This percentage is one measure of what economists call the “wage replacement ratio”.

It’s also the most “conservative” measure - that is, likely to overstate the problem – since most full-timers would earn more than the minimum wage. In any case, the planned $150 cut in the supplement to just $125 a week will reduce the replacement ratio to just 53 per cent.

Not much of a disincentive to take a job there, I’d have thought. But this great fear of temporarily increased unemployment benefits being a great disincentive to work is a big issue in the United States and an argument Republicans have used to refuse to renew the supplement.

But as Catherine Rampell has written in the Washington Post, no fewer than five different academic studies have concluded the same thing: the Americans’ supplement does not appear to have adversely affected jobs growth.
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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Virus reminder: governments need to be better, not smaller

One good thing the coronavirus has done is slow the pace of our lives, leaving us more time to think about them. And since the main device being used to stop the spread of the virus has been to reduce physical contact between people, it hasn’t been hard to see that what matters most to us is face-to-face contact with family and friends.

People of middle age fret about not being able to visit elderly parents. The great Dr Brendan Murphy, flat out advising the Prime Minister, really misses being able to hug his granddaughters. (Grandsons and granddaughter, in my case.) Teenagers take their family for granted, but miss their friends. Younger kids realise they actually like going to school and mixing with others.

The virus has also thrown into relief our rights as individuals versus our obligations to the group. The prevailing political and economic ideology highlights the individual and plays down the group, but in emergencies like this even our squabbling federal and state politicians see that the only way of coping is to co-operate rather than compete.

Looking at the Americans and the terrible disaster they’re making of it – including people refusing to wear masks because it’s a violation of their personal freedom – it’s not hard to see that individualism can go too far, and playing your part as a loyal member of the group has its virtues.

The virus reminds us that many of the problems we face can’t be solved by individuals acting alone, but by all of us acting together. For this we need leadership; we need the government to govern. To tell us what needs to happen, to issue instructions, provide support for those who need it, and then have all of us falling into line and pulling our weight.

That’s easy to see – and accept – in a crisis, but harder when we’re muddling along as normal. Fact is, however, our world abounds with problems that can’t be solved by individuals and businesses acting on their own initiative.

For these we do need somebody – or some body – with the authority to act on our behalf, calling the shots, fixing things, spending money and requiring us to cough up that money according to our ability to pay.

And yet the rise of individualism has been accompanied by the denigration of the role of government. It was the now-canonised Ronald Reagan who famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I’m from the government and I’m here to help".

Obviously, governments can be far from perfect. Government agencies can be unhelpful, they can push us around for no good reason, be inefficient and waste our money. And yet the prevailing ideology’s response – influencing the behaviour of both sides of politics – hasn’t been to improve the functioning of government, but to chop it back as much as possible.

Any government business that can be sold, should be. Industries should be deregulated so private enterprise is given maximum freedom to be enterprising. There are services that governments need to pay for from the public purse, but their provision should be contracted out to private firms.

The trouble is, the advocates of Smaller Government have never persuaded the public of the wisdom of this approach, nor received a mandate. When governments try to cut back government spending in big licks – as Tony Abbott, despite promises to the contrary, tried to do in his first budget – they get repudiated.

So they end up forever trying to keep the lid on government spending – quietly cutting money going to politically unpopular causes (the unemployed, public servants), and ignoring all the people warning them to start preparing for possible problems in this field or that (a bad bushfire season, for instance).

They justify all this short-sighted penny pinching by saying no one wants to pay more taxes. Which is the message we so often send them, partly because we’ve grown distrustful that our money will be spent wisely.

See where this is leading? All the denigration and distrust of government does much to explain why we haven’t responded to the pandemic as well as we should have. National planning for a pandemic was discontinued after 2008 and it’s likely that the recommended national stockpile of personal protective equipment was a victim of successive "efficiency dividend" cut backs.

The ironically named efficiency-dividend cuts to the public service may help explain the inadequacy of Victoria’s contact tracing arrangements. There’s an inquiry into the failures of Victoria’s quarantine of returning travellers, contracted out to private firms.

Deregulation of wage-fixing has encouraged the growth in casual workers, whose lack of paid sick leave tempts them to go to work while at risk of having contracted the virus. Governments are scrambling to fill this dangerous gap.

Finally, the decades of wilful neglect and misregulation of aged care facilities, “left out of sight and out of mind” and “fragmented, unsupported and underfunded” – to quote the latest of many inquiries. All to keep taxes low.
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Monday, August 3, 2020

Weak inflation tells us: it's the demand side, stupid

Despite the remarkable 1.9 per cent fall in the consumer price index in the June quarter, we face no imminent threat of deflation. But it’s not as improbable a fate as it used to be.

Apart from in headlines, one negative quarter does not deflation make. Deflation occurs when price falls are modest, widespread and continuous, the product of chronically weak consumer demand. Businesses cut their prices as the only way to get people to buy what they’ve produced. Their goal is not to make a profit, but to reduce their losses.

Paradoxically, deflation – which was dogging Japan not so many years ago – is to be feared. Why buy now if prices are falling? Why not wait until they’re even lower? But the longer consumers wait, the more prices fall. And the faster they fall, the more businesses cut production and lay off workers. The economy implodes.

By contrast, our fall was produced by cuts in two key government-controlled prices – for childcare and pre-schools – plus petrol prices. We already know these falls will largely be reversed in the present quarter.

Even so, all the other prices in the CPI basket of goods and services rose during the quarter by just 0.1 per cent. People are reluctant to buy during recessions, so businesses don’t raise their prices for fear of selling even less. It’s a safe bet inflation will stay negligible for as long as the recession lasts and for as long as it takes the economy to recover.

Trouble is, we had unduly weak price growth long before the coronasession. Our rate of inflation’s been below the bottom of the 2 to 3 per cent target range for almost six years. The Reserve Bank has been struggling to get it up into the target, "Goldilocks" range without success.

Point is, when you have a problem with high inflation, you have a problem with the supply side of the economy. Supply isn’t keeping up with demand, so something needs to be done to get the economy’s production growing faster and more efficiently.

Conversely, when inflation isn’t a problem but high unemployment is, you have a problem with demand side of the economy. Consumers aren’t spending enough and businesses aren’t investing enough.

But too-low inflation isn’t the only indicator that demand and supply are out of whack. Another sign is record low interest rates. They’re low not just because inflation is so low, but also because “real” interest rates – the lenders’ above-inflation reward for letting other people use their money – have also fallen.

Why? It can only be because the amount of money savers have available to lend (the “supply of funds”) exceeds the amount home-buyers, businesses and governments want to borrow to cover their investment spending (the “demand for funds”). That real interest rates have been falling for years is another sign that our problem is chronic deficient demand, not inadequate supply.

One consequence of this is that the authorities’ ability to encourage borrowing and spending by cutting interest rates has been exhausted. So “monetary policy” has done its dash, leaving “fiscal policy” – the budget – as the only instrument left for the government to use to support the economy during the recession and then to stimulate growth.

If it wants more spending in the economy, the government must do it itself.

There’s just one difficulty. During the period in the 1970s and ‘80s when it was clear the developed economies had a major problem with inflation – meaning the supply side was chronically unable to keep up – the conventional wisdom emerged that the short-term management of the economy should be left to monetary policy, with fiscal policy reserved to help with other, medium-term issues.

This approach fitted neatly with the conservative side of politics’ preference for Smaller Government. Our Liberals have come to view macro-economic management in largely party-political terms: we use monetary policy; Labor uses fiscal policy. We follow neo-classical economics; Labor follows Keynesian economics. We cut government spending and taxation; Labor loves to spend and tax. We worry about deficient supply; Labor worries about deficient demand.

This political ideology approach to macro management can’t cope with the developed economies’ tendency to switch from long periods when supply and inflation are the big problem to long periods when demand and unemployment are the big problem.

You can see this in the Morrison government’s obvious reluctance to spend enough to limit the economy’s contraction to two successive quarters, despite our continuing struggle to contain the virus. You see it in Morrison’s desire to move on to “reforms” aimed at improving the supply side.

Both political sides see that wage growth is too weak at least partly because the productivity of labour is improving only slowly. But the Liberals’ ideological approach to macro tells them the answer to low productivity is more supply-side reform, whereas a pragmatic, more contemporary analysis says it seems obvious that if consumer demand is weak, business investment will be weak and if business investment in the latest technology is weak it’s no surprise that productivity improvement is slow. It’s the demand side, stupid.
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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morrison’s not doing nearly enough to secure our future

It was obvious this time last week, but even more so a week later: Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are taking both the continuing threat from the coronavirus and the need to restore the economy far too cheaply. Figuratively and literally.

One thing another week of struggle by Victoria and NSW to contain the virus’s second wave has shown more clearly – plus the realisation of how vulnerable the neglect and misregulation of our aged care sector have left us – is the unreality of the government’s expectations about the effects of the pandemic.

Last week’s economic and budget update assumed Victoria would be back on track in six weeks and NSW’s struggles were too minor to matter. And also that we’ll start opening to international travel in January.

A more realistic assumption would be that the larger, virus-prone half of the economy (NSW and Victoria) will need to stay sealed off from the healthier, smaller half (the other states and the Northern Territory) indefinitely. Half a healthy economy is far from ideal, but it beats none.

Surely we should have realised by now that the pandemic will be a long-haul flight. Speaking of which, our barriers against the rest of the world are likely to stay up long after the 12th day of Christmas.

Economically, we must make the best of it we can – which won’t be anything like as good as we’d like. Forcing the pace on lifting the lockdown and removing the interstate barriers could easily end up setting us back rather than moving us forward.

What economists seem yet to understand is that, psychologically, what we have to do to keep the virus controlled is the opposite to what you’d do to hasten an economic recovery. To ensure people keep mask-wearing, hand-washing, sanitising, social-distancing and filling out a form every time they walk into a cafe for month after month, you keep them in a state of fear, afraid the virus may bite them at any moment.

How will this give them the confidence to get on with spending and investing? It won’t. Quite the opposite. But it’s the first indication Morrison and Frydenberg will need to spend more for longer.

The second thing that’s more obvious now than it was a week ago is that the setback in Victoria and NSW has put a question mark over the signs of an initial bounce-back in the economy as the lockdown has been lifted. The new payroll-based figures for the week to July 11 show jobs falling in all states, not just Victoria and NSW.

All this casts further doubt on the wisdom of the changes to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs announced last week. The initial reaction of relief that the government had not gone through with its original plan to end them abruptly in September has given way to the realisation that this threat of dropping the economy off a “fiscal cliff” has been delayed rather than averted.

The new boss of independent think tank the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has estimated that the changes to the two job schemes will reduce the government’s support for the economy by close to $10 billion in the December quarter and thus “leave a substantial hole in the economy”.

In an earlier major report, Grattan argued that the government needed to spend a further $70 billion to $90 billion to secure a recovery. The measures announced last week amount to only about an additional $22 billion.

According to calculations by the ANZ bank’s economics team, the withdrawal of budgetary support amounts to the equivalent of about 10 per cent of quarterly gross domestic product during the December quarter.

In consequence, although the bank agrees with Treasury that real GDP will grow in the present September quarter, it sees the economy returning to contraction in the December quarter. What would that do for business and consumer confidence?

In its earlier report, Grattan said the government should aim to get the unemployment rate back down to 5 per cent or below by mid-2022. Why the hurry? To “reduce the long-term economic pain and avoid scarring people’s lives”.

Particularly young people’s lives – as this week’s report from the Productivity Commission has reminded us.

But the economic update last week forecast the unemployment rate would peak at 9.25 per cent in the December quarter and still be sitting at 8.75 per cent in the middle of next year.

That’s simply not good enough. It puts the interests of the budget deficit ahead of the interests of tens of thousands of Australians thrown out of work through “no fault of their own”, to quote a Mr S. Morrison.

Grattan’s Wood stresses that she has no problem with making the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme better targeted. But that’s not all the government did. It cut back the size of payments and extended the scheme only for another six months.

After the cutback in income support for the jobless and potentially jobless was announced two days before the presentation of the budget update, she hoped the update would include announcements about the new spending programs that would fill the “substantial hole” the cutback left.

It didn’t. Not a sausage.

“The missing piece of the puzzle,” she now says, “remains a plan to stimulate the economy and jobs growth as the income supports are phased out and social distancing restrictions are eased in many parts of the country.”

So what should the government be spending on? She suggests measures that would both create jobs and meet social needs. “Social housing, mental health services, and tutoring to help disadvantaged students catch up on learning lost during the pandemic would deliver on this double dividend.

“Boosting the childcare subsidy to support family incomes and workforce participation should also be in the mix,” she says.

To that you could add fixing aged care, spending more on research and development and universities, not to mention renewable energy.

There’s no shortage of good things worth spending on.
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