Showing posts with label unemployment benefits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label unemployment benefits. Show all posts

Monday, December 28, 2020

Evil Lord Keynes flies to rescue of disbelieving Liberals

When we entered lockdown in March this year, many people (including me) pooh-poohed Scott Morrison’s assurance that the economy would “snap back” once the lockdown was lifted. Turned out he was more right than wrong. Question is, why?

Two reasons. But first let’s recap the facts. About 85 per cent of the jobs lost in April and May had been recovered by November, with more likely this month. It’s a similar story when you look at the rebound in total hours worked per month (thereby taking account of underemployment).

In consequence, the rate of unemployment is expected to peak at 7.5 per cent – way lower than the plateaus of 10 per cent after the recession of the early 1980s and 11 per cent after the recession of the early 1990s. And the new peak is expected in the next three months.

At this stage, the unemployment rate is expected to be back down to where it was before the recession in four years. If you think that’s a terribly long time, it is. But it’s a lot better than the six years it took in the ’80s, and the 10 years in the ’90s.

We’ve spent most of this year telling ourselves we’re in the worst recession since World War II. Turns out that’s true only in the recession’s depth. Never before has real gross domestic product contracted by anything like as much as 7 per cent – and in just one quarter, to boot.

But one lesson we’ve learnt this year is that, with recessions, what matters most is not depth, but duration. Normally, of course, the greater depth would add to the duration. But this is anything but a normal recession. And, in this case, it’s the other way round: the greater depth has been associated with shorter duration.

Of course, the expectation that this recession will take just four years to get unemployment back to where it was is just a forecast. It may well be wrong. But what we do have in the can is that, just six months after 870,000 people lost their jobs, 85 per cent of them were back in work. Amazing.

So why has the economy snapped back in a way few thought possible? First, because this debt-and-deficit obsessed government, which would never even utter the swearword “Keynes” - whom the Brits raised to the peerage for his troubles - swallowed its misconceptions and responded to the lockdown with massive fiscal (budgetary) stimulus.

The multi-year direct fiscal stimulus of $257 billion (plus more in the budget update) is equivalent to 13 per cent of GDP in 2019-20. This compares with $72 billion fiscal stimulus (6 per cent of GDP) applied in response to the global financial crisis – most of which the Liberals bitterly opposed.

Some see Morrison’s about-face on the question of fiscal stimulus as a sign of his barefaced pragmatism and lack of commitment to principle. Not quite. A better “learning” from this development is that conservative parties can afford the luxury of smaller-government-motivated opposition to using budgets (rather than interest rates) to revive economies only while in opposition, never when in government.

At the heart of Morrison’s massive stimulus were two new, hugely influential, hugely expensive and hugely Keynesian temporary “automatic budgetary stabilisers” - the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the supplement to JobSeeker unemployment benefits.

But the second reason the rebound is stronger than expected is that, while acknowledging the coronacession’s uniqueness, economists (and I) have been too prone to using past, more conventional recessions as the “anchor” for their predictions about how the coronacession will proceed.

We’ve forgotten that, whereas our past recessions were caused by the overuse of high interest rates to slowly kill off a boom in demand over a year or more, the coronacession is a supply shock – where the government suddenly orders businesses (from overseas airlines to the local caff) to cease trading immediately and until further notice, and orders all households to leave their homes as little as possible.

It’s this unprecedented supply-side element that means economists should never have used past ordinary demand-side recessions as their anchor for predicting the coronacession’s length and severity.

Whereas normal recessions are economies doing what comes naturally after the authorities hit the brakes too hard, the coronacession is an unnatural act, something that happened instantly after the flick of a government switch.

Morrison believed that, as soon as the government decided to flick the switch back to on, the economy would snap back to where it was. Thanks to his massive fiscal stimulus and other measures – which were specifically designed to stop the economy from unwinding while it was in limbo – his expectation was 85 per cent right.

But there’s a further “learning” to be had from all this. In a normal recession, a recovery is just a recovery. Once it’s started, we can expect it to continue until the job’s done, unless the government does something silly.

But this coronacession is one of a kind. What we’ve had so far is not the start of a normal recovery, but a rebound following the flick of the lockdown switch back to “on”. It has a bit further to run, with the leap in the household saving rate showing that a fair bit of the lockdown’s stimulus is yet to be spent.

Sometime next year, however, the stimulus will stop stimulating demand. Only then will we know whether the rebound has turned into a normal recovery. With wage growth still so weak, I’m not confident it will.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The young will carry the worst scars from this recession

When Scott Morrison spoke to the first day of the National Youth Commission's virtual "youth futures summit" on Monday, he sought to assure the young people that, difficult as the pandemic and the economy are at the moment, there is another side to it, "where Australia emerges once again, where we actually do go back to the life that we loved".

I'm sure that's true. But if past recessions are any guide, most of us will have recovered from the coronacession and be back enjoying the life we love long before most of the present crop of youngsters leaving education have found themselves a decent job.

If the past is any guide, the government won't do nearly as much as it should to help those youngsters who, "through no fault of their own", as Morrison would say, had the immense misfortune to be born in the wrong year or three.

And, quite apart from the pain so many young people will suffer, the money the taxpayer saves from that neglect is likely to be exceeded by all the subsequent cost to the budget in healthcare, unemployment benefits and workers whose reduced incomes mean they don't pay as much tax as they might have.

The greatest burden of recessions always falls on the young for the simple reason that employers' automatic response to a recession is to cancel their annual intake of school and university leavers. The deeper the recession, and the slower the recovery from it, the more years that entry-level hiring is postponed.

This was the case for many years after the global financial crisis of 2008 even though, for the rest of us, a recession was avoided.

You've heard that, unusually in this recession, the greatest burden has fallen on women rather than men. But this can be true while it remains true that the young are the greatest losers. That's because a disproportionate share of the women is young.

As summarised for the summit by the independent economist Saul Eslake, recent research by Treasury has found that people who enter the jobs market for the first time during a recession are less likely to change jobs – which means they're more likely to miss out on one of the main ways by which people get pay rises during their first 10 years in the workforce (that is, by changing jobs).

This matters because almost 80 per cent of lifetime wage rises occur during the first 10 years of someone's working life. So the "scarring" effect of leaving education in a bad year lasts for 10 years.

Treasury finds that the scarring effect has been bigger since 2000 than it was in earlier recessions, so that the most recent generations of young people have been affected more than previous generations. And it's worse for women than for men.

All this is consistent with the interim findings of a nationwide inquiry into youths' transition from education to employment, which the National Youth Commission published on Monday. It finds that unemployment for 15- to 24-year-olds is consistently higher than for 25- to 64-year-olds. And that traditional pathways to employment for young people have eroded over the past couple of decades.

One thing that's changed over the years is the growth of underemployment. To the present unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent and rising must be added the underemployment rate of 11.2 per cent, representing those who have some paid work but want more.

Just remember it's the young who dominate the underemployed. Many of them have multiple jobs, but still can't make ends meet. Many are in the "gig economy", whom governments have allowed to be defined as "independent contractors", thus permitting those wonderful innovative outfits that run app-based fast-food delivery and all the rest to sidestep the legal obligations of an employer.

Remember, too, that the seeming epidemic of "wage theft" – which, by their neglect, governments have done too much to allow and too little stamp out – would be perpetrated particularly on the young.

Unsurprisingly, the inquiry found the (pre-pandemic) levels of the youth allowance and unemployment benefits – which successive governments have frozen in real terms for 25 years – are inadequate. It's the young who suffer most from this parsimony.

Morrison and his ministers have repeatedly defended the $40 a day by saying people are on the dole only temporarily before they find a job. That was certainly the reasonable expectation in the past. Now, however, it's one of the respects in which the inquiry found the system no longer fit for purpose.

Another respect is, it's no longer true that most jobs for young people are full-time. Only in the past month has the government temporarily changed the means test to encourage the unemployed to look for part-time jobs. Pity so few of them are on offer at the minute.

The youth commission has proposed a detailed "youth futures guarantee" laying out reforms and measures that would better support our young people in meeting the challenges they face. Challenged to respond to the proposal, Morrison was masterfully noncommittal.
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Saturday, August 8, 2020

People on the dole don't want a job? Don't believe it

When Scott Morrison introduced the "coronavirus supplement" that temporarily added $275 a week to the dole’s $40 a day, he explained this was to help those who’d be losing their jobs "through no fault of their own". But it wasn’t long before he was finding fault.

"We are getting a lot of anecdotal feedback from small businesses, even large businesses, where some of them are finding it hard to get people to come and take the shifts because they’re on these higher levels of payment," Morrison told 2GB radio.

"What we have to be worried about now is that we can’t allow the JobSeeker payment to become an impediment to people going out and doing work."

These views would explain his decision to slash the supplement to $125 a week after September, and continue it only to December. What happens after that is still to be decided. But recipients will be required to prove they’ve looked for at least one job a week and will have their dole suspended if they refuse to take a job offer considered suitable.

Of course, it wouldn’t have escaped Morrison’s notice that this "treat ’em mean to keep 'em keen" approach would also help with his worries about the ballooning budget deficit.

I can’t say I’m surprised to hear small business people saying that, despite all the talk of high unemployment, they can’t get people to take the jobs they need to fill. I've heard that in all the previous recessions I’ve worked through.

And, indeed, the practice of denigrating the jobless goes back at least as far as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then, there were newspaper reports of huge dole frauds that threatened to cripple the system and of a lazy, chicken-eating family living in luxury on the dole.

There’s just one problem with all this. There’s no hard evidence to support these anecdotes, and growing evidence that paying decent rates of unemployment benefit doesn’t discourage people from taking jobs.

These anecdotes don’t fit with a survey of employers conducted by the federal Department of Employment in June, which found just 6 per cent of employers said they were having difficulty recruiting due to a lack of applicants.

The trouble with anecdotes is that they’re anecdotal. The people telling you the stories never give particulars of why they had no takers. Were the vacancies well advertised? Were they paying below the legal award wage or wanting to pay in cash under the table? Were they wanting people to work overtime or at weekends without getting penalty rates? Was the job dangerous or especially unattractive – split shifts, for example.

In recent years, many casual jobs paying less than the law requires have been accepted by overseas students and others on temporary visas. Since the coronavirus hit, many of these people, being denied unemployment benefits or the JobKeeper wage subsidy, have been told to go back home, and have done so. Is that the problem?

In my experience, small business people can see their own perspective very clearly, but other people’s not so much. Many people who seek part-time work do so because they have other commitments that the work must be fitted around – full-time studies, for example, or young children. Maybe that extra shift Morrison refers to would have required people to pay more for childcare.

Then there’s the special circumstances of the virus. It’s likely many single parents have given up casual or part-time work to stay home with their kids when schools are closed. Some older people would have stopped working for fear of catching the disease.

I’ve met many business people (big and small, so to speak) who fall for the economists’ occupational hazard of assuming that, because money is a powerful motivator when it comes to work, money is the only motivation.

They can’t imagine that anyone would want to work rather than sit around at home because they like working, because they like being busy, like seeing their workmates, feel that healthy people should work, or even just to avoid the stigma many unkind people attach to being unemployed.

Many people have the attitude that anyone who really wants a job can find one. But while ever the number of unemployed exceeds the number of vacant jobs, this is a “fallacy of composition” – what may be true for the individual isn’t true for everyone.

Between February and May, the number of people on the JobSeeker payment (formerly Newstart) and the youth allowance rose by more than 90 per cent to 1.8 million whereas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ quarterly survey, the number of vacant jobs fell by 43 per cent to 129,000.

So there are about 14 jobseekers for every vacancy. Which means that, no matter how punishingly low you set the unemployment benefit – say, $40 a day – you can’t incentivise people to take jobs that don’t exist.

Even when the coronavirus supplement had almost doubled the dole to $550 a week, that’s just 73 per cent of the national minimum full-time wage of $754 a week. This percentage is one measure of what economists call the “wage replacement ratio”.

It’s also the most “conservative” measure - that is, likely to overstate the problem – since most full-timers would earn more than the minimum wage. In any case, the planned $150 cut in the supplement to just $125 a week will reduce the replacement ratio to just 53 per cent.

Not much of a disincentive to take a job there, I’d have thought. But this great fear of temporarily increased unemployment benefits being a great disincentive to work is a big issue in the United States and an argument Republicans have used to refuse to renew the supplement.

But as Catherine Rampell has written in the Washington Post, no fewer than five different academic studies have concluded the same thing: the Americans’ supplement does not appear to have adversely affected jobs growth.
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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morrison’s not doing nearly enough to secure our future

It was obvious this time last week, but even more so a week later: Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are taking both the continuing threat from the coronavirus and the need to restore the economy far too cheaply. Figuratively and literally.

One thing another week of struggle by Victoria and NSW to contain the virus’s second wave has shown more clearly – plus the realisation of how vulnerable the neglect and misregulation of our aged care sector have left us – is the unreality of the government’s expectations about the effects of the pandemic.

Last week’s economic and budget update assumed Victoria would be back on track in six weeks and NSW’s struggles were too minor to matter. And also that we’ll start opening to international travel in January.

A more realistic assumption would be that the larger, virus-prone half of the economy (NSW and Victoria) will need to stay sealed off from the healthier, smaller half (the other states and the Northern Territory) indefinitely. Half a healthy economy is far from ideal, but it beats none.

Surely we should have realised by now that the pandemic will be a long-haul flight. Speaking of which, our barriers against the rest of the world are likely to stay up long after the 12th day of Christmas.

Economically, we must make the best of it we can – which won’t be anything like as good as we’d like. Forcing the pace on lifting the lockdown and removing the interstate barriers could easily end up setting us back rather than moving us forward.

What economists seem yet to understand is that, psychologically, what we have to do to keep the virus controlled is the opposite to what you’d do to hasten an economic recovery. To ensure people keep mask-wearing, hand-washing, sanitising, social-distancing and filling out a form every time they walk into a cafe for month after month, you keep them in a state of fear, afraid the virus may bite them at any moment.

How will this give them the confidence to get on with spending and investing? It won’t. Quite the opposite. But it’s the first indication Morrison and Frydenberg will need to spend more for longer.

The second thing that’s more obvious now than it was a week ago is that the setback in Victoria and NSW has put a question mark over the signs of an initial bounce-back in the economy as the lockdown has been lifted. The new payroll-based figures for the week to July 11 show jobs falling in all states, not just Victoria and NSW.

All this casts further doubt on the wisdom of the changes to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs announced last week. The initial reaction of relief that the government had not gone through with its original plan to end them abruptly in September has given way to the realisation that this threat of dropping the economy off a “fiscal cliff” has been delayed rather than averted.

The new boss of independent think tank the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has estimated that the changes to the two job schemes will reduce the government’s support for the economy by close to $10 billion in the December quarter and thus “leave a substantial hole in the economy”.

In an earlier major report, Grattan argued that the government needed to spend a further $70 billion to $90 billion to secure a recovery. The measures announced last week amount to only about an additional $22 billion.

According to calculations by the ANZ bank’s economics team, the withdrawal of budgetary support amounts to the equivalent of about 10 per cent of quarterly gross domestic product during the December quarter.

In consequence, although the bank agrees with Treasury that real GDP will grow in the present September quarter, it sees the economy returning to contraction in the December quarter. What would that do for business and consumer confidence?

In its earlier report, Grattan said the government should aim to get the unemployment rate back down to 5 per cent or below by mid-2022. Why the hurry? To “reduce the long-term economic pain and avoid scarring people’s lives”.

Particularly young people’s lives – as this week’s report from the Productivity Commission has reminded us.

But the economic update last week forecast the unemployment rate would peak at 9.25 per cent in the December quarter and still be sitting at 8.75 per cent in the middle of next year.

That’s simply not good enough. It puts the interests of the budget deficit ahead of the interests of tens of thousands of Australians thrown out of work through “no fault of their own”, to quote a Mr S. Morrison.

Grattan’s Wood stresses that she has no problem with making the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme better targeted. But that’s not all the government did. It cut back the size of payments and extended the scheme only for another six months.

After the cutback in income support for the jobless and potentially jobless was announced two days before the presentation of the budget update, she hoped the update would include announcements about the new spending programs that would fill the “substantial hole” the cutback left.

It didn’t. Not a sausage.

“The missing piece of the puzzle,” she now says, “remains a plan to stimulate the economy and jobs growth as the income supports are phased out and social distancing restrictions are eased in many parts of the country.”

So what should the government be spending on? She suggests measures that would both create jobs and meet social needs. “Social housing, mental health services, and tutoring to help disadvantaged students catch up on learning lost during the pandemic would deliver on this double dividend.

“Boosting the childcare subsidy to support family incomes and workforce participation should also be in the mix,” she says.

To that you could add fixing aged care, spending more on research and development and universities, not to mention renewable energy.

There’s no shortage of good things worth spending on.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Thatcherism: our conservatives prefer punishment to 'reform'

If your citizen-strength bulldust detector isn’t pinging like blazes, you need a new one. And if Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have a fraction of the courage of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, I’ll eat the hat I’m not yet bald enough to need.

Speaking from experience, Frydenberg is like the fat man whose eyes are bigger than his belly and orders more than he can eat. He wanted to give his hardline Liberal backbenchers a thrill by invoking the holy names, but he and his boss don’t have the appetite for tough “reforms”.

The truth is that only conservatives of a certain age (and failing memories) hanker after the glory days of Thatcher and Reagan. No one else wants to return to the halcyon era of privatisation and deregulation because by now most people realise how lacking in halcyonicity those things are.

In any case, all the obvious reforms have already been made. When you’ve privatised Telstra, Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and much else, what’s left? Selling off Australia Post?

The further you go down that road, the more dubious and distasteful your sell-offs become. The more recent privatisation of Medibank has effectively opened private health insurance provision to profit-seeking companies, adding a further problem to all that sector’s other life-threatening ailments.

The states’ privatisation of the electricity industry has turned five state monopolies into three big money-hungry oligopolists and raised electricity prices far higher than a carbon tax ever could.

The admission of for-profit businesses to childcare and aged care has hardly been a roaring success (on the latter, just ask Victorians). Bringing private companies into vocational training has turned technical education into a disaster area that’s still to be cleaned up.

The public is strongly opposed to privatisation. When the Coalition was considering privatising Medicare’s back-office processing, Labor portrayed this as a plan to privatise Medicare proper which, apparently, cost Malcolm Turnbull a lot of votes in the 2016 election.

Speaking of which, remember that Thatcher’s initial reforms were so unpopular she needed a war with Argentina to get re-elected. John Howard’s goods and services tax was so unpopular he went perilously close to losing the 1998 election.

I was puzzled to see Frydenberg associating Thatcher and Reagan with removing red tape. They aren’t remembered for anything so minor. Then I realised removing red tape was his euphemism for “deregulation”. The word now has such negative connotations he didn’t even want to say it – much less do it.

No, I don’t think we have anything to fear from Morrison’s inner Maggie.

For another thing, she wanted to close Britain’s inefficient coal mines, not defy economic reality and keep them going at all cost. And she, being a scientist, never had any doubt about the reality of climate change and the need to stop it.

The historian Manning Clark argued that, thanks to the circumstances of white settlement, Australia’s leaders could be divided into two groups: the “enlargers” and the “punishers and straighteners”. The enlargers wanted to get on with exploiting this land’s huge opportunities, whereas the punishers and straighteners, successors to the governors and prison guards, just wanted to go on running the place and keeping the lower orders in line.

If today’s Liberals were enlargers, they’d be resisting the temptation to help our coal and gas industries postpone their inevitable demise, and embracing this great opportunity to transform Australia into a global superpower in the production and export of renewable energy.

The Libs’ continuing role as punishers and straighteners is seen in their penchant for playing friends and enemies. Honourable friends and disreputable enemies. Honourable friends get rewarded with big tax cuts, which probably need to be brought forward – in the national interest, of course.

Although the Libs have lacked the mandate to cut government spending generally, they’ve selected various enemies whose lack of public sympathy means their money can be cut with impunity. Amid the massive government spending to counteract the lockdown, they’ve still singled out the universities for exclusion from the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme or any other help of consequence.

But the people the Libs have most wanted to punish are the unemployed. When the lockdown caused unemployment to more than double, they had no choice but to increase the dole. But they kept their measures temporary, and introduced a two-class system.

Those travelling second class – who’ve lost any link to an employer – were given the JobSeeker unemployment benefit of $558 a week, about a quarter less than those in first class on JobKeeper.

We learnt last week that, after September, this will drop to $408, about a third less than the reduced JobKeeper payment. Means-testing will be resumed, as will penalties for failing to search for jobs. JobKeeper has been extended for six months, but the JobSeeker supplement only for three, with no guarantee it then won’t revert to $40 a day.

Why so tough? Because the unemployed aren’t like you and me. They’re shirkers. If you want them to work, you have to threaten punishment.
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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Complacent government cutting back support far too early

Sorry, but this is the economic statement of a government that’s complacent about controlling the coronavirus and about getting a million unemployed people back to work. It sees its job as largely done. Now it’s time to quickly wind back its spending on supporting the economy and call for the bill.

You can tell Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg decided this before the extent of the setbacks in Victoria and NSW became fully apparent. They have assumed that after the six-week lockdown in Melbourne, everything will be fine again.

That’s quite an assumption, especially because those two states account for more than half the national economy.

A less complacent assumption would have been that, in the many months likely to pass before a vaccine is widely available, several further major setbacks could occur and delay the return to confidence by consumers and businesses that normal economic times had resumed and it was time to get on with spending and investing.

If so, the government might have a lot more spending to do to keep the economy above water until the pandemic’s “once-in-a-century shock” to the economy has passed.

Were you shocked by the news of the highest budget deficits since World War II, leading to net public debt already up to $488 billion and expected to hit $677 billion by next June?

Such shock seems to have been the main goal of Thursday’s budget update. The government’s spin doctors announced the fate of both the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the temporary doubling of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit two days earlier so as to now heighten public concern about all that money being spent, and get us to accept the government’s decision that spending should be wound back pronto.

And that’s what Morrison announced on Tuesday – though you could be forgiven for not noticing it through all the spin. The government had gone for weeks threatening to end both schemes in September.

So when Morrison announced that they would be continued for another six months, in modified form, there was a sigh of relief. Few people noticed that the threatened “fiscal cliff” would now be just a precipitous incline.

It’s estimated that two-thirds of companies – and their employees – will be off JobKeeper by early next year. Which will be fine provided the economy bounces back as strongly as the government seems to believe it will.

But Treasury’s forecast that the economy will grow by 2.5 per cent in 2021 seems optimistic to me – and in any case, wouldn’t be sufficient to do much to turn around the 870,000 jobs lost between March and May this year and the million workers who saw their hours cut.

What seems clear is that the government is anxious to rein in the growth in its spending so as to limit the growth in its debt. What’s much harder is to find economists who agree that, with the economy’s prospects still so worrying, now is the time to be cautious and pull back.

A poll of 50 leading economists, conducted by the Economic Society of Australia, found that 44 of them agreed the government should use its budget to boost demand during the economic crisis and recovery, “even if it means a substantial increase in public debt”.

And if Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe shares the government’s worries about debt and deficit, he’s got a strange way of showing it.

Only on Tuesday he said that “debt across all levels of government in Australia, relative to the size of the economy, is much lower than in many other countries and it is likely to remain so. The Australian government can borrow at the lowest interest rates since Federation.”

So it is “well placed to smooth out the shock to private incomes and support the economy through the pandemic”.

It all translates to economists telling the government it’s the “eye-watering” levels of unemployment it should be most worried about.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Don't forget those the pandemic leaves out in the cold

After a fortnight's patriotic duty swanning round the backblocks of the state dispensing modest monetary good cheer – and discovering we were far from the only cityslickers doing it – it's back to a city plunged into renewed foreboding. The greatest concern is the pandemic's returning risk to our lives but, for me, this worsens rather than detracts attention from the great economic cost: protracted unemployment. A second wave of the virus would bring a double-dip recession.

When Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – a man so committed to looking on the bright side he's positively Pythonesque – feels it his duty to advise that the official unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent is actually an effective rate of 13.3 per cent once you allow for the peculiarities of the lockdown, you know we must be in deep trouble.

He wouldn't be issuing such a warning if he didn't need to prepare us for next week's mini-budget, which the setbacks in Melbourne and Sydney will have caused to be a lot less penny-pinching than earlier planned.

Where before Scott Morrison might have told himself the worst was over and it was time to start limiting the damage to his precious budget, now he must keep the money flowing so as to limit the damage to the livelihoods of many workers and their families.

Back in March, many of the government's initial measures to limit the economic damage caused by his harsh but unavoidable efforts to stop the spread of the virus – including the innovative JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and JobSeeker's doubling of the rate of unemployment benefits – were timed to last six months and so end in late September.

The mini-budget's main purpose is to announce what will happen after that. A point to remember is that these measures don't just directly relieve the financial pressure on people who've lost their jobs, they benefit all of us indirectly by injecting additional money into the economy, which then flows through many hands – shopkeepers and workers alike – keeping the economy moving and thus limiting the further rise in joblessness.

A further thing to remember is that the unemployed don't only need money to help them keep body and soul together and feed their families (not to mention money to keep their mobile working, travel to job interviews and be appropriately dressed), they also need help finding another job.

The terrible thing about recessions is that they throw the economy up in the air, so to speak, and what eventually comes down is different to what went up. Recessions accelerate the changing structure of the economy. The industries and occupations change, with some contracting and others expanding.

So the jobs move, and employers' demand for particular occupations changes. Even with assistance from the wonders of the internet, many workers need help to locate a new job, need guidance to give up on industry A and try industry B, or even help to retrain for a job in another occupation where demand is greater.

After a severe recession, it can take a year or more before the quantity of goods and services produced each quarter has returned to where it was before it started falling, and several years before it gets back to where it would have been had the recession not happened.

But it takes longer for employment to return to where it was and far longer for unemployment to fall. After the last recession, the number of people on unemployment benefits fell by almost half, from a peak of 890,000 in 1993 to 464,000. But get this: it took 14 years.

If that wasn't bad enough, in that time, the number of recipients who'd been on the dole for more than a year fell by only 20 per cent to 276,000.

One lesson from this is that it's the unemployed who'll bear most of the economic cost of this pandemic, however long it lasts. It will take longer than you may think for people who lose their jobs to find another. While they're out in the cold, we who've kept our jobs have a moral obligation to ensure they're given a reasonable sum to live on, as well as a lot of help finding a new berth.

Many will find a job within a month or two, but some will take much longer. And the longer it takes, the less likely it becomes. These are people who deserve extra help to avoid getting stuck in the mud at the bottom of the unemployment pool, and we should give it.

Last week the Australian Council of Social Service called for JobKeeper to be phased down only gradually, and for the JobSeeker payment to be increased permanently by at least $185 a week, which would lift it to the rate of the age and other pensions.

The focus of Centrelink and the Job Network should be switched from penalising the jobless for concocted infringements to actually helping them find jobs and retrain. It's the least we should do.
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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Women, part-timers and the young hardest hit by jobs crisis

At a time like this, measuring the rise in joblessness is very important. But it’s a trickier job than many realise. You have to draw boundaries somewhere, and where they should go can always be debated.

But some who don’t like comparing shades of grey think the problem can be reduced to good guys and bad guys. Why do the figures look strange? Because some prime minister a few years back changed the definition of unemployment to make it look smaller. Would you believe that someone who’s worked as little as one hour in a week is counted as employed?

Sorry, this fiddling is an urban myth. The truth isn’t nearly so exciting. But before I deflate the balloon, let me show you the circumstantial evidence.

The most recent figures, for April, show America’s rate of unemployment leaping more than 10 percentage points to 14.7 per cent – in just a month. Canada’s unemployment jumped 5 points to 13 per cent.

What happened to our rate? It crept up from 5.2 per cent to 6.2 per cent. Really? Are you kidding? What’s that if it’s not a fiddle?

Or, consider this. Our figures show that about 900,000 people lost their jobs in the four weeks to mid-April. But they also show that unemployment increased during the period by only about 100,000. How’s that possible? What’s that if it’s not a fiddle?

Actually, it’s support for one of my favourite sayings: the world is a complicated place. There are puzzles everywhere. If you want everything to be black or white – all good or all bad - you should never have left the security of primary school.

So, it may look like a conspiracy, but it ain’t. A sign that we’re dealing with a myth is that the identity of the PM who did the dirty deed changes with the political sympathies of the person who tells you they remember him doing it.

The figures we get each month for how many people are employed, unemployed or neither (“not in the labour force”) come from a huge monthly survey of households conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which brooks no interference from politicians.

The bureau follows international conventions set by the United Nations' International Labour Organisation, in Geneva. Its definitions haven’t changed in many decades. (I once ran into a union-movement economist who was an Australian representative on the ILO committee reviewing the definitions. To my surprise, he staunchly defended the decision to leave them unchanged, including the bit about one hour’s work meaning you were employed.)

As the bureau explains in its release, the main reason the North Americans’ unemployment rates are so much higher than ours has to do with workers who’ve been “stood down” for some weeks because the boss has no work for them, but hopes to bring them back when things improve.

We class such people a still employed, whereas the North Americans class them as unemployed. The bureau estimates that, if we did it the American way, our unemployment rate would be not 6.2 per cent, but 11.7 per cent.

Although about 900,000 Australians ceased to be employed during the four weeks to mid-April, it may amaze you that, in the same period, about 300,000 people went from not having a job to having one. This surprises people because they don’t realise how much coming and going there is in the labour force, even during recessions.

The bureau estimates that, even in a month where total employment seems hardly to have changed, on average about 300,000 people leave employment and about the same number move into employment.

It’s the net fall in employment of about 600,000 that matters. Why then did unemployment rise by only about 100,000? Because part of the definition of being unemployed is that you must be actively looking for job. Since we were in lockdown, 500,000 of these people didn’t start looking for another job, and so were classed as “not in the labour force”. As soon as they do start looking, they’ll be unemployed.

People make too much of the rule that an hour’s work means you’re not unemployed. Only 2.5 per cent of all those employed in March worked for only one to five hours a week. It’s true, however, that the international definition of unemployment is too narrow, especially in a world where one-third of our jobs are part-time.

This is why the bureau always calculates the rate of under-employment – people who have (mainly) part-time jobs, but would prefer to be working more hours than they’re able to, maybe even full-time hours.

The coronacession has meant many workers are having their hours cut. The number of underemployed people jumped by 100,000 to 800,000, taking the underemployed proportion of the labour force from 8.8 per cent to 13.7 per cent.

Delving into the figures, about 55 per cent of the 600,000 jobs lost in April were held by women, even though women accounted for only 47 per cent of the workforce. Almost two-thirds of the jobs lost were part-time.

Employment of people aged 15 to 24 fell by about 11 per cent, compared with a fall of 3 per cent for prime-aged workers (aged 25 to 54). Unemployment is a much bigger problem for the young, as is underemployment.

While your head’s still spinning, one last puzzle. Being counted as unemployed by the bureau is not the same thing as being eligible to receive unemployment benefits - the “JobSeeker” payment - from Centrelink.

Some people counted as unemployed aren’t eligible for the dole (often because their spouse’s income is too high), whereas some people eligible for the dole aren’t counted as unemployed (because they’re allowed to work a few hours a week before the dole cuts out).

Right now, however (and partly thanks to a temporary increase in how much your spouse may earn), there are 800,000 people counted as unemployed, but twice as many – 1.6 million – getting the JobSeeker payment.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Hard lessons on how recessions work and why we hate them

Forgive me for boasting about how old I am, but this coronacession – aka the Great Lockdown – will be the fourth severe recession of my career as an economic journalist. That makes recessions my special subject, though I’ve not had much call to talk about them for almost 30 years.

I was too young to remember much of Bob Menzies’ Credit Squeeze, which came within a whisker of tossing him out of office in 1961. But I was established in journalism before I saw the recession of the mid-1970s add the last nail to the coffin of the Whitlam government.

Malcolm Fraser’s prime ministership was cut short by the recession of the early 1980s. Bob Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, should have been dispensed with at the 1993 election after the recession of the early 1990s, but was saved by our inordinate fear of Dr John Hewson’s proposed goods and services tax. By the next election in 1996, however, voters were on their verandahs with baseball bats waiting for Keating.

So, lesson No. 1: governments that preside over recessions usually get the blame for them. Lesson No. 2: in Australia, recessions happen roughly every seven years – or so I imagined at the time.

When the financial crisis of 2008 failed to sweep us into the world’s Great Recession, I was denied what I fondly assumed would be the biggest recession of my career. Why? Because Kevin Rudd did exactly what his econocrats told him to – and it worked.

In truth, we did have a recession, but one too small to remember. Another truth: more than a decade later, our economy had still not got back fully to normal and was in a weak state when the virus hit us some weeks ago.

In the decades since our last experience of severe recession, silly people in the financial markets and the media have given us the impression that a recession consists of real gross domestic product falling for two quarters in succession.

If you haven’t already, you’ll soon realise what nonsense that is. Lesson No. 3: the defining, terrible characteristic of recessions is soaring unemployment. That’s what makes people fear them so much. “What if I lost my job? How would I pay the mortgage? What about my kids? I’ve got one just finishing uni. Oh, what an appalling stuff-up. Those politicians are hopeless.”

Recessions inflict great harm on those who lose their jobs or their businesses. They make people terribly anxious. They heighten money worries and fights between spouses. They kill off any optimism about the future, leaving the public depressed and surly for month after month. They bark at every economist.

Lesson No. 4: unemployment shoots up, but crawls back down. I remember how much fuss there was when the number on unemployment benefits hit a million under the Hawke government. Last week Scott Morrison announced that, in just a few weeks, the number of people on the JobSeeker allowance (the latest in a long list of bureaucratic euphemisms for the dole) had topped 1.3 million – with a further 300,000 applications to be processed.

After the Hawke-Keating recession (the one we didn’t really have to have), it took almost 14 years for the rate of unemployment to get back down to the 5.9 per cent it was in November 1989.

And research by Professor Bob Gregory, of the Australian National University, suggests that people who’ve been unable to find a job for two years are unlikely to find one again. In recessions past, governments have hidden away some of these people by putting them on the disability pension.

In this recession, the new JobKeeper payment – a worthy measure – is helping to understate the number of workers counted as unemployed.

Lesson No. 5: though economic journalists make much of unemployment statistics, what brings the reality of high unemployment home to the public is TV footage of ashen-faced workers streaming out of factory gates after being laid off.

What did it this time was footage of all those young people queuing up the street and around the corner from Centrelink. Lesson No. 6: this recession, like all of them, will hit the young hardest, particularly those leaving the education system to start working. As part of this, the low-skilled are always hit harder.

What’s different this time – due to the recession’s unique cause: the government hitting the economy on the head with a hammer – is that job losses are so heavily concentrated in a few sectors: tourism and hospitality, arts and entertainment, and universities.

My final lesson is that public attitudes towards the unemployed are cyclical. Between recessions, many people see them as too lazy to work. Come the next recession, however, and we ooze sympathy. We know people who’ve lost their jobs and we’re hoping neither we nor our kids will be joining them.

So, give the jobless a hard time with pettifogging officiousness, robo-debt, payment by card not cash, Work for the Dole, drug testing, reverting to $40 a day? No, wouldn’t dream of it. Not if you’re hoping to be re-elected.
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Monday, April 13, 2020

How would Jesus treat people on the dole?


Since it’s Easter, let me tell you about something that’s long puzzled me: how can an out-and-proud Pentecostalist such as Prime Minister Scott Morrison be leading the most un-Christian government I can remember? Fortunately, however, the virus crisis seems to be bringing out his more caring side.

Many people think being a Christian means being obsessed with sexual matters - abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage – plus, these days, their human right to discriminate against people who don’t share their sexual taboos.

But if you read the four gospels recording what Jesus did and said, one message you get is one rarely emphasised by his modern-day, generally better-off followers. Jesus was always on about the plight of the poor, and was surprisingly tough on the rich.

Jesus gave his followers a new commandment, that they love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Asked who was the neighbour we should love as our self, he told the parable of a despised Samaritan, who rescued a man bleeding in a ditch while two upright church-goers “passed by on the other side”.

Jesus said he came to “proclaim the good news to the poor”. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

To the rich he advised: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

Jesus blessed those who had been kind to others: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

When a young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he said: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the young man “was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions”.

All this compares badly with the actions of the Coalition government, in which Morrison has always played a senior role. As minister for immigration, he was more ruthless than Labor in turning away strangers who came by boat seeking asylum. Those who did make it were treated harshly, to ensure any further strangers got the message about how unwelcome they’d be.

A lot of people like to divide the poor between the deserving and the undeserving. Like Labor before it, the Coalition has pandered to this un-Christian attitude. It favours “lifters” over “leaners”. Morrison himself introduced the ethical code that only those judged to have “had a go” will “get a go”.

The deserving poor are people on the age pension; the undeserving are the unemployed, single parents and probably most of those claiming the disability support pension. I went out and found a job; what’s stopping them doing the same except their own laziness?

Labor always pandered to the widespread “downward envy” of the jobless, but the Coalition has doubled down, reintroducing work for the dole despite all the reports saying it does nothing to improve people’s employability, making people run down their savings and wait longer to be eligible for the dole, making people prove they’ve approached an unreasonable number of employers each fortnight and suspending their payment if they fail, or miss an appointment for any reason. Not to mention the "robo-debt" scandal.

The Coalition wants to control how people spend the dole by paying them by card rather than cash. It wants regular drug testing of those on the dole. And it has steadfastly resisted widespread public pressure to increase the paltry amount of the dole, even though Labor has finally been shamed into abandoning its own longstanding hardheartedness.

But now, however, having adopted the slogan “we’re all in this together” – one beloved of my co-religionists in the Salvos - in his battle against the virus, Morrison seems to have had a change of heart. Whereas Kevin Rudd studiously avoided including the unemployed in his two cash splashes, Morrison has included them with other welfare recipients in his two $750 payments.

His temporary “coronavirus supplement” effectively doubles the rate of unemployment benefits to about $550 a week. He must know that returning the dole to $40 a day after six months won’t be politically possible. Meanwhile, his temporary JobKeeper payment of a flat $750 a week undercompensates higher wage earners while overcompensating lower wage earners, including many casuals.

In all, a Christlike turn for the good.
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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Want the jobless to find jobs? Then increase the dole

It’s so familiar a part of political economy you could call it Galbraith’s Law, after John Kenneth Galbraith, the literary Canadian-American economist who put it into words. As the late senator John Button paraphrased it: the rich need more money as an incentive and the poor need less money as an incentive.

Consider the first actions of the re-elected Scott Morrison and his government. First, pushing through its three-stage tax plan, which in time will cut the income tax of those on the minimum wage by 1.5¢ in every dollar, those full-time workers on the median wage by 2.4¢ in every dollar, and those on $200,000 a year by 5.8¢ in the dollar.

Second, steadfastly resisting the ever-mounting calls for a rise in the single dole of $278 a week (less than 38 per cent of the minimum wage), which hasn’t been increased beyond inflation since 1997, making it now about $180 a week less than the pension.

It’s true that, until very recently, Labor was just as opposed to raising the dole as the Coalition has long been. Why? Because both sides know that doing so would displease many of their supporters.

As everyone knows, the dole is paid to lazy youngsters, who much prefer surfing to looking for a job – which, if only they’d get off their arses, they’d soon find. (Never mind that the number of unemployed vastly exceeds the number of job vacancies.)

Even so, the number of those calling for an increase is mounting rapidly. Apart from the welfare groups, it has long included the Business Council, which has now been joined by various economists – including those working for two of the big four accounting firms, plus someone called Dr Philip Lowe – and backbenchers from both sides, including Barnaby Joyce, who says the dole isn’t high enough for country people to afford the travel to job interviews.

Even John Howard, the man who initiated the freeze in real terms, now says it’s time for it to end.

Morrison, however, is unmoved. He argues the dole is better than it's been painted. It’s increased twice a year in line with inflation, and 99 per cent of recipients get other payments.

True. But what the 99 per cent get is the “energy supplement”, which is worth 63¢ a day and doesn’t change the claim that the dole amounts to about $40 a day.

About 40 per cent of singles on the dole get rent assistance – of up to $9.80 a day – provided they’re paying rent of more than $21.40 a day which, rest assured, they are. Much more.

There are 722,000 people on unemployment benefits. Half of them are over 45 – strange to think how sure people are that employers discriminate against older job applicants, but don’t ever imagine them being on the dole.

Similarly, more than a quarter of recipients have an illness or disability, but are on the dole because they’ve been denied the disability support pension. These people, along with more than 100,000 single parents, face challenges and discrimination in finding paid work.

Another argument ministers use is that the dole was only ever intended to be a temporary payment while people find another job and, indeed, two-thirds of people going on to it move off within 12 months.

But get your head around this: accepting that’s true, it’s also true that, at any point in time, two-thirds of people on the optimistically named Newstart allowance have been on it for a year or more. These are the long-term unemployed who, presumably, include many of those with particular challenges.

I agree with Morrison that “the best form of welfare is a job”. It’s true, too, that in recent years many additional, full-time jobs have been created. But it’s equally true that many of those jobs have gone to immigrants and other new entrants to the labour force, meaning the rate of unemployment hasn’t fallen below 5 per cent. That’s acceptable?

The truth is that, even in the city, the meanness of the dole makes it hard for people to afford the transport and other costs needed to search for jobs. The notion that poor people will seek work only under the lash of poverty is heartless nonsense.

Other facts are that the economy has slowed sharply since the middle of last year, employment is growing more slowly and unemployment is now rising.

This is why Reserve Bank governor Lowe has twice cut the official interest rate and is begging the government use its budget to do more to stimulate the economy. It partly explains his support for an increase in the dole – an extra $75 a week is the popular proposal – which, as a stimulus measure, has the great virtue of being likely to be spent fully and quickly by its impoverished recipients.

So why the refusal? For the reasons we’ve discussed but also because, having given up tax revenue of $300 billion over 10 years, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg now insists he can’t afford a dole increase costing a whopping $39 billion over 10 years. Too much threat to his promised return to budget surplus.

Strange logic. Should the economy’s slowdown not be reversed, unemployment – and the budgetary cost of the dole – will go a lot higher, and hopes of budget surpluses will evaporate, replaced by angry people accusing the government of economic incompetence.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Why politicians only pretend to care about low income earners


It must be the Salvo still hidden inside me that makes my blood boil when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claims to be delivering a tax cut worth $1080 a year to “low and middle income earners” and his claim is mindlessly repeated by journalists as though it’s a fact that doesn’t need checking.

I was brought up to care about people at the bottom. So, since we’re bound to spend most of the election campaign debating the complaints of the whingeing well-off, let’s spend just a moment thinking about “those less fortunate than ourselves”.

The $1080 – which Labor has promised to match should it win the election – will go to people earning between $48,000 and $90,000 a year, or about $920 to $1730 a week.

Does that sound like low and middle to you? It’s not hard to convince yourself it does. After all, the average earnings of adults working full-time are $93,300 a year.

Trouble is, the average (or mean) income is far from being typical. That’s because it’s pushed up by a relatively small number of people on very high incomes - the 1 per cent, if you like.

The typical income isn’t the mean, it’s the median – the one that, if you arranged all the incomes by size, is exactly in the middle, with 50 per cent of incomes above and 50 per cent below.

The median adult full-time worker is on $78,300 – 16 per cent lower than the mean. What makes the median “typical” is that a high proportion of all full-time workers will be clustered around it, a bit above or a bit below.

But about a third of all workers are part-time, two-thirds of whom are women. Shouldn’t they be included in any assessment of what’s “low and middle”?

When you do include them, the typical income of all workers drops to $57,900. That’s 21 per cent above $48,000 and 36 per cent below $90,000. So the government’s range does a better job of covering those above the middle than those below.

But how low is low? It’s hardly true that there are no workers on incomes below $48,000. Not even full-time workers. The federal minimum full-time wage is $37,400. How can anything called a “low and medium income” tax cut fail to include the many full-timers on the minimum wage?

It’s true, of course, that not everyone earning less than $48,000 a year misses out on a tax cut (known technically as a tax offset). Those earning $37,000 get not $1080 a year, but $255 – about a quarter of the full cut.

Why? Presumably, because their incomes are too low to qualify as officially low. Or maybe because, when your income’s that low, your need for a bit more money to spend is even lower. They might go crazy if you gave them as much as a thou.

For incomes between $37,000 and $48,000, the tax cut starts at $255 and rises at the rate of 7.5¢ in the dollar until it reaches $1080. This means those on the minimum full-time wage get a princely $285.

For incomes below $37,000, the tax cut will be up to $255 – though, for such an insignificant group, a mere 2.3 million people, the budget papers don’t bother saying how this will work.

Is that the bottom of those with low income incomes? Not really. About a third of households have incomes too low to pay income tax. Some of these people are the comfortably off alleged “self-funded retirees”, whose income from superannuation is exempt from income tax, but the rest are people dependent on some form of government welfare payment.

What do they get? Those on some form of pension get a one-off payment of $75 (or $125 for couples), which will be a huge help with their power bills.

What gets me is how we can claim to be worried about those with low incomes while excluding those whose income is low because they can’t find a job. They were ineligible for help because the lower taxes were only for, to quote the measure's official name, “hard-working Australians”.

Longing to be a hard worker doesn’t qualify, apparently. Frydenberg went to great length to justify the decision to exclude those on the dole even from the $75 payment – before the government belatedly included them, for fear the measure might be blocked in the Senate.

But if anyone really cared about the lowest of low incomes, they’d end the 25-year freeze on increasing the dole beyond the rise in consumer prices. It’s unconscionable for a nation as rich as we are to the give the jobless so little to live on it actually makes it harder for them to find work.

And that’s before you remember all the many instances where this government has sought to stigmatise and punish the unemployed for being jobless. For the jobless, it's all stick, no carrot.

Don’t kid yourself Labor would be much better, however. It’s seeking plaudits (and product differentiation) by raising the Liberals’ $255 cut to $350 – which will make all the difference.

And Labor is just as unwilling to increase the dole as the Coalition is. Why? Not because Labor thinks it possible to live decently on $40 a day, nor even because it would cost too much (which it wouldn’t).

No, as Labor shadow social services minister Linda Burney had the honesty to admit, it’s because too many voters – including Labor voters, no doubt – would disapprove. And we wouldn’t want that.
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