Showing posts with label productivity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label productivity. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Want better productivity? Start by ensuring our kids can read

The trouble with our economy is that there are so many things needing to be fixed, it’s hard to know where to start. And so many of them are urgent we don’t have time to fix things one at a time. But since the economy consists simply of all the workers and all the consumers – that is, all the people – one of my guiding principles is that governments should manage the economy for the many, not the few.

This may seem obvious but, during the decades of “neoliberalism” from which we’re still emerging, it became far from obvious. Neoliberalism is the doctrine that what’s good for BHP is good for Australia. We got used to listening with rapt attention when the top 100 or so chief executives told us what needed to be done to improve productivity.

It took us too long to realise that their idea of a well-functioning economy was one where their incomes grew considerably faster than ours. They’re still at it, not having realised that we’ve stopped listening.

They’re arguing again that the most important thing we need is major tax reform – which, when you inquire, turns out to mean they’d pay less tax while we paid more.

No. I’m far more persuaded by this week’s report from Dr Jordana Hunter and Anika Stobart of the Grattan Institute, arguing we should start at the bottom, not the top, and make sure all our kids become confident readers as early as possible in their time at school.

If you’re building a house, you start by laying a firm foundation, and education should work the same way. Hunter says that in no area of education is improvement more urgent than reading. “Reading proficiency is a foundational skill that unlocks the broader curriculum and empowers young people to grasp opportunities for themselves,” she says.

Stobart says, “When children do not read fluently and efficiently in early primary school, it can undermine their future learning across all subject areas, harm their self-esteem, and limit their life chances.”

Students who struggle with reading are more likely to fall behind their classmates, become disruptive, and drop out of school. They are more likely to end up unemployed, or in poorly paid jobs, we’re told.

Why are they telling us this? Because last year’s NAPLAN testing results show that one in three Australian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently. For Victorians, the news is better, sort of: a mere one in four.

But for Indigenous students, students from disadvantaged families, and students in regional and rural areas, it’s more than half. (Which makes you wonder why Barnaby Joyce and his National Party mates don’t have a lot more to say on public school funding.)

This appalling deficiency hasn’t just happened, it’s been going on for years without anyone making a fuss about it. Why is it happening? Hunter says the reason most of those students can’t read well enough is that we aren’t teaching them well enough.

“A key cause,” the report says, “is decades of disagreement about how to teach reading. But the evidence is now clear. The ‘whole-language’ approach, which became popular in the 1970s, doesn’t work for all students [including someone in my family years ago]. Its remnants should be banished from Australia’s schools.

“Instead, all schools should use the ‘structured literacy’ approach right through school, which includes a focus on phonics in the early years. Students should learn to sound out the letters of each word.”

Now, let’s be clear. I like teachers – especially those who tell students they must read my columns. So this is no attack on our hard-pressed teachers.

“The real issue here,” Hunter says, “is, are governments doing enough to set teachers up for success? The challenge is making sure best practice is common practice in every single classroom.”

But a key improvement is regular classroom testing, to ensure kids who are struggling get identified early and given extra help to catch up.

That, of course, takes extra money. But federal Education Minister Jason Clare is renegotiating the school funding agreement with the premiers. “The reading wars are over. We know what works,” he’s said. “The new agreement we strike this year needs to properly fund schools and tie that funding to the sort of things that work. The sort of things that will help children keep up, catch up and finish school.”

Economists often worry that the things you could do to make the economy fairer come at the expense of the economic efficiency that improves productivity. But ensuring our kids get off to a good start in life – including through early education, two years of pre-school and good literacy and numeracy – ticks both boxes.

It gives our kids better lives, it makes our workforce better skilled and more valuable, and it saves the budget a bundle in having fewer people who need special help.

Read more >>

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The next thing on Albanese's to-do list: fix competition

In a capitalist economy, every capitalist professes to believe in stiff competition. In truth, it’s their biggest hate. Why? Because it limits their ability to put up prices and makes them work harder for their money.

Just this week, big business has been saying that, if only we could get proper tax reform – by which they mean lower taxes on companies and the highly paid – we’d get more productivity and more innovation.

In truth, what’s far more likely to improve innovation and productivity is stiffer competition, particularly in those many industries dominated by just a few giant corporations.

The federal government doesn’t have a minister for competition, but it does have an assistant minister: Dr Andrew Leigh, a former economics professor.

Last year, the Albanese government announced a rolling two-year review of competition and set up a taskforce within Treasury. It’s supported by an expert advisory panel with some big names: Dr Kerry Schott as chair, David Gonski, the former boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, and the new boss of the Productivity Commission, Danielle Wood.

This week Leigh gave us an update on what the taskforce had been doing and discovering. But he started with a locker room pep talk on why competition is the key to making capitalism – or “the market system” as economists prefer to call it – benefit the customers more than the capitalists.

“Competition provides a check on unbridled profit-seeking by business. In a competitive market, innovators can bring new products and services to market, without fear of being shut down by entrenched monopolists,” he says.

Competition limits unearned privilege and seeks to treat everyone fairly. Competition guides labour and capital to their most valuable uses and combinations, driving the productivity improvement that underpins sustainable wages growth.

“For workers, genuine competition between businesses provides greater opportunities to switch jobs, allowing workers to make the most of their skills and secure better pay and conditions.”

“For consumers, competition provides more choices, allowing people to shop around and find better value products and services. Indeed, the most obvious benefit of competition is in delivering cheaper prices. There is no better tool than competition policy for keeping real prices down.”

And, Leigh adds, competition is also crucial if Australia is to make the most of the big shifts involved in digitisation, growth in the care economy and the transition to net zero carbon emissions.

But Leigh warns of “worrying signs the intensity of competition has weakened over recent decades, with evidence of increased market concentration and [profit margins] in several industries.”

“Other countries find themselves at similar crossroads and many are – like us – reviewing their competition policy settings,” he says.

Our taskforce is taking a fresh approach to competition policy: digging out and analysing large sets of data to understand what the problems are and help craft solutions to them.

The digital revolution is producing masses of “microdata” on what businesses are doing, while making it easier for statisticians to measure the growth in the economy earlier and more accurately.

It gives academic economists great ability to analyse what’s happening in particular industries, and gives the econocrats a better understanding of what and how to regulate the things business gets up to.

For the first time, the taskforce has developed a database that tracks company mergers throughout the whole economy. Believe it or not, it does this by looking at the flows of workers moving to different employers.

This will allow it to track the effects of mergers on the performance of businesses, on employment and on industry concentration – that is, fewer firms controlling more of a particular market.

The new database has already revealed three worrying things. First, because notifying the competition regulator the ACCC of an intended merger is voluntary, it hears of about 330 mergers a year, whereas there are between 1000 and 1500 mergers occurring annually.

Second, for the most part, it’s huge firms swallowing smaller firms, rather than medium and small firms joining. Get this: the largest 1 per cent of firms account for about half the acquisitions.

Larger companies made more acquisitions over the course of the 2010s. And mergers were most common in manufacturing, retail, professional services, and health and social services.

Third, the firms that are the targets of takeovers are more than twice as likely to own a patent and almost twice as likely to own a trademark.

Remember that patents give inventors a long-term legal monopoly over the use of some invention. So this finding raises the fear that at least some takeovers are motivated by a desire to gobble up an effective competitor, or may even be “killer acquisitions” aimed at killing inventions that threaten the profits of some big player.

Leigh says we can expect to hear more from the government this year on mergers and how they should be regulated. The taskforce issued a consultation paper in November asking for opinions on whether the present arrangements remain fit for purpose.

The ACCC has already proposed a significant increase in its power to block mergers considered likely to substantially lessen competition.

And, last December, the federal government secured agreement from the state treasurers to revitalise national competition policy and commit to developing an agenda for pro-competitive reforms.

Meanwhile, Leigh points to findings by British academics Geoff and Gay Meeks that reveal only one in five research papers find that the typical merger boosts the profits or the sharemarket value of the merged business.

They point out that mergers often boost the remuneration of the company’s managers, while leading to layoffs among workers.

Leigh acknowledges that mergers aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but the small number of proposed mergers that do raise competition concerns warrant close scrutiny.

He says that “for the sake of shareholders, workers and citizens, it is important to ensure that Australia’s regulatory system is not facilitating value-destroying mergers”.

Many of the nation’s chief executives may not agree with that, but most of the rest of us would.

Read more >>

Monday, October 23, 2023

Want better productivity? Cut population growth

A simple reading of orthodox economics tells you that the urge to maximise profits leads businesses to continuously improve the productivity of their activities. But, as former competition tzar Rod Sims has often reminded us, improving productivity is just one way to increase profits, and there are other ways to do it that are a lot easier.

One other way is to increase your share of the market by having a better product. Or better, coming up with a marketing campaign that merely cons people into believing your product is better.

Another way to increase market share is to undercut your competitors’ prices. But in oligopolies dominated by only a few big players, which many of our markets are, the threat of mutually damaging retaliation is so great that price wars are rare.

(This why the big four banks were so shocked and offended when the Macquarie group, a huge financial group with deep pockets and a small bank, decided recently to get itself a slice of the lucrative home loan market by offering below-market interest rates.)

Another way to increase profits is to take over a competitor. This may or may not increase profitability – percentage return on the share capital invested in the business – to the benefit of shareholders. But the managers of the now-bigger business will have to be paid commensurately higher wages and bonuses.

But the simplest, easiest way to increase profits? Sell into an ever-growing market. And how do you do that? Persuade the government to maintain a high rate of immigration. This is a mission on which big business has had great success in recent decades.

Polling shows the public does not approve of high immigration. With some justification, the punters tend to blame it for road congestion and rising housing costs.

But the Howard government and its Coalition successors did a roaring trade in keeping the punters’ disapproval focused on poor people who arrived uninvited on leaky boats, while they were quietly ushering in all the immigrants that business was demanding. These people arrived by plane, and so drew no media attention.

Is it mere coincidence that productivity improvement has been weak during the period in which immigration-driven population growth has been so strong? I doubt it, though of course, I’m not claiming this is the only factor contributing to weak productivity improvement.

While it makes self-interested, short-sighted sense for businesspeople to be so untiring in their clamour for ever more immigration, the strange thing is that the virtue of rapid population growth goes almost wholly unquestioned by the nation’s economists.

Population growth is an article of faith for almost every economist. For a profession that prides itself on being so “rational”, it’s surprising how little thinking economists do about the pros and cons of immigration. There’s little empirical evidence to support their unwavering commitment to high immigration, but they don’t need any evidence to keep believing what almost all of them have always believed.

Before we get to the narrowly economic arguments, let’s start with the bigger picture. The primary reason for doubting the sense of rapid population growth is the further damage every extra person does to the natural environment.

As the sustainable population advocates put it: too many people demanding too much of our natural environment.

Economists have gone from the beginning of their discipline assuming that the economy and the environment can be analysed in separate boxes. This further assumes that any adverse interaction between the two is so minor it can be safely ignored.

In an era of climate change and growing loss of species, this is clearly untenable. The economy and the natural environment that sustains it have to be joined up. But when it comes to population growth, these are dots the profession hasn’t yet joined.

Even on narrowly economic considerations, however, economists long ago stopped checking their calculations. It’s obvious that a bigger population means a bigger economy, and since economists are the salespersons of economic growth, what more do you need to know?

Well, you need to know that economic growth achieved merely through population growth leads to what the salespersons are promising the punters: a higher material standard of living. Simply, higher income per person.

If there is evidence higher population growth leads to higher income per person, I’ve yet to see it. I have seen a study by the Productivity Commission that couldn’t find any. And I have seen a study showing that the higher a country’s population growth, the lower its growth in gross domestic product per person.

But it doesn’t surprise me that the committed advocates of population growth don’t wave around any evidence they have to support their faith. What is well understood, though the advocates seem to have forgotten it, is that, whatever economic benefits immigration may or may not bring, it comes with inescapable economic costs.

Which are? That every extra person dilutes our existing per-person investment in business equipment and structures, housing stock and public infrastructure: schools, hospitals, police stations, roads and bridges, and much else.

In other words, every extra person requires us to spend many resources on preventing this population growth from diminishing our economic and social capital per head, and thereby making us worse off.

Economists call this “capital widening”, as opposed to “capital deepening”, which means providing the population with more capital equipment and infrastructure per person.

Trouble is, there’s a limit to how much the nation can save – or borrow from overseas – to finance our investment in housing, business equipment and structures, and public infrastructure. So resources we have to devote to capital widening, thanks to population growth, are resources we can’t devote to the capital deepening that would increase our standard of living.

Using immigration to raise our living standards is like trying to go up a down escalator. You have to run just to stop yourself going backwards. This is smart?

In practice, it’s worse than that. There’s a big government co-ordination problem. It’s the federal government that’s responsible for immigration levels, and that collects most of the taxes the immigrants pay, but it’s mainly the state governments that are lumbered with organising the extra housing and building the extra sewers, roads, transport, schools, hospitals and other facilities needed to avoid congestion and overcrowding.

Another thing to remember is that the easier you make it for businesses to get the skilled workers they need by bringing them in from abroad, the more you tempt them not to go to the expense and inconvenience of bothering with apprentices and trainees.

This is why so many businesses were caught short when, during the pandemic, their access to imported skilled labour was suddenly cut off. No wonder they were shouting to high heaven about the need to reopen their access to cheap labour. A lot of it was actually unskilled labour from overseas students, backpackers and others on temporary visas, who are easy to take advantage of.

Have you joined the dots? If giving business what it wants – high immigration to grow the market and provide ready access to skilled and unskilled workers – hasn’t induced business to increase the productivity of its labour, why don’t we try the opposite?

Make it harder for business to increase profits without improving productivity and investing in training our local workforce. Of course, this would require us to value productivity improvement more highly than population growth.

Read more >>

Friday, October 13, 2023

Why our standard of living will be rising more slowly

You could call it gloom, or call it realism, but the likelihood is the economy will be growing more slowly from now on.

And we’re talking not just the next year or two – where the Reserve Bank’s rapid rise in interest rates means if we don’t go backwards, we’ll have been let off lightly – but the next maybe 40 years.

No one – not even economists – knows what the future holds, of course. But this long-term slowing is the considered guess of the secretary to the Treasury, Dr Steven Kennedy, who this week gave us his summation of the Treasury’s recent intergenerational report, which makes largely mechanical projections – not hard-and-fast forecasts – for the economy over the 40 years to 2063.

 Kennedy says the projections are “illustrative”. A key assumption on which they’re based, that present government policies don’t change, means the projections demonstrate “the longer-term implications of our current path”.

The report’s “aim is to avoid the risks projected … through ongoing improvement and reform of policy settings”.

Even so, I think we’re justified in concluding that the slower growth the report projects is more likely to eventuate than either unchanged or faster growth. That’s because so many of the factors likely to affect our future growth are beyond the government’s control.

The report projects that real gross domestic product – the nation’s total production of goods and services – having grown by an average of 3.1 per cent a year over the past 40 years, will slow to growth of 2.2 per cent a year over the coming 40 years.

How would this slowdown be explained? The Treasury’s standard way of analysing economic growth is to break it up into the three main drivers of growth – known as “the three Ps”: growth in the population, growth in the population’s participation in the labour force, and growth in the productivity of the workforce.

Notice how people-centred this way of chopping up economic growth is?

First. Population. Whereas our population grew at an average rate of 1.4 per cent a year over the past 40 years, it’s projected to grow by just 1.1 per cent over the coming 40.

These days, “natural increase” – births minus deaths – accounts for only about 40 per cent of the growth in our population, with “net overseas migration” accounting for the remaining 60 per cent.

The Treasury projects a further slow decline in our “fertility rate” – the number of births per woman – which has long been well below the 2.1 children “replacement rate” needed to hold the population steady over the years.

So we’ve long used high immigration to keep the population growing. Net migration fell sharply when we closed our borders during the pandemic. It has surged since the borders were reopened, but the Treasury expects it to fall back to 235,000 people a year once the surge has passed.

This level is what the Treasury projects for the rest of the years to 2063 – meaning that fixed number would fall as a percentage of the growing population. Even so, the population is expected to exceed 40 million in the early 2060s.

It’s just a projection, but I don’t have trouble believing immigration levels will decline rather than increase in the coming years. With all the rich countries – and China - having fertility rates well below the replacement rate, I can see far more competition for immigrants than there has been, especially since we only want skilled immigrants.

This expected slowdown in immigration means the overall size of the economy wouldn’t be growing as fast as it has been, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those of us who are already here will be worse off. That depends less on the economy’s overall growth and more in what’s happening to growth in GDP per person.

The report projects that, whereas real GDP per person grew by 1.8 per cent a year on average over the past 40 years, it will slow to 1.1 per cent a year over the coming 40.

Ahh. So, not just slower growth in the economy, but a much slower rate of improvement in our material standard of living. We’d still be getting more prosperous, but at a rate so small that it would be hard to notice.

And the problem must be coming from the other two Ps – participation and productivity improvement.

At present, the “participation rate” – the proportion of the working-age population that’s either in work or actively seeking it – is the highest it’s ever been, at 66.6 per cent, but the Treasury projects it will have fallen to 63.8 per cent by 2063.

Why? Because the proportion of the population aged 65 and over is projected to rise from 17 per cent to 23 per cent. So population ageing means more people will be too old to work.

But this will be countered to an unknown extent by more women of working age taking paid employment, and a healthier post-65 population choosing to keep working, even if only a few days a week.

However, most of the slowdown in GDP growth per person is explained by the expectation that the rate of improvement in the productivity of labour will be slower.

Whereas productivity improved at an average rate of 1.5 per cent a year over the past 30 years, it’s improved by only 1.2 per cent a year over the past 20 years – and that’s the rate the Treasury has projected over the coming 40 years.

There are plenty of reasons to expect productivity improvement will become harder to achieve. Just one is the greater share of GDP coming from the provision of labour-intensive services and the lesser share from the capital-intensive production of goods. It’s a lot easier to make machines more productive than do the same for people.

Finally, another reason for expecting population, participation and productivity to be weaker in coming decades is that various other rich countries’ experience is leading them to expect the same.

Read more >>

Monday, October 9, 2023

It's time for more sensible thinking on productivity

When will we tire of all the bulldust that’s talked in the name of hastening productivity improvement? We never do anything about it, but we do listen politely while self-appointed worthies – business people and econocrats, in the main – read us yet another sermon on the subject.

Trouble is, when the sermons come from big business – accompanied by 200-page reports with snappy titles – they boil down business lobby groups doing what lobby groups do: asking the government for special favours – aka “rent-seeking”.

You want higher productivity? It’s obvious: cut the company tax on big business, and give us a free hand to change our workers’ pay and conditions as we see fit.

When the sermons come from econocrats, they’re more like professional propagandising: calls for “reform” – often of the tax system – that are usually theory-driven and lacking empirical evidence that they really would have much effect on productivity.

What we get in place of genuine empiricism is modelling results. Models are a mysterious combination of mathematised theory, sprinkled with ill-researched estimates of elasticity and such like.

We’ve become so inured to all this sermonising that we’ve ceased to notice something strange: although in a market economy it’s the behaviour of business that determines how much productivity improvement we do or don’t get, any lack of improvement is always attributed to the government’s negligence.

This is where the business rent-seekers and the econocrat propagandists are agreed. The econocrats willingness to point at the government comes from the biases in their neoclassical theory, which assumes, first, that businesses always respond rationally to the incentives they face and, second, that government intervention in markets is more likely to make things worse than better.

Big business is happy to use this ideology to hide its rent-seeking. (If you wonder why neoclassical economics has been dominant for a century or two despite surprisingly little evolution, it’s partly because it suits business interests so well.)

The other strange thing we’ve failed to notice is that the modern obsession with the tax system and regulation of the labour market has crowded out all the economists’ conventional wisdom about what drives productivity improvement over the medium term.

But before we get to that wisdom, a health warning: there’s a famous saying in economics that the sermonisers have stopped making sure you know. It’s that, for economists, productivity is “a measure of our ignorance”.

Just as economists can calculate the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment”, and kid themselves it’s next to infallible, when you ask them why it’s gone up, or down, all they can do is guess at the reasons, so it is with calculations of productivity. Economists can’t say with any certainty why it’s up or why it’s down. They don’t know.

Even so, in the present opportunistic sermonising, all that the profession thought it knew has been cast aside.

Such as? That productivity improvement is cyclical and hard to measure. Recent quarterly results from the national accounts will probably change as better data come to hand, and the accounts are revised.

It’s true that the measured productivity of labour actually has fallen over the three years to June this year, but it’s likely this is, to a great extent, a product of the wild swings of the pandemic and its lockdowns. As Reserve Bank economists have argued, these effects should “wash out”.

It’s well understood that the main thing that improves the productivity of labour is employers giving their workers more and better machines to work with. But Australia’s level of business investment as a share of gross domestic product is low relative to other rich countries.

Growth in non-mining business investment has declined from the mid-2000s and stagnated over the past decade. It’s grown strongly recently, but it’s not clear how much of this is just tradies taking advantage of lockdown tax concessions to buy a new HiLux ute.

Point is, why do the sermonisers rarely acknowledge that weak business investment spending does a lot to help explain our weak productivity improvement?

Another factor that should be obvious is our recent strong growth in employment, the highest in about 50 years, with many people who employers wouldn’t normally want to employ, getting jobs. This will lower the workforce’s average productivity – but it’s a good development, not a bad one.

Again, why do the sermons never mention this?

Yet another part of the conventional wisdom it’s no longer fashionable to mention is the belief that productivity improvement comes from strong spending – by public and private sectors – on research and development. Have we been doing well on this over the past decade or so? I doubt it.

And, of course, productivity improvement comes from giving a high priority to investment in “human capital” – education and training.

So, why no sermons about the way we’ve gone for a decade or more stuffing up TAFE and vocational education, or the way school funding has given “parental choice” for better-off families priority over the funding of good teaching in public schools?

Too many of those sermons also fail to mention the small fact that all the other developed economies are experiencing similar weakness – suggesting that much of our poor performance is explained by global factors, not the failure of our government.

Related to this, the preachers usually compare our present performance with a much higher 30- or 40-year average, implying our weak performance is something new, unusual and worrying.

Or, we’re told that, whereas productivity improved at an annual rate of 2.1 per cent, over the five years to 2004, it worsened to 0.9 per cent over the six years to 2010, and improved only marginally to 1.2 per cent over the nine years to 2019, before the pandemic.

This is all highly misleading. The fact is that periods of weak improvement are more common than periods of strong improvement, which are rare.

Our period of unusually strong improvement from the late 1990s to the early noughties is paralleled by America’s strong period from 1995 to 2004, which the Yanks usually attribute to rapid productivity improvement in the manufacturing of computers, electronics and semiconductors.

We usually attribute our rare period of strong improvement to the belated effects of the Hawke-Keating government’s program of microeconomic reform. Maybe, but computerisation and the information revolution are a more plausible guess.

Either way, contrary to the sermonisers’ implicit claim that the present period of weak improvement is unusual, it may be closer to the truth that weakness is the norm, interspersed by occasional bursts of huge improvement, caused by the eventual diffusion of some new “general-purpose technology” – the next one likely to be generative AI.

Read more >>

Friday, September 22, 2023

AI will make or break us - probably a bit of both

Depending on who you talk to, AI – artificial intelligence – is the answer to the rich world’s productivity slowdown and will make us all much more prosperous. Or it will lead to a few foreign mega tech companies controlling far more of our lives than they already do.

So, which is it to be? Well, one thing we can say with confidence is that, like all technological advances, it can be used for good or ill. It’s up to us and our governments to do what’s needed to ensure we get a lot more of the former than the latter.

If all the talk of AI makes your eyes glaze (or you’re so old you think AI stands for artificial insemination), let’s just say that AI is about making it possible for computers to learn from experience, adjust to new information and perform human-like tasks, such as recognising patterns, and making forecasts and decisions.

Scientists have been talking about AI since the 1950s, but in recent years they’ve really started getting somewhere. It took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users, whereas the mobile phone took 16 years and the web took seven.

You’ve no doubt seen the fuss about an AI language “bot”, ChatGPT, which can understand questions and generate answers. It was released last year and took just two months to reach 100 million users.

This week the competition minister, Dr Andrew Leigh, gave a speech about AI’s rapidly growing role in the economy. What that’s got to do with competition we’ll soon see.

He says the rise of AI engines has been remarkable and offers the potential for “immense economic and social benefits”.

It “has the potential to turbocharge productivity”. Most Australians work in the services sector, where tasks requiring the processing and evaluation of information and the preparation of written reports are ubiquitous.

“From customer support to computer programming, education to law, there is massive potential for AI to make people more effective at their jobs,” Leigh says.

“And the benefits go beyond what shows up in gross domestic product. AI can make the ideal Spotify playlist for your birthday, detect cancer earlier, devise a training program for your new sport, or play devil’s advocate when you’re developing an argument.”

That’s the optimists’ case. And there’s no doubt a lot of truth to it. But, Leigh warns, “it’s not all upside”.

“Many digital markets have started as fiercely competitive ecosystems, only to consolidate [become dominated by a few big companies] over time.”

We should beware of established businesses asserting their right to train AI models on their own data (which is how the models learn), while denying access to that data to competitors or new businesses seeking to enter the industry.

Leigh says there are five challenges likely to limit the scope for vigorous competition in the development of AI systems.

First, costly chips. A present, only a handful of companies has the cloud and computing resources needed to build and train AI systems. So, any rival start-ups must pay to get access to these resources.

As well, the chipmaker Nvidia has about 70 per cent of the world AI chips market, and has relationships with the big chip users, to the advantage of incumbents.

Second, private data. The best AI models are those trained on the highest quality and greatest volume of data. The latest AI models from Google and Meta (Facebook) are trained on about one trillion words.

And these “generative” AI systems need to be right up-to-date. But the latest ChatGPT version uses data up to only 2021, so thinks Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison are still in power, and doesn’t know the lockdowns are over.

Which brings us, third, to “network effects”. If the top ride-hailing service has twice as many cars as its rival, more users will choose to use it, to reduce their waiting times. So, those platforms coming first tend to get bigger at the expense of their rivals.

What’s more, the more customers the winners attract, the more data they can mine to find out what customers want and don’t want, giving them a further advantage.

This means network effects may fuel pricing power, entrenching the strongest platforms. If AI engines turn out to be “natural monopolies”, regulators will have a lot to worry about.

Fourth, immobile talent. Not many people have the skills to design and further develop AI engines, and training people to do these jobs takes time.

It’s likely that many of these workers are bound by “non-compete” clauses in their job contracts. If so, that can be another factor allowing the dominant platforms to charge their customers higher prices (and pay their workers less than they should).

Finally, AI systems can be set up on an “open first, closed later” business plan. I call it the drug-pusher model: you give it away free until you get enough people hooked, then you start charging.

Clearly, the spread of AI may well come with weak competitive pressure to ensure customers get a good deal and rates of profit aren’t excessive.

Just as competition laws needed to be updated to deal with the misbehaviour of the oil titans and rail barons of 19th century America, so too we may need to make changes to Australian laws to address the challenges that AI poses, Leigh says.

The big question is how amenable to competition the development of AI is. In other, earlier new industries, competition arose because key staff left to start a competing company, or because it made sense for another firm to operate in a different geographic area, or because customers desired a variant on the initial product.

“But if AI is learning from itself, if it is global, and if it is general, then these features may not arise.” If so, concentration maybe more likely than competition.

Get it? If we’re not careful, a few foreign mega tech companies may do better out of AI than we do.

Read more >>

Monday, September 18, 2023

Productivity debate descends into damned lies and statistics mode

Last week we got a big hint that the economics profession is in the early stages of its own little civil war, as some decide their conventional wisdom about how the economy works no longer fits the facts, while others fly to the defence of orthodoxy. Warning: if so, they could be at it for a decade before it’s resolved.

Economists want outsiders to believe they’re involved in an objective, scientific search for the truth and are, in fact, very close to possessing it. In reality, they’ve long been divided by ideology – views about how the world works, and should work – which is usually aligned with partisan interests: capital versus labour.

You see this more clearly in America, where big-name “saltwater” (coastal) academic economists only ever work for Democrat administrations, while “freshwater” (inland) academics only work for the Republicans.

In the 1970s, the world’s economists argued over the causes and cures for “stagflation” – high inflation and high unemployment at the same time. Then, in the 1980s, we had a smaller, Australian debate over how worried we should be about huge current account deficits and mounting foreign debt, won convincingly by the academics, who told the econocrats to forget it – which they did.

Now, the debate is over the causes of the latest global surge in inflation. At a time when organised labour has lost its bargaining power, while growing industry “concentration” (more industries dominated by an ever-smaller number of big companies) has reduced the pressure from competition and increased the pricing power of big firms, is a lot of the recent rise in prices explained by businesses using the chance to increase their profit margins?

A related question is whether it remains true that – as business leaders, politicians and econocrats assure us almost every day – all improvement in the productivity of labour (output per hour worked) is automatically reflected in higher real wages.

And that’s the clue we got last week. The Productivity Commission issued a study, Productivity growth and wages – a forensic look, that concluded that “over the long term, for most workers, productivity growth and real wages have grown together in Australia”.

So, all the worrying that silly people (such as me) have been doing – that the workers are no longer getting their cut of what little productivity improvement we’ve seen in recent years – has been proved to be a “myth”.

For the national masthead that prides itself on being read by the nation’s chief executives, this was a page one screamer. Apparently, even though real wages are 4 per cent lower than they were 11 years ago, workers are getting “their fair share of pie”.

When workers’ real wages rise by less than the improvement in labour productivity, the study calls this “wage decoupling”. It says “it is important to get the facts right on wage decoupling. Unfortunately, debates about the extent of wage decoupling, its sources and its implications are often dogged by differences in the methods and data”.

“This is because analysts can pick and choose among a wide range of measures of real wage growth, and their choices can lead to different, sometimes misleading conclusions.”

This is very, very true. Trouble is, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The clear inference is that “the commission’s preferred measure” is the single correct way of measuring it, whereas all those who get different results to us are just picking the methodology that gives them the results they were hoping for.

Get it? I speak the objective truth; you are just fudging up figures to defend your preconceived beliefs about how the world works. Yeah, sure.

I hate to disillusion you, gentle reader, but this is what always happens in economics whenever some group says, “I think we’re getting it wrong.” They produce calculations to support their case, but some don’t like the idea, so they produce different calculations intended to refute it.

Because economics is factionalised, most debates degenerate into arguments about why my methodology is better than yours. That’s why a change in the profession’s conventional wisdom can take up to a decade to resolve. But intellectual fashions do change.

The study finds that the mining and agriculture industries – which account for only 5 per cent of workers – have experienced major wage decoupling over the past 27 years, but for the remaining 95 per cent of workers, in 17 other industries, the difference between productivity growth and real wage growth has been “relatively low”.

Sorry, but that’s my first objection. It’s not relevant to compare productivity growth by industry with real wage growth by industry. Some industries have high productivity, some have low productivity and, in much of the public sector, productivity can’t be measured.

Despite the things it suits the employer groups to claim, the reward held out to workers for at least the past 50 years has never been that their real wages should rise in line with their own industry’s productivity.

For reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone who understands how markets work, it’s never been promised that, say, carpenters who work in mining or farming should have rates of pay hugely higher than those who work in the building industry, while the real wages of carpenters working in general government should never have changed over the decades because their (measured) productivity has never changed.

It’s an absurd notion that could work only if we could enforce a rule that no one could ever change jobs in search of a pay rise.

No, as someone somewhere in the Productivity Commission should know, the promise held out to the nation’s employees has always been that economy-wide average real wages should and will rise in line with the trend economy-wide average improvement in the productivity of labour.

When you exclude the two industries that contribute most to the nation’s productivity improvement, it’s hardly surprising that what’s left is so small you can claim it wasn’t much bigger than the growth in most workers’ real wages.

Then you tell the punters that, over 27 years, they are less than 1 percentage point behind – a mere $3000 – where they were assured they would be.

The report finds – but plays down – that the national average real wage fell behind the national average rate of productivity improvement by an average of 0.6 percentage points a year – for 27 years.

That’s if you measure wages from the boss’s point of view (which is economic orthodoxy) rather than the wage-earner’s point of view. But I can’t remember hearing that fine print explained in the thousands of times I’ve heard heavies telling people that productivity improvement automatically flows through to real wages.

View wages from the consumer’s perspective, however, and the national average shortfall increases to 0.8 percentage points a year. And nor did anyone ever tell the punters that it may take up to 27 years for their money to arrive.

You guys have got to be kidding.

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Monday, August 28, 2023

How to make sense of Treasury's latest intergenerational report

Our sixth intergenerational report envisages an Australia of fewer young people and more elderly, with slower improvement in living standards, climate change causing economic and social upheaval, aged and disability care becoming our fastest-growing industry, and home ownership declining, while we spend more defending ourselves from the threat of a rising China, real or imagined.

That does sound like fun, but remember this: just as I hope many of the predictions I make will be self-defeating prophecies – because people act to ensure they don’t happen – so it is with Treasury’s regular intergenerational reports.

They say, here’s the pencil sketch of the next four decades that we get when we assume present economic and demographic trends keep rolling on for 40 years, and that present government policies are never changed.

Get it? Intergenerational reports are Treasury’s memo to the government of the day, saying things will have to change. The memo to you and me says: you may hate change, but unless you let our political masters make changes, this is how crappy life may become.

Every intergenerational report comes to the same bottom line: if you think you won’t be paying more tax in future you must have rocks in your head.

The media can’t stop themselves from referring to the report’s findings as “forecasts”. Nonsense. Forecasts purport to tell you what will happen. These reports are “projections”: if we make a host of key assumptions about what will happen, plug them in the machine and turn the handle 40 times, this is what comes out.

Remembering that Treasury demonstrates almost annually its inability to forecast in late April what its own budget balance will be in just two months’ time, June 30, let’s not imagine that anything it tells us today about 2063 could prove close to the truth, except by chance.

This is no attack on Treasury. No one’s forecasts are less wrong than theirs. It’s just saying don’t let the false confidence of the economics profession fool you. Only God knows what the world will look like in 2063 – and she’s not telling.

We’re all peering through a glass darkly, doing the best we can to guess what’s coming around the corner. How many pandemics in the next 40 years? Treasury’s best guess: none. How many global financial crises? Best guess: none.

We know from experience that the economy rarely moves in straight lines for long, but the nature of Treasury’s mechanical projections is that most curves stay straight for 40 years. Unexpected things are bound to happen. Some will knock us off course only briefly; some may change our direction forever. Some will be bad; some will be good.

The report’s single most important assumption is the rate at which the productivity of labour will improve. Until now, Treasury has avoided argument by assuming that the average rate of improvement over the next 40 years will be its rate over past 30 years.

The first report in 2002 assumed a rate of 1.75 per cent, but in later reports it was cut to 1.5 per cent. Now it’s been cut to the seemingly less unrealistic 20-year average of 1.2 per cent.

This shift makes a big difference. The first report had living standards – measured as real gross domestic product per person – climbing 90 per cent in 40 years. This report has them climbing by only 57 per cent in the next 40.

Since this is only the second of the six intergenerational reports produced under a Labor government, it’s only the second that takes climate change seriously. The other four looked into the coming 40 years and didn’t see any consequences of climate change worth taking into account.

Labor’s first report, in 2010, had a lot to say about climate change, but this report attempts to measure its effect on the economy and the budget. It estimates that climate change will cause the level of real GDP in 2063 to be between $135 billion and $423 billion less than it would overwise have been, in today’s dollars.

The report’s title has always been a misnomer. If it lived up to its name, it would deal with the intergenerational transfer of income and wealth from the young to the old – an issue that deserves much more attention than it gets.

It would talk about the way our treatment of housing favours the elderly, and how the tax, spending and superannuation decisions of the Howard government, in particular, shifted income from the young to the old.

But no. The real reason it’s called the intergenerational report is that its main purpose is to bang on about the huge effect the ageing of the population – the rise in the population’s average age – will have on the federal budget (while ignoring any effects on the states’ budgets).

It’s here, however, that Rafal Chomik, of the ACR Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research at the University of NSW, has noted this overhyped story being toned down over the six reports. In 2002, the first report projected that, by 2023, the share of the population aged 65 and over would climb from 12.5 per cent to nearly 19 per cent.

Actually, it’s only up to 17.3 per cent. And the projection for 2063 is 23.4 per cent, less than the 24.5 per cent originally projected for 2042.

Another factor on which the report was too pessimistic at the start is the effect of ageing on participation in the labour force (by having a job or actively seeking one). Whereas it was expected to dive as the Baby Boomers retired, it’s now expected just to glide down.

Participation actually reached a record high of 66.6 per cent this year – who knew our response to a pandemic would return us to full employment for the first time in 50 years? – and is now projected to have fallen only to 63.8 per cent by 2063. If so, that would be higher than it was in 2002.

Chomik says the first report projected government spending on health care to reach more than 8 per cent of GDP by 2042. Now it’s projected to reach just 6.2 per cent by 2063. But, thanks to the royal commission, the cost of aged care is now expected to grow faster, to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2063.

Which brings us to Treasury’s bottom line, the federal budget. Treasury projects that, as a percentage of GDP, the budget deficit will decline steadily until 2049, before ageing causes it to start heading back up.

Note, however, that while government spending is projected to rise by almost 4 per cent of GDP, tax collections are assumed, as always, to be unchanged.

Get the (unchanged) commercial message from Treasury? Taxes will have to rise.

Read more >>

Friday, August 25, 2023

Albanese's big chance to improve inflation, productivity and wages

Are Anthony Albanese and his ministers a bunch of nice guys lacking the grit to do much about their good intentions? Maybe. But this week’s announcement of a review of competition policy raises hope that the nice guys intend to make real improvements.

The review, which will provide continuous advice to the government over the next two years, has been set up because “greater competition [between Australia’s businesses] is critical for lifting dynamism, productivity and wages growth [and] putting downward pressure on prices”, Treasurer Jim Chalmers says.

As I wrote on Monday, the great weakness in our efforts to reduce high inflation has been our assumption that its causes are purely macroeconomic – aggregate demand versus aggregate supply – with no role for microeconomics: whether businesses in particular industries have gained the power to push their prices higher than needed to cover their increased costs.

But it seems Chalmers understands that. “Australia’s productivity growth has slowed over the past decade, and reduced competition has contributed to this – with evidence of increased market concentration [fewer businesses coming to dominate an industry], a rise in markups [profit margins] and a reduction in dynamism [ability to change and improve] across many parts of the economy,” he says.

The former boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, had some pertinent comments to make about all this at a private business function last week.

He observes that “companies worked out long ago that the essence of corporate strategy is to gain market power and erect entry barriers. Profits from ‘outrunning’ many competitors from a common starting point are generally small; profits from gaining market power are usually large.

“Businesspeople know that when the number of competitors gets too large, price competition is often the result, and that this ‘destroys shareholder value’ or, alternatively put, helps consumers.”

Sims says the goals of growing and sharing the economic pie are being damaged in Western economies, and in Australia, by inadequate competition leading to market power. But, aside from the specialists, the economics profession more broadly has been slow to realise this and factor it into policy responses.

Australia has an extremely concentrated economy, Sims says. We have one dominant rail freight company operating on the east coast, one dominant airline with two-thirds of the market, two beer companies, two ice-cream sellers and two ticketing companies, all with a 90 per cent share of their markets.

We have two supermarkets with a combined market share of about 70 per cent. We have three dominant energy retailers and three dominant telecommunications companies. We have four major banks, with a 75 per cent share of the home mortgage market.

This is much greater concentration than in other developed countries. And, as you’d expect, the profit margins of these companies generally exceed those of comparable companies overseas.

The centuries that businesses have spent pursuing economies of scale explain why we don’t have – and shouldn’t want - the huge number of small firms assumed by the economic theory burnt on the brains of most economists.

But, Sims argues, our relatively small population doesn’t justify the much greater concentration of our industries. For one thing, studies of Australian industry sectors show that the returns to scale stop increasing well before market shares are anything like as high as they are in Australia.

For another, Australia’s modest size doesn’t explain why our industries are getting ever more concentrated, so that our key players are less likely to be challenged by competitors.

And it’s not just our high concentration, it’s also that we see large asset-managing institutions with big shareholdings in most of the firms dominating an industry. Thus, asset managers have an interest in keeping the whole industry’s profits high by limiting price competition between the companies.

One study, of 70,000 firms in 134 countries, found that the average prices charged by our listed companies were 40 per cent above the companies’ marginal cost of production in 1980, and about the same in the late 1990s. But by the early 2000s, average prices were 40 per cent above marginal cost. By 2010, they’d risen to 50 per cent above, and by 2016 it was nearly 60 per cent.

Analysis by federal Treasury has found that our companies’ markups increased over the 13 years to 2017.

The evidence in Australia and overseas is that in concentrated industries we see less dynamism, lower investment and lower productivity, Sims says. Our productivity performance has been very poor at a time when our focus on pro-competition public policy appears to have been lost.

It’s not hard to believe that the latter explains the former. “We run harder when competing versus when we run alone,” Sims says.

Our Treasury’s research also shows that firms in concentrated markets are further from the productivity frontier as there’s less incentive to keep up.

And market concentration also has implications for wage levels. Where labour mobility – the ease with which people move between employers – is reduced, wage levels are lower.

But high industry concentration means fewer firms that workers can move to, bringing relevant skills, and fewer new firms entering the industry. Less competition for workers means lower wages.

“Non-compete clauses” make the problem worse. Recent Australian studies have shown that more than one in five employees are prevented from working for competitors under such contract terms, often even in fairly low-skilled jobs.

Another finding is that the benefits of improved productivity are less shared with workers in concentrated industries. The share of productivity gains going to workers has declined by 25 per cent in the last 15 years, Sims says.

So next time some business person, politician, Reserve Bank governor or other economists tells you higher productivity automatically increases everyone’s wage, don’t fall for it. Used to be true; isn’t any more.

All this says that if the Albanese government is fair dinkum about getting inflation down and productivity and wages up, it will at least ban non-compete clauses and tighten up our merger laws.

Read more >>

Friday, August 4, 2023

NSW Treasury's new realism: productivity won't be speeding up

Have you noticed how people keep banging on about “productivity” these days? That’s because it’s the secret sauce of economics, the bit that comes closest to giving us a free lunch. But also because we haven’t actually been getting much of it lately.

Unfortunately, that’s made productivity a happy hunting ground for bulldust propositions. So let’s spell out exactly what productivity is.

A business – or a whole economy – improves its productivity when it finds ways to produce more outputs of goods and services with the same inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital.

Sounds a great idea, but how is it possible? Short answer: advances in technology. Workers become more productive when they’re given tools and machines to work with. Many improvements in technology are designed to make workers more productive.

Better education and training make workers more productive by increasing their “human capital”. Even finding better ways to organise factories and offices can improve productivity. So can be teaching bosses better ways to jolly along their troops.

In my writing about the topic, I always focus on the simplest and least inaccurate way of measuring productivity. The productivity of labour is just output per worker or, better, output per hour worked.

Another approach would be to measure the productivity of the other main “factor of production”, capital equipment and constructions: output per unit of capital employed.

But economists often prefer to focus on “total-factor productivity” (or “multifactor productivity” as the statisticians prefer to call it): the growth in output (gross domestic product) that can’t be explained by increased use of labour and capital.

Economists have discovered that most of the improvement in people’s material standard of living over the years and centuries has come from improvement in total-factor productivity. This is why economists seem so obsessed by it. Keep productivity improving and we get wealthier.

But, as you see, total-factor productivity can’t be measured directly. It’s measured as a residual – what’s left when you take GDP and subtract two different things – which increases the chance your measurement is wrong.

And the truth is, economists don’t know as much about what causes productivity improvement as they ought to. That’s why they’ve spent the past decade debating the reasons that productivity growth has slowed significantly in all the advanced economies, not just Australia.

Theories abound, but there’s no agreement. And while we’re hearing plenty of tub-thumping sermons from business people (and central bankers) with their own axes to grind, there’s no agreement on what we should be doing apart from blaming the government and demanding it do something.

But last year, Professor Thomas Philippon of New York University wrote a working paper that offered a quite different explanation for the weak productivity growth we’ve been experiencing.

Conventional economic theory assumes that total-factor productivity grows “exponentially”, but Philippon has examined America’s productivity figures since 1947 – and done the same for a large group of other advanced economies – and found the growth has merely been “linear”.

Huh? Try this. If you have $100 growing 2 per cent each year, that’s exponential. If instead it just grows by $2 a year, that’s linear. Exponential growth is a fixed percentage rate; linear growth is a fixed absolute amount. The first $2 is 2 per cent of $100, but over the years the percentage rate of growth slowly declines.

So Philippon is saying we’ve been expecting productivity to grow at a much faster percentage rate than we should have been. Because its growth is “additive” rather than “multiplicative”, its annual percentage growth is declining.

The assumption that productivity improvement is exponential implies that innovation today makes further discoveries easier in the future. Philippon, however, finds that new ideas add to our stock of knowledge, but they don’t multiply it.

In the NSW Treasury’s new research paper, Trends in productivity: What should we expect, Keaton Jenner and Angus Wheeler have replicated Philippon’s exercise for Australia, getting similar results.

Whereas the standard exponential model implies that total-factor productivity should have grown at the annual rate of 1.7 per cent between 1983 and 2019, they find this significantly overshoots actual productivity growth.

But the new, additive model implies that productivity increases by 0.024 points per year, with an annual growth rate that tapers down from 1.25 per cent in 1984 to 0.9 per cent in 2019.

So, Philippon’s additive model yields what would have been a much more accurate – though still slightly optimistic – forecast.

This suggests that, without some major new “general-purpose” technological advance (such as the spread of electricity, or the internal-combustion engine), the model predicts that total-factor productivity growth will slowly fall to zero per cent.

But this doesn’t mean living standards wouldn’t continue to improve. Because living standards are powered by the productivity of labour, the authors find, they would grow by increasingly larger absolute amounts, but not at a steady, exponential rate of growth.

In the NSW government’s intergenerational report in 2021, productivity projections were based on the historical 30-year average exponential rate of 1.2 per cent a year. Other assumptions meant that real gross state product was projected to grow at an average rate of 2.2 per cent a year out to 2041.

The authors repeat this exercise using an additive productivity model and find that annual growth in labour productivity declines from 1 per cent to 0.8 per cent over the 20 years to 2041. This means an average annual rate of growth in real gross state product of 1.9 per cent – 0.3 percentage points lower that projected in the 2021 report.

The authors point out that, if realised, the NSW economy would be about 7 percentage points smaller in 2041 than was projected in the report two years’ ago. This, in turn, would have “material implications” for the government’s revenue base and budget balance, assuming no offsetting reduction in government spending.

It will be interesting to see if Victoria and the other state governments recalibrate their projections using this new, more pessimistic – but more realistic – view of the future.

Read more >>

Friday, March 31, 2023

Our days of productivity improvement may be gone for good

The Productivity Commission’s five-yearly report on our productivity performance seems to have sunk like a stone but, before it disappears without trace, it has one important thing to tell us: the obvious reason productivity improvement has slowed, and why, ceteris paribus, it will probably stay slow.

Economists like trying to impress people with Latin phrases. Many conclusions in economics depend on the assumption of ceteris paribus – all other things remaining unchanged. Economists are always holding all other variables constant while they see what effect a change in variable A has on variable B.

Trouble is, in the real world, all else almost never stays unchanged. In which case, the relationship between A and B that you thought you could rely on has been stuffed up by some other variable or variables between C and Z.

Back to the point. Everyone thinks they know what productivity means, but they often don’t. The commission’s report says productivity improvement is “the process by which people get more from less: more and better products to meet human needs, produced with fewer hours of work and fewer resources”.

“In many cases this growth occurs with lighter environmental impact” – a truth many scientists just can’t seem to get their heads around.

The report says that over the past 20 years, the rate of improvement in productivity has slowed in all the rich countries, but with Australia slowing more than most.

Why? Many reasons, no doubt, but one big one that ought to have been obvious, since the American economist William Baumol noticed it in the 1960s.

The fact is that most improvements in the productivity of labour come from advances in technology. You give workers better, “labour-saving” machines to work with, which allow them to produce more in a typical hour of work.

(The other big one is giving workers more education and training, which allows them to work more complicated machines – including computers and software – design more complicated machines and programs, and service complex machines.)

Trouble is, it’s easier to improve productivity in some industries than others. In particular, industries that produce goods – on farms, in mines and in factories – can, and have, hugely increase their productivity by mechanising and computerising. Same in utilities, transport and communications.

In the production of services, however, it’s much harder. Although some services can be delivered digitally – streaming video, say – with little involvement by workers, most services are delivered by people, from less-skilled services delivered by waiters, cleaners, bedmakers and shop assistants, to highly skilled teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and prime ministers.

You can give these workers a car or a mobile or a screen, or give a hairdresser a better pair of clippers, but there’s not a lot you can do to speed them up. As Baumol famously remarked, it takes an orchestra just as long to play a symphony today as it did in 1960 – or 1860.

After two centuries of playing this game, we’ve ended up with goods industries that are highly “capital-intensive” – lots of expensive equipment; not many workers – and service industries that are highly “labour-intensive”: many workers; not much equipment.

Which means the productivity of labour is sky-high in the goods sector, but not great in the services sector.

But here’s the trick. You might expect that wages will be much higher in the high-productivity goods sector and much lower in the low-productivity services sector. But no. Wage rates do vary according to the degree of skill a worker possesses, and on the demand for that particular skill.

But a cleaner in a factory gets paid pretty much the same as a cleaner in a lawyers’ office. And a doctor gets much the same working in a big factory’s clinic as in a hospital.

Why’s that? Because, if an economy is working properly (which ours isn’t at present), it’s the economy-wide improvement in productivity that tends to increase all real wages by about the same percentage.

This is brought about by market forces. Despite their low productivity, employers in the services sector have to pay higher wages to stop their workers moving to higher-paying jobs in the goods sector.

Remember too, that over time, mass production lowers the prices of manufactured goods. That’s particularly true if you judge it by how many hours of labour it costs to buy, say, a car or a restaurant meal.

What we’re saying is that, in rich, high-productivity economies such as ours, labour is the more expensive resource, and capital the less expensive resource.

It’s also true that there’s a limit to how much you can eat, how many cars you can drive and how many TV sets you can watch, but no yet-discovered limit to how many services you can pay other people to perform for you.

Put all that together and the goods sector’s share of the economy keeps getting smaller, while the services sector’s grows – to 80 per cent of the economy (gross domestic product) and 90 per cent of total employment.

But it also means that the sector which has little ability to improve the productivity of its labour also has to keep paying more for its labour as the goods sector increases the productivity of its labour.

Gosh, that’s not nice. No, which is why Baumol said that the services sector suffers from “cost disease”. And the services sector’s huge and growing share of the economy explains why productivity in the economy overall is improving more slowly than it used to.

But it could become even worse. If, as it seems, the goods sector has finally exploited almost all its potential to become more productive, and there’s not a lot of obvious scope to improve the services sector’s productiveness, it’s hard to see how we’ll get much more productivity-driven growth in the economy.

What a dismal prospect. Talk about the problems of affluence. You know, I don’t think the world’s poor have any idea how hard life will become for us.

Read more >>

Friday, March 24, 2023

Much prosperity comes from government and the taxes it imposes

The Productivity Commission’s job is to make us care about the main driver of economic growth: productivity improvement. Its latest advertising campaign certainly makes it sound terrific. But ads can be misleading. And productivity isn’t improving as quickly as it used to. We’re told this is a very bad thing, but I’m not so sure.

The commission’s latest report on our productivity performance, “Advancing Prosperity”, offers a neat explanation of what productivity is: the rise in real gross domestic product per hour worked. So it’s a measure of the efficiency with which our businesses and government agencies transform labour, physical capital and raw materials into the goods and services we consume.

The economy – GDP – can grow because the population grows, with all the extra people increasing the consumption of goods and services, and most of them working to increase the production of goods and services.

It also grows when we invest in more housing, business machinery and construction, and public infrastructure. But, over time, most growth comes from productivity improvement: the increased efficiency with which we deploy our workers – increasing their education and training, giving them better machines to work with, and organising factories and offices more efficiently.

Here’s the ad for productivity improvement. “There has been a vast improvement in average human wellbeing over the last 200 years: measured in longer lives, diseases cured, improved mobility [transport and travel], safer jobs, instant communication and countless improvements to comfort, leisure and convenience.”

That’s all true. And it’s been a wonderful thing, leaving us hugely better off. But here’s another thing: neither GDP nor GDP per hour worked directly measures any of those wonderful outcomes. What GDP measures is how much we spent on – and how much income people earned from – doctors, hospitals and medicines, good water and sewerage, cars, trucks and planes, occupational health and safety, telecommunications, computers, the internet, and all the rest.

The ad man’s 200 years is a reference to all the growth in economic activity we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution. We’re asked to believe that all the economic growth and improved productivity over that time caused all those benefits to happen.

Well, yes, I suppose so. But right now, the commission’s asking us to accept that our present and future rate of growth in GDP and GDP per hour worked will pretty directly affect how much more of those desirable outcomes we get.

That’s quite a logical leap. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe the growth and greater efficiency will lead to more medical breakthroughs, longer lives, cheaper travel etc, or maybe it will lead to more addiction to drugs and gambling, more fast food and obesity, more kids playing computer games instead of reading books, more time wasted in commuting on overcrowded highways, more stress and anxiety, and more money spent on armaments and fighting wars.

Or, here’s a thought: maybe further economic growth will lead to more destruction of the natural environment, more species extinction and more global warming.

Get it? It doesn’t follow automatically that more growth and efficiency lead to more good things rather than more bad things. It’s not so much growth and efficiency that make our lives better, it’s how we get the growth, the costs that come with the growth, and what we use the growth to buy.

Trouble is, apart from extolling growth and efficiency, the Productivity Commission has little to say about how we ensure that growth leaves us better off, not worse off.

Economics is about means, not ends. How to be more efficient in getting what we want. The neoclassical ideology – where ideology means your beliefs about how the world works and how it should work – says that what we want is no business of economists, or of governments. What we want should be left to the personal preferences of consumers.

The Productivity Commission has long championed neoclassical ideology. It wants to minimise the role of government and maximise the role of the private sector.

It would like to reduce the extent to which governments intervene in markets and regulate what businesses can and can’t do. It has led the way in urging governments to outsource the provision of “human services” such as childcare, aged care and disability care to private, for-profit providers.

It wants to keep government small and taxes low to maximise the amount of their income that households are free to spend as they see fit, not as the government sees fit.

Fine. But get this: in that list of all the wonderful things that economic growth has brought us, governments played a huge part in either bringing them about or encouraging private firms to.

We live longer, healthier lives because governments spent a fortune on ensuring cities were adequately sewered and had clean water, then paid for hospitals, subsidised doctors and medicines, paid for university medical research and encouraged private development of pharmaceuticals by granting patents and other intellectual property rights to drug companies.

Governments regulated to reduce road deaths. They improved our mobility by building roads, public transport, ports and airports. Very little of that would have been done if just left to private businesses.

Jobs are safer because governments imposed occupational health and safety standards on protesting businesses. The internet, with all its benefits, was first developed by the US military for its own needs.

The commission says that when we improve our productivity, we can choose whether to take the proceeds as higher income or shorter working hours.

In theory, yes. In practice, all the reductions in the working week we’ve seen over the past century have happened because governments imposed them on highly reluctant employers. Ditto annual leave and long-service leave.

I don’t share the commission’s worry that productivity improvement may stay slow. It won’t matter if we do more to produce good things and fewer bad things. But that, of course, would require more government intervention in the economy, not less.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Most of us don't really want to be rich, for better or worse

When it comes to economics, the central question to ask yourself is this: do you sincerely want to be rich? Those with long memories – or Google – know this was the come-on used by the notorious American promoter of pyramid schemes, Bernie Cornfeld. But that doesn’t stop it being the right question.

It’s actually a trick question. Most of us would like to be rich if the riches were delivered to us on a plate. If we won the lottery, or were left a fortune by a rich ancestor we didn’t know we had.

But that’s not the question. It’s do you sincerely want to be rich. It ain’t easy to become rich by your own efforts, so are you prepared to pay the price it would take? Work night and day, ignore your family and friends, spend very little of what you earn, so it can be re-invested? Come unstuck a few times until you make it big? Put it that way and most of us don’t sincerely want to be rich. We’re not that self-disciplined and/or greedy.

The question arises because the Productivity Commission’s five-yearly report on our productivity performance has found that, as a nation, we haven’t got much richer over the past decade – where rich means our production and consumption of goods and services.

When business people, politicians and economists bang on about increasing the economy’s growth, they’re mainly talking about improving the productivity – productiveness – of our paid labour.

The economy – alias gross domestic product – grows because we’ve produced more goods and services than last year. Scientists think this happens because we’ve ripped more resources out of the ground and damaged the environment in the process.

There is some of that (and it has to stop), but what scientists can never get is that the main reason our production grows over the years is that we find ways to get more production from the average hour of work.

We do this by increasing the education and training of our workers, giving them better machines to work with, and improving the way our businesses organise their work.

But the commission finds that our rate of productivity improvement over the past decade has been the slowest in 60 years. It projects that, if it stays this far below our 60-year average, our future incomes will be 40 per cent below what they could have been, and the working week will be 5 per cent longer.

It provides 1000 pages of suggestions on how state and federal governments can make often-controversial changes that would lift our game and make our incomes grow more strongly.

So, this is the nation’s do-you-sincerely-want-to-be-rich moment. And my guess is our collective answer will be yeah, nah. Why? For good reasons and bad. Let’s start with the negative.

If you think of the nation’s income as a pie, there are two ways for an individual to get more to eat. One is to battle everyone else for a bigger slice. The other is to co-operate with everyone to effect changes that would make the pie – and each slice - bigger.

For the past 40 years of “neoliberalism”, which has focused on the individual and sanctified selfishness, we’ve preferred to battle rather than co-operate.

Our top executives have increased their own remuneration by keeping the lid on their fellow employees’ wages. Governments have set a bad example by imposing unreasonably low wage caps.

Then they wonder why their union won’t co-operate with their efforts to improve how the outfit’s run. Workers fear there’ll be nothing in it for them.

It’s the same with politics. Governments won’t make controversial changes because they know the opposition will take advantage and run a scare campaign.

But there are also good reasons why we’re unlikely to jump to action in response to the commission’s warning. The first is that economists focus on the material dimension of our lives: our ability to consume ever more goods and services.

We’re already rich – why do we need to be even richer? There’s more to life than money, and if we gave getting richer top priority, there’s a big risk those other dimensions would suffer.

Would a faster growing economy tempt us to spend less time enjoying our personal relationships? How would that leave us better off overall (to coin a phrase)?

How much do we know about whether the pace of economic life is adding to stress, anxiety and even worse mental troubles?

If we did go along with the changes the commission proposes, what guarantee is there that most of the increased income wouldn’t go to the bosses (and those terrible people with more than $3 million in superannuation)?

What we do know is that we should be giving top priority to reducing the damage economic activity is doing to the natural environment, including changing the climate. If that costs us a bit in income or productivity, it’s a price worth paying.

And there are various ways we could improve our lives even if our income stopped growing. Inquire into them.

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Monday, March 20, 2023

Handle with care: Productivity Commission's advice on getting richer

If you accept the Productivity Commission’s assumption that getting richer – “advancing prosperity” – is pretty much the only thing that matters, then the five priority areas it nominates in its five-yearly review of our productivity performance make a lot of sense.

But when you examine the things it says we should do to fix those five areas, you find too much of its same old, same old, preference for neoclassical ideology over empirical evidence.

And you find no acknowledgement that part of our claimed failure to improve the productivity of the “government-funded non-market services sector” has occurred because, over recent decades, governments have acted on the commission’s advice to keep the public sector small and taxes low by outsourcing the provision of human services to profit-motivated businesses.

Which, if anything, has made matters worse rather than better. As witness: the mess we’ve made of aged care and vocational education and training, and the ever-growing cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The report is quick to explain that improving productivity does not mean getting people to work harder. Perfectly true. It’s supposed to mean making workers more productive by giving them better training and better machines to work with.

Except that when you see the commission recommending a move to “modern, fit-for-purpose labour market regulation” – including, no doubt, getting rid of weekend penalty pay rates – you realise the commission has learnt nothing from the failure of John Howard’s Work Choices, nor from the failure of the reduction in Sunday penalty payments to lead to any increase in weekend employment, as had been confidently predicted.

So, what the commission is really advocating is that the balance of power in wage bargaining be shifted further in favour of employers and away from workers and their unions. Which probably would lead to people working harder for little or no increase in pay.

What the commission should have said, but didn’t, is that workers would be more co-operative with bosses’ efforts to improve the productivity of their firms if they were more confident they’d get their fair share of the benefits.

At present, they have good reason to doubt that they would.

What’s conspicuously absent from all the bemoaning of the slowdown in our rate of productivity improvement, is any acknowledgement that there’s also been a huge fall in the rate of the flow-through to real wages of what improvement we are achieving.

Until that’s fixed – until the capitalist system goes back to keeping its promise that the workers will get their fair share of the benefits of capitalism – Australia’s households have no rational reason to give a stuff about what’s happening to productivity.

Back to the point. Productivity improves when you produce the same things with fewer inputs of labour or capital, or produce more – either more quantity or better quality – with the same inputs.

And the report is exactly right to say that steadily improving our productivity is the key to improving the nation’s material standard of living. The rich world has more than two centuries of proof of that truth.

The first of the report’s five priority areas is achieving a “highly skilled and adaptable workforce”. Dead right. This is economics 101. Economists have known for yonks that investing in “human capital” is the obvious way to increase productivity.

(And it’s the better-educated and trained workers who can most easily adapt to the changing demand for labour that the digital revolution and other technological advance will bring.)

But the commission long ago stopped pointing this out, while state and federal governments put their efforts into quite different objectives. The Howard government, for instance, spent hugely on expanding parents’ choice of private school.

“I’m a Callithumpian, and I’d like to send my kid to a Callithumpian school, where they won’t have to mix with sinners.” Next, we had the limited success of the Gonski-inspired push to fund schools based on student need rather than entrenched privilege and religion.

And then we wonder why school results have got worse and so many kids leave school with inadequate numeracy and literacy. How they’ll be advancing our prosperity in an ever-changing world I hate to think.

Which raises a recent “learning” by economists, that doesn’t seem to have reached the commission: if you ignore what your “reforms” are doing to the distribution of income between the top and the bottom, don’t be surprised if your productivity goes off.

For some inexplicable reason, growth in the number of the downtrodden makes the average look worse.

Meanwhile, with universities, the highest priority of successive federal governments – Labor and Liberal – over the past 30 years has just been to get them off the budget.

The feds have made them hugely dependent on attracting overseas students and charging them full freight. One way they’ve coped is by making university teaching by the younger staff part of the gig economy.

Apart from putting the public unis (but not the few private unis) on a starvation diet during the lockdowns, the Morrison government’s last effort to punish what it saw as a hotbed of socialism was a hare-brained scheme to encourage students to choose courses that made them “job-ready” by, among other things, doubling the tuition fees for a BA.

Fortunately, this failed to discourage the students, but did make the humanities a far more profitable product for the unis to push.

To be fair, another recent “learning” does seem to have got through to the commission. It’s third priority for attention is “creating a more dynamic and competitive economy”.

Research by Treasury has found strong empirical evidence that our economy has become less dynamic – less able to change and improve over time. Fewer new firms are being created, and fewer workers are being induced to change their jobs pursuing higher pay.

Our industries have become more oligopolised – allowed by our permissive takeover laws - and, not surprisingly, their profit margins (“markups,” in econospeak) have been creeping up.

No official will admit it, but it seems pretty clear that the reason the Reserve Bank has been raising interest rates so far and so fast – despite falling real wages – is the part that oligopolistic pricing power is playing in our high inflation rate.

And now further Treasury research has confirmed that our high degree of industry concentration (markets dominated by a few huge firms) has given employers greater power to limit the rise in wages.

All this makes it unsurprising that our rate of productivity improvement has weakened. It also helps explain why, over the past decade, virtually none of what improvement in the productivity of labour we have achieved has been passed on to real wages.

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Friday, September 9, 2022

Consumers and Russians keep the economy roaring - but it can't last

They say never judge a book by its cover. Seems the same goes for GDP. This week’s figures showed super-strong growth in the three months to the end of June. But look under the bonnet and you find the economy’s engine was firing on only two cylinders.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts”, real gross domestic product – the economy’s production of goods and services – grew by 0.9 per cent in the June quarter, and by 3.6 per cent over the year to June.

If that doesn’t impress you, it should. Over the past decade, growth has averaged only 2.3 per cent a year.

The main thing driving that growth was consumer spending. It grew by 2.2 per cent in the quarter and by 6 per cent over the year, as the nation’s households – previously cashed up by government handouts, and by most people keeping their jobs and others finding one, but prevented from spending the cash by intermittent lockdowns and closed state and national borders – kept desperately trying to catch up with all they’d been missing.

The other big contribution to growth during the quarter came from a 5.5 per cent jump in the “volume” (quantity) of our exports. Most of the credit for this goes to that wonderful man Vladimir Putin, whose bloody invasion of Ukraine has greatly disrupted world fossil fuel markets, thus greatly increasing our sales of coal and gas.

(It has also greatly increased the world prices of coal and gas and grains, causing our “terms of trade” – the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports – to improve by 4.6 per cent during the quarter, to an all-time high.)

But that’s where the good news stops. The other cylinders driving the economy’s engine have been on the blink. A marked slowdown in the rate at which businesses were building up their inventories of raw materials and finished goods led to a sharp slowdown in goods production.

Government spending took a breather, and an increase in business investment in new plant and equipment was offset by a fall in business investment in buildings and other construction.

And then there’s what happened to home building. Despite a big pipeline of homes waiting to be built, building activity actually declined by 2.9 per cent in the quarter and 4.6 per cent over the year.

Huh? How could that happen? Well, the builders say they couldn’t find enough building materials and tradies. Which hasn’t stopped them using the opportunity to whack up their prices. (I believe this is called “capitalism”.)

So, while we listen to lectures from the economic managers about the evil of inflation and how it leaves them with no choice but to slow everything down by jacking up interest rates, let’s not forget that the big jump in the cost of new homes and renovations has been caused by... them.

They’re the ones who, at the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns, decided it would be a great idea to rev up the housing industry, by offering incentives to people buying new houses, and by cutting the official interest rate to near zero. Well done, guys.

Speaking of higher interest rates being used to slow down the growth in demand for goods and services, the first two of the five rises we’ve had so far would have had little influence on what happened in the economy over the three months to June.

But don’t worry, they’ll have their expected effect in due course. Which is the first reason the strong, consumer-led growth we saw last quarter won’t last, even if we see more of it in the present quarter.

Another reason is that households are running on what a cook would call stored heat. During the first, national lockdown, the proportion of household disposable (after-tax) income that we saved rather than spent leapt to almost 24 per cent.

We’ve been cutting our rate of saving since then, and it’s now down to 8.7 per cent. This isn’t a lot higher than it was before the pandemic. And with the gathering fall in house prices making people feel less wealthy, it wouldn’t surprise me to see people feeling they shouldn’t cut their rate of saving too much further.

And that, of course, is before we get to the other great source of pressure on households’ budgets: consumer prices are rising faster than workers’ wages. This no doubt explains why our households’ real disposable income has actually fallen for three quarters in a row.

With businesses putting up their prices, but not adequately compensating their workers for the higher cost of living, it’s not surprising so many people are taking more interest in what the national accounts tell us about how the nation’s income is being divided between capital and labour, profits and wages.

ACTU boss Sally McManus complains that workers now have the lowest share of GDP on record. It follows that the profits share of national income is the highest on record.

What doesn’t follow, however, is that any increase in profits must have come at the expense of workers and their wages. Profits are up this quarter mainly because, as we’ve seen, our miners’ export prices are way up, and so are their profits.

No, the better way to judge whether workers are getting their fair share is to look at what’s happened to “real unit labour costs” – employers’ labour costs, after allowing for inflation and the productivity of labour (that’s the per-unit bit).

Turns out that, since the end of 2019, employers’ real unit labour costs have fallen by 8.5 per cent. If workers were getting their fair share, this would have been little changed.

Short-changing households in this way is not how you keep consumer spending – and businesses’ turnover – ever onward and upward.

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Monday, August 29, 2022

Jobs summit: shut up those playing the productivity three-card trick

Anthony Albanese and his ministers are keen to ensure this week’s jobs and skills summit doesn’t degenerate into the talk fest the opposition is predicting it will be. Well, one way to avoid much hot air is to shut up people playing the usual three-card trick on productivity.

The truth is there’s a lot of muddled and dishonest talk about the relationship between wages and productivity. Much of this comes from the employer lobby groups, which will spout any pseudo-economic nonsense that suits their goal of keeping wage growth as low as possible.

But they get too much comfort from econocrats who think that if you know what economics 101 teaches about how demand and supply interact, you know all you need to know about how all markets work, including the labour market.

As former top econocrat Dr Michael Keating, an economist specialising in the labour market, has explained, “the authorities’ model, which assumes perfect competition, constant returns to scale and neutral technological progress, implies that real wages can be expected to grow at the same rate as [labour] productivity, neither more nor less, making it look as if the collapse in productivity growth explains the collapse in wages growth”.

So when workers complain about the lack of growth in real wages, the employers’ professional apologists reply that real wages haven’t grown because the productivity of labour hasn’t improved. If only the unions would co-operate in efforts to improve productivity, wages would grow, as sure as night follows day.

But the supposed magical mechanism by which productivity improvement flows inexorably to real wages is refuted by the summary statistics quoted in Treasury’s issues paper for the summit. We’re told that, though productivity improvement has slowed, we’ve still achieved growth averaging 1 per cent a year since 2004.

But we’re also told that “real wages have grown by only 0.1 per cent a year over the past decade, and have declined substantially over the past year”. Not much automatic flow-through there.

Which brings us to another thing that’s being fudged in the present debate. You sometimes hear spruikers for the employers implying you need productivity improvement to justify even a rise in nominal wages.

But productivity is a “real” – after-inflation – concept. For the benefit from national productivity improvement to be shared fairly between capital and labour – employers and employees – it has to increase wages over and above inflation.

Here, however, is where we strike another difficulty. There used to be tripartite consensus – business, workers and government – that wages should always keep up with prices. Cuts in real wages were needed only to correct a period where real wage growth had been excessive – that is, exceeding productivity improvement.

Right now, however, the opposite is the case. Real wages were long falling short of what productivity improvement we were achieving before the present surge in prices left wage rates far behind. Even with the labour market so tight, workers simply haven’t had the industrial muscle to achieve wage rises commensurate with the leap in prices.

And now, while businesses show little restraint in passing their higher imported input costs through to higher retail prices, while adding a bit for luck, the great and good – read business and the econocrats – have agreed that the quickest and easiest way to get inflation down is for the nation’s households to pay the price.

A big fall in real wages squares the circle. Business has passed on its costs – and then some – and the economic managers have redeemed their reputations and got the inflation rate falling back. What’s not to like?

Well, we’ve solved the problem by allowing a big cut in real household income. It’s likely businesses will feel adverse effects as households see no choice but to tighten their belts. And I imagine some workers, consumers and voters will be pretty upset, concluding that the economy certainly isn’t being run for their benefit.

In effect, Treasury’s issues paper says forget the present disaster and look to the future. We can get real wages growing again – an election promise - as soon as we get productivity up.

Well, no we can’t. The paper’s claiming that, contrary to the experience of the past decade, improved productivity automatically flows through to real wages. And even if that were true, it assumes workers are innumerate, and won’t know that future real gains in wages must first make up for previous real losses. It’s the productivity three-card trick.

Meanwhile, business and the econocrats’ self-serving expedience, in deciding that the punters should pay for a problem they did nothing to cause, has created the climate for radical reform of the wage-fixing system: a return to industry bargaining.

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