Showing posts with label government intervention. Show all posts
Showing posts with label government intervention. Show all posts

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Economics isn't as highfalutin' as the jargon makes it sound

If you’ve ever had the feeling you ought to know a lot more about economics than you do – even if only to make it harder for economists to bamboozle you – here’s my long-weekend special offer: the key concepts of the discipline explained in one article. As many as I can fit, anyway.

More than a year ago, the boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims – surely the most experienced senior econocrat evading retirement in Canberra – began a speech by saying economics had become too mathematical and that to be a good economist all you needed was a deep intuitive feel for 10 or 15 concepts.

He then rattled off what he regarded as the 15 most important concepts, “in no particular order”. From those I’ll explain, in order, the five I consider to be most significant.

1. Opportunity cost

The first is one you should have heard of: opportunity cost.

Many economists consider “opp cost” to be the single most important and fundamental concept in economics, and the discipline’s most useful contribution to the betterment of mankind. Indeed, that’s the view Professor John Quiggin, of the University of Queensland, takes in his book Economics in Two Lessons, which I recommend as the best book to introduce you to economics.

Quiggin says “the opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up to get it”. Our wants are almost infinite, but our resources are limited, so we have to make choices. Economists’ eternal message to individuals and to the community is: think carefully before you spend your money, make sure you’re spending it on what you really want because you can’t spend it twice.

Really? That complicated, huh? Quiggin says “the lesson of opportunity cost is easy to state but hard to learn”. We keep forgetting to apply it. For instance, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is saying he’s not going to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if the opportunity cost is to endanger jobs in the coal industry.

Sounds fair enough until you realise he’s saying jobs in a particular industry matter more to him than us doing all we can to help reduce global warming (which will destroy jobs in many industries).

We live in a market economy. We sell our labour in the jobs market, then use the money we earn to buy the goods and services we need in 101 product markets. Economics is the study of markets and, in particular, of how the prices set in markets work to bring supply and demand, sellers and buyers, into agreement (aka “equilibrium” or balance).

2. Invisible hand

The first of Quiggin’s two lessons is “market prices reflect and [also] determine the opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers” – which brings us to Sims’ next key concept, “the invisible hand”.

In a market-based economy (as opposed to a feudal economy or a planned economy), the differing objectives of workers, employers, consumers and producers are co-ordinated (brought together) not by the government issuing orders to people, but by the “price mechanism” (prices going up or down until both sides are satisfied).

That’s the invisible hand. And what motivates this invisible hand is the self-interest of workers, bosses, consumers and businesses. In the famous words of the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, in 1776, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

It’s amazing to think of, but it holds much truth: the invisible hand of markets and prices takes the self-interest of all those competing players and turns it into a situation where most of us have our wants satisfied most of the time.

3. Imperfect competition

But if that sounds a bit too pat – a bit too perfect – it is. It is, in fact, a description of what economists call “perfect markets” and “perfect competition”. And in real life, nothing’s ever perfect. The greatest female economist, Joan Robinson, was the first to formalise Sims’ third key concept, “imperfect competition” – the study of why markets and the price mechanism don’t always work as perfectly as the oversimplified “neo-classical” model of markets assumes they do.

4. Market failure

From the subtitle of Quiggin’s book you see that lesson one is “why markets work so well”, but lesson two is “and why they can fail so badly”. This takes us straight to Sims’ fourth key concept “market failure”. Markets are said to fail when they deliver results that aren’t “allocatively efficient” – when they don’t lead to the particular allocation of economic resources that yields the maximum satisfaction of people’s wants.

Economists have spent much time studying the various categories of factors that cause markets to fail. More recently they have turned to studying “government failure”, which is when governments’ attempts to correct market failures end up making things worse.

5. Externalities

Sims’ final key concept is “externalities” – a major category of market failure. These occur when transactions between sellers and buyers generate costs (or benefits) for third parties – known as “social” costs or benefits – that aren’t reflected in the market or “private” prices paid and received by the buyers and sellers.

These social costs or benefits are thus “external” to the private transaction and the private price mechanism. They constitute market failure because the market generates more costs (or fewer benefits) than is in the public’s interest.

One example of an external benefit is the gain to the wider community (not just the particular individual) when a student graduates from university (which is why uni fees are set at only about half the cost of the course, so as to “internalise” the positive externality).

As for external costs (“negative externalities”), Quiggin notes that the leading British economist Lord Nicholas Stern has described climate change as “the biggest market failure in history”. So now you know why so many of the nation’s economists are appalled by Morrison’s dereliction.
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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

How to lose water, waste money and wreck the environment

If you want a salutary example of the taxpayers’ money that can be wasted and the harm that can be done when governments yield to the temptation to prop up declining – and, in this case, environmentally damaging – industries, look no further than Melbourne’s water supply.

The industry in question is the tiny native-forest logging industry in Victoria’s Central Highlands. The value it adds to national production of goods and services is a mere $12 million a year (using figures for 2013-14).

The industry's employment in the region was 430 to 660 people in 2012 – though it would be less than that by now. Few of those jobs would be permanent, with the rest being people working for contractors, who could be deployed elsewhere.

Successive state governments have kept the native-timber industry alive by undercharging it for logs taken from state forests. The state-owned logging company, VicForests, operates at a loss, which is hidden by grants from other parts of the government.

Coalition governments are urged to keep propping up the industry by the National Party; Labor governments by the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union.

What’s this got to do with Melbourne’s water supply? Ah, that’s the beauty of a case study by David Lindenmayer, Heather Keith, Michael Vardon, John Stein and Chris Taylor and others from the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society.

I’ve written before in praise of the United Nations’ system of economic and environmental accounts (SEEA), which extends our long-standing way of measuring the economy (to reach gross domestic product) to include our use of natural resources and “ecosystem services” – the many benefits humans get from nature, such as photosynthesis.

Lindenmayer and co’s case study is one of the first to use the SEEA framework to join the dots between the economy (in this case, native forestry) and the environment (Melbourne’s water supply).

Melbourne’s population of 5 million is growing so rapidly it won’t be long before it overtakes Sydney as the nation’s largest city.

So many people require a lot of clean water, a need that can only grow. Almost all of Melbourne’s water comes from water catchments to the city’s north-east.

Logging of native forests has been banned in all those catchments except the biggest, the Thomson catchment, which holds about 59 per cent of Melbourne’s water storage.

Trouble is, the water that runs off native forests is significantly reduced by bushfires – and logging.

This is the consequence of an ecosystem service scientists call “evapo-transpiration” – the product of leaf transpiration and interception and soil evaporation losses.

This means the oldest forests produce the most water run-off. When old trees are lost through fire or logging, the regrowth that takes their place absorbs much more water.

Logging done many years ago can still reduce a forest’s water run-off yield today. The Fenner people calculate that past logging of the Thomson catchment has reduced its present water yield by 26 per cent, or more than 15,000 megalitres a year. They calculate that, should logging continue to 2050, this loss would increase to about 35,000 megalitres a year.

Assuming the average person uses 161 litres of water a day, the loss of water yield resulting from logging would have met the needs of nearly 600,000 people by 2050.

The SEEA-based case study shows the economic value of the water in all of Melbourne’s catchments is more than 25 times the economic value of the timber, woodchips and pulp produced from all Victoria’s native forests.

This is partly because, thanks to past fires and overcutting, only one-eighth of the native timber logged in Victoria is good enough for valuable sawlogs, with the remainder turned into low-value pulp and woodchips for making paper. (This is true even though the trees being logged include lovely mountain ash, alpine ash and shining gums.)

Turning to the Central Highlands alone, in 2013-14 the annual economic value of water supply to Melbourne was $310 million, about the same as the value of its agriculture. Its tourism was worth $260 million – all compared to its native timber production worth $12 million.

But the main thing to note is the trade-off between the different uses to which land can be put. Use it to produce water supply, and it’s very valuable. Use it to produce water supply and native timber, however, and you reduce the value of the water by far more than the chips and pulp are worth.

And why? To save a relative handful of workers the pain of moving to a different industry in a different town. And save the mill owners the expense of adapting their mills to chipping plantation wood rather than native wood. When did they deserve the kid-glove treatment the rest of us don’t get?

As for all the water that won’t be available to meet Melbourne’s growing needs, how will we replace it? Not to worry. We’ll get it from the desalination plant. It will cost $1650 more per megalitre than catchment water, but the Nats and the CFMMEU know we won’t mind paying through the nose to continue wrecking our native forests.
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Monday, February 25, 2019

It’s not business-bashing, it’s the public’s moment of truth

With the federal election campaign being fought over which side will do the better job of re-regulating the banks, the energy companies and business generally, big business seems to be going through the stages of grief. It’s reached denial.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the Business Council of Australia is most put out that the Morrison government has yielded to pressure from Labor and some Nationals to support a bill making it easier for smaller businesses to take legal action against big businesses.

Apparently, Scott Morrison and his lieutenants had the temerity to make the decision without giving the council an opportunity for private lobbying.

Which would have been intend to avoid “harmful unintended consequences,” including any possible drag on the economy. Of course.

Apparently, it’s just another instance of the growing level of “business bashing” in this campaign.

Sorry, guys, you’ve got to have a better argument than that. Accusing your critics of business-bashing or teacher-bashing or bank-bashing is what you say when you haven’t got a defence and are succumbing to a persecution complex.

It makes you and your mates feel better, but that’s all.

It’s a refusal to accept any responsibility for the bad performance of which people are complaining. Since it’s entirely the fault of others – usually, the government – any attempt to make me and my mates bare our share of responsibility can be explained only by ignorance and malice.

Such denial offers big business no way forward. Much better to admit there’s a fair bit of truth to the criticisms and accept that your performance will have to be a lot better.

The Business Council needs to admit to itself that this is not some passing phase of populist madness, it’s the end of the line for the “bizonomics” that micro-economic reform degenerated into – the belief that what’s good for big business is good for the economy.

The simple truth is that, when you go for years abusing your market power, the electorate eventually wakes up and hits back, threatening to toss out any government that isn’t prepared to set things to rights.

Now the scales of economic fundamentalism have fallen from our eyes, who could doubt that big businesses use their superior power – including their ability to afford the best legal advice – to unreasonably impose their will on smaller businesses, just as they impose incomprehensible and utterly non-negotiable terms and conditions on their customers. Like it or lump it.

One of the greatest weaknesses of “perfect competition” – the oversimplified model of market behaviour that permeates the thinking of economists, both consciously and unconsciously – is its implicit assumption that the parties to economic transactions are of roughly equal bargaining power.

In the era of oligopoly, however – where so many markets are dominated by four or even two huge corporations - nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s thus perfectly reasonable for governments to intervene in markets to bolster the bargaining power of the smaller and weaker parties – whether employees permitted to bargain collectively and go on strike, small businesses helped to seek legal redress from much bigger businesses, or customers protected from misleading advertising, high-pressure selling and other abuses.

It’s because economists’ thinking is so deeply infected by their model’s unrealistic assumptions that they fell for the notion that merely providing consumers with more information on labels and in “product statements” (quickly sabotaged by being turned into pages of legalese) would protect them from exploitation.

Though oligopolies have existed for decades, economists have put remarkably little effort into studying how they work and, more particularly, how they can be regulated to ensure the economies of scale they have been designed to capture are passed through to their customers.

The trouble is that oligopolies do all they can to avoid competing on price.

A part of this is offering a range of products that are almost impossible to compare with other firms’ products.

In the complex, busy world we live in, it’s utterly unrealistic to expect ordinary consumers to devote hours of precious leisure time to checking to see whether their present provider of bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, mobile phones, electricity, gas and even superannuation is quietly taking advantage of them.

This is the case for government regulation to impose standardised comparisons and default products, statutory guarantees, legal obligations to act in the client’s best interests, and much else.

The other thing we’ve learnt in recent times – from the banking inquiry and many other examples – is that if businesses large and small are confident they won’t get caught, there’s no certainty they’ll obey the law.
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Monday, February 18, 2019

Having stuffed-up deregulation, don't stuff-up re-regulation

As the banking royal commission finishes, the aged care royal commission begins investigating the mistreatment of old people by – taking a wild guess – mainly the for-profit providers. Surely it won’t be long before the politicians, responding to the public’s shock and outrage, are swearing to really toughen up the regulation of aged care facilities.

It’s not hard to see we’ve passed the point of “peak deregulation” and governments will now be busy responding to the electorate’s demands for tighter regulation of an ever-growing list of industries found to have abused the trust of economic reformers past.

But having gone for several decades under-regulating many industries and employers, there’s a high risk we’ll now swing to the opposite extreme of over-regulation. That could happen if politicians simply respond to populist pressures to wield the big stick against greedy business people.

It could happen if politicians yield to one of the great temptations of our spin-doctoring age: caring more about being seen to be acting decisively than whether those actions actually do much good.

And it could happen if our econocrats refuse to admit the shortcomings of their earlier advocacy of deregulation – including their naive confidence that the power of market forces would ensure businesses treated their customers well – and go into a sulk, washing their hands of responsibility for what happens next.

But against all those risks that, in seeking to correct the failures of the previous regime we introduce something that’s just as bad only different, there’s one cause for optimism: as the first cab off the re-regulatory rank, Commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s guiding principles for turning things around. (To be fair, those principles seem to have been influenced by Treasury’s submission to the commission.)

His first principle is that, since almost all the misconduct he uncovered was already unlawful, there’s no need for a raft of legislation to make them doubly illegal. The problem is more getting people to obey the existing law.

Blindingly obvious? Not to a politician who wants to be seen by an angry but uncomprehending public to be acting immediately and decisively. On the rare occasions when Australia is touched by a terrorist act, we see Parliament recalled to pass urgent legislation making terrorism quintuplely illegal.

Hayne’s second principle is that compliance will be increased by making the law simpler, rather than more complex, so no one can be in any doubt about what’s required of them.

The more complex and voluminous you make the law, the more scope you give well-resourced offenders to pay lawyers to find loopholes and argue the toss and string out court proceedings. In the process, increasing the cost to taxpayers of bringing them to justice, increasing the likelihood of them getting off and increasing the reluctance of the regulators to take them on in the first place.

Hayne says the whole body of law needs to be rewritten to simplify and clarify the legislators’ intentions. In the meantime, however, some changes should be made more quickly.

One is to get rid of exceptions, carve-outs and qualifications. Examples are the “grandfathering” (leaving existing arrangements unaffected by new rules) of certain commissions, and the exclusion of funeral insurance from rules affecting other insurance.

As two law professors from the University of Melbourne have pointed out, the rule of law requires like cases to be treated alike. To make exceptions you need powerful arguments – which haven’t been made.

“Instead,” they say, “exceptions and carve-outs reflect the lobbying of powerful industry groups concerned to preserve their own self-interest.” True. There’s no principle of deregulation that says it’s OK to look after your mates.

In highlighting the shortcomings of existing legislation, Hayne stressed that “where possible, conflicts of interest and conflicts between duty and interest [such as not acting in the best interests of your client] should be removed”.

But his final guiding principle is that existing laws must be enforced. “Too often, financial services entities that broke the law were not properly held to account. Misconduct will be deterred only if entities believe that misconduct will be detected, denounced and justly punished,” he said.

Just so. And it raises a mode of response to the electorate’s wider discontents, as governments set out on the path of “re-regulating” industries other than financial services: regulations may need improving, but we don’t need a lot more of them.

No, what we need a lot more of is regulators doing – and being seen to be doing – their job of enforcing existing regulations with vigour and effectiveness, and governments being unstinting in providing them with resources.
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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Bank royal commission the start of re-regulation

If you think the banking royal commission’s damning report means you’ll never again be overcharged or otherwise mistreated by a bank, you’re being a bit naive. If you’re hoping to witness leading bankers being dragged off to chokey, you’ll be waiting a while.

But if you think that, once the dust has settled, we’ll find little has changed, you haven’t been paying attention.

I think we’ll look back on this week and see it as the start of the era of re-regulation of the economy. The time it became clear our politicians were no longer willing to give big business an easy ride, to assume it would only ever act in the best interests of its customers and that nothing should ever be done to displease the big end of town, for fear this would damage the economy.

And I’m talking about a lot more than banking, superannuation and insurance. Many other industries have been treating their customers or employees badly, and they too will find governments getting tough with wrongdoers.

Why the change of heart? Because, in so many cases, the 30-year experiment with deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing is now seen to have ended badly.

Recent years have revealed many businesses breaking the law while government regulatory bodies fail to bring them to justice: firms paying their employees less than their legal entitlements, firms taking advantage of foreign students and others on temporary work visas, private providers of vocational education inducing youngsters to sign up for inappropriate courses, irrigators illegally extracting water from the Murray-Darling river system, private inspectors certifying high-rise apartment blocks later found to be seriously defective, and many more.

Big business may have power and money, but customers and employees have votes. And when voters experience mistreatment at the hand of business – or just read about the mistreatment of others – they tend to blame the politicians, who were supposed to ensure such things happened only rarely.

Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has found that almost all the misbehaviour by banks and other institutions he uncovered was already illegal.

He makes the point that “the primary responsibility for misconduct in the financial services industry lies with the entities concerned and those who managed and controlled those entities”.

But, he adds, “too often, financial services entities that broke the law were not properly held to account.

“The Australian community expects, and is entitled to expect, that if an entity breaks the law and causes damage to customers, it will compensate those affected customers. But the community also expects that financial services entities that break the law will be held to account.”

And when the Australian community realises this hasn’t happened, who does it blame? Who does it seek most to punish? The government of the day. Even though the genesis of the policy problem lies in decisions made by governments long gone.

Do you see now why the worm has turned on deregulation?

Former Labor and Coalition governments’ naive faith that “market forces” would oblige businesses to do the right thing has proved badly misplaced. In their scramble for higher profits and pay, seemingly respectable businesses have taken advantage of their greater freedom, knowingly breaking the law whenever they thought they wouldn’t be caught.

And now the chickens have come home, who’s most at risk of losing their jobs? Not the bosses of offending businesses, not the regulators asleep at the wheel, but the government of the day. That’s the rough justice of democracies. Voters hit out at those they have the power to hit – those they elect.

It was business that had the fun, but it’s politicians in most immediate danger of paying the price. Do you really think they’ll be going easy on their former business mates who’ve been dudding them behind their backs?

But what’s a threat to the government is an opportunity for the opposition. Competition between the two parties will ensure the Hayne commission’s recommendations are acted on.

And, whichever side wins the election, the next term will see a tightening of the regulation of many industries beside financial services.

Commissioner Hayne was highly critical of the two main financial regulators, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. Why did they allow so much wrongdoing to get past them?

Partly because they succumbed to the ailment threatening all regulators: “capture” by the industry they were supposed to be regulating. They allowed themselves to become too matey with the industry, seeing its point of view more clearly than the interests of its customers.

But there’s more to it. During the decades in which politicians and some economists convinced themselves that the more lightly businesses were regulated the better they’d serve the rest of us, the regulatory authorities were left intact more for appearances than function.

They soon got the message that their political masters – from either side of politics – wanted them to go easy on business. Both sides went for years reinforcing the message by repeatedly cutting the regulators’ funding.

But all that’s changed. The politicians, claiming to be shocked by the regulators’ dereliction, are now pumping in taxpayers’ money as fast as they can go. Life won’t be the same for big business.
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Monday, December 17, 2018

ACCC wins watchdog of the year, as others lick their wounds

It’s been an infamous year for Australia’s economic regulators. Most ended it with their lack of vigilance exposed, their reputations battered and their ears stinging from judicial rebuke.

The biggest loser is the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, followed by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. But the mismanagement of the national electricity market became more apparent. And neither the Reserve Bank nor Treasury emerged unscathed.

Just one regulator had a good year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. It worked hard, discharging its duties with vigour and initiative, taking on powerful business interests, seeking and being granted hugely increased maximum penalties, and fighting to make up for the negligence of its fellow regulators.

As the others have been found wanting, its role has been expanded. And as next year we see the government’s response to this year’s seemingly endless revelations of regulatory failure, it’s role may well be further widened. That’s what tends to happen when rival regulators’ failures become apparent.

It’s been a watershed year. From now on, life will never be the same for regulators found wanting under the microscope of public scrutiny.

Much of that scrutiny came from the banking royal commission, of course. Its interim report in September criticised ASIC for "rarely" going to court "to seek public denunciation of and punishment for misconduct," and being too accommodative when negotiating penalties with the companies it polices.

APRA faced criticism for a "lack of action" in response to widespread misbehaviour in superannuation, including cases where thousands of members were kept in higher fee accounts, rather than being moved into no-frills MySuper products.

But the royal commission wasn’t the only critic of economic regulators this year. I’ve said plenty elsewhere about the failure of the national electricity market’s three (and now four) official operators and regulators to prevent the massive blowout in retail power prices.

One of the many things the Turnbull government did in its vain attempt to fend off pressure for a royal commission was to get the Productivity Commission to report on competition in the financial sector.

The commission confirmed competition in banking was weak and made one eye-opening revelation: part of the problem was that, in their concern to ensure the stability of the banking system, APRA and the Reserve Bank weren’t too worried about ensuring this did as little as possible to inhibit price competition between the big banks.

The commission noted that when APRA had imposed limits on new interest-only lending, it and the Reserve had looked the other way while all four big banks used this as an excuse to jack up interest rates on new and existing interest-only loans.

It recommended that a “consumer champion” be appointed to join APRA, ASIC, Treasury and the Reserve on the co-ordinating Council of Financial Regulators. No prize for guessing the ACCC was the champion the commission had in mind. Nor for reading between the lines that the commission suspected the Reserve and Treasury had been “captured” by the bankers they were supposed to be regulating.

The ACCC has done what little it could over the years to oppose the misregulation and oligopolisation of the national electricity market, and its reports this year revealed what went wrong.

Last week it acted on three fronts. Its preliminary report on digital platforms took on Google and Facebook, greatly expanding our understanding of the questionable ways they operate and working on ways they could be regulated.

ACCC boss Rod Sims has long worried publicly about the state governments privatising their electricity businesses and ports in ways that maximised their sale price by inhibiting price competition. The banker-led Baird-Berejiklian government in NSW is the worst offender.

Last week Sims announced the ACCC was taking the Botany port operator to court, alleging its agreement with the NSW government is anti-competitive and illegal.

And last week the ACCC released its final report on factors influencing residential mortgage prices, commissioned at a time when the banks were threatening to pass the new “major bank levy” straight on to their customers.

The report covered similar territory to the earlier Productivity Commission report, noting again the way the banks had used APRA’s move on interest-only loans as an opportunity for “synchronised pricing”.

But the ACCC’s analysis of pricing dynamics in an oligopolistic market like banking revealed far more realism (and advanced economics) than the Productivity Commission’s trademark introductory textbook neo-classicism. The more I see, the more I like.
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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sensible communities set boundaries for business

A highlight of our trip to New York after Christmas was a visit to the Tenement Museum down on the lower east side, where the movie Gangs of New York was set. It was the area where successive waves of Irish, German and Russian immigrants first settled, crowded into tenements.

We were taken around the corner to see inside a tenement building restored to its original condition.

As we climbed the back stairs, we were shown a row of dunnies and a water tap in the backyard. This, we were told, was one of the first tenements required to have outside toilets and running water under a new city ordinance.

Can you imagine any developer today thinking they could get away with building multi-storey units without adequate (indoor) toilets and plumbing? Unthinkable.

But I can imagine the fuss the developers of that time would have made when the city government – no doubt acting under pressure from citizens worried about the spread of disease – was passing the new ordinance.

These excessively luxurious requirements would be hugely expensive and could send some tenement owners bankrupt – owners who had families and elderly parents to support. The additional cost would have to be passed on to tenants, of course, making rents prohibitive. Some families would be forced onto the street.

I bet few of those dire predictions came to pass. Why? Because business people still play this game and once the bitterly opposed legislation goes through and the new status quo is accepted, the exaggerated forebodings are soon forgotten.

Another highlight was a tour of Carnegie Hall. Once, when it fell on hard times, someone acquired it with a view to tearing it down and building high-rise apartments. A public outcry stopped it.

Then, our guide reminded us, there was the time Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led the fight to stop Grand Central Station being replaced by an office block.

It reminded me of how that ratbag commo Jack Mundey – being quietly urged on by respectable National Trust-types – was frustrating go-ahead developers all over Sydney.

Just think how better off we’d be today had those those pillars of industry not been prevented from doing away with the crumbling old Queen Victoria Building – with its verdigris domes and rickety lifts – and building a shiny new office block.

Gosh, by now we’d be ready to tear it down and build a taller one. And just think how many jobs that would create.

Do you see where this travelogue is heading? I’m an unfailing believer in the capitalist system. We’d all be much poorer than we are were it not for those ambitious, hard-working, enterprising, optimistic souls who set out to make themselves rich by engaging in some business.

But that doesn’t stop them being thoroughly self-interested and often short-sighted. Whatever new project it is they’ve decided will make them more money, they want to get started yesterday and get terribly angry with those who won’t step out of their way and let them get on with it.

My point is, it was ever thus. Market economies work best – and all the people within them do best – when governments act on behalf of the community in setting boundaries within which entrepreneurs are free to be entrepreneurial.

It’s the community’s economy, and it’s the community that decides the rules that ensure businesses make their profits – good luck to them – in ways that do more good than harm to the rest of us.

The huge hurt and cost of the global financial crisis – from which the world is still recovering, 10 years later – is but the latest reminder of something we should have known: how easily an economy can run off the track when we fall for the line that self-interested, short-sighted business people should be free to do as they please.

I remind you of all this because we’re just emerging from a period of more than 30 years in which the Western world flirted with the notion that economies work best when businesses are given as free a hand as possible.

The present royal commission into the misbehaviour of the banks is just one response to the consequences of that ill-considered notion.

You have to be at least in your 50s to remember the world as it was before then, when governments felt free to limit businesses’ freedom of action in respects they judged necessary and to impose obligations on them.

Where do you think the minimum wage, four weeks annual leave, long service leave, sick leave and many other employee benefits came from? Governments decided to impose them on business so as to ensure workers got their share of the benefits of capitalism.

Many of our young people are deeply pessimistic about the working world they’re inheriting – the “gig economy” where most employment is “precarious” – because they’ve grown up in a world where businesses seemed to be free to do whatever suited them.

They think the gig economy would be a terrible world to live in. They’re right, it would. Which is why I’m sure it won’t be allowed to happen. Governments will stop it happening.

Why will they? Because workers have infinitely more votes than business people do. In the end, the economy is moulded to serve the interests of the many, not the few. Governments keep getting thrown out until they get that message.
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