Tuesday, June 6, 2006


Australian Institute of Management breakfast briefing
June 6, 2006

When I was asked to talk to you today I spent some time thinking of what I could talk about. I could preach a sermon on the need for more micro-economic reform, or I could urge you all to be more competitive, or argue passionately that the Government should slash the rate of tax we high income-earners pay so as to encourage us to work much harder. Well, you may have been prepared to get out of bed early to listen to me say that sort of thing - especially about how we’re all groaning under the weight of our crushing tax burden - but I wouldn’t have been prepared to get out of bed early to say it. No, the only topic that really attracted me was to say something more reflective about the nature of modern business life. Why are we doing what we’re doing and what do we imagine it proves? What’s it costing us and is it worth it? Remember that everything we do - every choice we make - has an opportunity cost, and sometimes it’s worth thinking about that cost.

We live in a hyper world. There’s nothing much that’s new about the things we do in business, it’s just that it’s all been stepped up. We’re competing a lot harder, working harder, making bigger profits and caring a lot more about the growth in profits. As managers and professionals we’re making a lot more money than we did. But why? Why is business life so much more intense than it was 10 or 20 years ago?

I think a big part of the explanation is micro-economic reform. Business people think the point of micro reform is to make Australian businesses more competitive - better able to meet the competition from imports or in export markets. But that’s not it. The point of micro reform is not so much to make us better able to meet foreign competition as to expose us to more competition in domestic markets. To that end, successive governments have floated the exchange rate, cut away the protection against competition from imports, deregulated many industries, broken up a lot of monopolies among the utilities, sold off a lot of government businesses and decentralised wage-fixing and industrial relations. So the competition is fiercer in many industries and, as a consequence, we’re all having to try harder. Part of the way we’ve felt the effect of greater competitive pressure on us is via the share market. The performance of the managers of public companies is much more closely and critically scrutinised these days by share analysts and fund managers.

But why now? Econocrats had been urging economic rationalist policies on their political masters for decades without much success. Why, starting about 25 years ago, did governments start acting on this advice? The obvious answer is the pressure of globalisation, but I think there’s a further cause. To a greater or lesser extent, all of us are - and always have been - materialist. But I believe the world is going through a period of heightened materialism. And if we look around we can find evidence of this. Consider the evidence from the American Council on Education’s annual survey of over 200,000 newly entering college students. Asked about their reasons for going to college, the proportion agreeing that an important one was ‘to make more money’ rose from half in 1971 to almost three-quarters by 1990. And the proportion believing it ‘very important or essential’ that they become ‘very well-off financially’ rose from 39 per cent in 1970 to 74 per cent in 1990. Over the same period, the proportion who began college hoping to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ slumped from 76 per cent to 43 per cent. This reversal stayed unchanged throughout the 1990s.

So why has the longstanding wish-list of economists become the dominant ideology of public life? Because it fits perfectly with the current mood of heightened materialism. Now, more than before, both sides of politics see faster economic growth and rising material living standards as the primary objective of government, and there’s no doubting that following the prescriptions of conventional economics will give you a faster rising standard of living. Economic rationalism was made to assist an era of heightened materialism.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve become a great student of psychology in my old age. The findings of modern social psychology provide a valuable counterpoint to economic orthodoxy and have a lot of light to shed on why we are as we are and why we do as we do. Take, for instance, competition. Conventional economics smiles on competition. It’s a valuable commodity, spurring innovation and fostering productivity and efficiency, which lead to faster rising material living standards. So you can never have enough competition, but the trouble is there is never enough of it. Competition takes effort, and people won’t bother competing very hard unless you make it monetarily worth their while. So we must always be cutting taxes and improving incentives lest we encourage too little competition.

Talk to an evolutionary psychologist, however, and you get a very different perspective. Thanks to natural selection and the survival of the fittest, humans - particularly men - are naturally highly competitive. It’s been bred into us. So why do we compete? Because we can’t help ourselves. We’re a competitive animal. Civilisation tries to contain and channel our competitiveness into exams and sport and even business endeavour, so as to stop us brawling in the streets and fighting rival tribes at the drop of a hat. So whereas the conventional wisdom sees the competitive spirit as a fragile flower to be carefully nurtured, unorthodox economists such as Professor Richard Layard of LSE see it as something we’ve probably got too much of already and should avoid stirring up.

Let me tell you about some research by two female economists at Pittsburgh and Stanford. They used laboratory experiments to demonstrate that men were a lot more competitive than women - no doubt for evolutionary reasons. Given a choice between doing work for a piece rate or competing in a winner-takes-all work tournament, twice as many men as women opted for the tournament. So even if you took away all the discrimination against women in the workforce and compensated for the handicap of being the childbearing sex, you’d probably still find women underrepresented in senior management. Why? Because women are less likely to see the point of giving up so much for the dubious joys of being a boss. But why were the men so much more likely to give up the certainty of income in preference for a contest in which they won everything or nothing? In a word: overconfidence. Neither the men nor the women had any way of knowing how their work performance compared with others’. But three-quarters of men believed they were the best in the group, compared with 43 per cent of women. The thing to note about this is that, while it’s OK for three-quarters of men to be convinced they’d be the winner in the competition before the competition starts, once it’s completed you’re surely looking at a fair bit of disillusionment and dissatisfaction.

Another bit of light we can get from psychology is its reminder that humans are a social animal. Conventional economics assumes we’re rugged individualists. We do our own thing according to our personal and firmly fixed tastes and preferences, largely unaffected by the choices being made by people around us. In truth, however, we’re heavily influenced by the choices our friends and workmates make. Being animals that evolved to live and work in small bands of hunter-gatherers, we have a great desire to fit in and do what our peers are doing. We care deeply about what other people think of us and we’re always comparing ourselves with the people around us. We can see this in our children, but we can also see it in ourselves. We’re heavily influenced by fashions, we confirm to group norms of behaviour, our idea of what’s ethical is largely determined by what we believe ‘everybody’s doing’. We evolved to live in hierarchical groups, which leaves us terribly preoccupied - more preoccupied than we care to admit to ourselves - with our social status. With where we stand in our reference group. One important thing this means is that materialism is catching. If the people around us at work are getting in for their chop, we want ours. If the people we compare ourselves with are working long hours so they can afford a flash house in a well-regarded suburb, a late model imported car and private schools for the kids, we want to match them.

Economists believe in something called ‘revealed preference’ - they you find out what people really want by looking at what they do, not what they say. And no one - certainly no government - can know what I want better than I know myself. That’s because they assume me to be rational in all my decisions. But psychology demonstrates that our decisions are heavily influenced by emotional factors - often to a far greater extent than we’re conscious of. And studies by psychologists and behavioural economists show we’re often quite bad at predicting what will bring us utility -what we’ll ultimately find satisfying and be glad we chose to do. We often keep doing things we don’t actually find satisfying. Part of the reason for this is that our brains seem to have two separate systems for desire: one for wanting stuff, but a different one for actually enjoying stuff. What this means is that some of the stuff we really want and spend a lot of time pursuing, when we get it, it doesn’t give us as much satisfaction as we thought it would.

I suspect that a lot of us who are caught up in the business whirl have come to wonder about whether it’s all we imagined it to be when we started out. If not, let me give you some things to think about. First, are we doing it just for the money? Is so, is the money buying us much real satisfaction? We’ve got lots of fancy possessions, but do they bring us or our families much lasting satisfaction once the novelty wears off? How much satisfaction is there in owning a flash boat we have little time to use? Sounds like a poor consolation to me.

Are we becoming workaholics? I’ve got nothing against hard work; I do a lot myself and, contrary to the assumption of the simple economic model, the work itself can be far more satisfying than the stuff you buy with the money. I think the test is why you’re working so hard. If it’s because you love the work for its own sake, that’s fine. But if you’re doing it just for the money, or just for promotion, or you’re afraid of some sort of kick in the backside, or you’re getting away from life at home, you’ve got a problem. If we don’t like our work, but aren’t willing to shift to something we’d find more satisfying because of the lower pay or loss of status, we’ve got a problem. We’re trapped not by ‘the system’ but by our own materialism.

One qualification to the idea that long hours are OK if we love our work is that we have to take account of the implications for our spouse and family. All of us know that, at the end of the day - or even just in retirement - it’s our relations with our family that matter to us above all else. We know it, but in practice we’re always letting the urgent take priority over the important. How many of us have unhappy husbands or wives? Many of us - if only we could be honest with ourselves - are risking ending up in the divorce court. Does this sound a cheap price to pay for a successful corporate career? Then there’s our kids. They can’t divorce us, but they can reproach us when we’re old and need them more than they need us. How many of our extra hours could at least be done at home rather than the office? There’s evidence that a lot of young kids say they’d rather have their father’s company than his money.

Another thing that worries me about modern business life is the way we’re encouraged to neglect rest and recreation. Too many people don’t take all their annual leave and maybe don’t even get enough sleep. Apart from living narrow, unsatisfying lives, they’re heading for burnout. And again, money - in the form of being able to afford quickie visits to luxury resorts - is a poor substitute for time. Leisure is something we were intended to do, not buy. The idea of encouraging employees to cash out up to half their annual leave is pernicious. What people need in their lives is balance: hard work combined with satisfying play.

But do we have any choice? Is the only choice to play the competitive game full tilt or ‘downshift’ to Nimbin? Economics teaches us that life’s not about all-or-nothing choices but about finding the best trade-off between equally attractive but conflicting objectives. Many of us may feel we’ve neither the desire nor the possibility to take the seachange option. But I believe all of us have some degree of control over our lives and jobs, and there are plenty of changes we could make at the margin which would add up to a better, more balanced lifestyle. We could loosen up a bit here and a bit there - particularly if we take the amazingly liberating step of stopping worrying about our next promotion and caring less about our status and keeping up with the neighbours.

We fall into the habit of imagining that history moves in straight lines, that the trends we see happening now will keep rolling on forever. In truth, history moves like a pendulum: it keeps running one way until it gets to an extreme point, where there’s a reaction against it and it starts heading back towards the other extreme. I believe that our present era of hyper-materialism - with all its overwork, intense competition, stress and ever-quickening pace - can’t go on forever, just as double-digit profit growth can’t go on forever. Sooner or later there’ll be a reaction against it. Why? Because people will see it’s not as good as we imagined it would be.

That reaction will start not when some new radical government gets elected, but when enough individuals in the system begin modifying their own lives in small ways to make them less intense and more liveable. More relaxed and comfortable. That’s when the business world will start calming down. And a calming down is all I’d like to see - something that took us back to being no more materialist than we were in the 60s and 70s.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Talk to Australian Business Economists Annual Forecasting Conference, Sydney, December 13, 2005

At last, at last, economists are getting what they’ve longed for: the return of micro
reform. With the Howard Government’s acquisition of a majority in the Senate, the
good times are back. We’ve had completion of the privatisation of Telstra and now
the Holy Grail of economic rationalism, reform of the labour market. What’s more,
and as we shall see, the next cab off the rank looks likely to be that other economists’
chart-topper, tax reform. Yippee! But whether the reform is what economists
imagined it would be is another matter, as is whether what we’re getting will do much
good to the economy.

Take Telstra. I suspect it’s now dawning on some economists that privatising a near
monopoly isn’t such a wonderful thing, and that much turns on the ability of a quite
intrusive regulatory regime to ensure a hugely resourced and political powerful
company doesn’t abuse its market power. It’s clear the natural monopoly element of
Telstra should have separated from the contestable element before privatisation
began, but I don’t recall hearing many economists saying this back in 1996 -
especially those working for outfits hoping to win the contract to organise the float.

The economics of WorkChoices

Similarly, I doubt if many economists now think WorkChoices is all they had in mind
when they dreamt of labour market reform. It certainly can’t be thought of as
deregulation. It’s hugely prescriptive about what unionised workers may and, more
particularly, may not do. I’ve written that only the employers have been deregulated,
but even that may be too generous. Employers will find the new system more
complex and legalistic. The new act is more voluminous and prescriptive, there’ll be
more work for lawyers, no tribunals have been abolished but additional ones created,
and the minister is given greatly increased discretion to intervene in bargaining.
Rather than reduce regulation of the labour market, WorkChoices simply biases it in
favour of employers by doing all it can discourage collective bargaining and shoving
the old system of awards and arbitration into the background. Because economists’
neoclassical model abstracts from the question of relative bargaining power,
WorkChoices assumes (possibly correctly) that economists won’t notice what’s amiss.
Likewise, it picks up the economists’ point that restrictions on the ability to fire end
up being restrictions on the willingness to hire, while ignoring the more subtle point
that workers (including even economists) derive much utility from perceiving that
their job is secure.

If you draw a distinction between trying to swing one to employers and trying to
improve labour market outcomes, it’s hard to see how WorkChoices will do much for
the economy. In the OECD’s rating of different countries’ employment protection, it
gave our unfair dismissal regime quite a good (ie low) score, and when you remember
that getting rid of the unfair dismissal provisions encourages firing as well as hiring,
you wouldn’t expect much net increase in employment.

Most economists’ main hope of employment growth would come from lowering the
minimum wage, but as Mark Wooden of the Melbourne Institute has pointed out, the
Fair Pay Commission’s freedom to lower the minimum in real terms will be greatly
constrained by the indexation of unemployment benefits. The most the commission’s
likely to be able to do is slowly lower the minimum relative to the faster-growing
median wage. And, as Saul Eslake of ANZ has reminded us, this was already
happening under the much-reviled Industrial Relations Commission. Over the eight
years to 2004, the federal minimum wage fell as proportion of median earnings from
60.6 per cent to 58.4 per cent. Without the ability to change tax and transfer policies,
there won’t be a lot Ian Harper can do.

You might hope that less protection of penalty rates would permit greater flexibility in
the deployment of labour, but make sure you get your analysis right. One little
acknowledged point is that, while the penalty payments specified in awards may be
arbitrary, it’s perfectly legitimate for workers to set a higher reservation price for
work at unsociable hours. And when the cost of labour falls simply because of
unequal bargaining power, what results is a transfer of income from workers to
employers without any net gain to the economy.

The politics of WorkChoices

But let’s turn to the political implications of WorkChoices. Reading my various
columns on the subject, one of the young chaps at work concluded that I’d changed
my mind about it. No, I said, it’s just that my views are complicated. I regard
WorkChoices as bad in principle, but not likely to be terribly bad in practice. It’s clear
the public is most disapproving of the changes, and this accounts for John Howard’s
quite serious slump in the polls.

But let me make this fearless prediction: the changes won’t stay a hot topic now
they’re through parliament and I’ll be surprised if they’re a significant issue at the
election in (presumably) October 2007. There are five reasons for thinking this. First,
the changes won’t be as bad as some have painted them. When bush lawyers pore
over new legislation, they have a tendency to see worst-case scenarios and imagine
they’ll be the new norm. They forget that acts are always conferring rights that are
rarely exercised because they’re considered impractical or impolitic. Second, it can
take quite a while for people to change their behaviour in response to changed
legislative opportunity. Much of the fear of WorkChoices rests on the spread of
Australian Workplace Agreements, but these have been available since 1997 and so
far have spread to less than 2.5 per cent of the workforce.

Third, the changes are designed to be slow release, with some taking a year, three
years or even five years to take effect. Fourth, and this is a point for economists to
note, the very nature of decentralised wage fixing means it’s hard for observers to
know what’s going on. Whereas all decisions by the IRC were made public, and the
terms of all collective agreements are on record, the Act goes to much effort to ensure
the terms of AWAs are kept secret. So, in the event of AWAs becoming much more
significant in the wage-fixing process than they are today, it will be hard for the
public to know if a lot of employers are driving hard bargains, it will hard for the
firms and workers in an industry to know what the going wage is (meaning there’s
likely to be a fair bit of variation), and it will be hard for the Statistician and
economists to know what’s happening to wage growth.

But my fifth reason for distinguishing between principle and practice is, to me, the
killer: it won’t be long before the Government’s efforts to shift bargaining power in
favour of employers are overtaken by the marked shift in the balance of supply and
demand for labour brought about by population ageing and the retirement of the baby
boomers. Many people can’t conceive of a time when even the unskilled are in short
supply, but everyone over 50 lived through such a time. People say a recession would
speed up employers’ exploitation of WorkChoices. That’s true, but it would be wrong
to assume the next recession, when it comes, will be as severe as those of the early
1980s and 90s. I think we could be returning to the pre-1974 period where recessions
were much milder because, in an era when shortage of labour was the norm, there was
a lot more labour hoarding. We’ll soon be entering a period where workers have the
upper hand. It may prove that the one great virtue of WorkChoices was to remove
any institutional addition to workers’ bargaining power, thus limiting the extent to
which the economy is dogged by perpetual worries about excessive wage settlements.
This will, to an extent, offset the ill-effects of the Howard Government’s chronic
underinvestment in education, training and skill-formation, which will be coming
home to roost.

What’s next?

Even so, it seems clear Howard will want to find a new, and preferably less
unpopular, reform issue to fill the vacuum left by the IR changes. He’ll want to
change the subject and he’ll want to look busy - whether he’s going or staying. He’ll
want to get the business urgers off his back and he may well want to add to his tally of
economic reforms something that fits with his long-held views about the key reforms
needed. That all points to one thing: more tax reform, this time focusing on personal
income tax and, in particular, the top rate.

But he can’t just cut the top rate. That would be too simple - too little to occupy
people’s attention - and too much like a blatant handout to his rich mates. It would
compound the impression given by the IR changes that he’d switched to doing the
dirty on Howard’s Battlers. It would also be relatively cheap. No, he really needs to
do something where he’s seen to be working on the tax problems of everyone, even if
some people end up with much bigger tax cuts than others.

One of the people leading the campaign for further tax reform has been Malcolm
Turnbull, of course. You can understand why Peter Costello has been trying to hold
back the push for further reform. He knows that his big achievement in this area -
raising the top threshold to $125,000 a year so that only 3 per cent of taxpayers are
still subject to the top rate - hasn’t even taken effect yet, but has already been brushed
aside and threatens to be subsumed by something even bigger. He would have a
Treasurer’s caution about leaping to early conclusions on how big the ‘surplus
surplus’ is likely to be looking in five months’ time. And he would be aware (as most
people have failed to realise) that at present he’s committed to half a tax cut next July
- one for everyone earning more than $63,000 a year - and that he’ll be in trouble
politically if he doesn’t come up with the revenue for the bottom, far more expensive
half. In other words, he knows he’s up for the cost of another expensive tax cut for the
punters, before he worries about making the tax cut for high income earners even
more generous than already planned.

Is his reticence on the question of tax cuts also influenced by rivalry with Turnbull?
Quite likely. It may even be influenced by his preference for making further incometax
reform the first big reform of the Costello Government rather than the last reform
of the Howard Government. But that’s all the more reason why Howard’s likely to
insist the question of further tax reform be explored immediately rather than left for
later. The test of whether this exercise proves to be anything more that a government
with an embarrassingly large surplus finally giving in to pressure from the most well-off
taxpayers in the land is, first, whether anything significant is done about a far
more important problem - the work disincentives facing mothers returning to work
and people moving from welfare to work created by their much higher effective
marginal tax rates - and, second, whether high income earners are required to
contribute to the cost of their tax cuts by way of base-broadening measures.
So tax ‘reform’ presents an opportunity for genuine reform, but it remains to be seen
whether that opportunity is taken. What else is there on the reform agenda? Not much
that I can see. The next item on Howard’s list is media regulation, but he’s made it
clear he won’t proceed with anything unless the two media barons to whom all
politicians are in thrall, Murdoch and Packer, can agree on what they want. I wouldn’t
hold my breath waiting for any competitive opening up in this area. My colleague
Alan Mitchell has argued that, while labour market reform never looks like it adds up
to much, its power comes from the opportunity it provides to firms now facing
increased pressure from reform of their product markets. His line is that, if the
Government wants to maximise the economic gain from WorkChoices, it will need to
come up with a lot more product market reform. Not a bad argument, but I don’t see
the Government obliging.

The Liberal leadership

As soon as I turned my mind to preparing this talk I knew I’d have to say something
about the leadership, whether Howard is going or staying, and I knew an audience
such as this wouldn’t let me get away with any two-handed economist routine. I
wouldn’t be allowed out of the room without making ‘a call’. That’s quite a tall order,
since I doubt if Howard himself yet knows which way he’ll jump. But, just so you’ve
got something to throw in my face if I’m invited back next year, here’s my call: I
think Howard will announce his retirement early in the second half of next year. He’ll
be tempted to stay - he’ll feel fine, and more Liberal members will want him to stay
than want him to go - but in the end he’ll go because he knows he has to go sometime
and now’s a more propitious time than in three years’ time. That’s a point to note:
since he can’t resign too soon after an election and must give his successor at least a
year (and preferably longer) to settle in before the next election, if he hasn’t resigned
before the end of next year, he’ll have to stay on for pretty much another three, by
which time he’ll be 70. Another technical parameter is that he won’t leave before next
March, which is when he’ll have notched up 10 years as PM. The Costello camp had
set March-April as some kind of deadline, but by then it would be too late to hand the
budget to a new boy, so the revised expectation is not long after the budget. Howard
won’t want any appearance that he’s been pushed out, and I think Costello and his
camp have realised that being too overtly pushy could prove counterproductive and
prompt him to dig in his heals. Like Bob Carr, Howard may delay his announcement
for a month or two till people had concluded he was staying, but I’m sure Howard
will want to avoid the unpleasantness and diversion that could arise should Costello
and his troops fear they’d been cheated. Few prime ministers have had the judgment
and self control to quit while they’re on top, but I believe Howard will be one of
them. Should he stay, however, I confidently predict Costello will cop it sweet - he
won’t challenge (he’s way short of the numbers), he won’t go to the backbench and he
won’t resign. Party support for Costello would gather should the Government stay
well behind in the polls, but I’ll be surprised if it does.

Why the rush?

A related question is why we’ve witnessed the unseemly, undemocratic rush of
Howard banging his key legislation on Telstra, terrorism and WorkChoices through
the Senate before Christmas with insufficient time for scrutiny. And this after he’d
promised to use his Senate majority wisely and not provocatively. Could it be he’s
getting these key items on his personal reform agenda on the statute books so he can
retire in triumph as early as he likes next year? It could be. But there are two other,
equally plausible reasons for his haste. One is that both the Telstra privatisation and
the WorkChoices legislation are highly unpopular, and the Government knew it would
bleed for as long as they were in the public eye. It follows that the way to minimise
the bleeding was to get them through parliament as quickly as possible.

The second is interesting: now Howard has a one-seat majority in the Senate, the
opposition seems to have moved inside his own backbench. While Barnaby Joyce is
the only one threatening to cross the floor, there’s been a lot of rumbling on the
backbench and a fair few changes made to accommodate that dissent. It’s as though
there must always be a balance of power, and when it doesn’t reside with the minor
parties it moves to whoever on the government backbench has the courage to exercise
it. Joyce is a bit wet to be a member of the Howard Government, a Catholic social
justice type. He has his populist streak, but he’s smart and knows how far to push it.

He won’t be crossing the floor very often, but he’ll be winning his fair share of
concessions and getting constant publicity. He’s lifted the profile of the Nats in the
bush; done them a favour. He’s not hugely popular with other backbenchers, but
that’s mainly envy of someone with more initiative. Anyhow, my particular point is
that, with a fractious backbench, Howard would believe that the less time he gave his
troops to think about the finer points of his measures, the less trouble he’ll have
getting them through.

The Labor leadership

Things aren’t terribly flash on the Labor side of the aisle. Kim Beazley is competent
and likeable, but not inspiring. Labor may be ahead in the polls thanks to
WorkChoices, but that doesn’t prove much and isn’t likely to last once the fuss dies
down. Don’t forget that Howard has been well behind in the polls in each of his terms,
only to pull back in front when it mattered. As for the boost from IR, Beazley could
easily find himself caught the way he was with the GST before the 2001 election. He
thought the unpopularity of the tax meant he was on a winner, only to find that
everyone had calmed down - and been calmed down by bribes from Howard - by the
time the election arrived.

You don’t get the feeling his troops are terribly happy with his leadership, but there’ll
be no challenge because no one in the shadow cabinet looks a better bet. Remember,
however, that should Howard retire, Beazley will be a much closer match for
Costello. In with a real chance, I would have thought.

Monetary policy

Before we get down to it, there are some housekeeping matters to note. On the
Reserve board, Frank Lowy will need to be replaced after his term expired last week,
and Don McGauchie will be re-appointed when his first term expires at the end of
March. I think we can be confident Lowy’s successor won’t have being a generous
Liberal Party donor as his only qualification. One dud is enough. Ian Macfarlane’s
term ends in mid-September. On past precedent his successor should be announced
about a month before hand. As deputy governor, Glenn Stevens is in poll position but,
though I know of no reason to doubt he’ll get the nod, there are no guarantees.
My text for today is: the Reserve stays quick on its feet, so so should you. Why?
Because Stuff Happens. I think most people have got the right fix on the outlook for
monetary policy in 2006. Growth is expected to be ‘solid’ (code for unspectacular),
though just how solid remains to be seen. But with underlying inflation likely to drift
up towards the top of the target and headline inflation likely to stay at the top of the
target, ‘policy will need to be responsive to any sign that demand and inflation
pressures are stronger than currently expected’. The Reserve keeps hearing from the
firms it speaks to that they’re experiencing cost pressures - that they’re operating
close to full capacity, with shortages of labour - so it’s got its hand on the lever ready
to tighten when it sees things moving out of line. It will be looking not just at wages -
wage pressure is there, though so far it’s coming through pretty gradually - but also
for signs of pricing power, such as too many firms using petrol prices as an excuse for
a disproportionate price rise. So at this stage I won’t be surprised if we see further
tightening next year. If so, the Reserve would do another 25 basis points, then sit back
to see the response, then do a little more if it thought it needed.

The Reserve’s not likely to be inhibited in any needed tightening by worries about the
deflating housing bubble. After two years in which house prices nationwide have been
flat rather than falling, with the misalignment getting smaller, it’s more relaxed. It’s
true that household interest payments are a higher proportion of disposable income
than they were at their peak in 1989, and are still rising, but they’re rising not because
of sharp rises in interest rates, rather because people are still borrowing quite strongly.
From its peak rate of 20 per cent, housing credit is still growing by 11 per cent a year.
That’s hardly a sign of distress. If anything, it’s a sign mortgage rates are still too low
rather than too high and too tight.

The worry has always been that, during this period in which the economy is
vulnerable because households are so laden with debt, we might be hit by some
exogenous shock that caused a downturn in growth and a rise in unemployment. The
knock-on effect from that could be nasty. But shocks are, by definition, unexpected.
And you don’t fail to do what you should do - keep inflation pressure in check - just
because of what might happen. You do what you have to do, then worry about how to
respond to the shock if it happens.

All this implies that, at present, you wouldn’t expect to see rates being cut next year.
If a year from today rates were lower, they would have gone higher in the meantime.
But all I’ve said represents merely how the future looks ‘at present’. The safest
prediction I can make is that, before we’ve got too far into next year, the future will
look quite different from the way it looks now. That’s what I mean about the Reserve
staying quick on its feet. It responds to the incoming data, and is quite prepared to
change its view - and its policy - as the evidence evolves.

I observed at this show some years ago that ex-bank business economists were better
at second-guessing the Reserve than ex-Treasury economists. Peter Horn said to me
later than he thought he knew why that was. The trouble with Treasury is that it has
detailed published forecasts, which it’s only able to revise once in a year. This means
it feels obliged to defend its forecasts until such time as it’s able to revise them. It
faces a temptation to interpret incoming data in the light of its forecast rather than
vice versa. The Reserve, by contrast, doesn’t really publish its detailed forecasts, and
so doesn’t hesitate to revise them as often as the weight of evidence dictates. It
doesn’t have any institutional ego attached to its forecasts. You can see that in the
way Ian Macfarlane explains to the parliamentary hearing why his predictions of six
months earlier didn’t work out. He does it without a hint of embarrassment. I think the
Reserve’s pretty humble about the low probability of getting forecasts right.
So that’s what I mean about it staying quick on its feet. And this year’s been an
instructive year in that respect because the Reserve went through four distinct changes
of view in the space of 10 months.

The first change came at the February meeting and was signalled in the February
SoMP. Everything seemed to be on hold when Glenn Stevens spoke to the ABE
dinner this time last year, but by the February meeting we were quite worried about
inflation with the economy running out of capacity. What had happened in the
interim? The signs of sharply rising costs in the December quarter PPI, I suspect. At
the February meeting it was felt the public needed to be got ready for a tightening,
which came after the March meeting.

Many people would say the second change of view came at the April meeting, when it
was decided not to tighten again. I guess you can blame me for that. But it had never
been intended to do two in row and the decision not to tighten further came actually
came a month or two later.

The third change came in the Big Mac’s appearance before the parliamentary
committee in August. The point he meant to make was just that the Reserve had
abandoned its tightening bias, that in the SoMP released earlier that week ‘we
refrained from making the point we have been making for the past year or so about it
“being unlikely that there would be no further rises in the course of the expansion”.’

In our present estimation, he said, ‘there is no longer a more than 50 per cent
possibility of [a tightening] happening’. But then he went on to say something a bit
different, that ‘when we look further into the future, we no longer see a clear
probability of it moving in one direction rather than the other’. And that’s where he
inadvertently gave people a bum steer. Understandably, many people went away with
the notion of a 50 per cent chance of tightening and a 50 per cent chance of easing. In
truth, the probability scheme in the Reserve head would have been 20 per cent
tightening, 20 per cent easing and 60 per cent no change.

So the fourth change of view for the year came with the November SoMP, when the
Reserve restored its tightening bias. It could have reverted to saying it was unlikely
there would be no further rises in the course of the expansion, but it didn’t - not
because it wasn’t true, but because, as we discussed last year, that formula was
devised to cope with the election campaign, to warn the public that it reserved the
right to raise rates after the election and to discourage the parties from making
promises about stopping rates rising. In that, of course, it was only partially
successful. But though it hasn’t resurrected that formula, be in no doubt that the bias
to tighten is back.

One last point. We began this year with a major change of tune between the
December meeting and the February meeting. If you think back, you realise the same
thing has happened over many Christmas breaks. When the Reserve gets back from
summer holidays towards the end of January and views things with a new eye, it often
doesn’t pick up where it left off. Why does this happen? I can think of two
mechanical reasons to explain why view-changes are more likely over the summer
break than between meetings during the year: there’s double the amount of new data
because of the missed January meeting, and the summer period also includes one of
the year’s four releases of inflation data. I don’t think that’s enough to explain the
phenomenon. Maybe the fresh eyes do make a difference. But my advice to you is
simple: stay quick on your feet and always keep an eye out for another over-
Christmas view-change.



Sunday, August 1, 2004


Ronald Henderson Oration, Melbourne
August 2004.

1. Introduction

The further I have strayed from my days as an undergraduate, the more convinced I have become of the importance of theory – not just to economics, but to any discipline. Theory is important because it is so pervasive in influencing the way we think, the way we analyse problems in our discipline and the nature of the solutions we favour. Often, we fall into ways of thinking about issues without fully appreciating the influence theory is having on us (Keynes 1936).

At a time when economic rationalists are so influential in government policy making, theory becomes highly relevant because economic rationalists can be defined as people who take conventional economic theory – the neoclassical model of markets, in its simplest form – and raise it to the status of religious doctrine.

In addition, I have become interested in some relatively recent developments in cognitive and social psychology. Psychology has become a lot more interesting to people interested in public policy since the advent of ‘positive psychology’, which has switched the focus from the study of mental illness to the study of people who are perfectly well (Seligman 2002; Kahneman et al. 1999: p. ix).

Two aspects of psychological research present significant challenges to conventional economics: the study of how people make decisions and the study of happiness or ‘subjective well-being’. I wish to draw out the respects in which these advances challenge various aspects of economic theory and the policy prescriptions conventionally flowing from the theory. The first challenge – concerning decision-making – is being taken quite seriously by the economics profession. The thriving school of economic thought it has given rise to is behavioural economics, and the psychologist who did most to inspire this school, Daniel Kahneman, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. The second challenge to conventional economics – from the burgeoning happiness research – is taking longer to win converts among economists. But I am enough of an optimist to hope that we are witnessing the early stages of another revolution in economics, one to match or even exceed the influence of the Keynesian revolution of the 1940s and 50s. Surprisingly, Keynes is now being hailed as one of the earliest behavioural economists (Akerlof 2002), though his contemporary followers largely ignored that aspect of his contribution.

2. Decision-making

2.1 Challenge to theory

Psychology’s first challenge to microeconomic theory strikes at one of its central elements: the assumption of Homo economicus. Economic man is assumed to be rational and self-interested. He or she always carefully evaluates all the options before making any decision, and always with the object of maximising his or her personal ‘utility’ or satisfaction. But cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that humans simply lack the neural processing power to make the carefully calculated decisions economists assume (Simon 1957). People are not rational, they are intuitive. And altruism is often an important consideration in their decision-making (Mullainathan and Thaler 2001; Frey and Meier 2002). People can’t chose correctly between three options where the best option is not immediately apparent (Simonson and Tversky 1992). Rather than carefully thinking through the pros and cons of every decision, people tend to rely on mental shortcuts (‘heuristics’) which often serve them well enough, but also lead them into systematic biases (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). People are often slow to learn from their mistakes (Mullainathan and Thaler 2001). They are frequently capable of reacting differently to choices that are essentially the same, just because the choices have been ‘framed’ (packaged) differently (Kahneman and Tversky 1979). This means that, rather than being coldly rational, people’s decisions are often influenced by emotional considerations.

All this means that Homo sapiens differs from Homo economicus in many important respects. He doesn’t conform to economists’ assumption of fungibility (one dollar is indistinguishable from another), he is often not bothered by opportunity cost and thus has a strong bias in favour of the status quo (Thaler 1980). He does not ignore sunk costs as he is supposed to (Thaler 1980) and often cannot order his preferences consistently (Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Kahneman and Tversky 1979). He is not averse to risks so much as averse to losses and he focuses more on changes in his wealth than on its absolute level (Tversky and Kahneman 1981).

Unlike Homo economicus, Homo sapiens cares deeply about fairness (Kahneman et al. 1986). Experiments show people will walk away from deals they consider treat them unfairly, even though those deals would leave them better off (Kahneman et al. 1986). People are prepared to pay a price to punish others they consider to have been behaving badly towards the group (Fehr and Gachter 2000). Often people are concerned about ‘procedural fairness’ – how things are done, not just how they end up (Tyler 2000).

2.2 Policy implications

I believe this has powerful implications for the aspect of the neoclassical model that economic rationalists (particularly right-wing rationalists) find so attractive: its elevation and celebration of individualism. The individual should be free to choose, and governments should be most circumspect in how they constrain individuals’ freedom, including by taxing them to pay for the public provision of services and to redistribute income. This elevation of the individual and, by implication, denigration of a more communitarian approach, turns out to rest heavily on the assumption that individuals are rational. If individuals are rational decision-makers then it follows, as the rationalists keep asserting, that governments can never know what is good for you better than you know yourself. Governments should therefore tax individuals as little as possible, and maximise the private provision of such things as education and health care. If individuals are not particularly rational in their decision-making, however, then there may well be a case for government paternalism in certain circumstances. Add to this the findings that people’s decisions are often influenced by altruism, their concerns about fairness, their willingness to punish people who act contrary to the interests of the group, and that their behaviour is often influenced by the behaviour of those around them (Ormerod 1998: chap. 2), and you get a further argument in support of communitarian interventions and income redistribution.

A second strand of policy implications also flows from abandoning the assumption that people are rational. It calls into question economists’ adherence to consumer sovereignty – their belief that consumers should and do determine what producers produce. When consumers’ decisions can be influenced by the way propositions are framed, and when decisions are frequently influenced by emotions, producers can use advertising and other marketing to manipulate consumer demand. This contravenes a basic tenet of market economics that, in Keynes’s phrase, consumption is ‘the sole end and object of all economic activity’ (1936: chap. 8). If producers can use advertising to increase as well as manipulate consumption, this puts the cart before the horse, it reverses the direction of causation in the economic system, turning means into ends.

Economists do not like talking about advertising. To make it fit their model they have to assume that it is purely informational, whereas we all know that smart advertisers sell the sizzle not the steak (Camerer 2003). Advertisers prey on our inadequacies and irrationalities (Layard 2005), subtly selling us propositions which become absurd as soon as someone puts them into words: that buying certain products will at last put us among the beautiful people or give us a healthy, happy family. But if advertising is antithetical to consumer sovereignty, why are economists usually so disapproving of proposals to limit or ban advertising?i

3. Happiness

3.1 Challenge to theory

There’s not a big difference between subjective well-being – happiness - and the economists’ goal of maximising utility or satisfaction (Easterlin 2001; Frey and Benz 2002; Frey and Stutzer 2002). So this is an area of research that ought to be of considerable relevance to economists. One common reservation they have, however, is that it is all so subjective – asking people to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale of one to 10. But psychologists have demonstrated that a person’s own assessment of their happiness has a high correlation with other people’s assessments of that person’s happiness and with physical measurements of brain electroencephalogram readings (Diener 1984; Veenhoven 1993; Davidson et al. 2000).

The most surprising finding of the happiness research, confirmed in an Australian study by Heady, Muffels and Wooden (2004), is that the link between life satisfaction and income and wealth is quite weak. It exists, but it is small. Once a nation’s income per person exceeds about $US15,000 a year (Inglehart and Klingman 2000; Helliwell 2003), the acquisition of further income is subject to rapidly diminishing returns. And, as was first pointed out 30 years ago by the economist Easterlin (1974), in the period since World War II the correlation between GDP and happiness has broken down in rich countries (Myers 1993). In America, for instance, real GDP per person has trebled while subjective well-being has been unchanged (Diener and Seligman 2004). Similar results are found for other developed countries where life satisfaction has been regularly measured (Blanchflower and Oswald 2000).

This is a devastating conclusion for economists – and particularly economic rationalists – whose whole practical motivation has been based on the assumption that helping the community raise its productivity and increase its production and consumption of goods and services will leave it unequivocally better off. There is no doubt that, materially, we are better off than we were even 10 years ago: our homes are bigger and better, our cars are better, our food and clothing are fancier and we have any number of wonderful new gadgets to save us labour or entertain us. But though we are better off, we do not feel better off. Why not? Why is it that the acquisition of income does so little to increase our satisfaction?

Psychologists (and a few economists) have proposed two main explanations. First, it’s a characteristic of humans that we adapt surprisingly quickly to our changed circumstances (Helson 1964; Frederick and Loewenstein 1999). We get a promotion, move into a better house or buy a new car and, for a while, we really feel better off. But all too soon we adapt to our new circumstances and absorb them into the status quo. People who win the lottery are no happier than normal within a few years but, by the same token, most accident victims who suffer paraplegia end up being no unhappier than normal (Brickman et al. 1978). The thing that is surprising about all this is our failure to learn from all the times the buzz from an acquisition has worn off so quickly (Schwartz 2004). We keep striving to acquire another new toy in the hope it will be the one that finally delivers nirvana. This amnesia – which, in terms of the economists’ model, constitutes a major information failure (Layard 2005) - is why psychologists describe us as being trapped on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ (Brickman and Campbell 1971).

The second part of the explanation for the diminishing marginal utility of money is rivalry (Duesenberry 1949; Hirsch 1976; Frank 1985, 1999; Solnick and Hemenway 1998; Easterlin 2001). The economic model assumes that what satisfies us is absolute increases in our income or wealth. This is because we’re all individualists, who not only don’t care about the well-being of others, but also don’t ever compare ourselves with others. In truth, we are highly social animals, obsessed by what those around us think of us and what we think of them. Remember Gore Vidal’s crack: when I see a friend succeed . . . a little part of me dies. Evolution has made us a species highly conscious of our social status. We care deeply about how we rank in the pecking order, and are always striving to advance our status – or avoid slipping back - by the promotions we get, the size of our incomes, the location and opulence of our homes, the newness and foreignness of our cars, the private schools we send our children to and the private hospitals we use when sick. In our mania for getting ahead of the Joneses, what we care about is not absolute increases in our income, but relative increases.

The trouble with this rivalry, however, is that it is a zero-sum game. To the extent that I succeed in making myself happy by moving up in the pecking order, those people I move ahead of suffer a loss of status that makes them unhappy. In economists’ language, my efforts to advance myself generate offsetting negative externalities for those I pass. And what is more, the whole leapfrogging game tends to leave us perpetually anxious about slipping back in the race for status.

3.2 Policy implications

There are many policy implications from this and I will only scratch the surface. Layard (2005) says that, beside adequate income, the research shows six main factors affect happiness: mental health, satisfying and secure work, a secure and loving private life, a secure community, freedom, and moral values.

So my first policy implication is that reducing unemployment should be given a much higher priority by the economic policy-makers. Research shows that being unemployed makes people particularly unhappy (Clark and Oswald 1994), a lot more unhappy than can be explained by the loss of income they suffer by not having a job (Di Tella et al. 2001). What people miss is the sense of identity and self-worth that comes from a job, and also, no doubt, the social contact. Economists may protest that they are already giving high priority to reducing unemployment but, in truth, their pursuit of this goal is conditional. Their concern with the efficient allocation of resources means they frown on any solutions (job sharing, job-creation schemes, public sector employment, for instance) that involve modest inefficiencies. The truth is that the overwhelming goal of economists is to hasten the growth in the economy’s production of goods and services, and the jobs generated in this process are just a fortunate by-product.

My second policy implication is that governments and employers could do a lot to raise subjective well-being if they put more emphasis on the enrichment of jobs – increasing job satisfaction by giving workers more personal control, opportunity to use their skills, variety in tasks, respect and status, and contact with others. Taken literally, the economists’ model assumes that all work is unpleasant – a disutility – and is undertaken purely to gain the money to buy the things that bring utility. Like the rest of us, economists know that, in reality, work carries much intrinsic satisfaction. But they don’t follow this realisation through to their policy prescriptions. They are perpetually advocating labour market reform aimed at ensuring labour is used more efficiently, treating labour as though it were just another inanimate economic resource, and ignoring the feelings of the human beings attached to the labour. Various of the ways labour can be used more efficiently make life unpleasant and even unhealthy for the workers involved: ever-changing casual hours, rolling shift work, split shifts and firms continually moving their staff to different cities. When we pursue efficiency at the expense of people, economists have got things round the wrong way, trashing ends so as to advance means.

A third implication is that economic policy-makers should recognise the benefit of stability. People like stability – it makes them feel secure and happy. What’s more, it breeds a highly valuable commodity: trust. People don’t like continuous change. Macroeconomic management is aimed a stabilising the rate of growth in demand, and that’s good. But microeconomists perpetually advocate change (‘reform’) aimed at increasing efficiency, raising productivity and quickening the production of goods and services – the very objective we now know doesn’t make people any happier. Often, micro reform involves ‘displacing’ workers from the reformed industries where their labour wasn’t being used efficiently. This is a process that causes no heart searching among economists because their model: first, assumes alternative employment will be readily forthcoming; second, ignores the intrinsic satisfaction from work and, third, assumes unemployed workers will have a whale of a time enjoying all their new-found leisure.

A fourth policy implication is that the thing economists celebrate as ‘competition’ and are always trying to encourage because it acts as a spur to efficiency and growth, is actually ‘rivalry’ that creates losers as well as winners and thus generates roughly as much unhappiness as happiness. Rivalry is hardwired into our brains, but a case can be made that social comparison is not something we should be encouraging (Layard 2005). Seen in this light, we should think twice about the unceasing calls for us to do this or do that to preserve or improve the economy’s international competitiveness. But why? It is just rivalry on a global scale. It is saying, we must make sure foreigners do not get richer at a faster rate than we are, or even, God forbid, overtake us on the league table.

Fifth, instead of merely unquestioningly promoting consumption, economists should be doing something they rarely do: studying it (Scitovsky 1976). They need to see whether there are some forms of consumption that that yield more satisfaction than others. It may be that, in our striving for social status, we are devoting too much of our time and income to the purchase of ‘positional goods’ (Hirsch 1976) - conspicuous consumption – and too little to activities empirical research now tells us would yield greater satisfaction. Frank (1999) says the ‘gains that endure’ are more likely to include social life, time with our children, less travel time to work, more job security and better health care. Layard (2005) says we should be spending a lot more on fighting glaring evils – and sources of profound unhappiness - such as depression.

Sixth, the evidence that income is subject to diminishing marginal utility strengthens the case for redistributing income from rich to poor, since such transfers should increase total happiness. As yet, however, there is mixed evidence on the question of whether people who live in countries with a narrower gap between rich and poor are happier. Alesina et al. (2001) find that income inequality has a large negative effect on happiness in Europe, but not in the United States.

Finally, we should look sceptically at the incessant calls for lower tax rates to encourage people to work harder. By its very nature, the economists’ model assumes away all non-monetary motives for work. We do it only for the money. But the reminder of the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from work also reminds that higher income-earners in particular have powerful non-monetary motives for working long and hard: job satisfaction and the pursuit of power and status. Reducing tax rates would merely allow us to run faster on the hedonic treadmill, whereas I think we should slowdown. The drive for reduced government spending and lower taxes would leave people with more disposable income they could use to purchase education and health care privately, in the hope that these positional goods would enhance their social standing. Layard (2005) warns we should worry lest leisure, public goods and inconspicuous consumption (consumption that is not compared with the consumption of others) are under-produced because people focus so much on conspicuous consumption.

4. Conclusion

My conclusion is not that economics should be abolished but that it, rather than the economy, is what is in desperate need of radical reform. Neoclassical economics is a product of the state of man’s knowledge during the 18th and 19th centuries, and has actually lost some of its human subtleties since then as it has been made more mathematical (Frey and Benz 2002). It needs to assimilate our now vastly superior understanding of human decision-making and motivations. The community will always need the advice of people who specialise in studying the economic aspects of our lives, but those specialists need to rebuild their models using more realistic assumptions about human behaviour. This would give us an economics fit for humans.


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Wednesday, December 4, 2002


Australian Business Economists Annual Forecasting Conference, December 4, 2002

I’ve been working up to it for some years in these talks, but today I think I’m finally in a
position to pronounce the Death of Economics. Last week’s decision to postpone
indefinitely the privatisation of Telstra has removed the fig leaf covering the Howard
Government’s loss of commitment to further micro-economic reform. It’s equally true
that the satisfactory state of the economy has allowed concerns about macro-economics
to recede. The economy is now on automatic pilot and it won’t return to top priority until
the next recession – which I’m not expecting any time soon. The most significant
development for politics and policy this year – and thus the most significant influence
over the outlook for politics and policy in the coming year – is the way the events of
October 12 have moved concerns about defence and domestic security to the forefront of
the public’s mind and to the top of the Howard Government’s agenda. The public was
greatly disturbed by the Bali bombings and is very worried about the possibility of a
terrorist attack on our shores. You and I may not be terribly conscious of this growing
crisis atmosphere, but the politicians are in no doubt about it.

The chief political consequence of the terrorist threat has been to complete John
Howard’s personal dominance of the political scene. All incumbent governments around
the world have benefited from the post-September 11 climate of uncertainty, but John
Winston Howard has shown himself particularly well suited to the role of ‘wartime
leader’. He won many plaudits for the way he comforted the Bali bereaved; in general,
he’s said all the right things and rarely said the wrong thing.

The chief policy consequence of the terrorist threat has been to shift defence and
domestic security to the top of the Government’s preoccupations and thereby complete
the eclipse of micro-economic reform. Howard made that crystal clear in his recent
CEDA speech: ‘Mounting a strong, focused and resolute defence of Australia and our
national interests is the most critical continuing challenge that we face. Not since the
early 1960s have we faced a more complex and uncertain region. Some trends,
particularly the emergence of terrorism, clearly run deeply counter to our interests. And
Australia’s national security will therefore require the highest priority and continuous
review by the Government.’ So the dominance of economics in the political debate has
passed and, for the first time in about 30 years, defence and foreign affairs are the main

Now, before we move on, I want to be clear that to freely acknowledge John Howard’s
political success is not to approve of the way he has come by it. To say that he’s the most
successful politician of his generation is also to say he’s the most cynical politician of his
generation. Howard is a walking political calculator. He couldn’t kiss his granny without
the political implications of the act flashing across his mind as he did so. And it’s a long
times since we’ve had a prime minister more uninhibited by ethical concerns in his
efforts to garner the xenophobic vote. We were reminded of that when, in response to
Fred Nile’s bigoted and idiotic suggestion about preventing women from wearing the
chador, he failed to immediately dissociate himself, but slipped into his old Pauline
Hanson soft-shoe shuffle, observing that Nile ‘speaks for the views of a lot of people’.
That was a dog-whistle to people who hate the ‘towel-heads’.

The Liberal leadership

John Howard now has almost total, personal dominance of the federal political scene. He
has the electorate eating out of his hand and is reigning, like a head of state, above the
political fray. He has completely wrong-footed, overawed and demoralised the Labor
Opposition. And he has total dominance over his own party. You’d never imagine this
was the same man who, not so long ago, so many punters were contemptuously referring
to as Little Johnny. I should add that he’s also enjoying a media that’s unquestioning and
complacent, where it isn’t belligerently defensive of his every move. So after he reaches
his 64th birthday in July, it would be the perfect time for him to retire.

I’m not really joking. All former prime ministers are obsessed by just one thing: how
they’ll be remembered by history. And Howard knows that all political leaders are
remembered by the manner of their going. History is littered with prime ministers who
clung on past their time, had to be pushed out and so diminished their reputations. But
quit while you’re riding high and your good reputation is assured. This is why I believe
Howard fully intended to retire next year, just as soon as he’d pipped Malcolm Fraser’s
seven year term as PM.

There’s just one thing wrong with this analysis, however: if you’re riding high, why on
earth would you quit? The kind of person who has what it takes to climb the greasy pole
as far as prime minister, and cling tenaciously to the job despite all the blows, is simply
not the kind of person who knows when to call it quits. That’s why so few PMs have left
at a time of their own choosing. So, though they say Howard is tireder than he looks, I
won’t be surprised if he decides to stay on after all. The temptation to stay on and enjoy
the adulation would be huge. Howard will have many self-serving people around him
urging him to stay on – he even has callers on talkback radio urging him to stay. And he
has the perfect excuse: I promised the people I’d see them through the crisis and I just
couldn’t desert my post at my country’s hour of need (cue the violins).

But note this: should Howard decide to stay, it means he has to stay for another three
years ie until he’s 67. Why? Because he couldn’t get through another election campaign
without making another commitment to stay for the best part of two years into the new
term before handing over to his successor. And what would Peter Costello do about all
this? Nothing. He’d be deeply unhappy, of course, but he’d be a long way from having
the numbers in the party room and he lacks the courage to make an issue of it.

The Labor leadership

Turning to the Opposition, it’s been completely outmanoeuvred by Howard and lives in
fear of him. He can make his criticisms of it stick with the electorate, but it can’t make its
criticisms of him stick. Part of its problem is that the media have no enthusiasm for
holding the government to account. Howard has stolen much of Labor’s foreigner-fearing
blue-collar base. It’s efforts to retain that base by saying ‘me too’ to his populist policies
on asylum seekers don’t have much effect – except to alienate Labor’s educated, middleclass,
socially progressive base – which is switching its first-preferences to the Greens to
register its disapproval of Labor’s pandering to redneck intolerance.

Labor is convinced it could do a lot better with Costello as PM so, should Howard decide
to stay on, it will be a further blow to Simon Crean – assuming he survives long enough
to be hit. Crean’s case is terminal. The recent outbreak of muttering and manoeuvring
against him is no media beat-up – it never is. In such cases the gallery is always reacting
to what it’s being told off-the-record by plotters and disaffected backbenchers. In this
case, the rumblings were prompted by the Newspoll finding that, even among Labor
voters, only 26 per cent preferred Crean as leader, while 44 per cent still hankered after a
proven loser like Kim Beazley. But here’s the point: it’s hard to think of a previous
occasion when a leader has suffered such public destabilisation and yet survived. No,
Crean will be out of the job before next year is over – probably long before it’s over.

He’ll be succeeded by Wayne Swan – who’ll be no better. Mark Latham has little support
within the caucus and is considered unstable. Which is a pity because (apart from the
Left’s Lindsay Tanner – who doesn’t have the numbers) Latham is one of the few
contenders who has what I consider to be the bedrock qualification for high office: he
wants the job because he has policies he deeply believes in and wants to implement
because he’s convinced they’d make the world a better place. All the rest of them are men
who want the job because they want the job, and don’t have a deeply held belief to bless
themselves with. That’s Crean’s problem and it’s also Swan’s problem.

The remarkable federal/state dichotomy

It’s important not to overlook the present remarkable federal/state dichotomy. At the
federal level, the Libs are all-conquering and Labor is in utter, hopeless disarray. At the
state level, however, Labor holds all eight state and territory governments and most of the
Liberal oppositions are in terrible shape. Amazing. You can imagine how much the
federal Libs would like to break that drought, and how anxious Labor is to hold the state
line. And with the Libs so hopelessly routed in Victoria, the focus now turns to the NSW
election in late March. Here the Carr Government will be trying to jump the hurdle Jeff
Kennett couldn’t make: to win a third term - with its various weaknesses and failures well
known to the electorate and an accumulation of niggles on 101 issues. I’m told Labor is
quite worried about the possibility of losing, while the Libs are hopeful of progress with
such a young, intelligent and attractive candidate as John Brogden. And here’s the point:
federally, nether side will be rocking the boat before the NSW election. So, Crean is safe
from challenge until after the NSW election. And that election was one of the factors in
the Howard Government suddenly going cold on the sale of Telstra – Brogden and his
National Party mates don’t need any further problems with country seats, thank you.

Howard’s policy agenda

That’s enough about politics; let’s move on to policy matters and let’s look at the items
the Howard Government has on its agenda. The big point of Howard’s recent CEDA
speech was to demonstrate how busy he is on the policy front by laying out the cabinet’s
recently determined list of ‘longer-term strategic objectives’. There were no fewer than
nine of them. Let’s go through them quickly and see what they add up to. Howard
stressed that, apart from the first, they were in no particular order – ‘they all have a
special importance of their own’ ie no particular importance.

First is, as you’d expect, ‘the twin dangers of rising international terrorism and the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction’ and these are ‘clearly . . . more fundamental
than any of the others’.

Second is ‘balancing work and family life’. It’s clear Howard has a quite narrow
conception of this issue: he thinks it’s all about mothers having ‘choice’ over whether or
not to stay at home full-time with their young children. He seems to be working on a rejig
of the Government’s many and various family payments. This could be announced in
association with the next election – which is probably the only context in which the
Government would be likely to pick up the moderately expensive proposal for taxpayerfunded
paid maternity leave.

Third is ‘demography’ and the ageing of the population. On this Mr Howard will
continue preaching about the need for people to avoid early retirement – he may get
around to taking measures to affect the incentives and disincentives. There’s little sign of
any policies aimed at raising fertility.

The fourth ‘strategic objective’ is ‘science and innovation’. All very worthy – doesn’t
seem to amount to much.

Fifth is education. Here Brendan Nelson is working on further reforms to university
funding, and has won the vice-chancellors’ agreement to a scheme which will allow them
to take in more full-fee paying students and also charge fees in excess of HECS if they
think the market will bear it. Problem eased with little or no extra cost to the budget.
Sixth is ‘sustainable environment’. This means pressing on with water reform, with the
Commonwealth’s incentive payments to the states under national competition policy
being diverted to this purpose. Also under this heading is Mr Howard’s remarkable policy
of insisting that our greenhouse gas emissions target under Kyoto will be met easily and
at no cost to the economy, while also insisting that actually to sign the Kyoto agreement
would do our economy incalculable economic damage.

Seventh is ‘energy’ where Mr Howard is developing ‘a strategic plan for Australia’s
long-term energy policy’. Wow.

Eighth is ‘rural and regional policy’ where the Government has ‘important and enduring
priorities’ including a national response to the drought. Obviously, no post-Hanson
government could have a list of priorities that didn’t include the magic word RARA.
Ninth is ‘transport policy’ – which also doesn’t seem to amount to much.

Looking at this agenda you’d have to say it’s not wildly impressive. This is not a
government with a host of major reforms it’s bursting to get on with. This list is not one
of ‘longer-term strategic objectives’ as Mr Howard so grandly puts it, it’s just an ordinary
old to-do list that any government could rustle up at any time. It’s not about Reform with
a capital R so much as running repairs and the oiling of squeaky wheels. It’s the agenda
of a government that knows it’s expected to look busy. You’ll note that, though many
items on the list are matters a reformist government would want to do big things about,
few are the sort of matters you’d think of as ‘micro-economic reform’. There’s little that
involves reducing government intervention or increasing competition. Indeed, it’s clear
the National Competition Council is being wound up and Graeme Samuel moved on to
the ACCC. The era of micro reform has finished.

You’ll notice that one glaring omission from the nine-point agenda is health. Clearly,
there’s no sign of any grand plan for the reform of health-care funding. But the present
funding arrangements aren’t working well and Mr Howard won’t be able to avoid more
patch-ups. He’ll have to do something next year to try to turn around the decline in bulk
billing – which I’m sure is annoying GPs and patients in equal measure – particularly in
RARAland. Less acute but more chronic is the problem the recent IMF staff report drew
attention to: the moral hazard arising from the elimination of out-of-pocket payments for
many people with private health insurance. There’s simply too much scope for overservicing
by specialists – in an area that’s even more heavily subsidised by the taxpayer
than it was.

Telstra and the bond market

You wouldn’t forgive me if I failed to say something about Telstra and the end of the
bond market. A lot of business economists have been reluctant to be seen coming out in
support of the retention of government intervention that contributes to their own
livelihoods. But I think I’ve found the right form of words to overcome the problem: we
could certainly live without a bond market if there was a good reason to, but there isn’t.

So what’s to be gained by killing it off? Nothing. Australia doesn’t have, and never has
had, a problem with an excessive public debt to GDP ratio. Last week I heard the
Chancellor of the Exchequer boasting that Britain had one of the lowest public debt ratios
in the world: 31 per cent. With our federal ratio already a mere 5 per cent, there is simply
no economic reason to want to get it to zero. It’s obvious that Peter Costello’s ambitions
are purely political: he wants to be able to boast that he’s paid off ‘every last cent’ of
‘Labor’s debt’. He dreams of being able to use this as the ultimate proof of the Libs’
impeccable economic management and a reminder of Labor’s appalling mismanagement.

The more spotty his record becomes on the maintenance of budget surpluses, the more he
emphasises debt reduction. It’s become clear, however, that the goal of literally paying
off ‘every last cent’ is unattainable. Telstra isn’t worth that much and the foreseeable
underlying cash surpluses won’t be big enough. With the indefinite deferral of the
Government’s plans to sell the rest of Telstra, the threat of the bond market being wiped
out has passed, but a subtler threat remains: that further smaller-scale debt redemptions
will fatally wound the bond market (in terms of critical mass) without actually killing it
off. Were this to happen it would be a great pity because it would mean that, for no good
reason, we’d incurred many of the losses canvassed in the debate. Presumably, the market
would become moribund. To me, the strongest argument in favour of preserving an active
market is that, sooner or later, the budget will return to deficit and the government will
need to issue bonds to cover it. It would be galling to find we had to run to the expense of
reviving a bond market we’d allowed to expire purely through lack of foresight.
Costello’s blinkers may prevent him from seeing this – just as the Bush Administration
and its Republican supporters’ lust for income-tax cuts blinded them to the obvious
implausibility of those happy projections showing the US budget remaining in surplus for
as far as the eye could see – but it should be clear enough to the rest of us. I wouldn’t be
surprised to see the federal budget return to modest deficit within the next year or two.

The notion that we’ve entered an era of permanent surplus is the product of ignorance or

Let me just say something about the deferral of the Telstra sale. One point to note is that,
though the notional sale has been pushed back to the 2004-05 financial year, the next
election is due in November/December 2004 and it’s hard to see the Government wanting
to stir up controversy about Telstra’s ownership before the election. So we’re talking
about the actual sale of the first tranche some time in late 2005 at the earliest. Even by
then I wouldn’t be confident Telstra’s share price would be much higher than it is today.
It certainly could take many years to get back to anything like $7.40 – you only get one
dot.com bubble in your life. I believe Howard, Costello and the Government generally
have had a lot of ego riding on completing the privatisation of Telstra. So I’m not
convinced they’ve indefinitely deferred the sale primarily because they believe the
company is worth infinitely more than its present share price. No, I think they’ve decided
that proceeding with the sale is all too hard politically – getting it past the Nats, getting
the numbers in the Senate, wearing the flack in rural electorates. And, because they see
privatising Telstra as a major micro reform – up there with the GST – I see their decision
to put Telstra on the backburner as strong confirmation of their loss of interest in micro
reform. John Howard has simply moved on.

Monetary policy

I should now turn to fiscal policy, but I know you’re not interested in it, so let’s go
straight to monetary policy. I want to start the way Ian Macfarlane starts his
parliamentary testimony: by reviewing the forecasts he made last time. This time last year
I observed that the Fed might have more easing to come and, if it did, the Reserve would
ease a little more, too. This was much more pessimistic than the markets’ thinking at the
time, so I predicted that ‘most of you guys will spend most of next year anticipating a rise
in rates that never eventuates’. Now, as most of you would remember, once it became
clear that the Reserve intended to begin tightening in May, I wrote a Monday column in
which I ate humble pie and admitted I’d got that forecast wrong. At this late stage,
however, I’d like to regurgitate some of that pie and say that, by the end of the year, I’m
not as wrong as I thought I was in May. I was out on the Reserve, but only to the tune of
50 basis points. And I was right in thinking the Fed was more likely to cut than to tighten,
even if the easing came at the opposite end of the year to what I thought. So, in a different
way to what I was expecting, I think I was reasonably right in predicting that most of you
would spend most of this year expecting rate rises that didn’t happen. Certainly, it took
people like John Edwards (to whom I’d apologised in May) a long time after June to
realise there were no more tightenings to come. In fact, the Reserve lost its appetite for
tightenings as soon as it realised there was a growing chance the Fed would resume

What does this post mortem prove? Nothing – other than that I can wriggle on the hook
as well as the best of them. But I do think that, looking back over the year, the Reserve
has been consistently more worried about the state of the US and world economies than
most business economists have. And that’s true even though there was that period in
April-May-June when the Reserve said it was pleasantly surprised by the stronger state of
the world economy. It soon changed its mind back again – sooner than a lot of you guys.

Over the past two years – going back to Greenspan’s first, surprise easing on January 3
last year – the US financial markets have been consistently over-optimistic, and that’s
rubbed off on our markets and our economists. It’s true that the net fall in share prices
and bond yields over that period reveals the US markets to be a lot less optimistic today
than they were at the start. But, as the Reserve argued in the November SOMP, it seems
pretty clear that the US markets remain more optimistic than they should be – ie that Wall
Street may have further to fall. The one bloke who merits an honourable exception to all
this is, of course, Rory the Wonderboy. I rehash all this to make my first substantive
point: I believe we’re likely to see the same phenomenon in the coming year: markets and
economists in the US and here being consistently more optimistic about the outlook for
the US and world economies than both the Fed and the Reserve. Every time you’re
tempted by the thought that the US is looking up, remember two things. First, Europe is
in worse state than the Yanks. It has a debilitating structural problem: the euro and its
policy regime is seriously flawed and is slowly squeezing the life out of the German
economy. Second, if, as seems possible, the Japanese are finally stirring themselves to
tackle their structural (banking) problems, that will make their economy weaker before it
makes it stronger. I repeat: the most likely second-guessers’ error I foresee in the coming
year is to be more optimistic about the strength of the world economy than the policy

The other useful lesson I think we can draw from this year’s experience is that, these
days, central banks in general and ours in particular change the direction of policy a lot
sooner and more often than they used to. Consider the record: we had our Reserve
tightening four or five times through 2000, then, last year, after a pause of just six
months, easing six times between February and December. It then paused just five
months before starting to tighten again, telegraphing its intention to raise rates by 125 to
175 basis points - but, in the event, halting after just 50. It’s now done nothing for six
months. It may be that this yoyo-like behaviour is a product of times in which currents
and crosscurrents are especially hard to read, but I suspect it has a fair bit to do with the
present extremely pre-emptive approach to the conduct of policy. The pre-emptive
approach makes central banks more dependent on forecasts and, as we all know, our
forecasts frequently prove astray.

Which brings me to my call. Starting with the Fed, I think it could end up doing more.
Certainly – and as I said last year – it will regard the whole of the remaining 125 basis
points as available to be used if necessary. With some small possibility of deflation, I
don’t expect it to be erring on the side of overconfidence. Turning to the Reserve, I don’t
believe that, at this stage, it has any clear expectation of what it will do with rates over
the coming year – except that it expects to be doing nothing for quite a few months yet. If
rates are shifted some time next year, it could be in either direction: up if it’s clear the US
and world economies are recovering satisfactorily and it’s clear the domestic economy
still has a lot of steam left in it; but down if the outlook for the world economy has
deteriorated further and the domestic economy is losing momentum. Of course, should
the world economy get weaker while we stayed strong, I’d expect the Reserve to continue
sitting on its hands. If this call doesn’t strike you as particularly courageous I’m sorry, but
it’s about as definite as I think it’s sensible to be.