Showing posts with label media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label media. Show all posts

Monday, May 8, 2023

How budget spin doctors manipulate our first impressions

These days, federal budgets are just as much marketing and media management exercises as they are financial and economic documents. That’s because the spin doctors’ role has become central to the way Canberra works. This is just as true under Labor as the Coalition. Media management is a characteristic of government by the two-party duopoly.

Budgets are actually the management plan for controling the government’s spending and tax-raising over the coming financial year. Because you can’t do a budget without first making guesses about what will be happening in the economy at the time, the budget documents contain detailed economic forecasts and commentary about what it has supposed will happen.

These forecasts are taken very seriously on budget night, but rarely referred to again. That’s because this era of dominant “monetary policy” (manipulation of interest rates), conducted by an independent central bank, means it’s the Reserve Bank’s forecasts that matter.

We’ve had those already, on Friday. The financial markets care more about the Reserve’s opinions than the government’s because they’re always trying to guess what the central bank will do to interest rates. What’s more, the RBA revises its forecasts quarterly, so the budget forecasts soon become outdated.

All this means the government’s forecasts can’t be very different from the Reserve’s. Differ by more than half a percentage point, and you get headlines about a split between Treasury and the central bank. Nothing the econocrats hate more (even though there’s unceasing rivalry between the two outfits).

A separate question is what effect the budget, and particularly the new measures it contains, will have on the economy: on gross domestic product, inflation and unemployment. Now that the macroeconomic fashion (aka “best practice”) dictates that the management of demand be left to the central bank – except in emergencies, such as the pandemic – the budget papers will contain little discussion of this.

But the inescapable fact remains that, the federal budget being so big relative to the economy, everything it does affects economic growth. That’s true whether the economic effects were intended or are the unintended consequence of politically driven decisions. All budget measures are political but, equally, all have economic consequences.

At this time of year, many people say they don’t know why the government is bothering to hold a budget when it has already announced the changes it’s making. Well, not quite.

What’s true is that, these days, budgets – and the days leading up to them – are highly stage-managed by the spin doctors. These people are based in the PMO – prime minister’s office – with extension into every minister’s office, via the minister’s press secretary. All paid for by the taxpayer, naturally.

The spin doctors’ job is to use the “mainstream media” to convey to voters an unduly favourable view of the government and the things it’s doing. They do this by exploiting the foibles of journalists and their editors.

Hence, the common trick of releasing potentially embarrassing information late on a Friday, when it’s less likely to make the bulletin. The hope is that, by Monday, the under-reported story is passed over as “old”.

The spinners have the great advantage of a near monopoly over news about what the government is doing. Much of this news is put into press releases, but much is held for selective release to journalists and outlets that are in favour with the government. Write a piece like this one and don’t expect to be popular.

In the olden days, many budget “leaks” really were leaks, the product of journalists talking to bureaucrats and putting two and one together to make four. These days, bureaucrats are forbidden to speak to journos, so most budget leaks have come from the spin doctors, intended to soften us up for what’s to come.

Sometimes, something – say, that the government has decided to increase the JobKeeper payment only for the over-55s – is leaked to just one or two news outlets to “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes”. If it goes over well enough, it will happen. If there’s a big adverse reaction it may never be heard of again.

Any bad news is usually officially announced ahead of the budget, so it won’t spoil the budget’s reception on the night. Lots of small but nice decisions will be announced early, so they don’t get overlooked on the night.

But, particularly if there has been a big pre-announced unpopular measure, the spinners will save some nice, un-foreshadowed hip-pocket measure for unveiling on the night. This, being the only major budget measure that’s “new”, will dominate the media’s reporting. I call it the cherry on top.

As a former treasurer, John Kerin, demonstrated in 1991 – much to the disapproval of Paul Keating - there is no genuine need for reporters to be locked up and allowed to see the budget papers well before the treasurer delivers his speech at 7.30pm, immediately after the ABC evening news.

But the budget “lockup” persists to this day because of its great media-management advantages. It’s of much benefit to have the treasurer’s made-for-telly (that is, full of spin) budget speech broadcast in prime time, rather than after lunch. (The smaller disadvantage is that the ABC gives the leader of the opposition – not the shadow treasurer – right of reply, at the same time on Thursday night.)

The other advantage of a lockup is that letting journalists out so late in the day gives them little time to ask independent experts what they thought of the budget. Rather, they’ve spent six hours locked up with Treasury heavies. (I remember one saying to me, long ago: “Not much there to criticise, eh?” )

This media manipulation usually ensures the media’s first impressions are more favourable to the government than they should be, getting the budget off to a good start with the voters. Only on day two do the interest groups finish combing through the fine print and finding the carefully hidden nasties.

All pretty grubby, but true.


Monday, December 27, 2021

This isn't America, so please stop acting like a Yank

If there’s one thing that annoyed me about 2021, it’s the way people have been aping all things American. Our financial markets copped a bad dose of it, the media got carried away, we looked to the Yanks – the smart ones and the crazies - to know what we should think and do about the coronavirus, and many on the Right of politics took their lead from Trump’s Republicans.

One on one, I like the Americans I know. But put them together as a nation, and they seem to have lost their way. We’ve long imagined the US to be the wellspring of everything new and better, but these days it seems to be racing headlong towards dystopia.

Who’d want to be an American? Who’d want to live there?

There’s nothing new, of course, about American cultural imperialism. You’ve long been able to buy a Coke in almost any country. Or, these days, a Big Mac or KFC.

But globalisation has hugely increased America’s influence in the world. Wall Street dominates the world’s now highly integrated financial markets. What’s less well appreciated is the way advances in telecommunications and information processing have globalised the news media. Call it the internet.

These days, news of a major occurrence in any part of the world spreads almost in real time. One thing this means is that you can read the latest from The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald in almost any country.

But another thing is that we get saturation coverage of all things America. These days, America’s greatest export is “intellectual property” – patents and copyright covering machines, medicines and software, but also books, films, TV shows, videos and recorded music, and news and commentary from all of America’s great “mastheads”.

Of course, the little sister syndrome applies. Just as Kiwis know more about us than we know about them, so we and people in every other country know more about the Americans than they know about us. Just ask John Fraser, Malcolm Trumble and “that fella from Down Under”.

And remember this: when you’re as big and as rich as America, you’re the best in the world at most things – but also the worst in the world. These guys win the Nobel Prize in economics almost every year but, no doubt, have the biggest and best Flat Earth Society. They have loads of the super-smart, but even more of the really dumb.

Back to this year’s Yankophile annoyances, as soon as Wall Street decided America had an inflation problem and would soon be putting up interest rates, our local geniuses decided we’d soon be doing the same.

Small problem – we don’t have a problem with inflation. Our money market dealers know more about the US economy than they know about their own. To them, we’re just a smaller, carbon copy of America. If you’ve seen America, you’ve seen ’em all.

The Americans have a lot of people withdrawing from the workforce – leaving jobs and not looking for another – which they’re calling the Great Resignation. Wow. Great new story. So, some people in our media are seizing any example they can find to show we have our own Great Resignation.

Small problem. Ain’t true. Following the rebound from the first, nationwide lockdown in 2020, our “participation rate” – the proportion of the working-age population participating in the labour force by having a job or actively looking for one – hit a record high. With the rebound from this year’s lockdowns well under way, the rate’s almost back to the peak.

A lot of America’s problems arise from the “hyperpolarisation” of its politics. Its two political tribes have become more tribal, more us-versus-them, more you’re-for-us-or-against-us. The two have come to hate each other, are less willing to compromise for the greater good, and more willing to damage the nation rather than give the other side a win. More willing to throw aside long-held conventions; more winner-takes-all.

The people who see themselves as the world’s great beacon of democracy are realising they are in the process of destroying their democracy, brick by brick – fiddling with electoral boundaries and voting arrangements, and stacking the Supreme Court with social conservatives.

Donald Trump continues to claim the presidential election was rigged, and many Republicans are still supporting him.

It’s not nearly that bad in Australia, but there are some on the Right trying to learn from the Republicans’ authoritarian populism playbook.

When your Prime Minister starts wearing a baseball cap it’s not hard to guess where the idea came from. Or when the government wants to require people to show ID before they can vote, or starts stacking the Fair Work Commission with people from the employers’ side only. Enough.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

My love letter to The Sydney Morning Herald

It’s not something any hard-bitten journalist should admit, but I’m in love with The Sydney Morning Herald. Have been since, at the age of 26, I quit chartered accounting in disillusionment and stumbled into a cadetship at the Herald. I quickly realised I’d found the only place I wanted to be.

After four years they gave me the title of economics editor and sat me in an armchair with a licence to air my opinions about anything economic. It’s probably the only job I’m capable of doing with any competence. I’ve been so fulfilled by my work that, in 47 years, I’ve never wanted another job on the paper and, certainly, never wanted to move to another paper.

I suspect that by now I’m actually addicted to column-writing and to staying one of the Herald‘s roosters rather than one of its many feather-dusters. When my designated retirement date arrived, I had no desire to hang up my boots and luxuriate on the Herald’s more-than-generous super scheme. And, apart from Jessica Irvine, detected no desire by my colleagues to wave me off.

But I promise you (and Jessica) this: I’ll be out of here the moment I find I’ve worn out my welcome with our readers or my bosses, or realise I’m starting to lose my marbles. That I’m still keen to learn more about the economy and to work rather than play, I credit mainly to three gym sessions a week with my physio trainer, Martin Doyle. Exercise is good for mental as well as physical fitness.

I did feel I should at least stay on to do my bit in helping the Herald make the seemingly improbable “transition” – what a fashionable word that’s become – from “legacy asset” to successful digital “masthead”. Fortunately – and touch wood – we’ve passed that test now we’ve switched from chasing clicks to seeking digital subscriptions.

The thought of the Herald ceasing to be appalled me. As Australia’s oldest metropolitan daily newspaper, for 190 years it’s been one of the pillars on which Sydney rests. I get an enormous kick from being a tiny part of that grand history – for, I realise to my amazement, almost a quarter of its existence. It tickles me that, in the days when governors of NSW and Anglican archbishops of Sydney were recruited from England, so were editors of the Herald.

I’m proud of the many big names to have worked for the Herald at some point in their career. Banjo Paterson was our correspondent covering the Boer War. C.E.W. Bean was a Herald writer before becoming the federal government’s official war correspondent in World War I. Angus Maude, one of our last English-export editors, became Maggie Thatcher’s Paymaster General. I remember Thatcher’s daughter Carol working for a few months in our newsroom.

The playwright and speech writer Bob Ellis’ Herald career lasted 11 days. Columnist and poet Clive James lasted longer before he went off to England to make his name. I remember author Geraldine Brooks cutting a swathe through our feature writers’ room before she went off to New York to make her name. The others wrote one feature a week; she wrote one a day.

Together with her journalist husband George Johnston, Charmian Clift was a celebrity in 1960s Sydney before the word had been invented. This was explained by the years they’d spent living on a Greek island, where (we’ve learnt only recently) they were friendly with some Canadian singer named Leonard and his girlfriend Marianne. Charmian wrote a highly popular weekly column in the Herald, before ending her life.

William Stanley Jevons, a celebrated English neo-classical economist and polymath of the 19th century, discoverer of the Jevons paradox, spent part of his early career working at the Sydney Mint. He didn’t work for the Herald, but he did write letters to the editor. Hearing that made me proud to work where I did.

The Herald has changed greatly over the years I’ve been here and, leaving aside the many journalists we lost as we made our painful adjustment to the digital revolution, mainly for the better. Some years ago, someone got the idea of honouring our longest-serving journos by presenting them with a framed copy of our front page from the day they joined the paper. I was shocked by how dreary mine was. We were busy sticking to traditional standards as the world around us was changing without us noticing.

These days we cover a wider range of subjects – crime and lifestyle interests – all in a livelier, brighter, cleaner, more cleverly written way. I like to think I’ve been part of our move to a less formal, more relaxed and conversational writing style. The old-timers would be appalled to see us saying “kids” rather than “children”.

The Herald is far from perfect – no “first draft of history” ever is – but I value being at the more careful, intellectually respectable and, dare I say, gentlepersonly end of the news media. I feel privileged to write for such a well-educated audience.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

Who pays for Google and Facebook's free lunch?

There may be banks that are too big to be allowed to fail, but don’t fear that the behemoths of the digital revolution are too big to be regulated. It won’t be long before Google and Facebook cease to be laws unto themselves.

It’s the old story: the lawmakers always take a while to catch up with the innovators. But there are growing signs that governments around the developed world – particularly in Europe and Britain - are closing in on the digital giants.

And here in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is busy with the world’s most wide-ranging inquiry so far, which will report to the newly elected federal government in June. The commission’s boss, Rod Sims, gave a speech about it a few weeks ago, and another this week.

Sims says the commission’s purpose is “making markets work” by promoting competition and achieving well-informed consumers, so as to deliver good outcomes for consumers and the economy.

With this inquiry into the operations of “digital platforms”, he acknowledges that they have brought huge benefits to both our lives as individuals and our society more broadly.

“They are rightly regarded as impressive and successful, and very focused, commercial businesses. Google and Facebook are rapidly transforming the way consumers communicate, access news, and view advertising,” Sims says.

Each month, he says, about 19 million Australians use Google to search the internet, 17 million access Facebook, 17 million watch content on YouTube (owned by Google), and 11 million double tap on Instagram (owned by Facebook, along with WhatsApp).

The inquiry has satisfied itself that this huge size gives the two companies considerable “market power” – ability to influence the prices charged in certain markets.

“However,” Sims says, “being big is not a sin. Australian competition law does not prohibit a business from possessing substantial market power or using its efficiencies or skills to outperform its rivals.”

But the dominance of Google and Facebook does mean their behaviour should be scrutinised to see if it is harming competition or consumers.

To this end, the inquiry is focused on three potential areas of harm. First, the well-publicised issues of privacy and the collection and sale of users’ data.

Second, the digital platforms’ role in the advertising market, which is moving increasingly on line, where it’s estimated that 68¢ in every digital advertising dollar is going to Google (47¢) and Facebook (21¢).

And that’s not including classified advertising, the loss of which has been the biggest single blow to this august organ.

Sims says Google sells "search advertising", aimed at making an immediate sale, whereas Facebook sells "display advertising", aimed a making consumers aware of the product.

The pair sell ad space in their own right while also facilitating the advertising space sold by others, particularly the media companies. But the opacity of their algorithms and arrangements make it hard to know whether they favour their own ads over other people’s.

Advertisers say they don’t know what they’re paying for, where their ads are being displayed or to whom. This makes it harder for media companies to capture their share of advertising moving online.

Of course, higher costs for advertisers translate to higher prices for consumers.

Third is the digital platforms’ effect on the supply of news and journalism, the primary issue given to the inquiry.

Sims says newspapers and free-to-air radio and television are a classic example of a “two-sided market”. They serve consumers but, rather than charging them directly for the service as other businesses do, they cover their costs and profits by charging advertisers for access to their audience. (Newspaper subscriptions and cover prices accounted for only a fraction of their costs.)

Digital platforms aren’t just two-sided, they’re multi-sided. They, too, provide their services free, and charge advertisers, but also collect and sell to advertisers information about their users’ habits.

Google and Facebook select, curate, evaluate, rank, arrange and disseminate news stories. But they use stories created by others; they don’t create any news stories of their own. If they did, we could see this as no more than tough luck for the existing news media.

But as well as using the existing media’s stories to attract consumers and advertisers, about half the traffic on the Australian news media’s websites comes via Google and Facebook. So they have “a significant influence over what news and journalism Australians do and don’t see,” Sims says.

With the existing media having lost so much of its advertising revenue to the platforms, it’s not surprising they’ve had to get rid of at least a quarter of their journalists. There are a few new digital-only news outlets, but even they are having trouble making it pay.

Trouble is, news and journalism aren’t like most commercial products. They not only benefit the individual consumer, they benefit society as a whole. “Society clearly benefits from having citizens who are able to make well-informed economic, social and political decisions,” Sim says.

So news and journalism is a “public good” – if left to the profit-making private sector, not as much news and journalism will be supplied as is in the interests of society.

Public goods are usually paid for or subsidised by governments using taxpayers’ funds. If we want the benefits of Google and Facebook without losing the benefits of active, independent and challenging news media, taxpayers will have to help out.

Sims is canvassing several proposals before completing his final report. Since the former newspaper companies have realised they’ll never get much of a share of digital advertising, they’re now putting more hope in persuading their regular users to pay directly by buying subscriptions.

With the long-established attitude that everything on the internet should be free (or, at least, seem free), they’re finding it hard going.

That’s why I think Sims’ best suggestion is making personal subscriptions to the news media tax deductible, provided the outlet is bound by an acceptable code of conduct.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Our bulldust detectors are on the blink

The world has always been full of bulldust, which is why everyone should come equipped with a bulldust detector.

Trouble is, we're living in a time of bulldust inflation. Some of the things we're being told are harder and harder to believe. But a lot of people's detectors seem to be on the blink.

Part of the reason for the step-up may be that there are so many people shouting that anyone else hoping to be heard has to start shouting too.

These thoughts are prompted by the runaway success of the claim that 40 per cent of jobs in Australia are likely to be automated in the next 10 to 15 years.

This is a fantastic claim in the original, dictionary sense: imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality.

And yet it seems many thousands of people have accepted its likelihood without question.

Similar predictions have been made about America, and are just as widely believed.

As I've written before, two economists, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli, of Melbourne University, who didn't believe it – because they could find no evidence to support it – traced the origins of the claim and the flimsy assumptions on which it was based.

Which led them to ask the question I'm asking: why do people so readily believe propositions they should find hard to believe?

The authors found a quote from a leading American economist, Alan Blinder, of Princeton University, in his book, After the Music Stopped.

"The consequences of adverse economic events are typically exaggerated by the Armageddonists​ – a sensation-seeking herd of pundits, seers and journalists who make a living by predicting the worst.

"Prognostications of impending doom draw lots of attention, get you on TV, and sometimes even lead to best-selling books . . .

"But the Armageddonists are almost always wrong," Blinder concludes.

What? Journalists? Bad news?

Blinder is right in concluding we take a lot more notice of bad news than good. Borland and Coelli observe that "You are likely to sell a lot more books writing about the future of work if your title is 'The end of work' rather than 'Everything is the same'.

"If you are a not-for-profit organisation wanting to attract funds to support programs for the unemployed, it helps to be able to argue that the problems you are facing are on a different scale to what has been experienced before.

"Or if you are a consulting firm, suggesting that there are new problems that businesses need to address, might be seen as a way to attract extra clients.

"For politicians as well, it makes good sense to inflate the difficulty of the task faced in policy-making; or to be able to say that there are new problems that only you have identified and can solve," the authors say.

I'd add that if you're a think tank churning out earnest reports you hope will be noticed – if only so your generous funders see you making an impact – it's tempting to lay it on a bit thicker than you should.

By now, however, it's better known that there are evolutionary reasons why the human animal – maybe all animals – takes more interest in bad news than good news.

It's because we've evolved to be continually searching our environment for signs of threat to our wellbeing.

All of us are this way because we've descended from members of our species who were pretty nervy, cautious, suspicious types. We know that must be true because those of our species who weren't so cautious didn't survive long enough to have offspring.

In ancient days, the threats we were most conscious of were to life and limb – being eaten by a wild animal. These days we keep well away from wild animals, but there are still plenty of less spectacular, more psychological threats – real or imagined – to our wellbeing.

This instinctive concern for our own safety is no bad thing. It helps keep us safe. It's an example of the scientists' "precautionary principle" – the dire prediction may not come to pass, but better to be on the safe side and take out some insurance, so to speak.

By contrast, failing to take notice of good news is less likely to carry a cost.

Except that, like many good things, it can be overdone. If we're too jumpy, reacting to every little thing that comes along, we're unlikely to be terribly happy. And unremitting stress can take its toll on our health.

Which brings us to the media. Journalists didn't need evolutionary psychologists to tell them the customers find bad news more interesting. Bad news has always received a higher weighting in the assessment of "newsworthiness".

But I have a theory that the news media have responded to greater competition – not just between them but, more importantly, with the ever-increasing number of other ways of spending leisure time – by turning up the volume on bad news.

This can create a feedback loop. People wanting their messages to be broadcast by a media that's become ever-more obsessed by bad news respond by making those messages more terrible.

I'm not sure the media have done themselves a favour by making the news they're trying to sell more depressing, BTW.

But Borland and Coelli offer a further possible explanation of why we're inclined to believe that the technological change which has been reshaping the jobs market for two centuries without great conflagration is about to turn disastrous: the cognitive bias that causes people to feel "we live in special times" – also known as "this time is different".

"An absence of knowledge of history, the greater intensity of feeling about events which we experience first-hand, and perhaps a desire to attribute significance to the times in which we live, all contribute to this bias," they say.

If so, a lot of people will continue believing stuff they should doubt.

Monday, May 9, 2016

How to unspin the budget

You can't look hard at the budget and its glitzy packaging without being reminded of Rob Sitch's highly educational TV show, Utopia.

My colleague Peter Martin has detected that the Turnbull government, as distinct from its Coalition predecessor, is less ideological and more evidence-based in its policy making. Its reforms to superannuation and Work for the Dole are prime examples.

That's good news. Even so, the more intelligent and articulate Malcolm Turnbull hasn't been able to withstand the pressure to use spin doctors to massage his messages to the electorate.

A better term for that dubious profession is "perception manipulators". They "operationalise" one of modern politicians' core beliefs: the perception is the reality.

The world of government is such a complicated place that reality is seen only in glimpses - which is hugely fortunate for our pollies because the reality is usually much harder and more costly to fix. It's a lot easier to manipulate the punters' perceptions of that reality.

Scott Morrison has been relentless in insisting that the budget is not just another budget, but an economic plan for jobs and growth.

Really? Name the budget that hasn't been a plan for jobs and growth.

So why the fuss this year? Because, to quote Morrison, "Australians have clearly said we must have an economic plan". How does he know what Australians have clearly said? Because that's what a few of them said to the Liberal Party's focus groups.

Feeding back to voters the sentiments they've expressed in your focus-group research is a standard perception manipulators' trick.

My guess is the government had a collection of end-of-term and pre-election bits and pieces it wanted to get up, but felt it should package them as an "overarching narrative" by saying they were a plan.

A plan about what? The usual: jobs and growth. Just about everything you do - raise the tax on cigarettes, stop wealthy people like me saving too much in tax-sheltered super accounts - can be portrayed as helping to promote jobs and growth. And they were.

Every non-plan plan needs to come in impressive packaging. The plain and earnest budget papers prepared by Treasury and Finance have long been accompanied by an overview booklet prepared by the spin doctors and disparagingly referred to by the econocrats as "the glossy".

This year there are four glossy documents, not one. And whereas the original majored in fancy graphs and tables, the extras add a lot of colour pics of good looking punters. It's fiscal bling.

Even the budget website has had the interior decorators in. You now have to click through a host of pretty fluff to find what you need.

Key to the success of perception manipulation is the use of magic words - words with strong positive or negative connotations, words that arouse emotions.

What words are guaranteed to frighten punters? Try "debt" and "deficit". What word gladdens the hearts of business people? "Growth".

And of the punters? "Jobs". They may not claim to know anything much about economics, but one thing they do know: there can never be enough jobs. Claim to be creating them and you're well on the way to the punters' tick.

This time the magic-word workhorse is "middle". Almost all Australians believe themselves to be middle class, on incomes near the middle. The higher your income, the less your ability to know where the middle is.

Morrison never actually said his tiny tax cut for people earning more than $80,000 a year was aimed at middle-income earners, all he said (correctly) was that the threshold had been set just above the average full-time wage.

That was enough to have innumerate political journalists - particularly at the ABC - saying it for him.

Trouble is, almost a third of wage-earners are part-time, not full-time. And plenty of taxpayers aren't employees. What's more, the relatively small number of people on super-high incomes means that the "average" or mean taxpayer's income is well above the middle (or median) taxpayer's income.

All this explains why the tax cut will go to only about the top quarter of taxpayers. That's the middle?

These days, no self-respecting perception manipulator fails to pull some "modelling" out of his bag of tricks. The results of the modelling are almost invariably misrepresented, being made to sound more significant than they are.

The spin meisters​ pray the media won't actually look at the modelling, and their prayers are almost always answered.

You can blame it all on ever-declining standards of political behaviour - which Turnbull's arrival has failed to arrest - or you can share the blame with a media that allows itself to be manipulated.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Blame pollies and media for low political standards

As intensified personal ambition has heightened competition between the parties, unwritten rules that certain subjects were off limits to the political contest have gone by the board.

The obvious example is immigration, Asian immigration in particular, and boat people.

For many years, both sides knew there was an ugly, xenophobic side of the Australian character and tacitly agreed not to do or say anything that would give it air.

Howard was part of the breakdown of that taboo, but perhaps a bigger cause was the arrival of radio shock-jocks who didn't care what demons they unleashed.

As politics has become more of a job for life, it's also become more of a science and less of an art, as parties have made more use of sample-based polling and the techniques of marketing, including sophisticated advertising and focus groups.

There was a time when politicians relied on their own contact with voters and their gut feelings to assess how their policies and performance were being received by the electorate.

These days, their polling and reports of focus group discussions leave them in no doubt about what voters are thinking on all topics.

Or, at least, leave them imagining there's no doubt. In truth, even quantitative polling can be misunderstood and qualitative  research from focus groups is so subjective it's notorious for the bum steers it can give.

Even so, it does seem the parties get very similar messages from their rival efforts.

When focus groups were introduced, the rationale was they would inform the parties on how to frame the policies they wanted to pursue in ways that made them more attractive to voters.

But when you are – or imagine yourself to be – fully informed on what the punters like and dislike, the temptation to let those preferences determine what policies you pursue must be almost irresistible.

What this seemingly less amateur and more scientific approach to politicking overlooks is the often paradoxical quality of human nature.

Tell me only what I want to hear and I begin to wonder whether I can trust you.

What exactly do you believe? Keep it wishy-washy and I wonder if you really believe anything.

Only ever tell me nice stuff and I wonder whether you're tough enough for the job.

Become a slave of focus group approval and you risk forgetting that, though I don't like the sound of your plan, I could be persuaded it's what the country needs.

In the old days, a politician like Fraser won elections because he was seen as a stern father the times called for, not because he was popular.

Another drawback of the more calculated approach to politics is governments' ever-increasing superficiality.

If, as all politicians believe, "the perception is the reality", why not focus on perceptions and appearances and let reality slide?

If the trains aren't running on time or people are waiting too long for elective surgery, why not measure these things in ways that are more favourable?

Why not favour responses to problems that are flashy or emotionally gratifying rather than boring but effective?

Why waste scarce resources on repairs and maintenance or renovation when you can build something new and be seen cutting the ribbon and making great progress?

When the number of problems or worthy causes far exceeds the revenue you've got to spend, why concentrate on those where your spending is likely to be most effective rather than slinging an inadequate sum to as many as possible and so mollify as many potential critics as possible?

Why give much to people such as the unemployed or single mothers for whom there's so little public sympathy?

When the public takes an irrational set against outsiders such as boat people, why not gratify their prejudices rather than defend the needy?

When people convince themselves they're struggling to keep up with the cost of living but the objective indicators say wages are rising faster than prices, why try to set them straight when it's so much easier to pretend to be sympathetic?

In short, why not reinforce prejudices and misperceptions rather than educate?

Why not follow the voters rather than lead them?

"There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader." When memories and political terms are so short and punters so ungrateful, why not be short-sighted and risk averse?

All those temptations are reinforced by the media. It's the media that are overly preoccupied with and impressed by the new rather than the old, by the flashy and the emotionally gratifying, by what's on the surface rather than what's underneath, by the immediate rather than the prospective, by the irrational rather than the rational, by the sympathy-rousing case study rather than the systemic failure.

Politics has changed over the years but so, too, have the media. And they've both changed in ways that are mutually supportive. The two institutions have become more symbiotic.

There's no doubt the speeding up of the 24-hour news cycle is essentially the product of the media's ever-shortening attention span as part of the intensifying competition between the media's ever-proliferating mediums, including the advent of 24-hour news radio and TV channels.

But a lot of the dumbing down has been initiated by the politicians and their party machines for their own reasons. There is plenty of blame to be shared between the two institutions.

This edited extract from Gittins by Ross Gittins, published by Allen & Unwin, is out this week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Job prospects not as gloomy as you may think

I can always tell when people are getting anxious about unemployment - including their own. It's when a journalist thinks they'll be increasing the sum of human knowledge by adding up the number of redundancies announced in recent weeks.

The latest list is Qantas 5000, Holden 2900 (by 2017), Toyota 2500 (by 2017), Forge Group 1470, Alcoa 980, Sensis 800, WA hospitals 250 and BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance 230.

That's more than 14,000, we're told, and doesn't count the expected job loss among the makers of car parts, which "experts" put at between 25,000 and 50,000. To this you can add declining job opportunities among public servants - though no one seems to worry much about them.

There are two tricks in exercises such as this. The first is that although 14,000 or even 64,000 may seem huge numbers, they're not. Most people have no feel for just how big our economy is. Those figures have to be seen in the context of a total workforce of 11.5 million people, which grows by 170,000 in an average year, or more that 14,000 a month.

Most people have no idea how much turnover there is in the jobs market. Every month tens of thousands of people leave their jobs and a similar or bigger number take up new jobs. The economy is in a continuous state of flux.

The second trick is that the media only ever show us the tip of the iceberg. We're told about only a fraction of the things that happen. Only a fraction of them are announced to the media, so most of what happens goes unreported. And among all the things that are announced, the media select just a few of the juicier items to tell us about.

The items they select tend to be the bigger and badder ones. News that a new business has just hired 100 workers may get reported somewhere - probably in the local rag - but it won't get the trumpeting Qantas' announcement did.

So we're told about the big job losses but not the small losses and almost nothing about the job gains, big or small - even though we know from the official statistics that the gains usually outnumber the losses.

When people hear news reports about redundancies at this factory and that, many conclude we must be heading for recession. This time it ain't that simple. After a record 21 years since the severe recession of the early 1990s, we're overdue for another one and, with the economy quite weak at present, it wouldn't be impossible for us to slide into recession this year.

But the explanation for the planned job losses we're hearing so much about isn't a downturn in the economy, it's continuing change in the structure of the economy - the size of some industries relative to others.

Much of the pressure for structural change is coming from advances in technology, particularly the digital revolution. It's this that's turning the newspaper industry inside out - no one seems to shed many tears over us - and is in the early stages of cutting a swath through retailing.

In Qantas' case, it's still making the painful adjustment to the deregulation of airlines initiated by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, combined with management incompetence and union intransigence.

But the biggest source of structural change is the resources boom and the likely permanent rise in the dollar it has brought about. People tell you it's all behind us, but when the mining industry's share of the economy doubles to 10 per cent in the space of a decade, the adjustment this imposes on the rest of the economy is profound and protracted.

Clearly, these forces for structural change are beyond the control of any federal government, Labor or Coalition. The truth so many people find so hard to accept is that there isn't a lot we can do about them except ride them out.

In its impotence, the Abbott government is claiming its plans to remove the mining and carbon taxes will be a great help. Only the one-eyed would believe that. Labor has sunk to the depths of attacking the government for its failure to protect Australian jobs and demands to see its "jobs plan". What's Labor's jobs plan? Maintain the handouts to crumbling industries.

It's seeking to exploit the fears of people who are uncertain about where it's all going to end. Well, last week Dr David Gruen, of Treasury, published projections of the various industries' shares of total employment in 16 years' time, 2030.

I must warn you these figures come with zero guarantee. Just because you're smart enough to turn the handle of an incomprehensible econometric model doesn't mean you know any more about what the future holds than the rest of us.

Surprisingly, the projections suggest manufacturing's share of total employment will decline by only a further 1 percentage point. Similar declines are projected in transport and warehousing, construction and (thankfully) financial services. The biggest relative employment decline would be in wholesale and retail trade.

Utilities, media and telecommunications, and, surprisingly, mining are projected to experience minor declines in their shares of total employment. Agriculture's share may rise by a percentage point, while that of education and health may rise by more than 1.5 points, and professional and administrative services by almost 3 percentage points.

We won't all be dead.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why voters seen the economy as in bad shape

Despite last week's excitement, Julia Gillard's early announcement of the election date is unlikely to change much. It's certainly unlikely to change many voters' perceptions on a key election issue: her ability as an economic manager.

It's long been clear from polling that the electorate doesn't regard the government as good at managing the economy.

Why this should be so is a puzzle. As Gillard rightly claimed last week: "As the global economy still splutters, unlike the rest of the world we have managed our economy so we have low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment, solid growth, strong public finances and a triple-A rating with a stable outlook from all three of the major ratings agencies."

I've said elsewhere that part of the reason for this yawning gap between perception and reality is that many people's perception of how well the economy's being managed proceeds not from independent observation but from their political alignment. Once I know who I'm voting for I then know whether or not the economy's travelling well.

But there's another part of the explanation: the public's inability to distinguish between cyclical and structural factors. Most of the bad news we heard last year was structural in nature, meaning it changed the shape of the economy rather than its overall size, adversely affecting some parts but favourably affecting others and having little effect on most.

But such analysis is too subtle for most punters. To them, all news is cyclical: good news means the economy's on the up and up; bad news means it's going down and downer.

Add the media's inevitable predilection for trumpeting bad news, underplaying good news and totally ignoring anything that doesn't change, and structural change can't help but be perceived as an economy in trouble.

The resources boom is the classic case of structural change. It's in the process of giving us a bigger mining sector and bigger non-tradeable services sector, but a relatively smaller manufacturing sector and internationally tradeable services sector.

The mechanism that brings much of this about is the high dollar. It harms all export- and import-competing industries, but benefits everyone who buys imports (which is all of us). It marginally benefits three-quarters of our industries, which are non-tradeable (they neither export nor compete against imports) but do buy imported supplies and equipment.

Now consider the recent performance of unemployment. Over the year to December, the unemployment rate rose from 5.2 to 5.4 per cent.

Admittedly, the rate at which people of working age were participating in the labour force by holding a job or actively seeking one fell from 65.3 to 65.1 per cent. This decline in participation is probably explained mainly by some people becoming discouraged in their search for a job.

Even so, it's surprising people became a lot more worried about unemployment last year. Why did they? Because they get their impressions about the state of the labour market not from the official statistics but from stories on the TV news about people being laid off from factories.

If voters were more economically literate they'd respond to this news by thinking, "Gosh, isn't manufacturing being hit hard by the high dollar - but fortunately I don't work in manufacturing and only 8 per cent of workers do." What many actually thought was: "Gosh, maybe I could lose my job, too."

Thus was a structural problem affecting only a small part of the economy taken to be a cyclical, economy-wide problem.

It's a similar story with the much-publicised tribulations of the retailers, which arise from their need to adjust to various structural problems, such as the inevitable end to the period in which household spending grew faster than household income, and the rise of internet shopping.

With all the silly talk about "the cautious consumer" and with punters blissfully unaware that retailing accounts for only about a third of consumer spending, all the highly publicised complaints of the Gerry Harveys helped convince the public not that the retailers have their own troubles but that the economy must be going down the tube.

Then there's the contribution of the unending fuss about "debt and deficit", in which the government has been completely outfoxed by the Liberals.

Although every economically literate person knows Australia doesn't have a significant level of public debt, the opposition has had great success exploiting the public's ignorance of public finance and of just how big the economy is ($1.5 trillion a year) by quoting seemingly mind-boggling levels of gross public debt.

With much of this argy bargy being reported by political rather than economic journalists - how many times have you heard talk of "the economy's deficit"? - it's hardly surprising the public has acquired an exaggerated impression of the economic significance of the budget deficit.

Ironically, the budget deficit is a case where a cyclical (temporary) problem has been taken to be a structural (long-lasting) one.

But Labor has to accept much of the blame for this bum rap. Rather than standing up to the nonsense the Libs were talking, it took the path of least resistance, purporting to be just as manic as they were. Then came Gillard's foolhardy decision to take a mere Treasury projection of the budget outcome in three years' time and elevate it to the status of a solemn promise.

By now, the voters' majority perception that the economy's in bad shape and Labor isn't good at managing it is deeply ingrained.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Don't let on, but property crime is down

Wow. Did you see the latest figures for the falling crime rate? Pretty good, eh? What's that, you didn't see the figures? No one told you, eh.

It's true. Despite the best efforts of the federal Minister for Justice, Jason Clare, on Sunday, the Australian Institute of Criminology's latest compilation of statistics got remarkably little attention.

Why? One reason could be that it's old news. Levels of property crime have been falling for a decade. You've long known that, right? If you have, congratulations: you're much better informed than most.

A survey conducted in NSW in 2007 found that more than 80 per cent of respondents believed property crime had been increasing or had remained stable over the past five years. Only 11 per cent said it had been falling.

So why were the media so uninterested? Because they didn't think you'd be interested. They presumed you'd prefer to have your existing beliefs reinforced rather than up-ended. But I prefer to write for the minority who want to be informed rather than humoured.

The figures show falls in all the main categories of recorded property crime - burglary, motor vehicle theft and "other theft" (pickpocketing, bag snatching and shoplifting) - across Australia in 2010.

They also show falls in all the main categories of recorded violent crime - homicide, assault, sexual assault and robbery - other than kidnapping/abduction in 2010. For the latter, the number of cases rose by 39 to 603.

But levels of crime can rise or fall from one year to the next without that proving much. What really matters is whether the longer-run trend is up or down.

The clearest evidence is of a long-run decline in recorded property crime. The number of burglaries reached a national peak of almost 440,000 in 2000, and has since halved to fewer than 220,000 a year.

The number of motor vehicle thefts reached a peak of 140,000 a year in 2001, and has now fallen by 61 per cent to below 55,000 a year. Other thefts peaked at 700,000 a year in 2001, but are now down by a third to almost 460,000 a year.

If you allow for our rising population - up by a per cent or so a year - the decline in the rate of property crime is even greater.

So, as I say, it's clear property crime has been declining for a decade. For violent crime the trend isn't as clear - except for robbery, the property crime with violence. Robberies reached a peak of almost 27,000 in 2001, but have since fallen by 44 per cent to below 15,000 a year.

It's hard to detect any trend in the level of kidnapping and abduction, though the rate is very low: 2.7 incidents per 100,000 population. You wouldn't expect to see a trend in homicide, the rate of which is also very low: 1.2 incidents per 100,000 population. But after being well above 300 a year until 2006, it's been below 300 a year since then.

No trend in the number of assaults is visible to the naked eye, but the rate of assault seemed to peak in 2007 at 840 victims per 100,000, and is now down to 770 per 100,000. If this trend is confirmed, it will be because police have begun targeting the worst-offending licensed premises.

It's estimated only about half of all sexual assaults are reported to police. The number of recorded sexual assaults rose markedly between 1996 and 2008 to 20,000 victims a year - perhaps because of growing willingness to report offences - but though the arithmetic says the rate of sexual assault has been falling modestly since 2006, I'm not sure I believe it.

So why has property crime been falling? When the decline was first observed in the early noughties, much of it was attributed to a shortage of heroin, which led to a decline in its use and, hence, a fall in thefts by heroin addicts.

That seems true enough, but though heroin prices and purity stabilised in about 2004, the fall in property crime continued. Obviously, there must be more to it.

Most criminologists believe the amount of property crime is linked to the state of the economy. Unemployment has fallen and average weekly earnings have risen in real terms since the start of the noughties, so this may well help explain why people have been less inclined to take stuff that doesn't belong to them.

Another part of the explanation for which there's solid evidence is an increase in the proportion of property offenders who are imprisoned. The story here is not so much that tougher sentences are a greater deterrent, but that the more time you spend behind bars, the less time you're able to practise your nefarious profession.

And there are other possible explanations which, though untested by researchers, seem plausible. One is increased police effectiveness. They've been pushing hard on repeat offenders and also shifting their resources to crime hot spots at "hot" times of the day or night. Their crackdown on pubs and clubs with the worst records of assaults is a case in point.

A further possibility is that success breeds success. The more the incidence of crime falls while the number of coppers remains stable or rises, the easier it ought to be to catch offenders. As for motor vehicle theft, it's likely improvements have made cars harder to pinch than they used to be.

I finish with an appeal: you may prefer to know the truth, but keep it to yourself. Please don't spoil the fun of those who like to imagine they could be swept away at any moment by the rising tide of crime.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Talk to Fairfax employment group, Sydney, 6.2.12

I want to say a few words about the outlook for the economy in general and employment in particular, but before I do I have to issue a standard consumer warning: economists have a very bad record in forecasting what will happen in the economy, so you’d be wise not to take a blind bit of notice of anything I say.

But let me give you my prediction: the economy’s performance this year is likely to be just a fraction below average, but it will feel a lot worse than average - particularly when it comes to employment. Why? Because the media will be making it sound worse than it is.

Let’s start by talking briefly about the overseas situation. We’ve heard a lot about the troubles of the euro area - and those troubles are very real - but the forecast I’m about to give and all the forecasts we’ve been hearing lately are based on the assumption the Europeans muddle thru: they go through a period of significant weakness, where they’re a drag on the rest of the world economy, but they don’t implode and become a major restraint on world growth. In recent days the situation in Europe has been looking a bit better - a bit less like it’s about to implode - which is nice, and may it continue. Even so, the risk of things in Europe turning really bad is still uncomfortably high.

Around the middle of last year there was a lot of concern about the weakness of the US economy, but it’s been looking a bit better in recent times - not brilliant, but growing fast enough to slowly reduce unemployment. So that’s good.

In such a world - but, of course, with China and the rest of developing Asia still growing quite strongly - the outlook for us, which the Reserve Bank is likely to announce later this week, is for the economy - real gross domestic product - to grow by 3.25 per cent this year. This is the economy’s long-run rate of growth. Where will the growth come from? Particularly from the huge surge in business investment spending on the construction of new mines and, especially, natural gas facilities. But also - and contrary to anything you might have heard - from reasonably strong consumer spending. It used to be true that households were increasing their rate of saving, but it hasn’t been true for some time. The rate of household saving has been steady at 10 pc of disposable income for about a year, meaning consumer spending must being growing at the same rate as disposable income is growing. If you find that surprising, it may be because you’re confusing consumer spending with retail sales. Retail sales have been very weak, but they account for only about a third of consumer spending.

The labour force grows by a percent or so every year thanks to natural increase and immigration, so employment has to grow by that much just to hold unemployment steady. Normally growth at the average rate of 3.25 per cent a year would be sufficient to hold unemployment steady, but employment grew unusually strongly in 2010, and since then a lot of employers seem to have been holding off hiring more workers, allowing their existing workers to work more hours, but waiting to see what happens to the economy. If they keep thinking this way it seems likely the unemployment rate will slowly creep up, from its present 5.2 pc to about 5.5 pc in June and maybe 6 pc by December. That wouldn’t be good, but remember that an unemployment rate of between 5 and 6 pc is still a lot better than we experienced for most of the past 20 years. And 5 pc is getting towards the lowest point the Reserve Bank will allow unemployment to fall to because of its concern to keep inflation under control. As the unemployment rate falls close to 5 pc or lower, the Reserve starts to raise interest rates; if it starts rising towards 6 pc the Reserve starts cutting interest rates. It did that twice towards the end of last year, and if it doesn’t cut them again tomorrow, most economists are confident we’ll get more cuts this year.

Just because unemployment is likely to rise a bit doesn’t mean no new jobs will be created. For a start, and as we’ve just seen, total employment can still grow modestly even though unemployment is drifting up. Only if unemployment is shooting up is it likely that total employment is unchanged or falling. But, in any case, there’s a further point to understand - one that’s very important to the job you guys are doing. The figures the media quote each month for employment and unemployment are figures for the net change between this month and last month. If total employment around Australia is up by, say, 35,000, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that only 35,000 positions were filled during the month; every existing worker stayed in their job, and they were joined by 35,000 more workers, presumably coming from being unemployed. Fortunately, it’s not like that. The truth is that, on average, every month about 370,000 people leave their employers and about the same number take up jobs with a new employer. So when the figures tell you employment rose by 35,000 last month, what this actually means is that the number of people taking up new jobs exceeded the number leaving jobs by 35,000. In other words, there’s huge turnover in the job market every month - even in the depths of a recession - even if the net change in total employment isn’t very big - in either direction. If you think that figure of 370,000 is so huge it’s hard to believe, you’re forgetting how big the workforce is. It’s almost 11.5 million, meaning about 3 per cent of workers leave their jobs every month - to get a better one, to have a baby, to retire, to go on an extended overseas trip, or whatever. My point is, don’t think just because employment is likely to be growing only slowly and unemployment to be creeping up, there won’t be many potential customers for you. There should be.

Finally, I said the economy wouldn’t be too bad this year, but the media will be making it sound worse than it is. Why do I say that? Because the media, knowing we regard bad news as a lot more interesting than good news, will be doing what it always does: emphasising the bad news about the economy and not saying much about things that are going OK. But I suspect there’ll be a special reason this year. The very high dollar is making life particularly tough for manufacturers, the tourist industry and overseas-student education. Some employers have been laying off workers, and it’s a safe there’ll be more. It’s an equally safe bet those lay-offs will be highly publicised by the media. This is likely to create the impression in people’s minds that the jobs market is a lot weaker than it actually is - for three reasons. First, people don’t realise how big our economy is, so they’re more impressed by relatively small numbers than they should be. Last week Toyota announced its intention to reduce its numbers by 350. That seems a lot, but beside the third of a million workers who leave their jobs every month it’s a fleabite. Second, you wouldn’t know it from the way the media talk, but the high dollar isn’t destroying Australian jobs so much as reducing them in some industries and increasing them in others. People may be losing jobs in manufacturing, but employment will be rising in other industries. Such as? Mining and construction, as the obvious ones, but also many parts of the services sector: health care, finance and insurance, public administration, various professions and arts and recreation. Finally, people tend to lose their jobs in bulk, whereas employment tends to increase in dribs and drabs. We get to hear about the big layoffs, but not the individuals being taken on.

All up, it should be too bad this year.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A dose of reality for people who profit from doom

It's good news week - rumours of the impending death of the economy turn out to be greatly exaggerated. The national accounts for the June quarter provide a salutary lesson on how far popular perceptions can drift from reality.

Three months ago we were told real gross domestic product contracted by 1.2 per cent in the March quarter. This week we're told the contraction was a quarter less than that: 0.9 per cent.

That contraction was fully explained by the temporary effect of floods and cyclones. This week the temporary nature of that setback was confirmed - the economy rebounded to grow by 1.2 per cent in the June quarter.

Note that part of this rebound is purely arithmetic: had the economy not gone down in the March quarter it wouldn't have come back up as much in the following quarter. So it would be mistaken to imagine the economy was travelling at the annualised rate of 4.9 per cent (roughly, 1.2 x 4) in the quarter.

Despite the clearly temporary nature of the contraction, it fed into an increasingly negative mood about the state of the economy. The retailers were doing it tough because consumers were worried about so many things - the carbon tax, interest rates, uncertainty about the North Atlantic economies - and so were saving rather than spending.

You could see this from the way the indicators of consumer confidence kept falling. As part of this consumer caution, not many people were buying new homes.

Then there were the manufacturers doing it tough and laying off workers because of the very high dollar.

In short, the miners and the mining states might be coining it, but all the rest of us in the ''non-mining economy'' were just about stuffed. Turns out most of that was nonsense. Some of it was true - the retailers and manufacturers are doing it tough and housing activity is weak - but those three sectors account for less than 20 per cent of the economy, not the 90 per cent that is the so-called non-mining economy.

The rest we imagined. The media did its usual thing of trumpeting the bad news and playing down the good news but this fell on unusually fertile ground, to mix a few metaphors. The Gillard government's doing a terrible job, therefore the economy's stuffed. That's logical, isn't it?

This week we got a bulletin from the real world. Turns out that though real retail sales grew by just 0.3 per cent in the quarter and 0.6 per cent over the year to June, real consumer spending grew by a healthy 1 per cent in the quarter and a bang-on-trend 3.2 per cent over the year.

Huh? How did we get it so wrong? Well, we took too much notice of the retail sales figures simply because they come monthly, forgetting they account for only about 35 per cent of total consumer spending.

Retail sales cover mainly goods - what they don't cover is mainly services. In recent times our spending preferences have shifted away from goods and towards services. When that happens, the retail sales figures give you a bum steer.

Our other mistake was to take too much notice of the fall in consumer sentiment. It proved a dodgy guide to actual consumer spending. Both these things have tricked us many times before.

The punters know no better and, though it pains me to admit it, the media have a vested interest in not querying a bad-news story. But there's no excuse for the business economists - for them it's professional incompetence. Proof they're not as rational as their model assumes all of us are and not impervious to the popular perceptions around them, as their model also assumes.

This week's figures also reveal a tiny fall in the rate of household saving to 10.5 per cent of household disposable income. Though the ratio is notoriously volatile, this raises the possibility that households have got their rate of saving up to where they want it.

This, in turn, raises another point of arithmetic - it's not a high rate of saving that causes weak growth in consumer spending, it's an increasing rate of saving. Once the rate has stabilised, consumption must grow as fast as household disposable income is growing.

And despite all the phoney I-know-you're-doing-it-tough rhetoric coming as both sides of politics feed back the whinges they hear from their focus groups, the accounts confirm household income is growing particularly strongly - by a nominal 7.5 per cent over the year, way ahead of inflation.

That strong growth comes from a combination of healthy growth in employment (more household members with jobs) and somewhat excessive growth in real wages given our weak rate of productivity improvement.

Both factors are evidence most of us aren't doing it tough.

Part of the narrative of the resources boom is that growth will come more from business investment spending (as we build a lot more mines) than from consumer spending. That wasn't true this quarter. Why not? Not because business investment was weak - it wasn't - but because consumer spending was both strong and accounts for a much bigger share of GDP than investment does.

The other side of the non-mining-economy-is-stuffed proposition is that pretty much all the growth in the economy is coming from the mining sector. As a general proposition, there's no doubt the mining, mining-related and heavy construction industries are growing strongly. But, according to the accounts, that wasn't true in the June quarter. As Kieran Davies, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has pointed out, with the output of mining proper going backwards during the quarter, the output of the so-called non-mining economy grew by 1.3 per cent, more than accounting for the growth of 1.2 per cent overall.

That's the bit people have convinced themselves is stuffed.

Why isn't mining growing? Because a lot of the flooded Queensland coalmines are still not back to production. But this, of course, is temporary. As they come back on line in the second half of this year they'll give GDP a one-off boost.

You have to be careful not to read too much into the quarterly national accounts, which are subject to frequent revision.

But you have to be even more careful not to be misled by those who cry loud and long about how tough things are. They're probably exaggerating (or being exaggerated by a bad-news obsessed media) while those who are doing fine say nothing.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trust makes the world go around, honestly

What does Britain's phone hacking scandal have in common with its earlier scandal over parliamentary expenses and with the failure of several of its banks during the global financial crisis? As Jonathan Tame, of Britain's Relationships Global, has observed, all three events shake the trust the Brits can have in key institutions of their democracy. The latest scandal raises questions about the trustworthiness of the press, the government and the police.

Sometimes you don't appreciate the importance of things until you're threatened with their loss. Of nothing is that truer than trust.

''Every society is built on trust, and every person needs to be trustworthy,'' Tame says. ''Yet greater integrity is expected from politicians, the police and the media, which is why their failure to meet the public's ethical standards is so distressing.''

Why is trust so important? It's what prevents us from having to do everything ourselves. Trust is believing someone else will act correctly. It enables us to hand our children over to teachers, give our vote to a politician, relax while the pilot flies the plane, put our money in a bank account and share the roads with other motorists.

''We do these things without anxiety because we believe that the others involved share our values, will act responsibly and look after our interests,'' Tame says.

''With any loss of trust, relational capital diminishes. Society becomes poorer as more time is taken drawing up detailed contracts and regulations, more funds are spent on security, surveillance and policing, and health declines because people grow more anxious.''

Mark Scholefield prepared a study on trust for the Relationships Foundation. He says trust allows us to share information and responsibilities for our mutual benefit, while giving us the freedom to get on with our own work and life without worrying too much about the part others play.

''We probably cannot live without some degree of trust,'' Scholefield says. ''Our lives and relationships are too complex to monitor and control completely.''

Trust involves reciprocity. If I trust you, you're more likely to trust me. If you trust me, I'm more likely to live up to that trust. Assume I'm untrustworthy and I'm more likely to conform to your expectations.

But to abuse another's trust is often to end your relationship with them. You can cheat someone with impunity if you're never expecting to see them again. If you're planning to stick around, however, the best strategy is to behave in a trustworthy manner. It's intolerable not to be trusted and equally intolerable not to be able to trust the people around you.

Trust is closely linked to reputation. Whether you're a business, an employee or just a friend, it pays to build a reputation for trustworthiness and reliability. In the modern world we deal with so many people and organisations we don't know that we're often forced to rely on their reputations.

Richard Bronk, of the London School of Economics, has written that trust is crucial to the success of economic relationships such as those between managers and workers or between companies and their suppliers. And honesty is the essential lubricant to a system of exchange.

''If trust and honesty mean anything it is that these individuals will be motivated by them to suspend the continual quest for personal advantage in certain key situations,'' Bronk says.

If ever there was a case where the quest for personal, commercial and party advantage is damaging our trust in politicians and the media it's the unending brawling over the carbon tax.

It seems the public's trust in Julia Gillard will forever be tainted by the manner in which she came to power. She's not the first or the last politician to break a promise - in this case her promise not to introduce a carbon tax during the present term - but her failure to apologise and adequately explain her reasons for doing so is undoubtedly compounding the loss of trust in her.

Nor will it be helped by her use of taxpayers' money to pay for an advertising campaign to sell the carbon tax before it has become law. In opposition, Labor bitterly attacked the Howard government's abuse of public funds for such purposes; now it's doing the same. In the heat of battle, the possibility of short-term benefit outweighs the risk to the reputation of politicians in general and Labor in particular.

Scare campaigns - where politicians prey on the fears of insecure and ill-informed voters by greatly exaggerating the likely consequences of the other side's policies - are accepted by both sides of politics and the media as a legitimate tactic.

It's always a lot harder to explain a complex policy than it is to put the frighteners on the punters but Tony Abbott's gross misrepresentation of the carbon tax's effect on prices, employment and whole industries exceeds all records in effectiveness and dishonesty.

I would never have believed one politician could, by all his reckless claims, stop retail sales in their tracks as frightened punters close their purses in fear for their futures. Why the retailers aren't tearing him apart I don't know.

Do his fellow Liberals and their supporters imagine there will be no backlash when voters eventually realise just how much they were wound up?

But is the media working to help their perplexed customers discern the truth of all the claims and counterclaims? Too many of them are playing the controversy for all it's worth, trumpeting the claims of interest groups that are undocumented and untested. Some are motivated by partisanship, almost all by commercial advantage.

Do they, too, imagine this abuse of the public's trust will go unpunished? What's happening in Britain says otherwise.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Claims of stimulus waste were greatly exaggerated

Media reporting and opposition politicking have left many people with the impression much, if not most, and maybe even all of the billions spent on school buildings under the Rudd government's stimulus package has been wasted.

It's an impression based on the piling up of unproved anecdotes about waste or rorting of particular school building projects. Which means it's an impression that's not genuinely "evidence-based".

Enough anecdotes have been produced to demonstrate that some degree of waste has occurred. But that's hardly surprising: there's a degree of waste involved in most spending, public or private.

The real question is how significant that waste has been. And no amount of piling up of unproved allegations can satisfactorily answer that question. Only a thorough investigation of the complaints can determine the extent of the waste and the reasons for it.

It's important to understand - as most people don't - that news reporting practices aren't intended to give us a representative picture of what's happening. Indeed, what's "newsworthy" is often quite unrepresentative.

News focuses on the unusual not the usual, the bad news not the good, the contentious not the widely accepted. (That's why climate change-denying scientists get a degree of media publicity out of proportion to the relevance of their qualifications or how representative they are of scientific opinion.)

This is why you wouldn't expect the media to do justice to the reassuring conclusions of the independent taskforce established to investigate complaints about the Building the Education Revolution spending.

For one thing, reassurance isn't very newsworthy. For another, any critical comments will be given more prominence than generally approving comments.

But there's more to the school building issue than just the limitations of news reporting. The complaints have been seized upon and played up by elements of the media and others with either partisan or ideological motives for seeking to discredit the use of budgetary stimulus in response to the downturn in our economy prompted by the global financial crisis and the world recession.

These people want us to conclude there was never any threat to the economy, thus making the stimulus spending unnecessary and, as it turned out, quite wasteful. Those with an ideological opposition to fiscal stimulus want us to conclude it NEVER works.

That's why I've read for myself the interim report of the taskforce, chaired by Brad Orgill, and want to give you a balanced account of its findings.

The taskforce was established to receive and investigate complaints about the school building program and to determine whether schools are achieving value for money. So far it has received complaints affecting 254 schools, representing only 2.7 per cent of all schools involved in the program.

Almost all the complaints relate to the part of the program that promised to build and upgrade infrastructure in all the nation's primary schools. The $14 billion cost of this element accounts for almost 90 per cent of the total cost of the program.

It will have delivered more than 10,500 construction projects to more than 7900 primary schools by late next year. About a third of the money is going on multi-purpose halls, almost 30 per cent on classrooms and a quarter on libraries, with the remainder going on covered outdoor learning areas and other things.

Spending of the money is being administered by 22 state government, Catholic and independent school authorities. Although the NSW government accounts for 22 per cent of the projects, it attracted 56 per cent of the complaints. The Victorian government, with a 12 per cent share of projects, attracted 20 per cent of the complaints.

More than half the complaints relate to value for money. "From our investigations to date, the majority of complaints raise very valid concerns, particularly about value for money and the approach to school-level involvement in decision making," the report says.

The report acknowledges - as many of the critics don't - that the primary reason for spending the money was to help counter the downturn in the economy by providing employment for building and construction workers throughout the country. It was also hoped the new buildings would improve the quality of our kids' education.

The report finds the stimulus "prevented many construction organisations from reducing staff or the size of their operations to match an otherwise decreasing workload resulting from the global financial crisis".

But the stimulus motive meant it was important to get the money spent quickly and this involved a trade-off. It meant less time for consultation with individual schools and less choice and customising of projects. That meant a degree of waste and, certainly, dissatisfaction on the part of some schools.

Cost per square metre was very much higher in NSW government projects, mainly because of big project management fees, which were 5 percentage points higher than normal. But these fees are partly explained by the high priority the NSW government gave to getting its projects completed quickly. Those states in less of a hurry incurred lower costs per metre.

The report says that, overall, delivering the projects within the short time-frame to achieve the economic-stimulus objective may have added a premium to normal costs of 5 to 6 per cent.

"Notwithstanding the validity of issues raised in the complaints, our overall observation is that this Australia-wide program is delivering much-needed infrastructure to school communities while achieving the primary goal of economic activity across the nation," the report concludes.

So the impression of widespread waste the media and people with axes to grind have left us with is greatly exaggerated.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our media roasts old chestnuts

If a genie appeared from a bottle and offered me one wish, I'd choose to be a columnist on a major newspaper. So I guess you could say I love my job. But there are times when I feel compelled to warn people to be careful about what they read, hear and see in the media.

Many people assume the media give them a representative picture of what's going on in the world beyond their own experience. But this is a misunderstanding of the role of the news media and the nature of "news".

The media select from all the things happening in the world only those things they consider "newsworthy" and thus worth drawing to our attention. What is newsworthy? Anything the media believe their audience will find interesting and nothing they fear the audience will find boring.

What's interesting? Anything unusual. But also anything threatening. It's perfectly clear that people find bad news more interesting than good news, which is why the media give prominence to things that are going wrong and say little about things that are going well.

Most of what's happening in the world is highly predictable and terribly ordinary. This means much news is selected because it's unrepresentative. So there's a high risk it will leave people with a mistaken impression of what's happening in the world.

Journalists like to believe everything they report is new. In truth, it's often just a new example of a familiar story, one the journos know the audience loves to hear again. Sometimes a new, offbeat angle is ignored so the story can be forced to fit a tried-and-true formula.

A lot of news is selected because it will appeal to the audience's prejudices or stir people's emotions in the way they like to be stirred. Consider some recent examples from my field of economic news.

There has been much indignation over the Keneally government's decision to change the tax on poker machines in hotels, with suggestions of undue influence by the Australian Hotels Association. About 60 per cent of hotels with pokies - those that don't make much out of them - will now pay less tax or even no tax.

You have to read the reports carefully to discover the changes are actually "revenue neutral", meaning the savings to the 60 per cent of hotels will be exactly offset by the higher tax paid by the remaining 40 per cent, leaving the government's total revenue unaffected.

Rather deflating of the righteous indignation, don't you think?

The media make no pretence of being bound by the scientific method. Economists are always being reminded not to draw general conclusions from anecdotal evidence rather than economy-wide statistics.

But the media are tellers of stories. They're the industrialised equivalent of cavemen sitting around the fire at night swapping yarns. The telling of stories about other people meets one of our most primitive human needs.

What it doesn't do, however, is give us an accurate picture of what's happening in the world. Take all the stories we're hearing about waste in the Rudd government's program to stimulate the economy by constructing a new building at every primary school.

News gathering is selective. People with complaints of waste - justified or otherwise - have had no trouble getting publicity. People without complaints don't bother approaching the media. And where reporters have encountered people saying everything was fine, these facts would have been ignored as "not news".

There have been enough anecdotes to convince me waste has been a significant problem. The real question is: how significant? What proportion of schools has experienced wastefulness? What proportion of the government's spending has been wasted?

No number of examples of alleged waste can answer these questions. What they can do is cause people who don't understand the biases involved in news gathering to gain the impression "the waste has been huge" or even "all that money has been wasted".

The one thorough report we've seen so far came from the federal Auditor-General. It was critical, but far from damning. One of his findings was that 95 per cent of school principals agreed they were confident the funds "will provide an improvement to my school, which will be of ongoing value to my school and school community".

Every year since 1997 the Reserve Bank has published an annual survey of the fees banks charge to their business and household customers. And every year the media turn the survey results into the same much-loved story: huge increase in the fees banks rip from you and me.

This year, however, the story tended to be relegated to the business section, though the same formula was used: huge increase in the fees banks charge businesses.

You had to read the reports carefully to get the real story: last financial year the fees the banks charged households grew by 3 per cent (the lowest increase since the survey began and far less than the 8 per cent increases in the two previous years), whereas fees charged to business leapt by 13 per cent (far more than in the two previous years).

Most of the growth in fees collected from households came from charges paid by the greater number of people choosing to break their fixed-rate mortgage contracts, but this was largely offset by a fall in banks' income from transaction and account-keeping fees. Much of this was explained by the banks' offers to waive fees to people who made regular deposits, part of their greatly increased competition to attract deposits.

By contrast, most of the huge growth in fees collected from business came from higher fees to existing customers now considered to be more risky and higher fees on undrawn overdrafts.

The story no one thinks worth writing is that since the global financial crisis, the banks have gone easier on their household customers but harder on their business customers.