Showing posts with label standard of living. Show all posts
Showing posts with label standard of living. Show all posts

Friday, May 3, 2024

Is a Future Made in Australia a good or bad idea? Maybe a bit of both

What exactly is a Future Made in Australia? You can read the long speech Anthony Albanese made about it and still not be sure. My guess is it’s a slogan designed by spin doctors to mean whatever you’d like it to mean.

As I wrote on Monday, what I hope it means is that the government intends to secure our economic future by ensuring all the income we’re going to lose from the world’s decision to stop buying our exports of fossil fuels is replaced by us using our new-found comparative advantage of being able to produce renewable energy more cheaply than most other countries.

We can produce masses of the stuff but, because it’s expensive to export, we can set up new industries which use the renewable energy to produce green iron, green aluminium and various other green minerals and then sell them to the world.

Because such industries don’t yet exist, the businesses that start them will inevitably make mistakes from which later businesses will learn. So it makes hard-headed economic sense for the government to cover much of the cost of this learning-by-doing “positive externality” – this spillover benefit to the wider economy for which the original businesses will go unrewarded.

If that’s what Albanese means by making our economic future, he deserves all the support and encouragement the rest of us can give him.

But I fear his slick slogan was designed to remind people of the old goal of trying to ensure that as many as possible of the goods we consume are Made in Australia.

This was our aim for about half a century until, in the 1980s, the Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating rolled back the import duties protecting our inefficient manufacturing industry and opened our economy to the world.

But why would Albo and his smart economists, Jim Chalmers and Chris Bowen, want to reverse the bipartisan policy of the past 40 years and take us back to the future?

Well, some polling produced this week by Essential Report offers some big clues. Asked to what extent they supported or opposed the Future Made in Australia policy, 30 per cent of respondents said neither. I take this to mean most hadn’t heard of it, or weren’t sure what it involved.

But 51 per cent supported the policy, leaving only 19 per cent opposing it. Unsurprisingly, Labor voters were more supportive than Liberal voters. But this is surprising: two-thirds of Greens voters supported it.

Why so much support for the government policy with a snappy name but so little detail? More clues followed. Fully 70 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the pandemic showed we cannot be wholly reliant on global supply chains”.

And 63 per cent agreed that “it was a mistake to allow the Australian car industry to close,” with 43 per cent agreeing that “the days of globalisation, where we just imported cheap goods from overseas are over”.

Against that, however, only 37 per cent agreed that “it is not the government’s job to support Australian businesses that can’t compete overseas,” and only 34 per cent that “the market will make the best decisions and government should stay out of the way.”

Get it? There’s strong support for the goal of self-sufficiency and making as much as we can locally – keeping the jobs and the profits at home, not sending them abroad.

It’s noteworthy, too, that support for Made in Australia is much stronger among those aged 55 and above than among those aged 18 to 34. Believing that a country must make things, not just deliver services is, thankfully, more a hangup of the old.

So, if Albo and his spin doctors see benefit in playing to the Bring Back Manufacturing crowd, it wouldn’t be so surprising.

Just so long as you don’t forget this: keeping the jobs at home seems no more than common sense but, when you think it through, you see it’s a great way to be poorer, not richer.

One of the main ways humans have made themselves richer over the centuries is what economists call “the division of labour” and the rest of us call specialisation.

We can use the same amount of labour to produce more goods and services by having workers specialise in doing what they do best. By now, the process of specialisation – which no doubt has yet further to run – has reached the point of specialisation within specialties.

But obviously, specialisation can’t work without exchange: I sell my stuff to you; you sell your stuff to me. And what makes economic sense for individuals also makes sense for countries. We don’t maximise our material prosperity by stopping specialisation and exchange at the border.

Countries also need to specialise in what they do best, exchanging their surplus production with other countries specialising in what they do best. Economists call this pursuing our “comparative advantage”.

Autarky – the pursuit of national self-sufficiency – seems like a good idea, but one of the most useful things economists do for the community is to explain why, contrary to common sense, self-sufficiency is a great way to be poorer than we need to be.

It’s a dumb idea because it involves wilfully forgoing the benefits of specialisation and the “gains from trade”. When we insist on making items we aren’t good at, those things will cost more that importing the same goods from those countries better at it than we are.

So we end up forcing Australians to buy the inferior and more expensive locally made goods by imposing a special tax or “duty” on the imports. This leaves us less money to spend on other locally made goods and services. So jobs created in the inefficient part of the economy come at the expense of jobs in the efficient part, causing us to be less well-off than we could be. Well done.

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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.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

It's not the wolf at the door that's driving women to work harder

Why do mothers go out to work? Why are more women doing paid work than ever before? And why are more of those women working full-time? At a time when so many are struggling with the cost of living, it’s easy to conclude that more women are having to work more hours just to keep up. But I think that sells women short.

Worse, it’s a fundamental misreading of perhaps the greatest social change of our age: the economic emancipation of women.

I don’t doubt that women are just as concerned about the cost of living as men, maybe more so if they’re in charge of the family budget. Nor do I doubt that, if you ask a woman why she’s been doing more paid work lately, the cost of living’s likely to be mentioned.

But things are not always as they seem. For instance, when people complain about the cost of living, their focus is on rising prices. But prices rise almost continuously. What matters more is whether wages are rising as fast as prices are – or, preferably, a little faster.

It’s true that the prices for goods and services have risen at a much faster rate than normal over the past two years or so. But the real problem is that wages – which usually do keep up – have been falling behind since the start of the pandemic. Yet people are far more conscious of the rising prices than of the weak wage growth.

Another distinction that’s clearer to economists than to normal people is between the cost of living and the standard of living. When people have trouble maintaining the same standard of living as their friends – a comparable car, comparable house, comparable private school – they would often rather blame the cost of living than their need to keep up with the Joneses.

No, what’s driving the change in women’s lives – causing them to behave very differently from their grandmothers – isn’t the cost of living, it’s education. And with education has come aspiration. Aspiration to put their learning to work, to have a career as well as a family, and to be treated equally with men.

I think it all started sometime in the 1960s when, for some unknown reason, the parents of the rich world accepted that their daughters were just as entitled to a good education as their sons. Everything flows from that fateful change in social attitudes and behaviour. What father today would dream of telling his daughter that, being a girl, she didn’t need an education?

The trouble for boys is that girls do education better. It’s now several decades since the number of girls going to university first exceeded the number of boys.

That being so, the figures for two-income families should come as little surprise. The latest report from the federal government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies, Employment patterns and trends for families with children, finds that in 2022, both parents were employed in 71 per cent of couple families with children under 15. This is up from 56 per cent in 2000, and 40 per cent in 1979.

Within those couple families, the proportion with both parents working full-time was 31 per cent in 2021, up from 22 per cent 12 years earlier. The proportion with one parent working full-time and the other part-time is unchanged at 36 per cent.

Only 4 per cent of these families involved fathers who weren’t working and mothers who were. (Which leaves the young men in my immediate family looking good.)

But there’s something else you need to understand. In the days when there weren’t many two-income families, this gave them a distinct advantage in the housing market. They could afford a better house than their peers.

Once most young home-buying couples have two incomes, however, their greater purchasing power gets built into the prices of the kind of houses they buy, so that what began as an advantage turns into a requirement.

Now it’s the couples who choose not to have both partners working who’ll have trouble affording a home comparable to those of other couples. They’ll have to accept a lower standard of living.

Similarly, it’s a misconception to say, as some do, that you need to have both parents working to afford a family. No, you just have to accept a lower standard of living.

I’ve long suspected that the rise of the two-income family helps explain the growing practice of sending kids to private schools. Two incomes make this easier to afford – though this, too, gets built into the size of the fees the schools can get away with charging.

There’s no reason a mother – or a father – who chooses to have a career should feel guilty about it. But I suspect some double-income couples find it easier to justify if they can say that the extra money is buying their kids a better education.

Sorry, a mountain of evidence says that, once you allow for the parents’ socio-economic status, private schools don’t add to students’ academic performance. Buyer beware.

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Monday, April 17, 2023

How party politicking let mining companies wreck our economy

A speech by former Treasury secretary Dr Ken Henry last month was reported as a great call for comprehensive tax reform. But it was also something much more disturbing: an entirely different perspective on why our economy has been weak for most of this century and – once the present pandemic-related surge has passed – is likely to stay weak.

The nation’s economists have been arguing for years about why the economy has grown so slowly, why real wages have been stagnant for at least a decade, why the rate of productivity improvement is so low and why business investment spending has been so little for so long.

Most economists think we’ve just been caught up in the “secular stagnation” – or slow-growth trap – that all the advanced economies are enduring.

But Henry has a very different answer, one that’s peculiar to Australia. Unlike everyone else, he’s viewing our economy from a different perspective, the viewpoint of our “external sector” – our economic dealings with the rest of the world.

What conclusion does he come to? We’ve allowed ourselves to catch a bad case of what economists call “Dutch disease” – but Henry thinks should be renamed Old and New Holland disease.

When a country discovers huge reserves of oil or gas off its coast – or, in our case, the industrialisation of China causes the prices of coal and iron ore to skyrocket – all the locals think they’ve won the lottery and all the other countries are envious. Now we’ll be on easy street.

But when the Dutch had such an experience in the 1960s, they eventually discovered that, while it was great for their mining industry, it was hell for all their other trade-exposed industries.

Why? Because the inflow of foreign financial capital to build the new industry and the outflow of hugely valuable commodity exports send the exchange rate sky-high, which wrecks the international price competitiveness of all your other export and import-competing industries: manufacturing, farming and services.

Not only that. The rapidly expanding mining industry attracts labour and capital away from the other industries, bidding up their costs. Their sales are down, but their costs are up. You’re left with a “two-speed economy”. Remember that phrase? It’s what we’ve had for a decade or two.

Well, interesting theory, but where’s Henry’s evidence that Dutch disease is at the heart of our problems over recent decades?

He’s got heaps. Start with the way the composition of our exports has changed. Between 2005 and today, and in round figures, mining’s share of our total exports has doubled from 30 per cent to 60 per cent. Manufacturing’s share has fallen from 40 per cent to 20 per cent. Everything else – mainly agriculture and services – has fallen from 30 per cent to 20 per cent.

Over the same period, exports grew from 20 per cent of gross domestic product to 27 per cent. This means mining exports’ share of GDP has gone from about 6 per cent to more than 16 per cent. Manufacturing exports’ share has fallen from about 8 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

Next, who buys our exports? China’s share has gone from about 10 per cent to more than 45 per cent. Actually, that was the peak it reached before China’s imposition of restrictions after some smart pollie decided it would be a great idea for Australia to lead the charge of countries blaming China for COVID. Since then, China’s share has fallen to 30 per cent.

Since 2005, mining’s share of total company profits has gone from about 20 per cent to 50 per cent. Manufacturing’s share has fallen from about 20 per cent to less than 10 per cent. Financial services – banking and insurance – have seen their share fall from 20 per cent to less than 5 per cent.

Now, what’s happened to those industries’ share of total employment? Manufacturing’s share has fallen from more than 9 per cent to about 6 per cent. Financial services’ share has been steady at a bit over 3 per cent. Mining’s share has risen from less than 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent. You beauty.

“In summary,” Henry says, “mining employs a very small proportion of the Australian workforce – except in the boom times, when it induces a worker to leave other jobs for mine-site construction work – generates about 60 per cent of Australia’s exports, about half of pre-tax profits (mostly repatriated overseas to foreign shareholders) and exposes the Australian economy to highly volatile global commodity prices and a heavy strategic dependence upon a single buyer, China.”

Not to mention the way mining leaves us heavily exposed to “the risk of global decarbonisation”.

How have we profited from being a mining-dominated economy? Real GDP per person – a rough measure of our material standard of living – has been in trend decline for two decades. In the decade pre-pandemic, “we recorded the sort of growth rates only previously recorded in recessions,” Henry says.

This weakness is largely explained by our poor productivity performance. Though no one else seems to have noticed, our productivity growth is negatively correlated with our “terms of trade” – the prices we get for our exports, relative to the prices we pay for our imports.

That is, when our terms of trade improve, our rate of productivity improvement worsens. And our terms of trade are largely driven by world commodity prices, especially for coal, gas and iron ore.

Now the tricky bit. Why would a mining boom depress productivity improvement? Because of the way it raises our real exchange rate – our nominal exchange rate, adjusted for the change in our rate of production-cost inflation relative to those of our trading partners.

The resources boom increased our nominal exchange rate by about 25 per cent. Then, by 2011, high wages growth and weak productivity growth relative to our trading partners had added a further 35 per cent to the rise in the real exchange rate, Henry calculates.

This caused our non-mining producers to suffer a “profound loss of international competitiveness”. Is it any wonder that, between the turn of the century and 2019, the annual rate of investment by non-mining businesses fell from 7 per cent of GDP to 5 per cent?

The result is that two centuries of “capital-deepening” – increased equipment per worker – have stalled. This move to “capital-shallowing” explains our poor productivity.

And also, our move from current account deficit to current account surplus. “We are exporting [financial] capital because Australia has become an increasingly unattractive destination for doing business in the eyes of foreign investors and Australian [superannuation] savers alike,” Henry says.

“The mining boom has left us with a very big competitiveness overhang that will probably take decades to work off,” he says, including by decades of weak growth in real wages.

What should we have done differently? Had we applied a rational tax to the windfall profits of the mining companies, we would not only have retained for ourselves more of the proceeds from the export of our own natural resources, but also caused the rise in our real exchange rate to be lower.

Remember Kevin Rudd’s proposed “resource super profits tax”? The mining lobby set out to stop it happening, telling a pack of lies about how it would wreck the economy. The Abbott-led opposition threw its weight behind the mainly foreign miners.

Julia Gillard consulted the industry and cut the tax back to nothing much. The incoming Abbott government abolished it.

Petty, short-sighted politicking caused us to sabotage our economy for decades to come.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

One small step for the wellbeing budget, giant leap yet to come

Hey, wasn’t this budget supposed to be Australia’s first “wellbeing” budget? Whatever happened to that? Well, it happened – sort of – but it turned out to be ... underwhelming. Didn’t arouse much interest from the media.

It met the expectations of neither the sceptics nor the true believers. Treasurer Jim Chalmers began talking it up long before he got the job. The treasurer at the time, Josh Frydenberg, thought it was a great joke.

He pictured Chalmers “fresh from his ashram deep in the Himalayas, barefoot, robes flowing, incense burning, beads in one hand, wellbeing budget in the other”.

No robes on budget night. But nor did we see Chalmers make a ringing denunciation of the great god GDP.

No quoting of Bobby Kennedy’s famous words that such measures count “air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage ... special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them [and] the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl”.

In short, Kennedy said, “It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

No, none of that. Nor any condemnation of economic growth or attack on the materialism of our age.

What we got was what Chalmers promised on the day he became treasurer: “It is really important that we measure what matters in our economy in addition to all of the traditional measures. Not instead of, but in addition to. I do want to have better ways to measure progress, and to measure the intergenerational consequences of our policies.”

What we got on budget night was a start to just that. Not a wellbeing budget, but a normal budget with a chapter headed Measuring What Matters.

It kicked off with some stirring rhetoric about how traditional macroeconomic indicators don’t provide a “complete or holistic view of the community’s wellbeing. A broader range of social and environmental factors need to be considered to broaden the conversation about quality of life.”

Then followed a lot of earnest discussion of “frameworks” and other high-level stuff that’s deeply meaningful to bureaucrats, but not the rest of us. It’s not a long chapter, but I had trouble keeping awake – though I may just have been tired at the time.

But don’t get me wrong. Though none of this stuff gets the blood racing, Chalmers is on the right track. It’s just that he’s got a lot further to go before we see anything likely to make much difference.

Let’s start with GDP – gross domestic product. Everything Kennedy said about it is true. Those who say it’s a bad measure of progress or prosperity or wellbeing are right.

But, as every economist will tell you, it was never intended to be. It’s a measure of the value of all the goods and services produced and consumed in Australia over a period, which means it’s also a measure of the total income Australians earn from producing those goods and services.

It counts the cost of the ambulances and tow trucks that attend road accidents, not because accidents are a good thing, but because all the workers involved earn their income by turning up and helping.

If you’d like everyone who wants a job to be able to get one – meaning unemployment is kept low – the managers of the economy need to know what’s happening to GDP to help them achieve that goal.

GDP doesn’t count “the health of our children or the joy of their play” because, apart from the doctors and nurses, the income we earn from that is “psychic”, not something you can bank or spend.

What economists are more reluctant to admit is that their obsession with the ups and downs of GDP – with the purely material aspect of our lives; with getting and spending – has led them to revere GDP as though it measured our wellbeing.

The rest of us have caught the bug from them. This suits the rich and powerful, whose main objective is to get richer and more powerful. They are focused on the purely material, and it makes it easier for them if the rest of us are too.

It doesn’t suit them to have us asking awkward questions about what economic activity is doing to the natural environment – or the climate – why it’s better for so many jobs to be insecure and badly paid, and whether the pace of economic life is extracting an (unmeasured) price from us in stress, anxiety and depression.

So, Chalmers is right. There’s much more to life – to our wellbeing - than just working and spending. If that’s all governments are doing for us, they’re not doing nearly enough.

We put much effort into measuring and thinking about GDP, but need to put a lot more effort into measuring all the other things that affect our lives and how much joy we’re getting.

Business people say that what gets measured gets managed. True – provided politicians take account of those numbers in the decisions they make. Chalmers’ wellbeing budget is still a long way off.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

If only Labor's wage changes were as bad as the bosses claim

Have you ever wondered why capitalism has survived for several centuries in the advanced economies? How a relative handful of rich families and company executives have been getting richer and more powerful for so long in countries where everyone gets a vote and could, if they chose, insist on something different?

It’s because the capitalists, counselled and coerced by politicians anxious to keep the peace, have made sure that the plebs, punters and ordinary working families have been given enough of the spoils to keep them reasonably content.

I remind you of this because, for 30 or 40 years in America, and now about a decade in Australia, the capitalist system – economists prefer calling it the market system – hasn’t been giving ordinary workers enough to keep them getting better off, while the few people at the top of the tree have been doing better, year after year.

If you wonder why so many Americans voted for a man like Donald Trump, and now delude themselves that he didn’t lose the last election, why the Yanks seem to be rapidly dismantling their democracy, a big part of their discontent is their loss of faith that the economic system is giving them a fair shake.

Fortunately, it’s nothing like that bad in Australia. Not yet, anyway. What’s true is that the average standard of living in Australia today is no better than it was a decade ago – something that hasn’t happened before in the more than 75 years since World War II.

Over the eight years before the pandemic, wages rose barely faster than inflation. We’ve had wage stagnation, now made a lot worse by the supply-chain disruptions of the pandemic, soaring electricity and gas prices caused by Russia’s war, and by the way floods keep wiping out our fruit and vegetable crops.

When Labor went to this year’s federal election promising to “get wages moving”, I think it struck a chord with many voters.

After we ended centralised wage-fixing by the Industrial Relations Commission in the early 1990s, we moved to collective bargaining at the level of the individual enterprise. Workers’ right to strike was hedged about with many requirements and limits.

At the beginning, more than 40 per cent of workers were covered by enterprise agreements. By now, however, some academic experts calculate that the proportion of workers covered by active agreements is down to about 15 per cent.

At the jobs and skills summit in September, all sides agreed that the enterprise bargaining system had broken down. Last week the government introduced its answer to wage stagnation, the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill.

It would make a host of changes, many of which strengthen existing provisions of the Fair Work Act, and most of which the industrial parties agree would be improvements. It makes job security and gender pay equity explicit goals of the act, prohibits sexual harassment and requirements that workers keep their pay secret, and strengthens the right of workers with family responsibilities to request flexible working hours. More debatably, it abolishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

To repair enterprise bargaining, it clarifies the BOOT – better off overall test – requiring that agreements leave no worker worse off. This was the Business Council’s greatest complaint against enterprise agreements.

One reason such agreements now cover so few workers is that they’re expensive and complex for small and middle-size employers to organise. Hence, the proposal to widen the existing provision for “multi-employer bargaining”: workers in similar enterprises allowed to bargain collectively with a number of employers.

This would widen access to enterprise bargaining. It’s aimed particularly at strengthening the bargaining position of women in low-paid jobs in the aged care, childcare and disability care sector.

Ambit claims and exaggerated rhetoric are standard fare in industrial relations, but the cries of fear and outrage coming from the various employer groups are over the top.

It would “create more complexity, more strikes and higher unemployment,” said one. It was “so fatally flawed” it would “emasculate enterprise bargaining”, according to another outfit. It was “seismic” in its impact, claimed a third.

Methinks they doth … I’d be amazed if they actually believe that stuff. They’re probably still adjusting to the shock of having the unions back in the government tent. They know they won’t be able to stop the bill being passed, so they want at least to be seen opposing it with all their voice.

What changing the law won’t change is that the proportion of workers in a union has fallen from 50 per cent to 14 per cent. The small and middle-size businesses we’re talking about have even fewer union members than that.

No union members, no strike. No strike, no big pay rise. In any case, really powerful unions get big pay rises without needing to strike.

This is an attempt to make bargaining provisions that didn’t work last time, work this time. I doubt if these modest changes will do much to “get wages moving” again. More’s the pity. If I’m right, Australia’s capitalism will remain broken.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

We've got more than we've ever had, but are we better off?

It probably won’t surprise you that the Productivity Commission is always writing reports about … productivity. Its latest is a glittering advertisement for the manifold benefits of capitalism which, we’re told, holds The Key to Prosperity.

Which is? Glad you asked. Among all the ways to co-ordinate a nation’s economic activity, capitalism – which the commission prefers to call the “market” economy – is by far the best at raising our material standard of living by continuously improving our … productivity.

Productivity is capitalist magic. It means producing more outputs of goods and services with the same or fewer inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital. This involves not working harder or longer, but working smarter – using new ideas to reduce the cost of the goods and services we produce, to improve their quality and even to invent new goods and services.

Find that hard to believe? Keep watching the ad.

We’re told that sustained productivity improvement has happened only over about the past 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution. Then, 90 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, compared with less than 10 per cent today.

Technological developments and inventions – including vaccines, antibiotics and statins – have driven huge increases in the length of our lives and years of good health.

In Australia, output of goods and services per person – a simple measure of prosperity – is about seven times higher than it was 120 years ago at Federation. This means people today have access to an array of goods and services that were unimaginable in the past.

For every 10,000 newborn babies in 1901, more than 1000 died before their first birthday; today it’s just three. For those who survived childbirth, life expectancy was about 60 years, compared with more than 80 today.

During their 60 years, the average Australian worked much longer hours than today, with little paid leave. The 48-hour week wasn’t introduced until 1916 and paid annual leave didn’t become the norm until 1935. Workplaces were far more dangerous.

Most people died before becoming eligible for the age pension (introduced in 1909) and the average wage bought far fewer goods and services, with a steak costing 5 per cent of the weekly wage.

Homes were more crowded – about five people per home, which were much smaller. We had outside toilets until the 1950s and washing machines and dishwashers didn’t become common until at least the 1970s.

By making goods and services cheaper and better, productivity improvement has increased the typical worker’s purchasing power. That is, it has reduced the number of hours of work required to achieve any particular level of material living standards.

For instance, the cost of a double bed, mattress, blanket and pillows has fallen from 185 hours of work in 1901 to 18 hours today. The cost of a loaf of bread has fallen from 18 minutes to four minutes.

More recently, the cost of a new car has fallen from 17 months in 1990 to five. The cost of a smartphone has fallen from 60 hours in 2010 to 16.

End of advertisement.

When you think about it, this is amazing. Objectively, there’s no doubt we’re hugely more prosperous than our forebears. Our lives are longer and healthier, with less pain, less physical exertion, less work per week, bigger and better homes, more education, more comfort, more convenience, more entertainment, more holidays and travel, more ready contact with family and friends, and greater access to the rest of the world.

We’re not just better off than our great-grandparents, we’re clearly better off than we were 20 years ago. Oldies like me can’t begin to tell our offspring how much clunkier the world was before computers and the internet.

And yet … the trouble with the higher material living standard we strive for – and economists devote their careers to helping us achieve – is that we so quickly take it for granted. It’s always the next step on the prosperity ladder that will finally make us happy.

We’re undoubtedly better off in 100 ways, but do we feel much better about it?

I suspect our lives are like a Top 40 chart – when one tune falls back, another always takes its place. There’s always one tune that sold most copies this week – even if this week’s winner sold far fewer than last week’s.

Whether they’re life-threatening or just annoying, there’s always a set of worries that mar our sense of wellbeing. Makes you wonder whether there might be more to life than prosperity. Human relationships, for instance.

Then there’s the possibility – beyond the purview of most economists – that prosperity comes at a price. Maybe the world we’ve created in our pursuit of prosperity comes at the price of more stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

And maybe the natural world is about to present us with a belated bill for all our prosperity: more droughts, bushfires, cyclones, flooding and higher sea levels. All of it in a despoiled environment.

Read more >>

Friday, July 23, 2021

Reduced competition between businesses is harming productivity

In the search for explanations of the slowdown in productivity improvement, the world’s economists are closing in on one of the significant causes: reduced competition between the businesses in an industry, giving them increased “market power” – ability to raise the prices they charge.

Research by various Treasury economists has found evidence of this happening in Australia. And this month US President Joe Biden acted to increase competition in various markets where it had been lacking.

A new study by Jonathan Hambur has added to earlier research by Treasury people finding that Australia’s private sector has shown less “dynamism” – ability to become more economically efficient over time – during the past decade or so.

Hambur has used a database of tax returns covering almost all Australian businesses to find that their “mark-ups” have increased by about 5 per cent since the mid-noughties.

To economists, a firm’s mark-up is the ratio of the prices it charges compared to its “marginal” cost of production – that is, the cost of the last unit it produced.

Hambur says that, while part of this increase seems to have been caused by technological change, it also shows an increase in firms’ market power and a decline in competition.

If so, this would explain about a fifth of the slowdown in the rate of productivity improvement we’ve seen over the past decade, since we already know the same period has seen slower reallocation of resources from low-productivity to high-productivity firms.

We measure productivity by comparing the quantity of the output of goods or services with the quantity of inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital used to produce the output. Increasing output per unit of input is the main way we’ve been able to keep improving our material standard of living over the past two centuries.

And one of the ways an economy increases its productivity is by more of the production being done by the firms that are best at turning inputs into outputs at the expense of the less-efficient firms. Resources (inputs) are thereby “reallocated” to their most efficient use. What causes this reallocation to occur? Price competition between the firms in an industry.

Many people assume big companies can set whatever price they like. But this can’t be true. Even in the case of a single firm selling an important product, if the monopolist uses its considerable market power to set a price that’s simply too high for many people to afford, it will get to a point where it loses more from the sales it no longer makes than it gains from the extra profit it makes from those people still willing and able to pay the extra.

This is why economists say a firm wanting to maximise its profits is able to charge no more than “what the market will bear”. How much the market will bear depends mainly on the strength of the competition it faces from other firms selling the same product.

The textbook, neo-classical model of a “perfectly competitive” market – which is hugely oversimplified and has never existed in the real world – tells us the many firms in a market are able to charge a price no higher than their marginal cost of production (remembering that the “cost” includes a rate of profit just sufficient to discourage the owners of the firm from taking their financial capital to another market).

In this case, each firm that survives in the market will be able to charge only the identical market price set by the marginal cost. A firm that tries to charge more than the market price will sell nothing, whereas a firm that charges less will sell out immediately, but then go out backwards because it hasn’t covered its costs.

In the real world, there are a host of possible reasons why firms are able to charge a price higher than their marginal cost, and so make excess profit: because customers don’t know where to find the products that are cheaper but just as good, because customers are bamboozled by advertising and phoney “product differentiation”, because economies of scale and improved technology allow firms to get bigger and reduce their average cost of production.

Firms pursue scale economies and other innovations in the hope of making excess profits, but theory tells us that competition from other firms will end up forcing them to pass their cost savings on to their customers in the form of lower prices. The consumers always beat the capitalists.

When competition isn’t strong enough to make this happen, however, firms can and do earn mark-ups well above their marginal costs. Now Hambur has confirmed this happens in Australia. Worse, our mark-ups have increased over the past decade, telling us competition has weakened further and given our businesses greater market power.

With US economists finding similar evidence of reduced competition contributing to America’s own productivity slowdown, it’s not surprising to see President Biden acting to increase competition. Earlier this month he signed an executive order urging federal government agencies to crack down on anti-competitive practices ranging from agriculture to pharmaceuticals.

He denounced the present era of business monopolies. “Rather than competing for consumers [businesses] are consuming their competitors; rather than competing for workers they are finding ways to gain the upper hand on labour,” he said.

“Let me be very clear, capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.”

Biden directed the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to carefully review mergers and even challenge deals already put through.

He directed the trade commission to deal with competition concerns about the behaviour of Facebook, Apple, Alphabet’s Google, and Amazon, and to limit “killer acquisitions” where large internet platforms buy out potential competitors.

The justice department will launch a review of merger guidelines to determine whether they are “overly permissive”.

So, what could our government do about our own decline in competition? Well, we could start by tightening our own merger laws so the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission can be more successful in its efforts to protect us from anti-competitive takeovers.

Read more >>

Friday, July 9, 2021

Little sign Morrison is serious about improving productivity

Improving the economy’s productivity is so central to lifting our material standard of living that politicians and big business people talk about it unceasingly. But the funny thing is, most of what they say makes little sense.

But first, let’s be sure we know what “productivity” means. It may be that politicians and business people get away with talking so much nonsense on the subject because so many of us aren’t sure.

A lot of people assume “productivity” is just a flash way of saying “production”. Wrong. It’s also possible people – particularly business people – think it means the same thing as profit, competitiveness or effort.

Wrong again. As Dr Richard Denniss and Matt Saunders, of the Australia Institute, say in a new paper, “while cutting the wages of a worker may lead to an increase in profit, and potentially improve the competitiveness of one firm compared to another, wage reductions do not result in an increase in productivity.

“Indeed, lowering wages may lead to a reduction in productivity if it dissuades firms from investing in labour-saving technology.”

The productivity of a business (or an economy) is the quantity of its output – production – of goods and services compared with the quantity of its inputs of raw materials, labour and physical capital.

It’s most commonly measured by dividing output by the quantity of usually the most expensive input, labour, to get output per hour worked.

The great achievement of capitalist economies is that they’ve been able to extract a bit more output from the average hour worked almost every year for the past two centuries.

It’s this improved productivity that almost wholly explains why the developed countries’ material living standards have got a bit better almost every year.

But how on earth has it been done? Mainly by advances in technology. Continuously since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been inventing machines that allow us to produce goods using fewer and fewer workers.

This has greatly reduced the proportion of the workforce needed to work in farming, mining and manufacturing, but made it possible to afford far more people delivering services ranging from doctors and professors to people working in aged care, disability care and child care. Over the decades, total unemployment has been little changed by labour-saving technology.

The productivity of labour has been improved also by better education and training of workers, and by improvements in the way businesses are managed.

Now, as discussed last week, Australia’s rate of productivity improvement has slowed markedly since the global financial crisis. And, to be fair, we should remember that much the same has happened in the other rich economies.

But that’s no reason why the government shouldn’t be doing what it can to turn this around. And there’s been no shortage of talk about all the things the Coalition is doing to improve our productivity. What’s missing are signs that all this professed effort is doing much good.

It’s clear Scott Morrison hates being held accountable, but Denniss and Saunders have gathered a remarkable list of the claims he’s made, particularly while he was treasurer, to be working wonders on the productivity front.

In 2016, he claimed the creation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission was “an important reform . . . that will drive productivity, that will support wages growth, that will support increases in profits of small businesses so they can grow and expand”.

The same year he claimed the alleged “free-trade agreements” that the government had been making with other countries would “increase Australia’s productivity and contribute to higher growth by allowing domestic businesses access to cheaper inputs, introducing new technologies, and fostering competition and innovation”.

That’s a claim the Productivity Commission and many economists would strongly dispute.

Treasurer Morrison also claimed “the government is implementing a $50 billion national infrastructure plan to unlock our productive capacity, generate jobs, and expand business and labour market opportunities”. Train station car parks, for instance?

Other ministers have made similar claims, including Christian Porter’s assertion that his reform of wage-fixing rules would “make the bargaining system . . . more efficient and, most importantly, capable of delivering those twin goals of productivity and higher wages”.

This is not to mention the various tax cuts – in the rate of company tax for small business; the three-stage cuts in income tax, including the last stage, in 2024, which will give huge tax cuts to high income-earners despite adding $17 billion a year to an already swollen budget deficit – which are always justified as encouraging more effort, innovation and investment.

Trouble is, all this supposed achievement did nothing to encourage the authors of last week’s intergenerational report to raise their assumed rate of annual productivity improvement over the next 40 years.

Indeed, they cut the rate a fraction to 1.5 per cent a year. They said nothing about any of the above “reforms” helping to justify even that lower assumption, which is actually much higher than the 0.7 per cent average annual improvement achieved over the five years before the coronacession.

What’s more, both the report and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg acknowledge that it will take a lot more reform to get the rate of productivity improvement up to 1.5 per cent a year. What they don’t do is say what reforms they have in mind. Maybe we’ll be told after next year’s election. Or maybe it’ll just be more of the same sort of “reforms” Morrison has assured us are doing so much good.

In former times, big business worthies and conservative politicians used to tell us our goal must be to increase the size of the pie for everyone (which is what improved productivity does), not fight over the size of my slice of the pie compared to yours.

Maybe they’ve stopped saying this because, if we looked too hard at all the changes they assure us will improve productivity, we’d notice they’re aimed at increasing the slice of pie going to business owners and high income-earners.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

This budget couldabeen a lot better than it is

This is the lick-and-a-promise budget. The budget that proves it is possible to be half pregnant. Which makes it the couldabeen budget. Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg had the makings of a champion of budgets, but their courage failed them.

It’s not a bad budget. Most of the things it does are good things to do. Its goal of driving unemployment much lower is exactly right. Its approach of increasing rather than cutting government spending is correct, as is its strategy of fixing the economy to fix the budget.

But having fixed on the right strategy Morrison, reluctant to be seen as Labor lite, has failed in its execution. Economists call this “product differentiation”; others just call it marketing.

Some are calling this a big-spending budget. It isn’t. Frydenberg has kept his promise that it would be no “spendathon”. As a pre-election vote-buying budget it hardly rates. Its “new and additional tax cut” for middle-income earners of up to $1080 a year turns out to be not a tax cut but the absence of a tax increase.

Politically, this budget had to offer a convincing response to the report of the royal commission on aged care. Reports have suggested fixing the broken system would take extra spending of about $10 billion a year.

Had he accepted that challenge, Morrison would have put himself head and shoulders above his Liberal and Labor predecessors. He settled for spending an extra $3.5 billion a year. Major patch-up at best. The scandals will continue.

Politically, Morrison had to make this a women-friendly budget, to prove he valued women’s contribution to the economy and remove impediments to their economic security. Making childcare free – as it was, briefly, during the lockdown – would have been a big help to young families, as well as greatly increasing employment. It would have backed his fine words with deeds.

That would have cost about $2 billion a year. Morrison settled for $600 million a year, limiting the new assistance to about one childcare-using family in four by excluding the great majority, who have only one child in care.

Frydenberg has said that significant investments in energy, infrastructure, skills, the digital economy and lower taxes are all aimed at driving unemployment down.

But this talk of “investments” in mainly male-dominated industries is just what led female economists to be so critical of last year’s macho budget. In any case, energy and infrastructure yield few new jobs for each billion spent.

That’s why women-friendly and job-creating both pointed to a budget that focused on growing the “care economy” – aged care, childcare, disability care.

It’s labour-intensive, employs mainly women and provides services that women care about more than men. And it’s largely funded and regulated by … the federal government. Opportunity fumbled.

If you can’t get too excited by the expectation that the economy will grow by a positively roaring 4.25 per cent in the coming financial year, and a much more sedate 2.5 per cent the following year, I don’t blame you.

For one thing, budget forecasts don’t always come to pass. For another, Frydenberg’s claim that more budgetary stimulus is needed because of continuing uncertainty over the pandemic is disingenuous.

The truth is, at this stage the economy is still running on the stored heat of last year’s massive budgetary stimulus, much of which has still to be spent. The purpose of public-sector stimulus is to get the private sector – households and businesses – up to ignition point, so it keeps going under its own steam.

That hasn’t happened yet. So the purpose of the further stimulus in this year’s budget is to keep the kick-starting going until the private sector’s engine gets going.

Much of this depends on a return to decent pay rises – which is, as yet, beyond the budget’s “forecast horizon”. We haven’t had a decent pay rise since before the election of the Coalition government.

We had been used to our standard of living getting a bit better each year. That hasn’t happened for years. A Liberal Prime Minister who can’t lift our standard of living should be peddling a lot harder than he is in this budget.

Read more >>

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Cutting workers' pay and conditions worsens productivity

It’s a long weekend, so let’s relax and think more laterally than usual. I’ve been pondering one of the great mysteries puzzling the rich world’s economists: why has there been so little improvement in the productivity of our businesses over the past decade or two?

I’m wondering if a big part of the explanation is that business people have been finding easier ways to make a bigger buck.

Economists worry about productivity – producing more output of goods and services from a given quantity of inputs of labour, physical capital and raw materials – because it’s the secret sauce that’s made market capitalism so hugely successful over the past 200 years. That’s made us many times more well-off materially than we were back then.

The key driver of productivity improvement is technological advance: mainly bigger and better machines, but also better roads, railways and other infrastructure, as well as more efficiently organised farms, mines, factories, offices and shops. Not to mention increased investment in “human capital”: better educated and trained - and thus more highly skilled - workers.

You’d expect the digital revolution that’s working its way round the economy – disrupting industry after industry while creating new or improved products that meet customers’ needs much better – to be causing a marked improvement in productivity, but it’s not showing up in the figures.

So, why has productivity – most simply measured as gross domestic product per hour worked – been improving much more slowly in the past decade or two than in earlier times, not just in our economy but in all the advanced economies? Why is our material standard of living improving only very slowly – if at all?

As I say, that’s something economists are still debating. But I’ve been thinking much of the explanation may lie in the changed way our business people are going about their business.

If you listen to the business lobby groups, productivity isn’t improving because of successive governments’ failure to “reform” the economy. Nonsense. A moment’s thought reveals that the efficiency with which inputs are turned into outputs is determined primarily by the collective actions of each of the nation’s businesses.

Firms improve their productivity as part of their efforts to increase their profits. But their ultimate goal is higher profits, not necessarily being more productive. And, since improving productivity can often be quite hard, I’ve been wondering if productivity isn’t improving much because firms have found easier ways of increasing their profits.

Such as? Just by cutting costs. Particularly the cost of labour. One way to cut labour costs is to install better labour-saving machines. Doing so does improve the productivity of the workers who remain – and will show up in the productivity figures.

But if you find ways to limit the increase in – or even cut – your workers’ hourly wage rate, this does nothing to improve your productivity, but does increase your profits. Many employers have moved from fixing their wage rates by “collective bargaining” – which involves workers pressing for higher wages by having their union threaten to go on strike – to “individual contracts”, which often involve no bargaining at all.

Or you could cut your labour “on-costs” (including sick leave, annual leave, workers compensation insurance and superannuation contributions) by changing your workers from employees into (supposedly) independent contractors.

This, of course, is a big part of the motive for the rise of the “gig economy”. And there must surely be cost savings associated with the use of labour-hire firms.

Businesses have become a lot more conscious of the costly risks involved in running a business. They’ve sought better ways of “managing” those risks – which, in practice, has often involved shifting risks from the firm to its workers. For instance, moving to independent contractors shifts to workers the costs associated with the risks of them getting sick, being injured on the job, or even not having saved enough for retirement.

The move to firms carrying much lower inventories of raw materials and spare parts – “just-in-time” inventory management – means that the risk of interruptions to a firm’s supply chain can cause workers to be stood down on no pay until the problem’s fixed.

Yet another way firms have been saving on labour costs is by spending less on training their own workers and then, when they’re short of skilled workers, bringing them in from overseas on temporary work visas.

The trick is, these cost-saving measures don’t just fail to improve the productivity of labour, they can actually worsen it. Textbook economics sees firms continually comparing the cost of employing workers to perform tasks with the cost of using a machine to do it.

When wage costs are rising strongly, firms are more inclined to invest in labour-saving equipment. When wage costs are low or falling, however, firms become more inclined to avoid investing in machines and just hire more workers – even to perform quite menial tasks.

Before the pandemic, economists were continually surprised to see employment growing at a faster rate than the fairly weak growth in production (real GDP) would imply. That’s good news for employment but – as a matter of simple arithmetic - bad news for labour productivity: GDP per hour worked.

But it’s worse than that. For technological advances to improve our living standards, you don’t just need people inventing new and better machines, you need businesses across the economy regularly buying and using the latest, whiz-bang models to produce whatever it is they do.

That’s just what hasn’t been happening. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe noted recently, business investment in plant and structures has averaged just 9 per cent of GDP since 2010, compared with 12 per cent over the previous three decades.

Sometimes I think that, while businesses’ modern obsession with finding any and every means to minimise their wage costs no doubt fattens their profits in the short term, one day we’ll realise it’s been hugely destructive of our living standards.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Don’t forget: we all benefit from the magic of capitalism

The human capacity for adaptation – our ability to soon get used to our changed circumstances – is one of our great strengths. It means we can suffer a major misfortune – the death of a spouse, divorce, loss of a limb – and yet eventually get back to being pretty much as happy as we were.

But this pillar of human resilience has a big downside. It means when good things happen to us – even things we’ve long strived for – we soon stop being gratified and grateful, and within days or weeks start taking our advances for granted, part of the status quo.

It’s this adaptability that keeps many of us caught on what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”. The new house we moved to a few months back is fine, but now we really need a new car. I’ve got more clothes at home in the wardrobe than I can wear, but I’d really get a kick from buying a new jacket. All I need is a bit more money and then I’ll be happy.

With the media continually reminding us of all that’s wrong with our economy – weak wages growth, still-high unemployment and underemployment, a government not game to tackle climate change – it’s too easy to take for granted all that’s right with it. We’re the richest generation of Australians who’ve ever lived, and we shouldn’t forget it (especially when our politicians try to tell us we can’t afford to help the poor).

Enter Michael Brennan, chair of the Productivity Commission. If you think Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe is our only top econocrat who sees our glass as two-thirds full, you need to meet Brennan. He’s on a mission to show us how well we’re doing thanks to . . . productivity improvement.

In his speeches in recent months, Brennan has noted that it’s “been the great fortune of humankind, particularly in . . . the developed economies, to have experienced rapid growth in incomes and living standards over the last 200 years”.

Before and after Federation in 1901, we were the richest country in the world – thanks to our “wealth for toil”, mainly in the form of gold and wool. As the American Century got under way, we lost that lead.

In the period after World War II, our real gross domestic product per person went from being nearly $6000 a year above the rich-country average in 1950, to below the average in 1990.

But we began opening up and modernising our economy in the mid-1980s. Over the past 30 years our real GDP per person – that is, after allowing for inflation and population growth – has out-performed all of the G7 economies of North America, Europe and Japan, and our incomes have risen back to being well above the rich-world average. (Take a bow, Paul Keating.)

We have one of the strongest budgetary positions (which remains true even if we don’t make it “back in the black” this year) and the most progressive tax-and-transfers system in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Contrary to any impression you may have gained, our inequality of income hasn’t worsened a lot over the past 30 years. And, although our household wealth (assets minus debts) is a lot more unequal than our incomes, it’s low by rich-world standards.

Brennan says our life expectancy is high, for spending on healthcare that’s modest as a share of GDP. We face neither the budgetary and demographic problems of the Eurozone, the inequality of the US or the stagnation of Japan.

Average incomes in Australia today are seven times higher than they were in 1901. Environmentalists should note is that only some of this growth has come from increased exploitation of natural resources and damage to the environment (which is certainly something we need to correct).

No, the great majority of this growth has come from the magic of the capitalist system: improved productivity (the very magic Brennan is paid to promote). The average worker today can produce hugely more value in goods or services per hour than the average worker in 1901. Why? Because we’re healthier, better educated and more highly skilled, and we’re not only given far more equipment to work with, but those machines can do tricks that were never dreamt of a hundred years ago. And factories and offices are more efficiently organised.

That’s the capitalist magic of productivity improvement.

Brennan’s party trick is to demonstrate what a seven-times higher real income means in concrete terms. He calculates, for instance, that whereas the average employee had to work 22 hours to rent the average Australian three-bedroom house for a week in 1901, today it takes 12 hours (and it’s a much better house).

The cost of a bicycle – which in those days was the main form of transport – has dropped from 527 hours of work to less than eight hours. The cost of a kilo of rump steak has gone from 143 minutes work to 38; a loaf of bread from 20 minutes to six; a litre of milk from 31 minutes to just over two.

It’s noteworthy that whereas the wage cost of manufactured goods has fallen hugely, the wage cost of services hasn’t – because the wage of the person delivering the service has gone up with the wage of the person buying it.

But Brennan says the point of economic progress isn't just having more and cheaper "stuff", but also having qualitatively different stuff thanks to innovation and technology. That includes all the stuff we take for granted around the home - television, refrigeration, indoor plumbing and airconditioning - not to mention cars, air travel, the internet and smartphones. Then there's statins, the polio vaccine, a much lower likelihood of dying in childbirth, and antibiotics, which can be bought with as little as a quarter of an hour's work.
Read more >>

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The great drawback from 27 years of economic sunshine

Talk about ingratitude. It’s enough to make a grown economist cry. The nation’s dismal scientists labour mightily to produce almost three decades of continuous economic growth, and few people care.

In April this year a venerable crowd called CEDA – the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the gentlepersonly end of big business – conducted an online survey of almost 3000 people from all states, asking for their thoughts on the economy.

Asked whether they’d gained from 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth – actually, it’s now ticked up to 27 years – only 5 per cent said they’d gained a lot, with 40 per cent admitting they’d gained “a little”.

That left 40 per cent saying they’d gained nothing and 11 per cent who didn’t know. This is deeply shocking for most economists, who hold as their highest article of faith the belief that the public is crying out for unceasing and rapid growth in the size of the economy – by which they mean an ever-rising material living standard.

But if you and I gained little from all the economic growth, who do we think gained a lot? Well, 74 per cent thought large corporations had, but only 8 per cent thought small and medium-sized businesses had.

Just over half of us thought foreign shareholders gained a lot, whereas only 31 per cent thought Australian shareholders did.

Almost three-quarters of us thought senior executives had gained a lot, a third thought white-collar workers did well, and only 12 per cent thought blue-collar workers did.

These answers don’t add up. They reveal that the public’s understanding of how the economy fits together is confused.

While it’s probably true that big businesses are, on average, more profitable than smaller businesses, it’s a mistake to think big business has been coining it over the past three decades, with most of small business struggling. Were that true we’d have heard a lot more howls of complaint.

It’s true that our mining companies did exceptionally well from the resources boom, and that those companies are about 80 per cent foreign owned, but mining accounts for only 6 per cent of the economy. Looking overall, foreign owners would account for more like a third of businesses. And it’s wrong to think foreign shareholders get a better deal than local shareholders.

People often forget that, when you trace it through, the shares in Australia’s big listed companies are owned mainly by Australians with superannuation and other savings for retirement. So, if big companies have done well over recent decades, that means yours and my super balances are a lot higher than they were. This not a gain?

It’s true that the incomes of senior executives have grown a lot faster than the rest of us over recent decades. But with a workforce of 12.6 million, that’s just a relative handful. Say there are 400 big companies. If each of those has 10 people on million-plus salaries, that’s just 4000 of them.

Make it 40,000 and you’re still not talking about many people. Enough to be envious of but, arithmetically, not enough to make a big difference. Were we to take their millions off them, there wouldn’t be enough to give the remaining 12.6 million of us much more than a small pay rise.

In other polling, many people – even many West Australians – say they have nothing to show for the much-trumpeted resources boom. Do you remember the four or five years before 2015 when the dollar was worth a bit less or a bit more than $US1? It was up there because of the resources boom. And, whether or not they realise it or remember it, the many people who took the opportunity to go on an overseas holiday or three were getting their cut from the boom.

What’s the bet all those people with seniors cards, paying only nominal amounts to use public transport, think they’ve gained little over the decades? The aged have done a lot better, mainly because of changes made by the Howard government. And that’s before you count the rising value of their homes and investment properties.

It’s the young who are much more justified in lacking gratitude.

Speaking of which, most people don’t get the point when reminded of our 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth. It doesn’t mean we’ve had twice the growth other countries have had, and so should all be rolling in it. We’ve had more, but not a huge amount more.

No, what it really means is that the others have had three or so severe recessions in that time – including the Great Recession – and we haven’t.

The one great drawback of going for so long without a recession is that so many people have no experience of how much harm and hurt they cause – how depressing they are – while others have forgotten it.

Still, voters have precious little gratitude to give politicians and bureaucrats, and absolutely none for what amounts to the absence of something that would have been terrible. And anything good that happens to us, we soon take for granted.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Digital disruption is stopping retail prices from rising

I’ve heard of the gap between perception and reality, but this is ridiculous. According to the experts, increased competition among supermarkets, department stores and other retailers is holding down prices in a way we’ve rarely seen before.

This fits with the consumer price index, which showed prices rising by just 2.1 per cent over the year to June. Over the past three years, the annual increase has averaged even less: 1.8 per cent.

What it doesn’t fit with are the complaints we keep hearing about the high cost of living. I read it’s got so bad parents are raiding their kids’ piggy banks to help make ends meet.

How can the experts’ reality be reconciled with the people’s perceptions? It’s simple. With a few glaring exceptions – electricity prices, for instance – the cost of living isn’t rising much.

No, the reason many people are having trouble making ends meet is because their wages aren’t growing much either. We’re used to wages rising a bit faster than prices, but that hasn’t been happening for the past four years.

Modern politicians seek popularity by reinforcing our perceptions, whether they’re right or wrong. If you doubt that, just listen to the soothing noises Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be making between now and the election.

Unfortunately, our tiresome econocrats remain committed to determining the reality and correcting misperceptions. Last week Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle gave a speech which departed from the official talking points and revealed a truth which must not be spoken: the digital revolution is squeezing many retailers’ profit margins and forcing them to cut costs so rising prices don’t cost them customers.

Debelle says that, since 2015, the price of the typical food basket (excluding fruit and veg, and meals out and takeaway) has actually fallen a fraction. Fruit and vegetable prices have risen, but by only a third of their average rate over the past 25 years.

The prices of alcoholic drinks have risen more slowly since 2015, and non-alcoholic drink prices have fallen a bit.

The prices of consumer durable items, including fridges and furniture, have been falling since 2015, meaning they’ve hardly increased over the past 25 years.

The prices of audio-visual equipment – including TVs, computers and phones – have fallen significantly over the past 25 years and particularly the past three.

If you’re finding this hard to believe, there are two main explanations. The first is that, because bad news interests us more than good news, big price rises stick in our minds, but small price falls don’t. Nor do we notice when prices stay unchanged for long periods.

The second is that every new TV, computer or phone does better tricks than the previous model. The new model may cost more than old one, but when the official statisticians allow for the value of the improvement in quality, they almost always find that the underlying price has fallen. Again, this is something we should notice, but usually don’t. Our perceptions play us false.

If we’re having trouble affording the new whiz-bang, big-screen, digital, internet-connected TV, that’s not the higher cost of living, it’s us straining for a higher standard of living.

When we confuse the two we’re deluding ourselves. We’re not getting better off, we’re just having to pay more.

Debelle says changes in the cost of imported goods used to be passed straight on by wholesalers and retailers. But over the past decade or so retailers have become reluctant to pass on higher import prices.

This is only partly because consumer spending hasn’t been growing as strongly as it used to. Debelle finds evidence that net retail margins have been declining.

Cost-cutting means the productivity of labour in retail is rising faster than in other industries, with the savings used to keep prices down rather than fatten profits.

What’s been happening in recent years is intensifying competition between retailers. One cause is the advent of “category killers” such as Bunnings, Officeworks and JB Hi-Fi. These are giving department stores and smaller retailers a hard time.

The buying-power of the many chains of liquor stores now owned by Coles and Woolworths is keeping prices down and putting great pressure on independent stores.

We’ve also seen large foreign retailers setting up bricks-and-mortar operations in Australia. In clothing, these include H&M, Zara, Topshop and Uniqlo.

The biggest bricks-and-mortar disrupter, of course, is Aldi supermarkets. Aldi seems to have taken market share from independent IGA stores, while forcing Coles and Woolies to avoid losing customers by lowering their prices.

Then there’s online shopping, which exposes our retailers not just to competition from big overseas businesses but between themselves.

Online sales still make up only about 5 per cent of total retail trade, but they’re growing rapidly, increasing by 50 per cent over the year to June.

Last year local retailers trembled over the impending arrival of Amazon, but so far it hasn’t had a big impact. Not directly, anyway. Maybe the locals have taken evasive action by keeping their prices low.

Smart phones have made it easier for people to comparison shop – even while in someone else’s store.

And I believe the internet increases the emphasis on price competition, rather than the emotive advertising and marketing big business prefers.

Digital disruption is bad news for the workers in disrupted industries – including journos – but don’t let anyone delude you: it’s almost always good news for consumers.
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Monday, September 11, 2017

Sorry, but using migration to boost growth ain’t smart

Ask an economist where the growth in the economy will be coming from and it's surprising how often they fail to give the most obvious answer: from growth in the population.

Why don't they? Partly because it's an admission of failure: more people, bigger economy. Wow, that must have been hard to engineer.

Economists aren't supposed to believe in growth for its own sake. Their sales pitch is that economic growth is good because it raises our material standard of living.

But this is true only if the economy grows faster than the population, producing an increase in income per person (and even this ignores the extent to which some people's incomes grow a lot faster than others).

This simple truth is obscured by economists' practice of measuring growth in the economy without allowing for population growth.

Take the national accounts we got for the June quarter last week. We were told the economy grew by 0.8 per cent during the quarter and by 1.8 per cent over the year to June.

Allow for population growth, however, and that drops to 0.4 per cent and a mere 0.2 per cent. So, improvement in living standards over the past financial year was negligible.

Over the past 10 years, more than two-thirds of the growth in real gross domestic product of 28 per cent was accounted for by population growth, with real growth per person of just 9 per cent.

It's a small fact to bear in mind when we compare our economic growth rate with other developed countries'.

We usually do well in that comparison, but rarely admit to ourselves that our population growth is a lot higher than almost all the others.

Our population grew by 1.6 per cent in 2016, and by the same average rate over the five years to June 2016. This was slower than the annual rate of 1.8 per cent over the previous five years, but well up on the 20-year average rate of 1.4 per cent.

So in the past decade we've been relying more heavily on population growth – read, increased immigration – to bolster economic growth and make the improvement in our material prosperity seem greater than it is.

By now, much less than half our population growth comes from natural increase (births minus deaths) and much more than half from "net overseas migration" (immigration minus emigration).

Meaning, of course, that the even-faster rate of population growth over the past decade has been a conscious act of policy.

Almost all our business people, politicians and economists support rapid population growth through high migration. With that much conventional wisdom behind it, who needs evidence?

It's certainly rational for business people to support high migration. Their concern is to maximise their own living standards, not those of the rest of us, and what easier way to increase your sales and profits and salary package than to sell in a market that keeps expanding?

But I oppose "bizonomics" – the doctrine that the economy should be run primarily for the benefit of business, rather than the people who live and work in it – and the older I get the more sceptical I get about the easy assumption that population growth is good for all of us.

For a start, I don't trust economists enough to accept their airy dismissal of environmentalists' worries that we may have exceeded our fragile ecosystem's "carrying capacity".

But even before you get to such minor matters as stuffing up our corner of the planet, there are narrowly economic reasons for doubting the happy assumption that a more populous economy is better for everyone.

The big one is that the more we add to the population, the more we have to divert our accumulation of scarce physical capital – housing, business equipment and public infrastructure of roads, public transport, schools, hospitals and 100 other things – from "capital deepening", so as to improve our productivity, to "capital widening", so as to stop our productivity per person actually worsening.

The feds decide how much immigration we get, but it's the hard-pressed states that have to keep increasing their infrastructure spending to keep up with the needs of their ever-expanding populations.

But the states allow discredited American credit-rating agencies to limit how much they can borrow. And then there's the glaring inconsistency between believing in rapid population growth and the smaller-government brigade's eternal struggle to stop tax increases and limit government borrowing.

Is it any wonder the long-suffering denizens of our chronically under-serviced outer suburbs end up diverting so much of their dissatisfaction onto immigrants who arrive uninvited by boat? Sometimes I wonder if that's by design, too.
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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What you'd have to live on if you were poor

Speaking of the cost of living, how much do you need to live on? Surveys show most people's answer is: just a bit more than I'm getting at present. Trouble is, they keep saying that no matter how much their income rises.

One way to convince yourself you're not doing all that well is to compare what you earn with people of your acquaintance who're earning a lot more than you.

A better assessment would be to compare your finances with those of people a lot closer to the bottom – if only you knew any.

Not to worry. On Wednesday, Professor Peter Saunders and Megan Bedford, of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, will publish new "budget standards" for low-paid and unemployed Australians.

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council, with a quarter of the cost covered by donations from Catholic Social Services Australia, the United Voice union and the Australian Council of Social Service.

In a painstaking exercise, the researchers have put together, and costed, the baskets of goods and services different-sized families at these income levels would need to allow each individual – adult or child – to lead a fully healthy life.

So it's not a poverty line and it does take account of prevailing community standards, but it's the minimum amount required to satisfy basic needs.

"There is no allowance for even the most modest or occasional 'luxuries' and wastage was kept to an absolute minimum. The budgets are thus extremely tight," the researchers say.

For instance, low-income families are assumed to have a car, but it's a second-hand, five-year-old Toyota Corolla, kept for five years. Unemployed people have no car.

Because it's a healthy standard, its only allowance for alcohol is a couple of glasses a week, with no allowance for smoking.

Let's see how you fancy living on these budget standards (I've rounded the figures to the nearest $10 for ease of comprehension). Each of the low-paid categories assumes one person working full-time on the national minimum wage.

A single adult would need to spend $600 a week. A couple with no children would need $830. Add a child of six and that rises to $970. Add a second child, of 10, and it's up to $1170. A sole parent working part-time, with a child, would need to spend $830 a week.

Let's take a couple with two children. Their biggest expense would be rent, $460 a week for a three-bedroom unit in an outer suburb. Then $200 for food, $140 for transport, $140 for household goods and services, $80 for recreation (swimming lessons; bit of sport for the kids), $60 for education, $40 for personal care, $30 for clothing and footwear and $20 a week for out-of-pocket healthcare.

The budget standards for unemployed families are, perforce, a lot tighter.

Whereas the low-paid were assumed to shop at Woolworths and Kmart, unemployed people in the focus groups used to check the realism of the standards said they couldn't afford such stores and went to Aldi and discount stores. They chase specials and collect discount vouchers, make things last longer and waste nothing.

Even with this frugality, an unemployed single adult needs $430 a week. A couple without children needs $660, but that rises by $110 to $770 with one kid, then by a further $170 to $940 with a second kid. An unemployed sole parent with one child needs $680 a week.

It's true that economies of scale mean a couple needs only 1.5 times as much money as a single. But additional kids cost more, partly because older kids cost more, but also because you need to rent a bigger unit.

The good news is that a single adult on the minimum wage earns about $60 a week more than they need to maintain the minimum healthy standard of living, costing $600 a week. A sole parent working part-time, with one child, gets wages and welfare benefits of $45 a week more than their minimum living costs of $830 a week.

After that, however, the news is bad. A low-paid couple with no children earns $40 a week less than the $830 they need. After allowing for family benefits, a low-paid couple (one in full-time work and one doing some part-time work) with one child is almost $10 a week shy of their $970 healthy standard, while a couple with two children is short by $90 of the $1170 a week they need.

One of the great stains on our fair-go nation's conscience is the long-running attempt by governments of both colours to starve the unemployed until they find a (usually non-existent) job.

The study finds that the dole, plus any other welfare benefits for which the jobless are eligible, falls almost $100 a week short of the much tighter minimum healthy living standard for the single jobless.

A childless couple on the dole falls short by almost $110 a week and a couple with two kids is shy about $130 a week.

In our boundless generosity, however, we go easy on an unemployed couple with one kid (short by a mere $60 a week) and a jobless sole parent with one kid, short by a piddling $50 a week.

If only you and I weren't having such a struggle to maintain our own living standards, we could perhaps ask the pollies to be a tad more munificent.
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Monday, July 27, 2015

Why the economy's slow growth may last

The biggest economic story last week wasn't all the wishful thinking about raising the goods and services tax, it was Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens' warning that the economy's "potential" rate of growth may be lower than we've assumed.

Predictably, those commentators who did see the significance of this news were too busy putting their own spin on it to make sure what Stevens' said was widely taken in. So let me have a go.

The macro managers' long-standing belief that the economy's "trend" rate of growth is 3 per cent a year or a fraction more has been challenged by the Bureau of Statistics' labour force estimates showing that, over the past year, the rate of unemployment has stabilised at 6 per cent.

Trouble is, the latest national accounts show the economy growing by only 2.3 per cent over the year to March. This is well below the trend rate that, almost by definition, is the rate at which the economy must grow to hold the unemployment rate steady.

How is this discrepancy explained? Stevens ran through the range of possibilities. Maybe employment hasn't been growing as strongly as the figures say at present. Maybe the economy has been growing more strongly than the figures say at present.

Or maybe part of the surprisingly strong growth in employment is explained by the unusually slow growth in wage rates, which would be saving some jobs and creating others.

The final possibility – and the one to which Stevens gives most weight – is that the trend rate of growth is lower than we've assumed, thus allowing unemployment to stabilise at a lower rate of economic growth than we've assumed.

Economists use the term "trend" in both a backward-looking and a forward-looking sense. If you calculate our average actual rate of growth over the past 10 or 20 years, this must have been our "potential" growth during that period.

If nothing in the economy has changed over that time, it should also be our average, trend rate of growth in the coming five or 10 years.

However, things do change – the population ages, for instance – so economists have to make guesses about what our potential growth rate will be in the future.

Our potential growth rate is the maximum rate at which the economy can grow on average over the medium term without a causing a serious inflation problem. It's set by the economy's supply side.

It represents the average rate at which the economy's capacity to produce goods and services is growing. And this is usually thought of as being determined by the rate of growth in the working population plus the rate of improvement in the productivity of labour.

(Whether in any particular year the economy is growing at a rate below, at or above its potential growth rate is determined by the strength of demand at the time. However, the economy can grow faster than its potential "speed limit" only for as long as it has idle production capacity to use up.)

But this is where those commentators who cottoned on to the significance of Stevens' views jumped to their own conclusions about what was causing the suspected slowdown in potential growth. They assumed it must be caused by a slowdown in labour productivity improvement.

Why? Because this fits well with the economists' (including Stevens') long-running campaign to persuade us to undertake more micro-economic​ reform so as to raise productivity and, hence, material living standards.

What they missed in their missionary zeal was Stevens' clear indication that he thought the culprit was slower-than-expected population growth.

The econocrats' figuring suggest a potential growth rate of 3 per cent would be explained by population growth of 1.7 per cent to 1.8 per cent a year, plus growth in labour productivity of 1.2 per cent to 1.3 per cent a year.

So their expected rate of productivity improvement is already pretty low, while the end of the mining construction boom and slow growth generally have seen population growth slow to 1.5 per cent a year or less as the net intake of workers on temporary 457 visas falls and Kiwis go home to a faster-growing economy.

The other thing the missionaries missed was Stevens point that, to the extent the lower trend rate is caused by lower population growth, it shouldn't involve any slower rate of improvement in our material living standards, as measured by growth per person.

Missionary micro-economic reformers won't win lasting converts by misrepresenting our present position, nor the outlook for growth. Their pessimism about future productivity improvement isn't supported by our more recent performance. It's little more than a guess.
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