Showing posts with label co-operation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label co-operation. Show all posts

Monday, April 5, 2021

Wealth and happiness don't give meaning to our lives

Easter Monday’s a good a time to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and why we’re doing it. I’ve been banging on about all things economic for more than 40 years, but if I’ve left you with the impression economics and economic growth is the be-all and end-all, let me apologise for misleading you.

The more I’ve learnt about economics, the more aware I’ve become of its limitations. Economics is the study of production and consumption, getting and spending. But as someone connected with Easter – not the Easter Bunny – once said, there’s more to life than bread alone.

Unfortunately, the conventional way of thinking about the economy has pretty much taken for granted the natural environment in which our economic activity occurs, and the use of natural resources and ecosystem services on which that activity depends.

We’re learning the hard way that this insouciance can’t continue. We’re damaging our environment in ways that can’t continue. I keep writing about the need for economic growth because, as the economy is presently organised, it’s pretty much the only way to provide sufficient jobs for our growing population.

But that just means we need to redefine economic growth to mean getting better, not bigger (and probably should do more to limit world population growth).

Conventional economics focuses on the material aspects of life: producing and consuming goods and services; buying and selling property. There’s no denying the inescapable importance of the material in our lives – “bread” – but conventional economics encourages our obsession with material accumulation at the expense of other important dimensions of our lives.

Some aspects of economic activity can damage our physical health – smoking, drinking, burning dirty fossil fuels, even eating fast foods – but we need to become more aware of the way the fast pace and competitive pressures of modern life also threaten our mental health. Too many people – particularly the young – suffer chronic stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Too much emphasis on material success can also come at the expense of the social aspect of our lives – our relationships with family, friends and neighbours – which, when we’re thinking straight, we realise give us far more satisfaction than any new car or pay rise. Economists often advocate policies that will increase the efficiency of our use of resources without giving a moment’s thought to their effect on family life.

Nor should we allow our pursuit of material affluence to come at the expense of the moral and spiritual aspects of lives. I’ve just read social commentator Hugh Mackay’s book, Beyond Belief, which has done so much to clarify my thinking about Christianity, religion and spirituality that I’m sorry I didn’t get to it earlier.

Yet another thing that mars conventional economic thinking is its emphasis on the individual as opposed to the community, it’s effective sanctification of self-interest as the economy’s only relevant driving force, and its obsession with competition and neglect of the benefits of co-operation.

Mackay says that, if you ignore the doctrines and dogmas of the church – all the things you’re required to believe in – and focus on the teachings of Jesus, the first thing to strike you is that none of it was about the pursuit of personal happiness.

“The satisfactions offered or implied are all, at best, by-products of the good life,” he says. “The emphasis is on serving others and responding to their needs in the spirit of loving-kindness, the strong implication being that the pursuit of self-serving goals, like wealth or status, will be counterproductive.”

Jesus’ teachings “were all about how best to live: the consistent emphasis was on loving action, not belief. According to Jesus, the life of virtue – the life of goodness – is powered by faith in something greater than ourselves (love, actually), not by dogma.”

Mackay says we should “avoid the deadly trap of regarding faith as a pathway to personal happiness. The idea that you are entitled to happiness, or that the pursuit of personal happiness is a suitable goal for your life, is seriously misguided.

“If we know anything, we know that’s a fruitless, pointless quest – doomed to disappoint – because . . . our deepest satisfactions come from a sense of meaning in our lives, not from experiencing any particular emotional state like happiness or contentment.”

The self-absorbed mind’s entire focus is individualistic. It’s “the polar opposite of the moral mind. Its orientation is towards the self, not others; its currency is competition, not cooperation; it’s all about getting, not giving. Its goal is the feel-good achievement of personal gratification, however that might be achieved and regardless of any impact it might have on the wellbeing of ‘losers’.”

Read more >>

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Why are the Viking economies so successful? They pull together

I’d like to tell you I’ve been away working hard on a study tour of the Nordic economies – or perhaps tracing the remnant economic impact of the Hanseatic League (look it up) – but the truth is we were too busy enjoying the sights around Scandinavia and the Baltic for me to spend much time reading the books and papers I’d taken along.

But since I always like telling people what I did on my holidays (oh, those fjords and waterfalls we saw while sailing up the coast of Norway to the Arctic Circle!), I’ve been looking up facts and figures in a forthcoming book comparing the main developed countries on many criteria, by my mate Professor Rod Tiffen and others at Sydney University (and me).

But first, the travelogue. Prosperous countries have a lot in common but Scandinavia is different. I have seen the future and, while some might regard it as political correctness gone mad, it looked pretty good to me.

One aspect in which the Nordics (strictly speaking, Finland isn’t Scandinavian because it’s a republic rather than a monarchy and because the Finnish language bears no relation to Danish, Swedish or Norwegian) are way more advanced is the role of women.

All of them have had female prime ministers or presidents, they have loads of female politicians and we were always seeing women out at business functions with their male colleagues.

Governments spend much more on childcare and they’re big on men actually taking paid paternity leave. They have “family zones” in trains and we were struck by how many men we saw by themselves pushing prams.

They’re much more relaxed on sexual matters. These days, any new building in Sweden will have unisex toilets, with rows of cubicles and not a urinal to be seen. Neat way of sidestepping debates about which toilet transgender people should use.

The Nordics are well ahead of us on environmental matters. They’re bicycle crazy (a big health hazard for tourists who don’t know they’re standing in a bike lane) and drive small cars.

They’re obsessed with organic food and even hotel guests are expected to recycle their paper and plastic. One hotel we stayed at in Copenhagen was so concerned to save the planet its policy was to make up the rooms only every fourth day.

The Norwegians have made and, unlike the rest of us, saved their pile by selling oil to the world but you get the feeling it troubles their conscience. So, like the other Nordics, they have ambitious targets to move to renewables and, to that end, are making more use of carbon pricing than most other countries.

The truth is, I’ve long wanted to see Scandinavia for myself. It’s a part of the world that most politicians and economists prefer not to think about. Why not? Because its performance laughs at all they believe about how to run a successful economy.

Everyone in the English-speaking economies knows big government is the enemy of efficiency. The less governments do, the better things go. The lower we can get our taxes, the more we’ll grow.

Just ask Scott Morrison. As he loves to say, no one ever taxed their way to prosperity. What’s he doing to encourage jobs and growth? Cutting taxes, of course. That’s Economics 101 – so obvious it doesn’t need explaining.

Trouble is, the Nordics have some of the highest rates of government spending in the world and pay among the highest levels of taxation, but have hugely successful economies.

The Danes pay 46 per cent of gross domestic product in total taxes, the Finns pay 44 per cent, the Swedes 43 per cent and the Norwegians 38 per cent (compared with our 28 per cent).

Measured by GDP per person, Norway's standard of living is well ahead of America's. Then come the Danes and the Swedes – at around the average for 18 developed democracies (as are we) – with the Finns just beating out the Brits and the French further down the list.

The Nordics are also good at managing their government budgets.

We all know unions are bad for jobs and growth and we’ve succeeded in getting our rate of union membership down to 17 per cent. Funny that, the Nordics still have the highest rates (up around two-thirds). So, do they have lots of strikes? No.

The four Nordics are right at the top when it comes to the smallest gap between rich and poor, with Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States right at the bottom.

Other indicators show that (provided you ignore the long snowy winters) the Nordics enjoy a high quality of life and not just a high material standard of living.

Note this: I’m not claiming that the Scandinavians are more economically successful because of their big government and high taxes. No, I’m saying that, contrary to the unshakable beliefs of many economists and all conservative politicians, there’s little connection between economic success and the size of government.

So how do the Scandis do it? I read this on the wall of an art museum in Aarhus, Denmark: “In a society we are mutually interdependent. Strengthening the spirit of community, we improve society for all of us as a group but we also provide each individual with better opportunities for realising his or her own potential.”
Read more >>

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Shorten's New Year's resolution: practice what I preach

People are always complaining that our politicians – on both sides – are "out of touch". They're too high and mighty to understand the things that are annoying ordinary people in ordinary life.

This is a big part of the reason almost one person in four voted for a minor party in last year's election. The political establishment just doesn't get it.

But one of our pollies does claim to have got the message. Wading through all the usual guff in the start-of-the-year speech Bill Shorten gave last week, I came upon a passage so surprising I thought it worth recording.

"Restoring ... faith in the system is the threshold challenge for politics today. Rusted-on supporters and deep tribal loyalties are not what they once were," he said.

"There is one certainty in 2017: people are disengaged from politics and they're distrustful of politicians.

"To many Australians the political system is broken – and more than a few don't trust us to fix it.

"I say 'us' because virtually everyone in this room [at the National Press Club] is considered part of the problem, part of the political class.

"Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, we are seen as members of the same insider club, letting down the rest of Australia.

"This sense of alienation isn't a local curiosity – it's a global phenomenon. Strong enough to take Britain out of Europe – and put Donald Trump in the White House.

"And in these unusual times, politics-as-usual doesn't cut it any more.

"Yes, we are an adversarial democracy, built on the clash of ideas – I honour that. My job, as Leader of the Opposition, is to oppose what I believe is wrong. My job ... is to put positive ideas forward.

"But this year I am going to remind myself as often as possible: people first, politics last. I can't guarantee I'll always get that right – but I'm certainly going to try.

"Because Australians are sick to their core of the petty schoolyard bickering, he-said she-said, the tit-for-tat.

"They're not opposed to genuine debate about the future – but they are over the smallness of so much of the national political conversation ...

"Mind you, that counts for nothing if [scandals over politicians' expense claims make] people think we are acting in our own interests, instead of theirs."

Wow. But this column is no free ad for Team Shorten. I wanted to record it because it was so true, but also to help the man stick to his New Year's resolution.

Actually, it shouldn't surprise that Shorten "gets" all that. Our politicians aren't "out of touch" because that's why their parties (and sometimes, we taxpayers) spend thousands every year conducting focus groups with ordinary voters.

I bet that some of the phrases Shorten used were lifted straight from Labor's market research. Someone in the group blurts out some pithy opinion, everyone else says "Yeah, that's right!" and the researcher writes it down for future use.

As the "political class" knows, the punters love having their own opinions fed back to them. I'd also bet that both parties' rival researchers tell them much the same things about what voters like and dislike.

But if the pollies know how much we hate the way they carry on, why do they keep doing it?

Because some of the things they do still work, even though we hate them. Because they want to win the next election at all cost, and so are willing to do things that bring them immediate advantage, even though they add to the long-term fouling of the collective political nest.

Because many of the unconvincing things they say are intended to shore up the faith of the party faithful, not persuade the rest of us.

Because both sides are afraid that if they're the first to stop behaving badly, the other side will wipe the floor with them. Economists call this a "collective action problem", which can only be fixed by some outside authority imposing a solution on both sides.

Back to Shorten's resolution. It would certainly be a big change to Labor's behaviour since its success at last year's election left Malcolm Turnbull with such a tiny majority.

Labor has followed a sneaky strategy of giving the appearance of co-operation and positivity while quietly seizing opportunities to frustrate the government's program, making it look impotent and unstable.

To keep same-sex marriage alive as an issue for the next election, it has blocked Turnbull's plebiscite, using the excuse that the gay community wanted to avoid the risk of an abusive debate.

Were it less self-interested it would have advised gays that few great social advances come without pain, and that failing to take advantage of the public's present mood of approval risked having to wait many years for what they want so badly.

Just to make life hard for the government, Labor has ignored its principles and sided with Liberal dissidents and rich superannuants claiming Turnbull's super reforms were "retrospective" and sided with asset-rich oldies opposing Turnbull's reform of the age pension means test.

And now, it seems, Labor's preparing to side with elite private schools objecting to the government redirecting some of their lolly to more needy students.

What were you saying about voters being sick of rival politicians playing tit-for-tat, Bill?
Read more >>

Monday, October 6, 2014

Science runs ahead of economists' model

The failings of economists - the bum forecasts and less-than-wise advice they give us about the choices we face - can usually be traced back to the limitations of the basic model that tends to dominate the way they think, the neo-classical model.

The thinking of economists began to ossify in the second half of the 19th century, at a time when the science of psychology was in its infancy. The model was thus consolidated at a time when our understanding of human behaviour was quite primitive.

Unfortunately, the past century of progress in psychology has revealed just how far astray are many of the economic model's assumptions about how humans tick. Although a minority of economists - "behavioural economists" - have sought to incorporate these findings into their thinking, the majority have ploughed on regardless. It keeps the maths simpler.

The model is often criticised, not least by me, for its key assumption that we are always "rational" - carefully calculating and self-interested - and never instinctive or emotional in the decisions we make, but there's another assumption that's equally unrealistic and likely to lead to wrong predictions about how we'll behave.

It's that consumers and businesses always act as isolated individuals in making their decisions, uninfluenced by the decisions those around them are making, except to the extent that the combined behaviour of others affects the prices the individual faces. In other words, the model's "unit of analysis" is the individual - the "representative consumer" or "representative firm".

In truth, humans are highly social animals and our behaviour is hugely influenced by those around us. We evolved to live in small groups, which has left us with a powerful - if often unconscious - motivation to fit in with the group and avoid being ostracised.

We feel most comfortable when we're doing what everyone else is doing; we feel distinctly uncomfortable when we're doing the opposite to everyone else. We feel great loyalty to the groups we belong to, and rivalry and suspicion towards groups we don't belong to.

This means humans - "economic agents" as economists say - are prone to herd behaviour. At the most innocuous level, this makes us heavily influenced by fashion. We like to wear what others are wearing, read what others are reading and watch the movies and TV shows that others are watching.

It's remarkable that the business world could be so conscious of the need to accommodate and, indeed, exploit our susceptibility to fashion while the economists seek to analyse our behaviour using a model that assumes it away.

More significantly, our tendency to herd behaviour affects the behaviour of markets - particularly financial markets - in ways that, though we've seen it happen many times before, almost invariably catch economists unawares.

It's our propensity for "group-think" that does most to explain booms and busts in the sharemarket, but also the upswings and downswings in the economy. We swing from overly optimistic to overly pessimistic, then back again, and we tend to all do it together.

A separate aspect of the model's exclusive focus on the individual is its overemphasis on competition and underemphasis on co-operation. It's actually the human animal's unmatched ability to co-operate in solving problems that has given our species its mastery over the planet.

Human behaviour is composed of competition and co-operation. We form co-operative groups so as to enhance their ability to compete with other groups. But the economists' model captures only one dimension of the process.

The classic example of group co-operation to facilitate competition is, of course, that bedrock of modern economies, the company. Companies - often very large, multinational companies - dominate our economy, but the model tells us nothing about what goes on inside them and economists don't have much to tell us about how the existence of big companies affects the behaviour of markets.

The final and perhaps most important twist that the economic model's focus on individuals imposes on economists' thinking is an inbuilt bias against intervention in markets by co-operation at its highest level, government.

The market of individual consumers and individual (tiny) firms is assumed to be self-sufficient and self-correcting, thus making intervention by government something alien and more likely to make things worse than better.

The reality, of course, is that governments not only need to "hold the ring" - provide the protection of property rights and legal enforcement of contracts - they also need to impose rules that protect the market, and the rest of us, from the consequences of its own herd-driven excesses.
Read more >>