Showing posts with label research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label research. Show all posts

Monday, March 2, 2020

Productivity problem? Start at the bottom, not the top

Whenever we’re told we’re not achieving much improvement in our productivity, a lot of people assume it must be something the government’s done – or more likely, failed to do. Such as? Isn’t it obvious? Failed to cut the tax on companies and high income-earners.

But though the national rate of productivity improvement is merely the sum of the performances of all the industries that make up the economy, no one ever imagines the problem might be something the nation’s businesses have been failing to do.

This, however, is where a lot of research is pointing, as summarised by the Labor shadow minister and former economics professor, Dr Andrew Leigh, in a recent speech. He starts by explaining that productivity measures how efficiently the economy turns labour and capital into goods and services.

"Last year, Treasury’s Megan Quinn revealed that researchers in her department, led by Dan Andrews, had been investing in a new analysis that links together workers and firms, and delving into fresh data about the dynamics of the Australian economy," he says.

"Since 2002, Quinn showed, the most productive Australian firms (the top 5 per cent) had not kept pace with the most productive firms globally. In fact, Australia’s 'productivity frontier' has slipped back by about one-third. The best of 'Made in Australia' hasn’t kept pace with the best of 'Made in Germany', 'Made in the Netherlands' or even 'Made in America'."

And then there’s the other 95 per cent. In the past two decades, their output per hour worked has barely risen. So 19 out of 20 Australian firms don’t produce much more per hour than they did when Sydney hosted the Olympics.

What’s going wrong? "Part of the problem is that many firms aren’t investing in new technologies," Leigh says. "Less than half have invested in data analytics or intelligent software systems. Only three in five have invested in cyber security, making them vulnerable to hacking and ransomware attacks.

"It’s not just that companies aren’t investing simply in technology – they’re not investing in anything at all." In the Productivity Commission’s regular report, it measures how the amount of capital equipment per worker has increased, a process known as "capital deepening".

The commission has had to invent a new term to describe what happened last financial year – "capital shallowing". For the first time ever, the amount of capital per worker went backwards. "Given that capital deepening has accounted for about three-quarters of labour productivity growth, this is frightening," Leigh says. (To which Scott Morrison might well respond: do I look frightened?)

Across the economy, businesses are cutting back on research and development and investing less in good management. Just 8 per cent of our firms say they produce innovations that are new to the world, down from 11 per cent in 2013.

A Productivity Commission study has found that half the slowdown in productivity improvement in the market economy in recent years is accounted for by manufacturing. A separate survey of management practices in manufacturing firms found that Australia’s managers rank below those in Canada, Sweden, Japan, Germany and the US.

Leigh argues that newborn firms are as critical to an economy as newborn babies are to a society’s demography, bringing fresh approaches, shaking up existing industries, and offering new opportunities to workers.

Yet our new-business creation rate isn’t accelerating, it seems to be stopping. Defining new businesses as those that employ at least one worker, Treasury estimates that the new-business formation rate in the early 2000s was 14 per cent a year. Now it’s down to 11 per cent a year.

"Another sign that the economy may be stagnating comes from figures on job-switching," Leigh says. "Workers who switch jobs typically experience a significant pay increase. In the early 2000s the rate of job switching was 11 per cent of employees a year. Now it’s down to 8 per cent. And "Treasury’s analysis finds that a drop of one percentage point in the job-switching rate is associated with a 0.5 percentage point drop in wage growth across the economy".

The drop we’ve experienced is "not the fault of employees: there are simply fewer good opportunities available. According to Treasury’s analysis, much of the drop in job-switching is because workers are less likely to transition from mature firms to young firms. With fewer start-up firms, it stands to reason that there are fewer start-up jobs."

It’s all pretty dismal – and, of course, all the fault of the government. But I know just the reform we need to fix the problem. Morrison should offer chief executives of ASX200 companies a cut in their tax rate, provided they can show they were too busy during the financial year sticking to their knitting to attend any meetings of the Australian Business Council called to discuss lobbying the government for favours.
Read more >>

Monday, January 28, 2019

Give economists a PC and they start making more sense

Economies turn down and back up, but one of the biggest, long-running economic stories of our time is the way the digital revolution is disrupting one industry after another. So let me tell you how it’s changing the academic study of economics.

You probably imagine the economic research carried out in universities is terribly theoretical and impractical. It used to be, but not anymore.

You can trace the progress of academic economics by looking at who’s been awarded the Nobel memorial prize in economic sciences from about 2001 onwards, and what they did to deserve it. Of course, there’s usually a long delay between when you make your seminal contribution and when you get your gong.

Until the turn of the century, the prize usually went to people elaborating on orthodox neo-classical theory, particularly by shifting to mathematical reasoning.

It may surprise you that the man who wrote the most popular introductory textbook of the post-war years, Paul Samuelson, was also the individual who did most to turn economic reasoning from words and diagrams to equations.

The development of the first mathematical “econometric” models of the macro economy was another important advance.

It was about 30 years ago that the frontier of economic research took a more realistic turn by shifting to the study of “imperfect competition”, where the idealised assumptions of the simple neo-classical model of markets were critically examined.

In 2001, for instance, the prize was shared by three American economists – George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz – for their demonstration that, rather than being perfectly shared by everyone in a market, information is usually asymmetric – with sellers knowing more than buyers – and, rather than being costless, is expensive to acquire.

Another example: Paul Krugman got his gong in 2008 for demonstrating that there’s more to international trade than just each country pursuing its “comparative advantage”, as mainstream theory assumes.

It was about 40 years ago that the psychologist Daniel Kahneman (gonged in 2002) and the rebellious economist Richard Thaler (2017) began formulating behavioural economics, an advance on the neo-classical assumption that all decision-making is rational. Robert Shiller got his in 2013 for his study of non-rational behaviour in financial markets.

But recent studies of articles in the world’s top economic journals (mainly American) have shown that, since about the turn of the century, theoretical papers have largely been replaced by empirical studies of particular relationships in particular markets (competition between male and female drivers in Japanese speedboat races, for instance).

This shift from deducing conclusions from assumption-based theory to examining the relationships between real-world variables, to see how the theory measures up, is a big improvement. But why has it happened?

I give most credit to the information revolution. Computerisation has hugely increased that number of “data sets” of business information waiting to be discovered and subjected to statistical tests by academic economists checking hypotheses or just looking for interesting relationships.

All of which is easily done using programs on your personal computer, rather than waiting your turn for time on the main-frame. And it fits with economists’ modern addiction to using stats and maths for “academic rigour”.

As part of their greater interest in empirical evidence rather than what theory tells us should be the case, economists have started doing something they long believed was impossible: economic experiments – including searching out “natural experiments”, such as the famous study of two nearby cities in different US states, where one state raised the minimum wage and the other didn’t.

By the standards of real mathematicians, economists’ maths isn’t that fancy, but it’s more advanced than used by others in the social sciences. Economists have made more progress in moving from finding correlations to establishing causal relationships than the psychologists have – which probably means they get more research funding.

It also means there’s less resistance from international journals to publishing research about that uninteresting and unimportant place called Australia. I’m told doctoral students come to Oz because they’ve heard we have good data sets.

The risk, however, is that research projects are chosen because good data are available, rather than because the questions being answered are important to our understanding of how the economy works and to finding better solutions to our economic problems.

We don’t want academic economists losing interest in their theory, we want them using their empirical evidence to improve it. Making it more realistic and thus more reliable in its predictions about what happens if you do X, or whether policy A or policy B is more likely to improve things.
Read more >>

Monday, September 10, 2018

The social sciences: so essential we neglect them

As I’m sure you’re only too well aware, today is the first day of the inaugural Social Sciences Week. Just as I’m sure you knew that someone somewhere in America declared a day last week to be Read a Book Day.

Why do people name days, weeks, months and even whole years after worthy causes? Perhaps because there are so many worthy causes, and they’re hoping to gain theirs a little more attention amid the tumult.

We just want to be sure our fellow citizens are aware of who we are and what wonderful things we do, the organisers tell you. And once they’ve got their higher profile, there just might be a message or two they’d like to get through to the government and keeper of the purse strings.

What lifts Social Sciences Week above the ruckus is that last year by some mischance one of its sponsors made me a member of their club – shades of Groucho Marx – thus converting me to the cause. You have been warned, dear reader.

But just what are the social sciences, I hear you cry. Glad you asked. The week is being sponsored by the associations representing sociologists, criminologists, anthropologists and political scientists, plus the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (whose members include demographers, geographers, accountants, economists, statisticians, historians, lawyers, philosophers, educationalists, psychologists and specialists in linguistics, management and marketing) and the Council for HASS – humanities, arts and social sciences.

In short, social scientists study human behaviour in all its dimensions. Nothing of much importance, then.

Not being ones to boast, the social scientists would like you to know their former students pretty much run the world. They’ve produced the majority of ASX-listed chief executives. Probably just as true of the public service and politicians.

Add the arts and humanities, and most of the tertiary-educated workers in Australia have HASS degrees. Almost three-quarters of university students are in HASS courses. Most of the overseas students paying full freight for their degrees – and now constituting one of our top export earners – do HASS courses, particularly business courses.

But though the social sciences and humanities dominate the work of universities, they don’t dominate their leadership. That honour more often goes to academics from a STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – background.

And ratios of students to academic staff are much higher for HASS than for STEM courses. Truth is, law and more particularly, business, are the milch cows of universities, used to cross-subsidise subjects considered more worthy.

And you thought STEM was the neglected, put-upon Cinderella of academia? You’ve been spun. Just as every pollie wants you to believe they’re the underdog in the election, so the academics compete to be seen as hard done by. In that comp, STEM is winning. Its trouble is a shortage of customers to justify all the money it gets.

When it comes to research funding, there’s a hierarchy of perceived worthiness. The research aristocrats are the medicos. Since they devote their lives to saving ours (sometimes without thought of reward), we bow down before them.

They get their own special source of federal research funding – the National Health and Medical Research Council – plus money from bequests, philanthropists and patients with say, diabetes, being asked to kick the tin for diabetes research.

The rest of academia fights for a share of the funding distributed by the feds’ Australian Research Council. Here STEM is the upper class, the social sciences come a long way back as the middle class, leaving humanities as the poor relations.

A study from 2012 found that HASS produced 34 per cent of university research, and accounted for 44 per cent of the fields of research judged worthy of research funding, but got just 16 per cent of the lolly.

In this year’s hugely competitive funding round, 423 STEM projects got up, but only 113 social science projects did. This isn’t so surprising since none of the research priorities nominated by the council falls into the social sciences.

It makes no sense. As Senator Arthur Sinodinos said while minister for industry, innovation and science, “the advancement of the Australian economy relies on robust research from physical science and social science alike.

“The social sciences ... provide valuable insight into how to turn a scientific discovery into an informed policy for the nation, and how to implement that policy to ensure effectiveness.”

Just so. The Medicare funding system we value so highly was designed not by any medico, but by two professors of health economics. The huge expansion of university places we’ve seen was made affordable to taxpayers by an economics professor’s discovery of the income-contingent loan, known as HECS.

If applied to research grants, such loans would allow increased funding for social science research without cutting the funding to STEM. That’s what social science can tell you that STEM can’t.
Read more >>

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fast-moving China is big and bold; we think small and fearful

Sorry if I sound wide-eyed, but I was mightily impressed when I visited China as a guest of the Australia-China Relations Institute. Obviously, we were directed to the best rather than the worst but, even allowing for that, it was still impressive. Those guys are going places.

In a hurry. I was struck by how fast-moving the place is – in several senses. We argue interminably about getting a high-speed rail link, while the Chinese just get on with it.

We took the bullet train from Beijing to its nearest port, Tianjin, 140 kilometres away. So smooth you didn't really notice how fast it was going.

The government-run China Daily announced while we were there the plan to have 30,000 kilometres of high-speed track built by 2020. You could be sceptical – except they already have 19,000 kilometres installed.

Tianjin, admittedly a city of 11 million, has the newest, fanciest, most cavernous cultural centre and municipal buildings I've seen. I tried not to wonder how much it all cost and where the money had come from.

So many of us have outdated perceptions about China. It's a poor country producing cheap clothes and toys and knick-knacks in sweat shops.

That used to be true, and in parts of the country still is. But these days China is a middle-income country anxious to get rich gloriously.

In the Tianjin free trade zone is a factory for the European-owned Airbus. All the jetliners it produces are sold in China.

Of course, we tell ourselves, any technology they use has come from foreigners, sometimes without proper recompense.

Don't be so sure. We visited Shenzhen which, until 36 years ago, was a fishing village just across the water from Hong Kong, before someone made it a special economic zone.

I remember visiting it in January 1984 on a tourists' day-trip from Hong Kong. It was a dusty country town with a big new hotel for foreign visitors and a few factories, plus stalls selling stuff to tourists. I bought a Chairman Mao cap with a red metal star.

Today it's a city of 10 million, with income per person of about $29,000 a year. It has maintained 45 per cent of its area as parks and forest by the simple expedient of having housing go up rather than out.

It still has some low-end manufacturers, but they're being encouraged to move inland or to some south-east Asian country, such as Vietnam.

Land and wages in Shenzhen are too expensive for low-value production. Last year in China consumer prices rose by 2 per cent, while the average wage rose by 8 per cent.

So manufacturing in Shenzhen is moving to the high-tech end and the services sector now accounts for 60 per cent of its economy.

Its businesses put huge sums into research and development. In 2014 R&D spending accounted for 4 per cent of Shenzhen's gross domestic product. In Oz it's about half that.

BYD – standing for Build Your Dreams – is a private company founded in the city in 1995. It started out making batteries for mobile phones, but is now well advanced with the research and development needed to fulfil its "three green dreams" of making solar farms, travelling renewable energy storage stations, and electric vehicles.

It still makes and sells conventional cars, but is more interested in its range of hybrid and pure electric cars and buses. It's best known in Australia for its electric forklifts.

Many Chinese cities seek to reduce pollution by capping the number of new cars they'll register each year. Buy a hybrid or electric car, however, and you avoid the lottery.

Buy an electric SUV and the government gives you a subsidy of about $27,000, reducing the price of BYD's model to $47,000. The subsidy will be phased out as the company gains economies of scale.

Before moving to Shenzhen, BGI began life in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute. It's now one of the world's largest genomic institutes, using gene sequencing to develop antenatal tests for genetic abnormalities and to detect diseases earlier.

In agriculture it's using genetic assisted breeding (not genetic modification) to develop better strains of fish and millet – a grain widely consumed in China.

It has more than 800 scientists working for it, and a wall showing the many covers of the journals Science and Nature celebrating its notable discoveries.

Huawei was founded in Shenzhen in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer in the People's Liberation Army. It started as a manufacturer of office PABX phone systems, but is now the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world.

It ploughs a minimum of 10 per cent of its revenue back into research and development, spending about $12 billion last year. The company is staff owned, with Ren's share down to 1.4 per cent.

It has installed Australia's largest private 4G communications network for Santos' mining operations.

In China it helped the Shenhua coal company raise the capacity of its Shuo Huang railway to 200 million tonnes a year. Its 4G system permitting synchronous control of multiple locos allows single train lengths up to 3000 metres long, carrying up to 20,000 tonnes.

China is big; we think of ourselves as small. China is confident, impatiently pushing towards a better future; we are fearful, waiting for more luck to turn up.
Read more >>