Showing posts with label unions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label unions. Show all posts

Monday, May 13, 2024

Labor's persistent refusal to fix the JobSeeker payment is shameful

Remarks by Treasurer Jim Chalmers seem to say there’ll be no one-off increase in the pitifully inadequate rate of unemployment benefits in Tuesday night’s budget. If this is wrong, I’ll be delighted to offer an abject apology. If it’s right, Anthony Albanese and his ministers should hang their heads in shame. They claim to be the good guys, but they aren’t.

And the unions – which, as recent changes in industry policy reveal, have great behind-the-scenes influence over Labor governments – should be ashamed of themselves as well, for their failure to get Albo and co. up to the mark. They claim to represent the interest of the workers, but it turns only those who have jobs. Those still looking for one are on their own.

Do you realise Australia has the lowest benefits for the short-term unemployed among 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?

The lowest? Really? Does that make us the poorest of all those countries? No, of course not. We’d be comfortably among the richest.

So how’s it explained? Well, perhaps we don’t mind if people in other countries think of us as among the stingiest of the rich countries. The kind of person who’d walk past someone in trouble without offering them help. The kind who thinks anyone without much money must be lazy.

Australians tend to think of people on the age pension as poor, but a single pensioner gets $556 a week, which is $170 a week more than the single adult rate of the JobSeeker payment.

In 1996, the dole was about 90 per cent of the age pension, but it’s been allowed to fall steadily and now, despite two small one-off increases in recent years, is little more than two-thirds of what the oldies get.

To cut a long story short, this is because, since the early days of the Howard government, the pension has been indexed to wage growth, while unemployment benefits remain indexed to the consumer price index.

By now, the dole is 26 per cent below the OECD’s poverty line, set at 50 per cent of median (dead middle) income. There are other ways to measure poverty, but the dole’s below all of them.

A common argument for keeping unemployment benefits low is that we don’t want to discourage the jobless from going to the bother of doing a paid job. Talk about treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen.

But this is self-justifying nonsense. The single dole is now just 43 per cent of the full-time minimum wage.

A better argument is that benefits are so low people can be left unable to afford the fares and other costs involved in seeking a job.

Chalmers’ excuse for not increasing JobSeeker is that “we can’t afford to do everything”. But if you believe that, you haven’t thought about it.

Of course we can’t afford to do everything, but a rich country like ours, with a federal budget that will spend more than $700 billion next financial year, can certainly afford to do any particular thing it really wants to.

That’s the point: you can include it among all the things you’ll do if you really want to. Economists are great believers in “revealed preference”: judge people not by what they say, but by what they do.

Budgets reveal a government’s true priorities. What it spends on is what it most wants to do; what it “can’t afford” is something it doesn’t really want.

So the real question is why the government doesn’t want to fix JobSeeker. Well, it’s no secret. It might be the right thing to do, but there are no votes in it. Indeed, there may be votes to be lost.

It’s normal to envy those doing better than we are. But Australians suffer from the strange illness of “downward envy”. “I have to go out to work, while those lazy blighters sit around at home with their feet up, enjoying daytime television.”

And, of course, any money Labor spends helping one of the most deserving groups in society is money it can’t spend trying to buy the votes of the less deserving.

So, terribly sorry, love to help, but just can’t afford it.

If you’re looking for evidence that neither side of politics is up to much, you’ve just found some. I fear you’ll get more on Tuesday night.

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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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Friday, September 23, 2022

How human psychology helps explain the resurgence of inflation

The beginning of wisdom in economics is to realise that models are models – an oversimplified version of a complicated reality. A picture of reality from a particular perspective.

I keep criticising economists for their excessive reliance on their basic, “neoclassical” model – in which everything turns on price, and prices are set by the rather mechanical interaction of supply and demand.

It’s not that the model doesn’t convey valuable insights – it does – but they’re often too simplified to explain the full story.

Sometimes I think Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe is like someone whose brain has been locked up in a neoclassical prison. But in his major speech on inflation two weeks ago, he showed he’d been thinking well outside the bars, looking at various models for a comprehensive explanation of how inflation could shoot up so quickly and unexpectedly.

He observed that another “element in the workhorse models of inflation is inflation expectations.” This relatively recent, more psychological addition to mainstream economics says that what businesses and unionised workers expect to happen to inflation tends to be self-fulfilling because they act on their expectations.

We’ve heard much about the risk of worsening inflation expectations, including from Lowe. It’s been the main justification offered for jacking up interest rates so high, so fast. But Lowe admitted it’s a weak argument.

“Inflation expectations have picked up a little, but...there is a high degree of confidence that inflation will return to target. This suggests that a pick-up in inflation expectations is not a primary driver of the sharp rise in inflation,” he said.

As Professor Ross Garnaut has observed - and recent Reserve research has confirmed – “the spectre of a virulent wage-price spiral comes from our memories and not current conditions”.

But, Lowe said, there’s something here that’s not easily captured in our standard models. That’s “the general inflation psychology in the community. By this, I mean the general willingness of businesses to see price increases and the willingness of the community to accept price increases.

“Prior to the pandemic, it was very difficult for a business person to stand in the public square and say they were putting their prices up. And a common theme from our liaison [regular interviews with business people] was that because most businesses had trouble putting their prices up, wage increases had to be kept modest. That was the mindset.”

Mindset? Mindset? That’s not a word you’ll find in any economics textbook. There’s no equation or diagram for mindsets.

Today, however, “business people are able to stand in the public square and say they are putting their prices up, and they can point to a number of reasons why.

"The community doesn’t like it, but there is a begrudging acceptance. And with prices rising, it is harder to resist bigger wage increases, especially in a tight labour market,” Lowe said.

“So, the psychology shifts. Or as the Bank for International Settlements put it in its recent annual report: when inflation is high, it becomes a coordinating mechanism for pricing decisions.

"In other words, people really start to pay attention to changes in costs and prices. The result can be faster and fuller pass-through of cost shocks and more frequent price and wage adjustments.

“There is some evidence that is already occurring, which is contributing to the strength of the pick-up in inflation,” Lowe added in his speech earlier this month.

To be fair, this is just the latest version of a thesis – a “model” – Lowe has been developing for years. And I think he’s on to a phenomenon which, when added to all the mechanistic, mathematised rules of the standard model, takes us a lot further in understanding what the hell’s been happening to the economy.

It’s taking the standard model but, contrary to its assumptions, accepting that, as the social animals that humans are, economic “agents” – whether consumers, bosses, workers or union secretaries – have a tendency to herding behaviour.

You can observe that in financial markets any day of the week. We feel comfortable when we’re doing what everyone else’s is doing; we feel uncomfortable when we’re running against the herd.

Anyone knows who has worked in business for a while – as many econocrats and academic economists haven’t – business behaviour is heavily influenced by fads and fashions. One role of sharemarket analysts is to punish companies that don’t conform to the fad of the moment.

The world’s economists spent much time between the global financial crisis and the pandemic trying to explain why all the rich economies had spent more than a decade caught in “secular stagnation” – a low-growth trap.

I think Lowe’s found a big piece of that puzzle. Business went through this weird period of years, when because no one else was putting up their prices, no one wanted to put up their prices.

The inflation rate fell below the Reserve’s target range, and stayed there for years. Businesses had no reason to invest much, so productivity improvement fell away, and economic growth was weak.

But then, along came the pandemic, lockdowns, huge budgetary and monetary stimulus, borders closed to immigrants, and finally a massive supply shock from the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

Suddenly, some big price rises are announced, the dam bursts and everyone – from big business to corner milk bars – starts putting up their prices. The spell has broken, and I doubt we’ll go back to the weird world we were in.

But the other side of the no-price-rises world was an obsession with using all means possible – legal or illegal – to cut labour costs. This greatly reinforced the low-growth trap we were caught in. But it was made possible also by the various developments that have robbed workers of their bargaining power.

It’s not yet clear whether the end of the self-imposed ban on price rises will be matched by an end to the ban on decent pay rises. If it isn’t, we’ll still be lost in the woods.

Read more >>

Monday, September 5, 2022

Breaking news: unions play a central role, for good and ill

Welcome back to a tripartite world, where Labor has returned to power and its union mates are back inside the tent – and at last week’s jobs summit could be seen moving in their furniture. For those who don’t remember the 1983 glory days of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, consensus, the Accord, and former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty as an honorary member of the cabinet, it will take some getting used to.

For those who’ve been watching only since the John Howard era, it may even seem unnatural. One of Howard’s first acts upon succeeding Hawke and Keating in 1996 was to delegitimise the unions.

He allowed the tripartite committees to lapse, and didn’t reappoint the ACTU secretary to the board of the Reserve Bank. I doubt if many even informal links between ministers and union leaders continued.

The Libs didn’t know the union bosses, and didn’t want to know ’em. They were the enemy – always had been, always would be. Big business bosses, on the other hand, would be privately consulted and were always welcome to phone up for a quiet word with the minister.

This, by the way, helps explain the Reserve Bank’s pro-business bias. Its board is loaded with business worthies - who are there to help keep the central bankers’ feet on the ground – and its extensive program of regular and formal “liaison” with key firms and industries, doesn’t include asking union leaders what they think’s happening.

If you wonder why Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe’s remarks about wages can sometimes seem naive – even out of “boomer fantasy land” – it’s because he only ever hears the bosses’ side of the story. And I doubt if they ever shock his neoclassical socks by talking about how they exercise their market power.

It’s easy to justify the Liberals’ delegitimation of the unions by noting that, these days, only about 14 per cent of employees belong to a union. But if you find that argument persuasive, you’re revealing your ignorance of our wage-fixing institutions.

Most workers are subject to an industrial award, and there’s a union (and an employer or employer group) on one end of every award, and almost every enterprise agreement. In the Fair Work Commission’s annual wage review – which sets the wages of about a quarter of all employees – it’s the ACTU that stands against the employer groups arguing that times are tough, and they couldn’t possibly afford a rise of anything much.

So, to say the unions have what economists would call a giant “free-rider” problem – a lot of people happy to receive benefits without paying for them – is not to say they shouldn’t be given a seat at the table.

Liberals, business and their media cheer squad may be appalled by sanctification of the unions, but at least Labor’s making it clear it wants business to keep its seat at the table. It will be consulted. This too is Labor’s inheritance from the Hawke-Keating experience: to the extent possible, keep business on side.

The ACT’s second-biggest industry – lobbying – will be busier than ever. It’s third-biggest – consulting – not so much.

What all agreed at the summit is that Labor has taken over an economy with many structural problems that need fixing. Not the least of these is that the wage-bargaining system is broken.

What we learnt last week, from everything ministers said and from the 14-page “outcomes document” is that, in marked contrast to its predecessor, Labor does intend to fix things.

The whole summit, tripartite business is about giving all the key players a say in how things are fixed, giving them a heads-up on the government’s intentions, and an introduction to the minister. About winning support – or, at least, acquiescence – from as many of the powerful players as possible, to minimise the political risks of making changes.

Under Labor’s tripartism, the three parties aren’t equal. The government will, in the end, do what it decides to do. The unions start well ahead of business, because of their special relationship with a Labor government.

They have a further advantage over business: solidarity. The many unions are used to speaking with one, unified voice through the ACTU, whereas business fractures into big versus small, and rival employer groups. The unions know all about playing one business group off against another.

What business has to decide is whether it wants to stay in the government’s tent or walk out. Because, in business, pragmatism usually trumps idealism, my guess is that business will play ball for as long as Labor looks like staying in office.

After the summit ended, the ACTU’s statement said it had always “been clear that we need to get wages moving and increase skills and training for local workers in order for unions to support lifting skilled migration levels. We welcome that this summit has delivered those commitments.”

It was all a talk fest? No, a deal was done and that quote reveals just what the deal was. However, a big part of the business side didn’t support fixing the wage-bargaining system by returning to “multi-employer” bargaining.

What’s clear is that the government will be pressing on with some form of multi-employer bargaining. What isn’t yet clear is what that form will be. Until it’s finalised, business will be busy inside the tent pushing for whatever modifications it can get.

With Labor back in power and the unions back walking the halls of power, it’s important to understand the relationship between the two arms of the “labour movement”. Whereas the relationship between the Libs and business is quite informal, the relationship between Labor and the unions is highly formal. They’re not mates, they’re close rellos.

Historically, the unions set up the Labor Party to be their political arm. To this day, those unions that pay dues to the Labor Party still wield considerable influence over it and the members of the federal parliamentary caucus.

Labor parliamentarians are affiliated with particular unions, which gives some of the bigger unions considerable influence over preselections, on who gets to stay leader of the party, and on certain policy matters.

When Labor is in government, businesses in certain industries use their unions to get to the government. This explains why Labor governments haven’t done as much as they should to tighten up our competition law.

And whereas Howard left the Libs with a visceral hatred of industry super funds, Labor’s links with the unions – and the unions’ links with the ticket-clippers of the super industry – mean it can’t always be trusted to favour the interests of super members over super managers.

Read more >>

Monday, June 27, 2022

Business volunteers its staff to take one for the shareholders' team

An increase in wages sufficient to prevent a further fall in real wages would do little harm to the economy and much good to businesses hoping their sales will keep going up rather than start going down.

It’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on in the economy – and where it’s headed – without media people who should know better misrepresenting what Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week about wages and inflation.

One outlet turned it into a good guys versus bad guys morality tale, where Lowe rebuked the evil, inflation-mongering unions planning to impose 5 or 7 per cent wage rises on the nation’s hapless businesses by instituting a “3.5 per cent cap” on the would-be wreckers, with even the new Labor government “bowing” to Lowe’s order that real wages be cut, and the ACTU “conceding” that 5 per cent wage claims would not go forward.

ACTU boss Sally McManus was on the money in dismissing this version of events as coming from “Boomer fantasy land”. What she meant was that this conception of what’s happening today must have come from the mind of someone whose view of how wage-fixing works was formed in the 1970s and ’80s, and who hadn’t noticed one or two minor changes in the following 30 years.

No one younger than a Baby Boomer could possibly delude themselves that workers could simply demand some huge pay rise and keep striking – or merely threatening to strike – until their employer caved in and granted it.

Or believe that, as really was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, the quarterly or half-yearly “national wage case” awarded almost every worker in the country a wage rise indexed to the consumer price index. Paul Keating abolished this “centralised wage-fixing system” in the early ’90s and replaced it with collective bargaining at the enterprise level.

John Howard’s changes, culminating in the Work Choices changes in 2005, took this a lot further, outlawing compulsory unionism, tightly constraining the unions’ ability to strike, allowing employers to lock out their employees, removing union officials’ right to enter the workplace and check that employers were complying with award provisions (now does the surge in “accidental” wage theft surprise you?) and sought to diminish employees’ bargaining power by encouraging individual contracts rather than collective bargaining.

Julia Gillard’s Fair Work changes in 2009 reversed some of the more anti-union elements of Work Choices but, as part of modern Labor’s eternal desire to avoid getting off-side with big business, let too many of them stand.

As both business and the unions agree, enterprise bargaining is falling into disuse. On paper, about a third of the nation’s employees are subject to enterprise agreements. But McManus claims that, in practice, it’s down to about 15 per cent.

All these changes in the “institution arrangements” for wage-fixing are before you take account of the way organised labour’s bargaining power has been diminished by globalisation and technological change making it so much easier to move work – particularly in manufacturing, but increasingly in services – to countries where labour is cheaper.

In the ’80s, about half of all workers were union members. Today, it’s down to 14 per cent, with many of those concentrated in public sector jobs such as nursing, teaching and coppering.

All this is why fears that we risk returning to the “stagflation” of the 1970s are indeed out of fantasy land. Only a Boomer who hasn’t been paying attention, or a youngster with no idea of how much the world has changed since then, could worry about such a thing.

The claim that Lowe has stopped the union madness in its tracks by imposing a “3.5 per cent cap” on wage rises misrepresents what he said. It ignores his qualification that 3.5 per cent – that is, 2.5 per cent as the mid-point of the inflation target plus 1 per cent for the average annual improvement in the productivity of labour – is “a medium-term point that I’ve been making for some years” (my emphasis) that “remains relevant, over time,” (ditto) and is the “steady-state wage increase”.

Like the inflation target itself, it’s an average to be achieved “over the medium term” – that is, over 10 years or so – not an annual “cap” that you can fall short of for most of the past decade, but must never ever exceed.

Supposedly, it’s a “cap” because of Lowe’s remark that “if wage increases become common in the 4 to 5 per cent range, then it’s going to be harder to return inflation to 2.5 per cent.”

That’s not the imposition of a cap – which, in any case, Lowe doesn’t have to power to do, even if he wanted to – it’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. It’s simple arithmetic.

But it’s also an utterly imaginary problem. It ain’t gonna happen. Why not? Because, as McManus “conceded”, no matter how unfair the unions regard it to force workers to bear the cost of the abandon with which businesses have been protecting their profits by whacking up their prices, workers simply lack the industrial muscle to extract pay rises any higher than the nation’s chief executives can be shamed into granting.

While we’re talking arithmetic, however, don’t fall for the line – widely propagated – that if prices rise by 5 per cent, and then wages rise by 5 per cent, the inflation rate stays at 5 per cent. As the Bureau of Statistics has calculated, labour costs account for just 25 per cent of all business costs.

So, only if all other, non-labour costs have also risen by 5 per cent does a 5 per cent rise in wage rates justify a 5 per cent rise in prices, thus preventing the annual inflation rate from falling back.

In other words, what we’re arguing about is how soon inflation falls back to the target range. Commentators with an unacknowledged pro-business bias (probably because they work for big business) are arguing that it should happen ASAP by making the nation’s households take a huge hit to their real incomes. This, apparently, will be great for the economy.

Those in the financial markets want to hasten the return to target by having the Reserve raise interest rates so far and so fast it puts the economy into recession. Another great idea.

Meanwhile, Lowe says he expects the return to target inflation to take “some years”. What a wimp.

Read more >>

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Working from home takes us back to the future

If there’s one good thing to come from this horrible year, surely it’s the breakthrough on WFH – working from home. This wonderful new idea – made possible only by the wonders of the internet – may have come by force, but for many of us it may be here to stay.

If so, it will require a lot of changes around the place, and not just in the attitudes and practices of bosses and workers. With a marked decline in commuting – surely the greatest benefit from the revolution – transport planning authorities will have to rethink their plans for more expressways and metro transport systems.

If we’re talking about fewer people coming into the central business district and more staying at home in the suburbs, over time this will mean a big shift in the relative prices of real estate. For both businesses and families, CBD land prices and rents will decline relative to prices and rents in the suburbs.

In big cities like Melbourne and Sydney, as so many jobs have moved from the suburbs to office towers in the CBD and nearby areas, the dominant trend in real estate has gone from position, position, position to proximity, proximity, proximity. Everyone would prefer to live closer to the centre.

If you measure the rise in house prices over the years, you find the closer homes are to the GPO, the more they’ve risen, with prices in outer suburbs having risen least.

But if WFH becomes lasting and widespread, that decades-long trend could be reversed. If you don’t have to spend so much time commuting, why not live further out, where bigger and better homes are more affordable and there’s more open space?

Maybe apartment living will become less attractive compared to living in a detached house with a garden, with a corresponding shift in relative prices. And if we’re going to be working at home as a regular thing, maybe we need an extra bedroom to use as a study.

It’s interesting to contemplate. But before we get too carried away, let’s remember one thing: in human history, there’s nothing new about working from home. Indeed, when you think about it you realise humans have spent far more centuries working at home than not.

We’ve been working from home – not having a factory or office to go to – since we were hunters and gatherers. That was all the millennia before the beginning of farming about 10,000 years ago.

In all the years before the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 1760s, most people earned their living from farming, and farming was done next to – and sometimes inside – the hovels of peasant workers or, in less feudal times, the homesteads of farmers.

You know that in Europe and other cold climes, families lived with their farm animals during winter. Much work would have been done in nearby sheds.

In the Middle Ages, most tradespeople worked at home. Blacksmiths, carpenters, leather workers, bakers, seamstresses, shoemakers, potters, weavers and ale brewers made their goods in their homes and sold them from their homes.

This was work suitable for women as well as men, and it could be combined with childcare and other, income-earning farm work.

In the early days of capitalism, from the 1600s to until well into the Industrial Revolution, much use was made of the “putting-out” system, as The Economist magazine describes in a recent issue.

“Workers would collect raw materials, and sometimes equipment, from a central depot. They would return home and make the goods for a few days, before giving back the finished articles and getting paid,” it says.

“Workers were independent contractors: they were paid by the piece, not by the hour, and they had little if any guarantee of work week to week.”

Is this ringing any bells?

Being economists, the magazine notes that when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, it was perfectly common to work from home. Smith famously described the operation of the division of labour in pin-making – not in a dark satanic mill but a “small manufactory” of perhaps 10 people, which could well have been attached to someone’s house.

Eventually, however, the putting-out system gave way to full-on manufacturing in factories – despite the resistance of the machine-smashing Luddites who preferred the old ways.

The move to factories was an inevitable consequence of the development of bigger and better machines in the unending pursuit of economies of scale. Workers moved from the farm to the factory and then, as technological advance continued, from highly automated factories to city offices and, eventually, sitting at a desk staring at a screen.

It’s economic development and the pursuit of ever-greater material prosperity that opened the geographic divide between home and work. Which is not to say that further technological change – including the advent of Slack and Zoom – can’t make it possible to bring them back together for many, though obviously not all, workers. Provided, of course, that’s what workers and, more significantly, bosses see as being to their advantage.

Here, too, it’s worth remembering a bit of history. The Economist notes that, according to some economic historians, workers were exploited under the putting-out system. Those who owned the machines and raw materials enjoyed enormous power over those whose labour they used.

It was difficult for workers spread across the countryside to team up against the bosses and their take-it-or-leave-it offers. Crammed into a big factory, however, workers could more easily join together to ask for higher wages. Trade unions started to grow from the 1850s onwards.

Happy speculation aside, there’s no certainty how much working from home will take on. If it does, there’s a risk that will be because bosses see it as a new way to cut costs. That really would be turning the clock back.

Read more >>

Friday, October 30, 2020

How inflation became a big problem, but has disappeared

Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy observed this week that there’s been “a fundamental shift in the macro-economic underpinnings of the global and domestic economies, the cause of which is still not fully understood”. He’s right. And he’s the first of our top econocrats to say it. But he didn’t elaborate.

This week we got further evidence of that fundamental shift. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ consumer price index for the September quarter showed an annual “headline” inflation rate of 0.7 per cent and an “underlying” (that is, more reliable) rate of 1.2 per cent.

This is exceptionally low and is clearly affected by the coronacession, as you’d expect. But there’s more going on than just a recession. Since 1993, our inflation target has been for annual inflation to average 2 to 3 per cent. For the six years before the virus, however, it averaged 1.6 per cent. And most other rich countries have also been undershooting their targets.

So, part of the “fundamental shift” in the factors underpinning the global economy is that inflation has gone away as a significant problem. But why? As Kennedy says, these things are “still not fully understood”. Some economists are advancing explanatory theories, which the other economists are debating.

Former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane, who has form for being the first to spot what’s happening, offered his own explanation of the rise and fall of inflation in a recent Jolly Swagman podcast.

Macfarlane says that, though every developed economy’s experience is different, they’re all quite similar. If you stand well back and look at the rich countries’ experience over the past 60 years, he says it’s not too great a simplification to say that two phases stand out: inflation rose in the first phase to reach a peak in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, but then fell almost continuously until we reached the present situation where it’s below the targets set by central banks.

In our case, we had double-digit inflation in the ’70s and rates of 5 to 7 per cent in the ’80s, then a long period within the target range until about six years ago. Since then it’s been below the target “despite the most expansionary monetary policy [the lowest interest rates] anyone can remember”.

So how is this experience of roughly 30 years of rising inflation, then 30 years of falling inflation explained? Macfarlane thinks there are about half a dozen reasons for the worsening of inflation in Australia.

For a start, the growth of production and employment during the 30-year post-war Golden Age was stronger than any period before or since. We had high levels of protection against imports, with little or no competition from developing countries.

We had a strong union movement, confident that in pushing for higher wages it wasn’t jeopardising workers’ job prospects. We had a centralised system for setting wages, with widespread indexation of wages to the consumer price index.

Our businesses took a “cost-plus” approach to their prices. If wages or the cost of imported components rose, this could be passed on to customers, confident your competitors would be doing the same. That is, firms had “pricing power”.

Finally, businesses’, unions’ and consumers’ expectations about how fast prices would rise in future were quite low at the start of the period, but they picked up and, by the end, had become entrenched at a high rate.

“This macro-economic environment was clearly conducive to rising inflation, and it took one policy error to push it over the limit,” Macfarlane says.

Under the McMahon government – predecessor of the Whitlam government – fiscal policy was made expansionary even though the inflation rate was already 7 per cent. Monetary policy was eased, with interest rates remaining below the inflation rate. And the centralised wage-fixing system awarded 6 or 9 per cent pay rises.

So, that’s how we acquired an inflation problem. What changed in the second 30-year period of declining inflation? Macfarlane thinks “the defining feature of the later period was that, in the long struggle between capital and labour, the interests of capital took precedence over those of labour”.

That is, the bargaining power of labour collapsed. In most countries the labour share of gross domestic product has declined, with the profits share increasing. Wage growth has been restrained, union membership has shrunk and the inequality of income and wealth has increased.

“These features have been most pronounced in the US, but many other countries, including Australia, have shown most of the same signs,” he says.

Two main developments account for this change. First, globalisation. The rapid growth of manufactured exports from China and the developing world pushed down consumer prices. More importantly, businesses and workers in the rich world realised that firms or whole industries could be shifted to countries where wages were lower.

Businesses had lost pricing power and sought to maintain profits by cutting costs and reducing staff levels. Union members became more concerned with saving their jobs than pushing for higher wages.

Second, labour-saving technological advance. In manufacturing, sophisticated machines started replacing workers. In the much bigger services sector, advances in information and communications meant that armies of state managers, regional managers and other middle management were no longer needed. Clerical processes were automated. Call centres were cheaper than a network of offices. Customers could buy on the internet, without the need for shop assistants.

As the period of high inflation passed into distant memory, Macfarlane says, inflationary expectations fell. Inflation expectations – whose importance comes because they tend to be self-fulfilling – change very slowly. It took decades for them to rise in the earlier period and, now, after nearly three decades of moderate and low inflation, it will take a long time before higher inflationary expectations are rekindled.

I see much truth in Macfarlane’s explanation. But it certainly means there’s been a “fundamental shift” in the factors bearing down on the economy – the implications of which we’re yet to fully realise, let alone fix.

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Unions conspire with bankers to make you pay more super

When is big business most successful at "rent-seeking" – winning special favours – from government? Often, when it’s got its unions on board. That way, both the Coalition and Labor are inclined to give it the privileges it seeks.

Despite the decline in the union movement’s power and influence in recent decades – and all the nasty things the bosses continue saying about unions – it’s very much a product of the capitalist system.

Over the decades, its greatest success has come in industries with some form of pricing power that’s allowing businesses to make outsized profits. The union simply applies pressure for the workers to be given their share of the lolly.

What kept Australia’s manufacturing industry heavily protected against competition from imports for most of the 20th century, before the Hawke-Keating government pulled the plug in the 1980s, was the manufacturing unions’ strong support for the manufacturers’ success in getting the Coalition committed to protection.

In the end, however, the manufacturing unions got screwed. While being protected in the name of preserving jobs, the manufacturers began automating and shedding many jobs. Turns out protection is better at protecting profits than jobs.

In last year’s election campaign, some part of Labor’s ambivalence on the question of new coal mines in North Queensland is explained by the support the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, one of the few remaining powerful unions, has thrown behind the foreign mine owners.

At present, however, there’s no more significant instance of the unions being in bed with the bosses than their joint campaign to have the government increase compulsory employee superannuation contributions.

When it comes to government-granted favours to business, there aren’t many bigger than the one that compels almost all the nation’s workers to hand over 9.5 per cent of their wage, every year of their working lives, to financial institutions which will charge them a small fortune each year to "manage" their money, until the government thinks they’re old enough to be allowed to get their money back.

I’ve supported compulsory super since it began because, when it comes to saving for retirement, most of us suffer from myopia. But it does leave the government with huge obligations to ensure the money’s safely invested, ensure super tax incentives aren’t biased in favour of the highly paid (such as yours truly) and ensure the money managers don’t abuse the monopoly they’ve been granted by overcharging the punters.

And, since most of us also save for retirement in ways other than super (such as by buying a house and paying it off), governments have an obligation to ensure that workers aren’t compelled to save more than needed to live in reasonable comfort in retirement.

Compulsory super is such an easy money-maker for the for-profit financial institutions (mainly bank-owned) that it’s not surprising they’ve gone for years trying to con governments into increasing the percentage of their wages that workers are compelled to hand over. They’ve done this by exploiting people’s instinctive fear that they aren’t saving enough, using greatly exaggerated estimates of how much they’ll need to be comfortable.

What’s harder to understand is why the non-profit "industry" super funds – with union officials making up half their trustees and the employer reps not taking much interest – go along with the for-profit industry lobby groups’ self-interested empire-building.

The main reason compulsory super isn’t a particularly good deal for most union members is that when forced to pay super contributions, employers reduce their workers’ pay rises to fit. This has been understood from the outset, but last week’s report from the Grattan Institute convincingly demonstrates its truth.

The second reason is that, by design and above certain limits, super savings reduce workers’ eligibility for the age pension. Treasury and independent analysts have repeatedly discredited the industry’s claims that the present contribution rate is insufficient to provide workers with a reasonably comfortable retirement.

The present legislated plan to raise the contribution rate to 12 per cent represents the industry funds’ gift to the army of ticket-clippers making their living off the super industry. It’s origins lie in the Rudd government yielding to industry fund pressure because it believed the huge cost to the budget would be more than covered by its wonderful new mining tax.

But, as an earlier Grattan report has shown, raising the contribution rate as planned would force many workers to accept a lower-than-otherwise standard of living during their working lives so their living standard in retirement could be higher than they ever were used to when working.

This is the union movement protecting its members’ interests? Sounds to me more like union officials expanding the union institution at the expense of their members – and delivering for the banks’ "retail" super funds while they’re at it.
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Monday, March 11, 2019

Economists: lonely, misunderstood angels in shining armour

If you’re tempted by the shocking thought that economists end up as handmaidens to the rich and powerful – as I’m tempted – Dr Martin Parkinson wishes to remind us that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The first mission of economists is to make this world a better world, he says. But don’t expect it to make you popular.

Let me tell you about a talk he gave on Friday night. It was a pep talk to the first of what’s hoped to be a regular social gathering for young economists come to Canberra to study, teach or work in government or consulting.

Apparently, working in Canberra can be a tough gig if you don’t know many economist mates to be assortative with.

Parkinson’s own career has had its downs and ups. He was sacked as Treasury secretary by Tony Abbott – who feared he actually believed in the climate change policy the Rudd government had him designing – then resurrected by Malcolm Turnbull as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Treasury secretary’s bureaucratic boss.

He began the pep talk with a story about the woman with only six months to live, who’s advised by her doctor to marry an economist so as to make it seem like a lifetime.

That may be because, as Parko says, economists are trained to be analytical. To be rigorously logical and rational in their thinking. (I define an economist as someone who thinks their partner is the only irrational person in the economy.)

“Economics gives you insights into the way the world works that other professions cannot,” he says. Economists see things that others can’t. Sometimes that’s because the others have incentives not to see them.

As Upton Sinclair famously put it, it’s difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

Ain’t that the truth. The endless bickering between our politicians explained in a single quote. And the economists’ limited success in persuading people to take their advice.

Economists are trained to see “opportunity cost” which, according to Parko, is “the core tenet of the profession”. “This under underlies everything we do.

“This leads us to positions that are often counter-intuitive [the opposite of common sense] and unpopular – but are right.”

True. It may amaze you that so much of what economists bang on about boils down to no more than yet another application of opportunity cost: be careful how you spend your money, because you can only spend it once.

It’s a pathetically obvious insight, but it’s part of the human condition to always be forgetting it. So it’s the economist’s role to be the one who keeps reminding us of the obvious. If economists do no more than that, they’ll have made an invaluable contribution to society – to making this world a better world - and earned their keep.

But here’s the bit I found most inspiring in Parko’s pep talk. “Economists are not ‘for capital’ or ‘for labour’ . . . We do not see the world through constructs of power or identity, even though we see the importance of them.

“We are ‘for’ individual wellbeing regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or capabilities. Because of this, we are often against entrenched interests and for those without a seat at the decision table.

“Economists view the past as ‘sunk’ [there’s nothing you can do to change it] and argue for decisions about the future to be made free of sentiment and in opposition to special interests. Now, this is in sharp contrast to the incentives in our political system, which favour producer interests over that of consumers.”

Ah, that’s the point. The ethic of neo-classical economics is that the customer is king (or queen). Consumer interests come first, whereas “producer interests” (which include unions as well as business) matter only because they are a means to the ultimate end of the consumers’ greater good.

Economists believe in exposing business to intense competition, to keep prices no higher than costs (including a reasonable rate of return on capital) and profits no higher than necessary. Competition should spur innovation and technological advance, while ensuring the benefits flow through to customers rather staying with business.

Business doesn’t see it that way, of course. Unlike some, my policy is to tell business what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear. Some people – suffering from a touch of the Upton Sinclairs – tell themselves this makes me anti-business. No, it makes me pro-consumer. That’s the ethic we so often fall short of.
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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Economy’s health requires reform of earlier wage reforms

Can you believe that many economists were disappointed by this week’s news from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that consumer prices rose by only 2.1 per cent over the year to June?

Why would anyone wish inflation was higher than it is? Well, not because there’s anything intrinsically terrific about fast-rising prices, but because of what a slow rate of increase tells us about the state of the economy.

It’s usually a symptom of weak growth in economic activity and, in particular, of weak growth in wages. Prices and wages have a chicken-and-egg relationship. By far the most important factor that pushes up prices is rising wages.

But, as measured by the bureau’s wage price index, wages rose by just 2.1 per cent over the year to March, roughly keeping up with prices, but not getting ahead of them.

We’re used to wages growing each year by 1 per cent-plus faster than prices, but such “real” growth hasn’t happened for the past four years or so (which probably explains why so many people are complaining about the high “cost of living” even when price rises are so small).

It’s important to understand that wages can grow faster than prices without that causing higher inflation, provided there is sufficient improvement in workers’ productivity – output per hour worked – to cover the real increase.

Of late we’ve had that productivity improvement, but all the benefit of it has stayed with business profits, rather than being shared between capital and labour by means of increases in real wages.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until it’s no longer relevant: the economy won’t be back to healthy growth until we’re back to healthy growth in real wages. That’s for two reasons.

First, in a capitalist economy like ours, the “social contract” between the capitalists and the rest of us says that the people without much capital get their reward mainly via higher real wages leading to higher living standards.

Second, consumer spending accounts for more than half the demand for goods and services in the economy; consumer spending is done from households’ income, and by far the greatest source of household income is wages.

So, as a general proposition, if wages aren’t growing in real terms, there won’t be much real growth in household income and, in that case, there won’t be much real growth in consumer spending. And the less enthusiastic we are about buying their stuff, the less keen businesses will be to invest in expansion.

Get it? Of all the drivers of economic growth, by far the most important is real wage growth. If your economy’s real wage growth’s on the blink, you’ve got a problem. You won’t get far.

Economists used to believe that real wage growth in line with trend improvement in the productivity of labour was built into the equilibrating mechanism of a capitalist economy. A chap called Alfred Marshall first came up with that idea.

But with each further quarter of weak price and wage increase it’s becoming clearer it was a product of industrial relations laws that boosted workers’ economic power by helping them form unions and bargain collectively with employers.

As has happened in most rich countries, our governments, Labor and Coalition, have been “reforming” our wage-fixing process since the early 1990s by reducing union rights and encouraging workers to bargain as individuals rather than groups.

Trouble is, governments have been weakening legislative support for workers and their unions at just the time that powerful natural economic forces – globalisation and greater trade between rich and poor countries, “skill-biased” technological change, the shift from manufacturing to services – have been weakening the bargaining power of labour.

Whoops. In hindsight, maybe not such a smart “reform”. My guess is it won’t be long before governments decide they need to promote real wage growth by restoring legislative support for unions and collective bargaining.

But how could they go about this? Well, Joe Isaac, a distinguished professor of labour economics at Monash and Melbourne universities and a former deputy president of the Industrial Relations Commission, outlines a plan in the latest issue of the Australian Economic Review.

Isaac proposes four main reforms of the reforms. First, the Fair Work Act should be less prescriptive, giving the Fair Work Commission greater discretion to intervene in industrial disputes, to conciliate and, if necessary, impose an arbitrated resolution on both sides.

Second, the present restrictions on unions’ right to enter workplaces should be eased to allow them to check the payments made to union and non-union employees, as well as to recruit members.

The widespread allegations of illegal underpayment of wages suggest “a serious lack of inspection of pay records” – formerly a task in which unions had a major role. “These breaches in award conditions cannot be discounted as a factor in the slow wages growth,” Isaac says.

Third, legislation against “sham contracting” – employers reducing their workers’ entitlements by pretending those employees are independent contractors – should be tightened.

Fourth, the present procedures and delays before workers are allowed to strike while negotiating new wage agreements should be reduced.

As well, bargaining and striking over multiple-employer or industry-wide agreements should be permitted. As economists long ago established, real wage rises should reflect the economy-wide rate of productivity improvement, not the experience of particular firms.

Industry-wide and multiple-employer agreements allow unions to support people working in small and medium businesses, not just those in big businesses and government departments.

Such bargains are known as “pattern bargaining” and are illegal at present. It’s true that pattern bargaining was pressed and extended to other industries unjustifiably in years past, but the commission should have the power to prevent pattern bargaining where it’s not justified.

Now, many employers may view Isaac’s proposed “reregulation” of wage fixing with alarm. What’s to stop the return of unreasonable union behaviour and excessive wage rises?

Ah, that’s just the point. What will prevent it is all those other developments that have weakened workers’ bargaining power.
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Monday, April 30, 2018

Bank inquiry will change the course of politics and policy

The misbehaviour by banks and other big financial players revealed by the royal commission is so extensive and so shocking it’s likely to do lasting damage to the public credibility and political influence of the whole of big business and its lobby groups.

That’s particularly likely should the Coalition lose the looming federal election. If it does, that will have been for many reasons. But it’s a safe bet that pollies on both sides will attribute much of the blame to the weeks of appalling revelations by the commission.

With Labor busy reminding voters of how much effort during its time in office the Coalition spent trying to water down the consumer protections in Julia Gillard’s Future of Financial Advice legislation and then staving off a royal commission – while forgetting to mention the tough bank tax in last year’s budget – the Coalition will surely be regretting the closeness of their relationship.

Some Liberals may see themselves as having been used by the banks, notwithstanding the latter’s generous donations to party coffers. So, even if the Coalition retains office, it’s likely to be a lot more reluctant to be seen as a protector of big business.

A new Labor government is likely to be a lot less inhibited in adding to the regulation of business, and tightening the policing of that regulation, than it was in earlier times.

Should Malcolm Turnbull succeed in getting the big-company tax cut through the Senate, an incoming Labor is likely to reverse it (just as Tony Abbott didn’t hesitate to abolish Labor’s carbon tax and mining tax).

Many punters are convinced both sides of politics have been bought by big business, leaving the little guy with no hope of getting a fair shake from governments.

But that view’s likely to recede as both sides see the downside as well as the upside of keeping in with generous donors. This may be the best hope we’ll see of both sides agreeing to curb the election-funding arms race.

I’m expecting more customers for my argument that, in a democracy, the pollies care most about votes, not money. If they can use donations to buy advertising that attracts votes, fine. But when their association with donors starts to cost them votes, they re-do their calculus.

The abuse of union power during the 1960s and ‘70s – when daily life was regularly disrupted by strikes, and having to walk to work was all too common – left a distaste in voters’ mouths that lingered for decades after strike activity fell to negligible levels.

This gave the Libs a powerful stick to beat over Labor’s head. Linking Labor with the unions was always a vote winner. Every incoming Coalition government – Fraser, Howard, Abbott – has established royal commissions into union misbehaviour in the hope of smearing Labor.

But the anti-union card has lost much of its power as the era of union disruption recedes into history. The concerted efforts to discredit Julia Gillard didn’t amount to much electorally, nor this government’s attempt to bring down Bill Shorten.

From here on, however, the boot will be on the other foot. It’s big business that’s on the nose – being seen to have abused its power – and it is being linked with big business that’s now likely to cost votes.

All this change in the political and policy ground rules just from one royal commission, which may or may not lead to prosecutions of bank wrongdoers?

No, not just that. This inquiry’s revelations come on top of the banks’ longstanding unpopularity with the public and the long stream of highly publicised banking misbehaviour running back a decade to the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

And the bad story for banks, fund managers and investment advisers piles on top of continuing sagas over the mistreatment of franchisees and a seeming epidemic of illegal underpayment of wages to young people and those on temporary visas.

That’s not to mention the way fly-by-operators rorted the Vocational Education and Training experiment, ripping off taxpayers and naive young people alike, nor the mysterious way the profits of the three companies dominating the national electricity market at every level have blossomed at the same time retail electricity prices have doubled.

Times have become a lot more hostile for business, and only a Pollyanna would expect them to start getting better rather continue getting worse. Should weak wage growth continue, that will be another factor contributing to voter disaffection.

Why has even the Turnbull government slapped a big new tax on the banks, tried to dictate to the private owner of Liddell power station and now, we’re told, plans to greatly increase the petroleum and gas resource rent tax?

Take a wild guess.
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Monday, August 14, 2017

Why wage growth will strengthen before long

It's become deeply unfashionable to presume any of the present weakness in wage growth is merely cyclical (and thus temporary) rather than structural (and thus lasting). Sorry, my years of economy-watching tell me it's never that simple.

It's the mark of an amateur – a journalist who prefers sexy stories to boring stories that are more likely to be true; a youngster who believes all they're told on social media – to believe the established patterns of the past have no bearing on the present.

Note, I'm not denying the likelihood that a significant part of the problem may arise from deep, structural causes requiring correction by judicious government intervention.

What I'm saying is it's far too soon to conclude no part of the weakness is temporary. We'll know the truth of the matter only with hindsight.

We know the importance of "confidence" in driving the business cycle, but it doesn't just apply to businesses and consumers. It also applies to workers negotiating pay rises.

There's a chance that, with all the union movement's exaggerated talk of an ever-rising tide of "precarious employment", organised labour has spooked itself into accepting lower pay rises than it needs to.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe keeps hinting, one day workers will decide to contest bosses' claims that they couldn't possibly afford more than a 2 per cent pay rise.

For another thing, it's surprising the wage-rise pessimists have failed to take heart from the Fair Work Commission's decision in June to raise not just the national minimum wage, but the whole structure of award minimums, by 3.3 per cent.

This compares with a rise last year of just 2.4 per cent.

It's true that only about a quarter of employees are directly affected by this decision, but many more are affected indirectly because the "individual arrangements" by which their wages are set consist merely of a set margin above their award rate.

And why would the supposedly more industrially powerful workers on enterprise agreements settle for another 2 per cent rise when, all around them, weaker workers were getting 3.3 per cent?

But there's a more technical argument that a period of weak wage growth was just what was needed as part of our transition from the decade-long resources boom. With that transition close to completed, it shouldn't be long before wage growth strengthens.

As Professor Ross Garnaut warned in 2013 in his book, Dog Days, the big fall in the nominal exchange rate that (eventually) followed the collapse in mining commodity prices wasn't all that was needed to restore the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries.

We also needed the nominal depreciation to become a "real" depreciation, with the costs faced by Australian firms rising much more slowly than the average of costs faced by firms in our major trading partners' economies.

Garnaut doubted we could achieve the high degree of wage restraint need to make the depreciation stick but, as former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating pointed out in a recent blog post, that's just what's happened.

Keating says you'd expect that, over the medium to longer term, real wages, the productivity of labour and "real net national disposable income" per person (a version of gross domestic product that's adjusted for swings in our terms of trade) would each grow by about the same amount.

Between 2002 and 2012, the period of the resources boom, real wages grew faster than productivity, though by less than the strong growth in the real national income measure.

But Keating notes that, following the 2012 peak in the resources boom, these relationships were reversed, with real national income actually falling between 2012 and 2016. Real wages then needed to rise by less than productivity, which is just what's happened.

"My judgement is that equilibrium between productivity, [real] wages and real net national disposable income per person has now been restored," Keating concludes – implying there's now scope for real wages to grow in line with improvements in productivity.

This fits with the Reserve Bank's conclusion in its May statement on monetary policy that, as measured by comparing our "nominal unit labour costs" (nominal wage growth versus the change in labour productivity) with those of our trading partners, our real exchange rate has fallen to about its post-float average. This wouldn't have changed much since May.

So there's been a sound economic justification – the need to restore our industries' international price competitiveness – for our weak wage growth over the past three or four years.

But that need has now been satisfied, allowing us to hope for a return to real wage growth.
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Monday, February 24, 2014

Abbott's anti-union push not what it appears

If you were a conspiracy theorist it would be easy to see Tony Abbott's actions against unions as revealing his true dastardly intentions despite all his soothing statements before the election.

But I see it just as standard Coalition behaviour, motivated more by a search for political advantage than by a desire to free the economy from the scourge of unionism. Indeed, when the union movement finally expires - which can't be too many years off - I'd expect the Coalition to shed a private tear at the loss of such a useful whipping-boy.

When you contemplate the royal commission into union corruption, remember that, since the days of Malcolm Fraser, all Coalition governments set up such commissions. We know they sometimes backfire against the government or employers, and rarely lead to the conviction of many unionists. Royal commissions are about raising a hue and cry, not getting wrongdoers into jail.

As politicians on both sides well know, unions have long been on the nose with the public. This is partly because it's always easy for proprietors of the established order to portray unions as troublemakers and partly because of the public's race memory of the way the unions were always staging disruptive strikes in the decades up to the mid-1980s (yes, that long ago).

The Coalition wouldn't still be so keen to press the public's anti-union button, however, if the unions weren't still so closely associated with its political opponent, the Labor Party - a linkage that, if anything, strengthened as Julia Gillard sought to shore up her leadership against the ever-present threat from Kevin Rudd.

This is not to imply there's no corruption in the union movement. There is, just as there is among businesses - and politicians, for that matter. Just how widespread corruption is in the union movement is hard to know and the royal commission is unlikely to tell us, though you can be sure the relatively few instances it uncovers will be highly publicised.

A second ulterior motive is the Coalition's resentment of the way the unions channel big donations to Labor, but never to it. By contrast, business will donate to Labor rather that the Liberals whenever it thinks Labor's likely to win.

And, of late, we've seen signs of a third level of political prejudice against the unions. How is it the "end of entitlement" seems to apply far more to manufacturers than to farmers or formerly government-owned airlines?

Could it be because highly protected manufacturing tends to be highly unionised, with the unions playing a leading role in fighting for continued government assistance, particularly when Labor is in power?

It's worth remembering that manufacturing is the traditional base of the union movement. Manufacturing's declining share of total employment is part of the explanation for the movement's decline.

Manufacturing's further decline will hasten the eventual demise of the unions - or perhaps their relegation to the public sector. Just 13 per cent of private-sector workers are union members, compared with 43 per cent of public-sector workers, making 18 per cent overall. But note that only 19 per cent of manufacturing workers are members.

You may think the public's strong reaction against WorkChoices contradicts the idea that unions are on the nose. Not really. The unions' advertising at the time rightly alerted part-time and casual workers to the greater scope for unreasonable employer behaviour under WorkChoices, but while this made many anxious it led few to conclude the answer was to join a union. For many workers, unions are a relic from a bygone age.

Remember that the Coalition's attempt to extract political mileage from the unions, bad employers' attempt to blame the unions for their poor relations with their own staff (e.g. Qantas) and the national dailies' attempt to suck up to big business, all involve leaving the public with the impression the unions are a much bigger bogyman than they actually are.

What the people with the hidden agendas will never tell you is that more than 80 per cent of enterprises don't have a union presence. Only about 40 per cent of employees are covered by collective agreements, some of which have been drafted by employers without union involvement.

If the government really did stamp out union corruption, or prompt Labor to cut its ties with the unions (thus depriving many union leaders of an attractive career path), or shame union leaders into giving up their lucrative fees as trustees of industry super funds, it would get the union leadership back to its knitting, giving their movement a better chance of surviving.
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Monday, December 24, 2012

Workers attacked because of economy's success

THE most despicable behaviour of 2012 must surely be the return of big business people trying to make Australia's employees feel guilty about their high wage rates. Chief executives aren't overpaid but ordinary workers are? Yeah, sure.

It makes you wonder whether our business people are knaves or fools: are they knowingly talking nonsense or are they simply economically illiterate?

I'm genuinely not sure. I realised long ago it's possible to be a highly successful business person and yet not know enough to pass a high school economics exam. I could name names, but I won't.

Of course, business people would be perfectly justified in arguing the reverse: it's possible to be the most learned economist in the country yet be a total dud as a manager.

All this proves is that, contrary to popular impression, economics and business management are separate skills. The macro economy is not just a company writ large.

Chief offenders among the big business people saying stupid things about wage rates are the miners. In seeking to explain why the fall in coal and iron ore prices from sky-high to merely unusually high has prompted them to start cancelling projects for new mines, they complain that Australia has become a "high-cost" place to do business.

In part this is an unjustified whinge about the mining tax; in part it's a complaint about the continuing high dollar. The miners are justified in reminding us that all export and import-competing industries are adversely affected by a high exchange rate, including them.

For the most part, however, it's a complaint about the way wage rates for mine and construction workers have shot up in recent years. Remember, the West Australian miners were in the vanguard of those using John Howard's WorkChoices to force their workers on to individual contracts and get rid of (admittedly, often unreasonable) unions.

It's been the miners leading the campaign by business and the national dailies to reverse the direction of Fair Work and bring back individual contracts. So, the miners want us to believe it's the Fair Work Australia changes and the power they put back into the hands of the unions that explain the rapid rate at which the miners' wage bill has been growing.

If you believe that, you know nothing about economics, starting with the laws of supply and demand. What we've had in Western Australia - and Queensland - is a host of miners, big and small, desperate to expand their existing mines and build new ones and get the projects finished while world prices stay high.

So, you've got a sudden surge in demand for labour in remote and inhospitable parts of the country where few workers live, coming from companies that have never put much effort into training their own young workers.

Demand for labour has shot way ahead of supply as miners race their competitors to get their projects under way. What happens in any market when demand runs ahead of supply? The price goes up. One of the things the higher price does is attract resources from other parts of the economy.

If there are unions present, they will use their improved bargaining power to extract big pay rises from employers anxious just to get on with it. If there are no unions present, much the same thing happens as employers try to outbid their local rivals and also suck in labour from other states.

Only an economic ignoramus could imagine wages wouldn't have risen in the absence of unions.

But there's nothing new about the tactic of trying to make Australian workers believe there's something illegitimate about the high wages they're paid. In the protectionist era it was a favourite tactic of manufacturers demanding higher tariffs on imports.

Their argument was that, if workers in Asian sweatshops were getting $2 an hour and ours were getting $15, ours were being overpaid by $13 an hour. If that makes sense to you, go to the bottom of the economics class.

The first point is that the cost of labour is just part of the total cost of any product, though it's true that labour costs are the biggest element in the prices of simple, labour-intensive items such as textiles, clothing and footwear.

Countries such as Germany and Sweden have very high hourly wage costs, yet manage to hold their own in international markets for sophisticated manufactures. How? By compensating for high wage costs by having much better-trained workers, better capital equipment, longer production runs, smarter managers, higher quality, better service or other non-price selling points.

More fundamentally, it's possible but not common for the general level of a country's wages to be too high because the union movement has too much power. A rich country's wage rates are very high - way higher than a poor country's rates - because a country's wage rates invariably reflect that country's material standard of living (income per person).

And, as a general rule, what determines a country's standard of living is the level of (as opposed to the annual rate of improvement in) its labour productivity.

How does a country achieve the high level of productivity that eminently justifies the high incomes its people are paid? By investing in good infrastructure, in the education and training of its workers and in the latest capital equipment, then ensuring its business and political leaders are highly capable.

One test of its political leaders is whether they let lazy business people and self-centred unions con them into making the country's consumers or taxpayers subsidise the continued existence of businesses unable to find a way to compete on the international market.
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