Sunday, June 23, 2024

Yikes! Our tiny manufacturing sector makes us rich but ugly

At last, the source of our economic problems has been revealed. Our economy is badly misshapen, making it unlike all the other rich economies. Did you realise that our manufacturing sector is the smallest among all the rich countries?

Worse, our mining sector’s almost five times as big as the average for all the advanced economies and our agriculture sector’s twice the normal size.

Do you realise what an ugly freak this must make us look to all the other rich people in the world? We’re like the millionaire who made his pile as a rag and bone man with a horse and cart. Yuck.

It’s something about which we should be deeply ashamed and very worried, apparently.

How do I know this? It’s all explained in an open letter signed by about 70 academics who, because they’re banging on about economic matters, have been taken to be economists. But they don’t sound like any economist I know.

Indeed, they devote most of their letter to explaining why some of the most fundamental principles of economics are not only wrong, wrong, wrong, but sooo yesterday.

They condemn “outdated ‘comparative advantage’ theories of trade and development – according to which, countries should automatically specialise in products predetermined by natural resource endowments” which theories, they assure us, “have been abandoned” by other rich countries.

Rather, “there is new recognition that competitiveness is deliberately created and shaped, through proactive policy interventions that push both private and public actors to do more than market forces alone could attain”.

Get it? When you’re trying to make a living in a market economy, it’s a mistake to worry about what you’re good at, or to think you’ll sell something you’ve got that they don’t. No, with the right policies, governments can make you “competitive” without any of that.

You may think we’ve done pretty well among the other rich countries but, in truth, we’ve been getting it all wrong. When those Europeans were sailing round the South Pacific looking for an island they could take from its local inhabitants, their big mistake was to pick Australia.

They thought our island would have a lot of good farmland. And surely somewhere in all that space there must be some gold or other valuable minerals. But this turned us into hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Worse, some of us became the lowest of the low, digging stuff out of the ground and shipping it off somewhere. We turned our country into a quarry. And there’s only one thing lower than running a quarry: providing “services” to other people. You know, being a cleaner or chambermaid or waiter.

All of which tempted us away from the one honest, noble way to earn a living: making things. And if only our island hadn’t been good for farming and mining, making things would have been the only way left to make a living.

Really? As the independent economist Saul Eslake has said, this isn’t economics, it’s the fetishising of manufacturing. It’s the one worthy occupation. All the rest are rubbish.

Now, I’m sure the open letter-signers would protest that they’re only arguing for a big manufacturing sector, they’re not saying we shouldn’t have farmers, miners or servants.

Trouble is, as Eslake points out, all the parts of an economy can’t add to more than 100 per cent of gross domestic product or total employment. If some parts’ shares are bigger than others, the other bits’ shares must be smaller.

When you think about it, this is just an application of the economists’ most fundamental principle: opportunity cost. You can’t have everything you want, so make sure what you pick is what you most want.

To anyone who’s been around a while, it’s clear the letter-signers are on the left. Nothing wrong with that. At its best, the left cares about a good deal for the bottom, not just the top. But for some strange reason, a lot of those on the left see themselves as linked to manufacturing by an umbilical cord.

The joke is, few if any of the letter-signers would ever have worked in manufacturing – or ever want to. (My own career in BHP’s Newcastle coke ovens lasted two days before I scuttled back to the comfort of a chartered accountants’ office.)

Academics, more than anyone, should understand that the future lies in services, not manufacturing. The good jobs come from what you know, not what you can make.