Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On sociology

Q&A for Economic Sociology newsletter
June 18, 2008

Question 1

In a recent roundtable address to the Productivity Commission, you described how two fundamental ideas of mainstream economics - the rational actor model and the idea of individual freedom - are scientifically outmoded ideas. You reminded the audience that these ideas originated in the 18th and 19th century ¡when we knew far less about human behavior than we do today.¢

Can you elaborate on this point and what caused your initial questioning of some of these mainstream economic laws?

When you examine conventional, neoclassical economics with a critical eye you soon realise it’s very much a product of the prevailing philosophical and scientific orthodoxy during its formative period, roughly between the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776 and the publication of Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics in 1890. It’s thus a product of the Enlightenment, utilitarianism, the liberal philosophy of JS Mill, Newton’s physics and belief in the perfectibility of man. Since then economics has been following its own path, surprisingly little influenced by more recent philosophical inquiry and scientific discovery, except perhaps for developments in mathematics. So economics entered its tunnel when two disciplines highly relevant to the study of influences over human behaviour, psychology and sociology, were in their infancy. Had it branched off a lot later, I’m sure it would have had a more realistic model of behaviour in the economic domain.

The rational actor model probably seemed to make a lot of sense during the 19th century, but it takes no account of what psychology, sociology and neuroscience have taught us about the evolution of the brain, the tendency for instant instinctive responses to precede more considered responses and thus the key role played by intuition and emotion. Something I believe is a lot less widely recognised is the way the elevation of individualism over communitarianism - the barely disguised libertarianism - rests on the assumption of rationality - that is, on the belief that humans rarely make decisions they subsequent regret and rarely have trouble controlling their desires. Libertarians’ insistence that the state could never know what’s in my interests better than I know my self, thus making a case for minimal intervention in markets and minimal taxation, is unarguable - provided I’m always rational and rarely make mistakes or have trouble controlling myself. Once you accept that people often come to regret their actions and have trouble controlling themselves, you open up the possibility that governments may know better than the individual what’s in the individual’s best interests. More to the point, you open up the possibility that many of the restrictions governments impose on our behaviour are made with our tacit consent. We accept, for instance, that obliging cars to drive on the left, imposing speed limits, compulsory seatbelts and random breath tests are in our own interests as well as the community’s interests. There are huge areas of compulsion - of government restrictions on the liberty of the individual - that are utterly uncontroversial.

I came eventually to questioning these mainstream economic views partly as a result of getting older and wiser, but also as a result of the wider reading I’ve done in psychology - and, to a lesser extent, sociology - in more recent years.

Question 2

You have written several columns on alternative approaches to the study of economic phenomena, which orient themselves around the social dimensions that influence individuals¢ actions. For example, in your April 2005 article ¡No Woman (or man) is an Island in the Economy¢, you reviewed the key ideas of economic sociology and concluded that ¡economists may squirm under this critique from other social scientists but, in the end, it will do them a power of good.¢ Recent research by economic sociologists¢ suggest that mainstream economics has not yet engaged with alternative paradigms in any great capacity.

How do you view the future for mainstream economics if dialogue with other disciplines continues to be ignored?

I don’t imagine the vice is exclusive to economists, but I do accept the implication that economists generally avoid engaging with other disciplines. You might expect this isolationism to lead eventually to the decline of economics as it becomes increasingly irrelevant and isolated from the real world. But I would be loath to make such a fearless forecast for several reasons. The first is that economics is the dominant paradigm in the worlds of business and government policy-making. Its isolation from interaction with other social sciences has been the case for at least a century, but we have yet to see this leading to a decline in its influence. Because economics is the dominant paradigm, its precepts have a ring of credibility to them, even to people with no education in economics. Economics is the ideology that fits most easily with the interests of business, that tends to sanctify and the pursuit of profit, and this must surely help explain its longevity and dominance. A great intellectual attraction of economics is that it’s rigorously logical - even to the point of being capable of reduction to a set of equations - given its assumptions. When you’re good at playing mathematical games - as most academic economists are - why bother wondering about how realistic the assumptions are?

On a more positive note, the psychological critique of economics has been taking up by the behavioural economists; the psychologist founder of behavioural economics was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his trouble, and papers on behavioural economics are appearing in many top journals. The brightest among its young devotees are setting their minds to finding ways it incorporate its insights into equations, and then its influence will be felt.

Question 3

Sociologist Michael Pusey¢s well-cited 1991 book ¡Economic Rationalism in
Canberra: A Nation-building State Changes Its Mind¢ describes how key policy makers in Canberra generally came to hold a tenacious (bordering on dogmatic) commitment to the philosophy of economic rationalism.

Do you agree with Pusey¢s argument in this respect? From your perspective, how could a consideration of alternative approaches offered by economic sociology or behavioral economics better inform and enrich public policy?

I might have a different reaction if I reread Pusey today, but at the time I wasn’t convinced by his exposition of the problem and its causes. I was annoyed by the claim - which may not have been his - that he discovered and named economic rationalism. That term had been part of my vocabulary for at least a decade before Pusey came along. I don’t believe he accurately captured the motives of the bureaucrat advocates of rationalism, nor the process by which rationalism - neoliberalism as it’s called overseas - came to have such an influence over policy. The econocrats didn’t suddenly convert to rationalism, they had always believed in it, often thinking of it as ‘the Treasury line’. It is after all, simply the taking of a missionary attitude towards the precepts of the neoclassical model.

No, the real question is why, after decades of limited success in persuading their political masters to implement rationalist policies, the Hawke-Keating government start acting on their advice with such vigour. The answer is, because the old protectionist and interventionist policies were no long working, the economy was in a state of significant malfunction - with double-digit inflation and unemployment - the politicians had to try something different and they were persuaded to implement the neoliberal policies being tried in most of the other English-speaking countries following the breakdown of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange-rate regime in the early 1970s.

The view that everything in the economy was going fine until a bunch of econocrats took it into their heads to persuade their political masters to make changes that stuffed everything up is a nostalgic rewriting of history. It remembers the halcyon 50s and 60s, but blanks out the descent into dysfunction in mid-70s to early 80s. The post-war Golden Age was brought to an end throughout the developed world by the advent of stagflation, the product of decades of naive Keynesianism and endless intervention in markets. In Australia the malfunctioning of the old policy regime was greatly compounded by the economic mismanagement of the inexperienced Whitlam government.

The adoption of rationalist policies didn’t cause the economic dysfunction, it was a later reaction to it. It’s important to acknowledge that, given its blinkered objectives, economic rationalism works. When you remove government interventions that inhibit the pursuit of economic growth, you do get more growth. A quarter of a century later we can say it has largely succeeded in restoring low inflation and low unemployment, though this has been accompanied by huge growth in household and foreign debt and some worsening in the distribution of income and wealth (though much less than is widely believed).

I don’t believe our circumstances - plus changes in the rest of the world - left us much choice but to make most of the changes we did. My regret is that, as with most reform movements, in our zeal we swept away a lot of institutions whose contribution to our wellbeing we weren’t aware of at the time.

Question 4

What particular aspects of economic sociology do you see as useful/important?

I have to be careful here not to reveal my limited knowledge of all that economic sociology has to offer. With its rational actor model, its barely concealed libertarianism, its assumption that the individual has fixed tastes and preferences utterly uninfluenced by social relationships, its preoccupation with the material, its inability to come to grips with non-monetary values and its intense focus on the price mechanism, economics - which influences the perceptions of many politicians and business people, not just professional economists - is blind to many important aspects of economic life, not to mention being blind to non-material objectives. Economists simply don’t see many of the institutions sociologists study. They often take insufficient account of the role of formal institutions such as laws; norms of behaviour they are usually oblivious to. And yet those norms affect the vigour with which firms pursue profits and the choices consumers make.

I think it’s fairly common for economic reformers to want to sweep away government interventions their model tells them are inefficient in the pursuit of economic growth, but which unknown to them are serving to reinforce institutions the community values. An example close to my heart is the deregulation of shopping hours and the push to get rid of penalty payments for work at unsociable hours. Economists saw these simply as impediments to higher productivity - which they are. It never occurred to economists that these interventions were there to ensure most of us could socialise at the weekend, an arrangement very important to us.

Another example is economists’ emphasis on the virtue of having a highly geographically mobile workforce. There’s no denying that economic growth is enhanced when employers in expanding industries in one part of the country can easily attract workers from parts of the country where industries are contracting. What simply never occurs to economists is the implication of this mobility for family relationships - for young families needing help from parents now in another city or state, or for middle-aged couples needing to assist ageing parents. When such ramifications are drawn to economists’ attention, they’re usual reaction is to say they have no expertise in this area, which is a matter for others. But this attitude doesn’t fit with the missionary attitude of economic rationalists and their unspoken proposition that economic efficiency is the only thing governments need worry about.

Then there’s the belated discovery of social capital and the truth that ‘trust’ is a valuable economic commodity which greases the wheels of a capitalist economy. In the years following financial deregulation, the banks happily exploited the loyalty (or inertia) of their customers, quietly offering new customers better deals than they were giving existing customers. Later they recoiled in amazed horror when they discovered how much their customers hated them. I’m sure they didn’t really understand the game they’d been playing. Too often, economists, politicians and business people wake up to the value of these institutions only after they’ve been damaged or destroyed.

There is a valuable role for economic sociologists to point out beforehand to policy-makers and the community generally the existence of institutions few people can see, but which are actually highly valued. Sociologists can also contribute to the public debate by pointing to the range of powerful non-monetary motivations helping to drive economic behaviour, motivations the economic model has led economists, politicians, business people and the media to disregard.

The economists’ dominance in the provision of public policy advice needs to be contested by other social scientists, who have much of value to contribute. I’m confident the politicians would soon see the value of that advice were they exposed to it. There is, however, a price to be paid if economic sociologists want to make such a contribution. There are few formal academic rewards for doing so (though sociologists should be the first to discern the unacknowledged occupational rewards as well as the personal non-monetary rewards). Sociology deals with such intangible and unfamiliar issues that all you say has to be illustrated with relevant, concrete examples. The public’s inability to see the practical applications of sociologists’ airy-fairy theorising is a major stumbling block to be overcome. And the public is so unfamiliar with sociology’s terminology and way of thinking that all you say to a lay audience must be expressed in the simplest, clearest English possible. The public suspects that all social scientists seek to conceal the prosaic nature of their findings by using a lot of jargon. If this isn’t true, you have nothing to fear by making your message as clear as possible.


Thursday, March 27, 2008


Talk to English students, Westfield Sports High School
March 27, 2008

I have to tell you that I’ve talked to economics students more times than I can remember and talked to journalism students occasionally, but this is the first time I’ve spoken to English students. I used to struggle with English when I was at school. I actually failed it at what you’d call the School Certificate, though I managed to pull up by the time I got to the HSC.

I’ve been a journalist on the Herald for 34 years and before that I was a chartered accountant. Journalism is much better. Journalism is quite creative. You start with a blank screen and you write something that’s interesting and informative and maybe even a little entertaining. Every piece you write is different and how good what you write is depends on how skilled you are and how hard you try. It’s maybe not as creative as painting pictures, but it’s very create compared with accounting and most of the things people do in offices. Journalism is quite well paid; not as well paid as being a lawyer or a medical specialist, but better paid than being a teacher or university lecturer or an economist.

One thing that makes journalism a quite exciting job is that you’re always dealing with important or famous people - people who are far more important or famous than you are. You’re not necessarily dealing with celebrities, but you are dealing with powerful politicians, public servants and the bosses of big companies. When I was at high school years ago we had the minister for education come to the school one day. The principal and all the teachers were in a tizz for about a week before he came. Lots of things were painted and fixed up. They found all these pot plants which they put along the corridors. The school was cleaned from top to bottom and, on the day he was coming, no one was allowed inside the school in case we got it dirty. Now, if you were a young journalist working in the press gallery in State Parliament in Macquarie Street, you’d probably know the minister for education and his/her staff quite well. You wouldn’t be in the least awe of him, and you’d probably know he was a bit of a pisspot.

Another thing that makes journalism a quite exciting job is that you’re never far from the centre of the action. When you’re in a newsroom you’re in touch with all the interesting and important things happening that day in Sydney, in Australia and a fair bit of the world. You won’t be covering every interesting thing, but you will be covering one interesting thing and the people around you will be covering the others. When something big is happening, newsrooms develop a real buzz. There’s a lot of adrenalin pumping.

The trouble is, journalism is exceptionally hard to get in to. Far more young people want to be journalists than the media need to hire. This year the Herald hired only four new trainees despite the hundreds who applied. So how do you get in? It helps to be able to show that you’ve already been doing journalism as an amateur - writing for the school newspaper or the university paper, or church newsletter or the local rag or whatever. In every job interview, young people are asked why they want to be a journalist. Most of them say: because I love to write. Wrong answer. It may be true, but the people who hire journalists have heard it too many times before and aren’t impressed. It’s better to be able to prove you love to write - by producing examples of what you’ve written - than just saying you love to write.

But let me tell you the perfect answer to the question of why you want to be a journalist: because I’m a sticky beak and a gossip. Why’s that the perfect answer? Because that’s what journalists are and what they do. They stick their nose into other people’s affairs, finding out new and interesting things about them, then they broadcast what they’ve just found out to as many people as possible. It’s called reporting. Another way to put it is that journalists are pushy people and curious people. They’re pushy because they’re always asking people questions about things those people would often prefer not to talk about. But that won’t stop the journalists. Journalists will ring important people at home in the middle of Easter, spend the first 10 seconds apologising for disturbing them, then spend the next half an hour or an hour asking them questions.

Journalists are curious. They are interested in a lot of things, and, because they’re so interested, they’ve acquired a lot of knowledge about a lot of things over the years. They know about everything from TV stars and pop stars to archbishops and politicians. Do you know when the second world war ended? When someone asked the woman who does all the hiring of journalists for News Ltd what kind of person she was looking for, she replied that she wanted someone who knew when the second world war ended. Don’t take that literally. What she meant was, someone who had a good general knowledge. And one of the ways we at the Herald whittle down the hundreds of mainly uni graduates who apply for a journalist’s job is to give them all a test of their knowledge of current affairs.

Journalism is so hard to get into that sometimes the only way to do it is to get a job working for a suburban paper or a country paper, then work your way up to the big city jobs.

But now I want to talk about how to write like a journalist. I have to warn you that, in doing so, I may not be doing you a favour. Journalists don’t write great literature. And I’m not sure the way they write would impress the people who mark the HSC English paper.

A journalist’s aim is to produce ‘a good read’. A good read is a piece of writing people will enjoy reading because it’s interesting, but also because it’s an ‘easy read’. An easy read is something people can read - get the sense of - quickly and easily. People read newspapers in a great hurry and often without applying their full attention. They are volunteers - they’re reading for pleasure not duty - and if they discover they’re wading through porridge they’ll stop reading and turn the page.

The first key to producing a good read is to start by thinking about your audience. What are they interested in, what do they want you to talk about? How much do they already know about the subject? You have to pitch it at the audience’s level, and never assume they know as much about the subject as you do. (The marker knows more about the subject than you do, but their object is to find out how much you know.) The school equivalent of thinking about what your audience is interested in is: Read the question. A good read always takes the reader’s point of view into account. That doesn’t mean telling the reader what she wants to hear, but it does mean answering the questions the reader is interested in and tackling the subject from the reader’s perspective. It means putting yourself into the reader’s shoes.

The second key to producing a good read is to write in a simple, unaffected way, as though you were having a conversation with one other person. It’s wrong to think you write in a different, far more formal, stilted way to the way you speak. You’re trying to communicate with the reader, not impress her with your erudition. So write the way people speak and address yourself to the reader, as you would in a conversation.

Third, keep your writing simple and straight forward. Don’t try to impress people with big words, but as much as possible write using short, simple words. That means avoiding Latinate words and preferring Anglo-Saxon words. For instance, intercourse is a Latinate word - it comes from Latin or French - whereas the Anglo-Saxon word is a short, four-letter word that starts with F. No, I’m not really saying you should use potentially offensive words in your essays. Try this: the Latinate word is employment, the Anglo-Saxon words are work, or job.

Fourth, use short, mainly simple sentences. Don’t think that to impress people you have to have long, complex sentences. If a sentence is getting to long, break it up. Insert a full stop and start again. And don’t buy the notion that a sentence can’t start with but or and.

Fifth, the way to make your writing more vigorous and striking is use stronger verbs and nouns, not stronger adverbs and adjectives. Don’t say going when you could say running or strolling. They’re strong, more descriptive, more colourful verbs. Be sparing in your use of weak strengtheners, such as very or really. All of us have two vocabularies, one much bigger than the other. The big one is the list of words whose meaning you know; the small one is the list of words you use regularly. Good writers work to reduce the gap between the two. They strive to use more words the meaning of which everyone knows, but which aren’t used all that often. This makes their writing fresh and striking rather than dull and clich├ęd. It also makes their writing more precise - they strive for exactly the right word to describe an action or a thing.

Another trick to make your writing simpler, stronger and more vigorous is to almost always write in the active voice rather than the passive voice. The active voice means writing a sentence with the structure: subject, verb, object ie the person who’s doing whatever is being done to the thing it’s being done to. The passive voice uses the reverse structure: object, verb, subject ie what’s having something done to it by the person who’s doing it. Active: the cat sat on the mat. Passive: the mat was sat on by the cat. Which form is simpler and stronger? The passive voice is less personal, which is why it’s often used in bureaucratic and academic writing and why journalists try to avoid using it. There will be times, however, when you want to stick with the passive because it’s the object in the sentence that you’re wanting to highlight, not the subject.

Sixth, keep you writing readable by searching for potential ambiguities in any sentence you write - any way someone could take a different meaning from the sentence than the one you intended - and removing it. You recast the sentence - or maybe break it up - so it’s no long ambiguous. Another aid to readability is to signal to the reader every time you change direction. If you switch from giving arguments in favour of something to giving arguments against it, make sure you warn the reader that’s what you’re doing. You can do that as simply as starting the opposing thought with the word, however. When you change from discussing one aspect of an issue to discussing another aspect you should signal it. I’m doing that in this talk by the simple and inelegant but effective device of numbering my points. The reason for signalling every change of direction is to stop the reader getting lost, to help her follow the argument you’re developing. When people get lost they stop reading. If you give them enough sign posts to stop them getting lost, they say what a great writer you are.

If these tips are of any use to you it will probably be in your creative writing, not in essays arguing a point. But journalists do only non-fiction writing. Often - and particularly in economic journalism - we’re writing about concepts: inflation, unemployment, gross domestic product or whatever. Trouble is, people are far more interested in reading about people than about concepts. People are interesting; concepts are dry and hard to follow. So we try to get as much about people in while we’re discussing concepts - even if the people available are only the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. And whenever we’re explaining airy-fairy concepts, we try to quickly give a concrete example of the concept. People learn a lot more from concrete examples than explanations of concepts.

Finally, you want to write pieces that make an impact on the marker. They’re wading through a pile of essays on the same subject, but you want yours to stand out from the rest. You want them to be able to read it quickly and even enjoyably because, if they do, they’ll give you a higher mark. This is why I think it may help you to try a few of my tips on producing a ‘good read’. Most HSC essays are far from being a good read. I’m sure you know the standard essay-writing formula of introduction, body, conclusion. In the intro you tell them what you’re going to tell them; in the body of the essay you tell them then, in the conclusion, you tell them what you’ve told them. This formula has survived because it works, it’s effective. But, particularly in any creative writing, you want to do better - be less predictable and obvious. Start with an introduction that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading. Journalists put a lot more time into their first few sentences than into all the sentences that follow, and I think it’s worth your while to do the same.


Thursday, February 28, 2008


Talk to the Economic Society evening seminar, Sydney, Tuesday February 26, 2008

It occurs to me that, as the journalist of the panel, the most useful thing I could do is to give you a reporting job on the new policy directions the Rudd Government actually is heading in before giving you some of my opinions about the directions it should be heading in. Ill start with macro management and move to micro-economic reform.

Macro management directions

Here the story should be familiar to you. The Government is genuinely anxious to end the period when fiscal policy was held in neutral and bring it back into the game, using it to assist monetary policy. It wants to allow the automatic stabilisers to work. To that end it has announced its intention to plan for a budget surplus of at least 1.5 per cent of GDP and to allow any further upward revision of revenue estimates to add to the surplus. The expenditure review committee is engaged in a protracted round of spending cuts – although well see how much it has the courage to come up with. Wayne Swan has warned the budget will be unpopular, but well see how unpopular. At one level Labor is just engaged in the now traditional practice of incoming governments slashing away at the pet programs of their predecessors, but I do think it is genuine in its desire to reactivate fiscal policy.

As youve probably seen me write, I believe Labor will be crazy if it goes ahead with its promise to deliver $7 billion in tax cuts in the May budget. Rudd seems genuinely committed to keeping his promises, and to renege would invite invidious comparisons with Keatings L-A-W tax cuts but, even so, I havent completely given up hope that Labor will postpone them. Im surprised to see business economists of the wisdom of Saul Eslake accepting the tax cuts as inevitable. We dont do the politicians any favours when we knuckle under to the boys-will-be-boys logic of political expediency rather than staying a staunch advocate of good policy. If they are to break irresponsibly-given promises they need to do so against a background in which all the top commentators and experts are urging them to. I also think that, when we keep banging on about the tax cuts, we at least increase the likelihood that they will be diverted into superannuation. Another compromise would be to continue the cuts aimed at improving work incentives for part-timers and other low income-earners, but to postpone raising the thresholds of the two top tax rates ($75k to $80k and $150k to $200k). The efficiency, supply-side case for the latter cuts is weak – much as I, like you, would enjoy receiving them.

I havent yet given up preaching against the tax cuts because I know that, if they are to be abandoned or modified, such a decision wouldnt be announced now, at a time when the Treasurer and Finance minister are intent on putting maximum pressure on the spending ministers. Revenue-side decisions always come last.

A point of information: its a generally accepted rule of thumb in Canberra (but not necessarily in Martin Place) that the trade-off between fiscal policy and monetary policy is that each increase in the budget outcome over last years outcome of $3 to $4 billion has the same effect on demand as a 25 basis point increase in the cash rate. Note, however, that the forecasts announced on budget night often bear little relation to final outcomes. Thats true even of the estimate of the old years surplus.

Having reported what I believe are the facts of the macro story, let me add a few of my own opinions. The first is that, if the new government is to budget for an ever-growing surplus – a politically difficult prospect – it will need to come up with emotionally satisfying things to do with the surplus. The best suggestion Ive heard comes from Saul Eslake, who suggests the surpluses be allocated to buckets, to be drawn down over subsequent years, as economic conditions allow, in order to meet long-term goals that had previously been put in the too hard or too expensive basket. Saul suggests seven different attractive labels for buckets.

Second, let me make the obvious point that any efforts by the Rudd Government to allow the automatic stabilisers to work – as measured by an increase in the surplus – could be offset by opposite changes in the states cash budget balances. Its surprising weve heard nothing about this from the Government. Maybe, again, its too soon in the budget cycle.

Third, the whole area of the role of fiscal policy needs a big rethink – perhaps a report by Vince FitzGerald – to a) return some rigor to the medium-term fiscal strategy of balancing the budget over the cycle, b) get the Government off the hook of past me-too statements about eternal budget surpluses and the demonising of all deficits and debt, c) re-establish the legitimacy of government borrowing for capital works and adopt a medium-term strategy that distinguishes between capital and recurrent spending, and d) elucidate the latest thinking about how best fiscal policy can share with monetary policy the burden of achieving internal balance.

Fourth, on a quite different tack, the whole world needs to keep working on the problem that monetary policy seems good at controlling inflation, but not credit-fuelled asset booms, the unhappy aftermaths of which seem to be playing an increase role in the amplitude of the cycle and in the onset and severity of recessions. Perhaps part of the answer is for fiscal policy to play a bigger role.

Micro reform directions

Again lets start by reporting the facts. The Rudd Government has put a strong emphasis on – and made early steps towards – achieving further micro reform through the COAG process – that is, through greater federal-state co-operation. It is seeking state co-operation with the implementation of many of its key election promises covering hospitals, vocational training, schools, climate change, housing and indigenous affairs. More importantly, it is seeking to revive interest in and make progress on the National Reform Agenda. This is the replacement to Keatings National Competition Policy. It was developed and pushed largely by the Victorians, and was officially adopted two years ago, but little has happened since – a measure of the Howard governments lack of interest in micro reform. A major reason for the lack of progress was Howards decision not to repeat the NCPs incentive payments to the states.

The NRA pursues reform under three heads: competition, reduced regulation and human capital. The competition head covers Rod Simss unfinished business on infrastructure reform; the reduced regulation head covers reducing red tape in 10 cross-jurisdictional hot spots; the more novel human capital head covers measures to raise labour force participation via improvements in health (including preventive health) and early childhood development, child care, education standards, school retention rates and so forth.

The COAG process has been beefed up, with new participation by federal and state treasurers alongside the prime minister and premiers. Four meeting are planned this year and many new working groups have been established. And Rudd seems likely to come to the party on incentive payments. Hes starting with the reform of special purpose payments, which are to be rationalised from several hundred separate schemes to just a handful of broad categories. This must surely involve a significant reduction in federal attempts to micro-manage the states. In any case, the focus of the conditions attached will be changed from inputs to outputs and outcomes. The newly rationalised collection of SPPs will be indexed, with the feds offering incentive payments on the top. Under NPC it was almost impossible politically to deny payments to states that had performed poorly. This time its indented to establish outcome targets and give states that achieve 90 per cent of their target 90 per cent of the incentive payment.

In addition to being finance minister, Lindsay Tanner is minister for deregulation. He will be ably assisted in this by the minister for small business, Dr Craig Emerson (the only qualified economist in the ministry). It seems to me, however, that so far Tanner has been too pre-occupied with ERC to have given deregulation much attention.

Of course, policy decisions relevant to micro reform are being made continuously by other ministers, such as Kim Il Carrs efforts to establish a new industry policy for motor vehicles and the much-trumpeted deal on open skies with America, which continues to keep the skies clear of competition from Singapore Airlines.

Thats the reporting job. Let me just add a few comments. First, any reform of education will need to involve significant increases in government spending. The back-door privatisation of the universities weve seen has created many problems and inefficiencies. Second, the one big area within the public sector thats crying out for major reform is health care. The plethora of federal and state intergenerational reports all make that crystal clear. In health the goal is not to raise efficiency so as to reduce spending – the pressure for greater spending is unceasing and irresistible – but to ensure the public gets value for money and also ensure not too much of the increased spending ends up fattening the incomes of medical specialists.

Finally, I agree with all the sensible people saying that climate change represents Australias (and the worlds) greatest economic as well as environmental challenge. The challenge is, as Ross Garnaut put it so starkly in last weeks report, to end the linkage between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases. Thats an extraordinarily tall order that will require an enormous degree of leadership and economic pain. So far, weve had a lot of grand gestures from our pollies, but not one really tough decision. But if we dont meet that challenge to break the link between growth and emissions, we – and the world – will have hit the limits to growth. If so, all our other reform efforts will count for little.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Talk to Fairfax trainees
February 19, 2008

Neroli has asked me to talk to you about writing a column, but also to say something about my career path and how I got into journalism, so I’ll start with that.

Thirty-five years ago I decided to take a break from my career as a chartered accountant, spend a year doing something interesting and then resume my accounting career. I spent the time doing the first year of what’s now the BA (Communications) at what’s now UTS. During that year I became the inaugural co-editor of the student newspaper at UTS, then called Newswit. As the year came to an end my journalism lecturer, Terry Mohan, asked me if I’d thought about making a career in journalism rather than accounting. I hadn’t, but on his prompting, I did. I applied to the ABC and the Fin Review and got nowhere, but Terry said he knew the cadet counsellor at the Herald and would get me an interview. It’s obvious to me now that he also put in a good word for me. I got the job and, at what was then considered to be the terribly mature age of 26, as a qualified chartered accountant, I started as a graduate cadet on a fraction of my former salary.

That was in 1974, the year following the first OPEC oil shock which ended the post-war Golden Age, the year our economy fell apart under the Whitlam government and the year newspapers discovered that politics was mainly about economics and decided they’d better start finding people who could write about economics. I was an accountant, not an economist, but the Herald decided that was near enough. I had a fair bit of economics in my commerce degree, of course. I soon realised the Herald was making quite extensive use of my professional qualifications, so I suggested it start paying me more appropriately and after about four months my cadetship was cut short and I was made a graded journalist on the equivalent of what I guess today would be a J4. After less than a year I was sent to Canberra as the Herald’s economics correspondent. After a bit over a year I was brought back to Sydney as economics writer, replacing my mentor, Alan Wood, who had resigned as economics editor. About two years later - that is, about four years after I’d joined the Herald - I was promoted to economics editor. That was 30 years ago this year and I’ve been economics editor ever since. In those days the main thing the economics editor did was write leaders - unsigned editorials - but within two years or so Alan Mitchell - who’s now economics editor of the Fin - took over the economics leaders so I could concentrate on writing columns. Since 1980 I’ve written three columns a week (plus a few odds and ends) - the same columns on the same days and in the same parts of the paper.

I should warn you that journalistic careers today aren’t as meteoric as mine was then. I just had the immense good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. But think of it another way: I’ve been doing almost exactly the same job for the best part of 30 years. I haven’t gone anywhere, haven’t had a promotion in 30 years. My one ambition in journalism was to be the Herald’s economics editor; I achieved that ambition in four years - far sooner than I ever imagined I would - and in all the time since I haven’t been able to think of any job I wanted to do more or any paper I wanted to work for more than what I had. The one big advance I’ve had in that time was when, a long time ago, The Age started running my columns. In terms of combined circulation and quality, newspapers can’t offer any bigger or better platform that the Herald plus The Age.

Now let’s talk about writing a column. It’ll probably be a long time before any of you get invited to write a column - it’s a job reserved for senior journalists - but there’s no reason you can’t aspire to that goal and take an interest in what it involves. I should warn you, however, that only good writers get invited to write columns (or be feature writers).

One question is the subject matter of the column - politics, economics, business, sport, whatever - but another is the style of column. There’s a range of partly overlapping styles to pick from. You could write a controversialist or contrarian column, where you’re always aiming to provoke the reader and say the opposite of what most people think. Paul Sheehan’s column in the Herald would be an example. You could write a populist column, where you sought to reflect back to the reader what most people could be expected to think about any issue. This is the stance taken by radio shock jocks. You could write a partisan column, aimed at gratifying just one side of the ideological divide and annoying the other side. For the Herald, Miranda Devine and Gerard Henderson write such columns on the Right and Adele Horan on the Left. The nature of such columns is such that you soon alienate readers on the other side, who stop reading you. Young journos often wonder why the editor persists with columnists they - the young journos - disapprove of. He does so because he’s trying to cater to the range of political views among his readers. Sensible editors of soft-left papers such as the Herald and The Age will want to run a few right-wing columnists to run cover for all the lefties and avoid alienating too many conservative readers. Another style of column that’s sprung up lately is the Gen Y or Young Things column, of which Lisa Prior’s column is a good example. Newspapers worry that they’re not attracting a new generation of readers, that the paper’s dominated by ageing baby boomers like me, and want to run a few columns that stop the paper looking so old and that express the attitudes of the younger generation. There’s scope for more Young Things columns in papers, which may provide an opening for some of you. But perhaps the best way you could talk someone into giving you a column would be to think up some style or subject matter than had never been tried before. There’s a lot of emphasis on encouraging young journalists to learn the way things are always done; there ought to be more emphasis on encouraging them to think up new ways to do things and things to do we’ve never done. I think that, in a modest way, I did a bit of innovating in my youth - and I don’t think it did my career any harm.

That brings me to my style as a columnist, which is to write informative, explanatory columns. Many readers are interested in the economy, but don’t know much economics and find a lot of what they see on the topic hard to understand or boring. My life’s mission is to explain to readers how the economy, economics and economic management work. From the very beginning I’ve put an enormous amount of effort into trying to offer clear and seemingly simple explanations. I’ve also put a lot of effort into trying to do that in a readable, reasonably entertaining way. I commend the notion of ‘explanation journalism’ to you. It’s not fashionable or widely practiced, but it should be - and, I suspect, will be. The world becomes ever more specialised and complex and the people in it become ever more specialised in their own narrow areas of expertise. So the need for popularisers who can explain important aspects of life to people who’ve specialised in something else keeps growing. As the blizzard of news engulfing us grows ever worse, many people’s approach to information overload will be to find the one commentator they trust and can understand, and ignore the rest. As the internet feeds the public’s craving for ‘breaking news’ - news that’s indiscriminate, undigested and often wrong or misleading - the off-line Herald that lobs up to 24 hours later has to have something quite different to justify its existence, and it strikes me that explanation - explaining how and why whatever happened happened - is the obvious way to go.

That covers the basic question of the style of column you choose. The next big question is who you’re writing the column for. People who paint pictures often claim that they do it only to please themselves, but mere journos don’t enjoy that luxury. They write to impress or please someone else. You can write to impress other journos (including your boss), to impress your contacts if you’re in a specialised round, or to please the readers. I think it’s always an indulgence to write to impress your contacts, but it’s just as bad to write to impress other journalists. That’s wrong, it’s bad journalism - but I suspect a lot of people do it. They write for their mates or to impress their competitors.

I want to suggest to you that, right at the start of your journalistic careers, you adopt as your ethic or credo or raison d’etre the simple motto: Serve the Reader (or listener or viewer). Everyone needs an ideal that’s greater than themselves to give meaning and purpose and even a touch of nobility to what they do, and I can’t think of any better one for a journalist. Stay focused on the reader and it will help you resolve a lot of ethical issues as you go about your work. Sometimes serving the reader involves giving them the light-weight froth and bubble you know they’ll lap up, but often it involves giving them what they should want - and busting a gut to convince them it’s both important and interesting. Let the readers dictate the question - but not the answer to it.

There’s loads more I could say about writing columns, but I want to finish with something that’s much more general to your career as a journalist. In journalism, as in all aspects of life, we often face choices between equally desirable, but conflicting, objectives. We can write about stuff that’s important, or about stuff that’s interesting. We can focus on being commercially successful, or we can focus on maintaining high journalistic standards. We can beat stories up, or we can stick strictly to the facts and be boring. The point I want to make is simple: don’t let yourself think, and don’t let anyone convince you, that you face such either/or, black or white, good or bad choices. When you face a choice between equally desirable but conflicting objectives, you don’t opt for one or the other, you pick some combination of both. In the jargon of economics, you find the best trade-off between the two. And it’s getting to the best available trade-off - where you’re getting a fair bit of both - that’s the hard part and usually requires a lot more effort on your part. You want to write about things that are important - and bust a gut to make them interesting. You want to be commercially successful - to get promotions; to do you bit to help sell papers - and be true to journalistic ideals. You want to avoid beating stories up and avoid being boring. All these combinations are possible - but not without extra effort and ingenuity.

Other points

I don’t just assert my opinion, I try to argue a case, quoting lots of facts and acknowledging both sides of the argument (eg It’s true that X, but Y). Sometimes your role is to remind the reader of why they disagree with you. That’s fine by me. But no matter how judicious you are, you must, as a matter of artistry, come to a conclusion and state an opinion. Only during an election campaign would I limit myself to on the one hand, but on the other.

You have to combine information with entertainment. Well written and an easy, enjoyable read eg Ian Verrender. An informal, chatty style goes down well.

Should inject some of your own personality.

Predictability is the great enemy of all columnists. Try to avoid having obvious, run-of-the-mill opinions on a particular subject. That doesn’t mean always having a contrarian view, tho if you view happens to be opposite to everyone else, that’s a plus. No, you have to have a more thoughtful, better-informed and thus novel view, which you achieve by giving the subject more thought and research than the reader has.

But you also need to avoid being too predictable over time. ‘I stopped reading Paddy because I always knew what he was going to say about any subject’ is the kiss of death for a columnist. Good to have views that are complex - that acknowledge differing shades of grey - and that evolve over time as you learn more from your experience but also your reading.

Criticise from a fixed viewpoint - a fixed model or view of the way the world works or should work - don’t keep changing your vantage point until you’ve got something to criticise. That’s the mark of an amateur.

I sometimes write what you might call primativist columns (like primitive art) - columns intended to connect with the unsophisticated view ordinary readers might adopt towards some development and move them forward, not columns that simply contribute to a debate being conducted at the sophisticated level by my expert contacts. That is, I act as a populariser and a bridge between punter and expert.

My ambitions are horizontal, not vertical. Pyramid or star system.

Readers are more interested in stories about people than about ideas. And they like stories to be stories.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Talk to Australian Business Economists Annual Forecasting Conference, Sydney, November 14, 2007

One reason I’m invited to speak on the political and economic outlook each year is that I can’t do so without making some political predictions and, since I normally leave the economic forecasting to business economists, this is their chance to get their own back and have a laugh at my expense when, inevitably, some of my predictions prove badly astray. This year you’ve really set me up, holding your forecasting conference just 10 days before a very heavily contested federal election campaign.

But, like a good journalist with an eye to a good read, I’m going to lead with my chin and take my chances. I confidently predict Kevin Rudd will win comfortably and we’ll see a change of government. I don’t believe Labor’s win will be narrow. Hesitant people are always predicting elections that ‘go down to the wire’ but, actually, such close calls are not common. Landslides are more common. Nor do I believe in trying to predict the outcomes of elections by counting the particular seats likely to be won or lost. There’s an old saying that, if the swing is on, it’s on. If the swing is on, the necessary seats will come - but not necessarily those the Mackerras pendulum says should come. It’s like being asked where the jobs will come from in a recovery. When you’ve been around for a while, you learn not to make detailed predictions, just to be confident they’ll come from somewhere. I always reply, ask me again in a few years time and I’ll look up the figures for you.

Defeated Liberals’ dire prospects

Almost everything that follows will be based on the assumption of a Labor win. That’s mainly because pondering what life would be like under a Rudd government is the more interesting and potentially useful thing I could do. Life under a re-elected Liberal government - possibly without John Howard - would be little changed. Peter Costello’s accession to the leadership - either immediately or after a year or so - is undoubted. His two main rivals - Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull - have both had most unimpressive campaigns. Even so, Costello will survive one term at best. His chances of ever making it back into government are zilch. Being out of office in every state and territory as well as federally will leave the Libs in a terribly weakened and demoralised state, susceptible to much infighting. It will take them years to recover. Business will swing all its focus onto trying to influence and ingratiate itself with the Rudd government. Even so, the election of a Labor government at the federal level is the necessarily first step towards breaking Labor’s stranglehold at the state level. The Australian voters’ penchant for having an each-way bet at the federal and state levels is a potent force. The election of a few Liberal state governments will be a most healthy development and I look forward to the day, sorry only that it didn’t start last March with the defeat of the Iemma government.

Why Rudd will win

If I’m right in predicting a Rudd win, the central question is why Howard was defeated at time when the economy was positively booming. It’s true that - leaving aside the Left’s regiment of Howard Haters - the public has not developed a dislike of Howard comparable to its loathing of Gough Whitlam or Paul Keating. I think it’s mainly the It’s Time factor. Howard is looking old and wizened - televising his morning walks doesn’t do him any favours - whereas Rudd is young, good looking, obviously intelligent, well-spoken and capable of behaving with dignity on public occasions with presidents and the Queen. Equally importantly, unlike Howard - whose voice and visage we’ve grown tired of after his three decades in public life - Rudd has no track record. No list of broken promises to his name. It’s important to understand that the flip side of cynicism is naivety and the electorate regularly flip-flops from one to the other. In short, Rudd’s new face makes him someone in whom hope can spring eternal.

This election campaign is about personalities, not policies. Rudd keeps saying he stands for ‘fresh ideas’. What is the fresh idea? It’s Kevin Rudd. He’s sold himself as a younger John Howard and that’s what the public has been happy to buy. Rudd represents a change (which is nice) without change (which isn’t). So the electorate’s switch from Howard to Rudd is the ultimate act of consumerism: we’ve simply traded Howard in on the new model.

But I don’t think it’s quite as superficial as that. I think Howard has suffered a significant erosion of his credibility in the eyes of the electorate. With his non-core promises, his weapons of mass destruction, his children overboard, his Tampa, his mistreatment of David Hicks, his AWB scandal and his promise to keep interest rates at record lows, he’s led us up the garden path one too many times. Every time Howard got caught misleading us, his minders would assure the press gallery that the public didn’t really care. Case by case, that was true. But after 11 years of misbehaviour, all those cases leave a cumulative distaste in the electorate’s mouth. At the time of the sudden discovery of an Aboriginal national emergency in the Northern Territory, I was struck when I heard John Laws ask his listeners whether this was Howard ‘doing a Tampa’. I’m sure that, at the time of the Tampa, neither Laws nor any of his listeners thought Howard was merely pulling on a stunt to help him win an election. At this remove, however, Laws was sure his listeners would know that ‘doing a Tampa’ meant. With Howard’s loss of credibility, the public stopped listening to him, just as they stopped listen to Keating in 1996.

The other point to make in explaining the switch to Rudd is that one policy really did affect a lot of votes: Work Choices. It worries workers who perceive themselves to have little personal bargaining power and others who worry their children may be adversely affected. There’s circumstantial support for this proposition in the big swings to Labor among young people and women. In any case, Howard tacitly acknowledged Work Choices was hurting electorally with his major watering down of the policy and reintroduction of a fairness test, the attempt to abandon the name Work Choices and the huge advertising campaign. But this backdown has come too late to register on the public’s consciousness. I’ll bet Howard lies awake a night wishing he’d never touched Work Choices.

Me tooism

One of the most widely remarked features of this campaign is the way Rudd has said ‘me too’ to so many of the Government’s policies. But though this may be the most extreme example we’ve seen, it’s by no means the first. As you recall, Howard tried to make himself a ‘small target’ when he beat Keating in 1996. He promised ‘never ever’ to introduce a GST, abandoned a lifetime of opposition to Medicare and played down any plans he had to reform industrial relations. Me tooism is a strategy that appeals to oppositions. In any argument over policy, government’s have an inbuilt advantage because they enjoy the authority of office. It’s the government that’s best able to introduce policies it hopes will ‘wedge’ its opponents, dividing them internally. Howard wedged Labor so successfully over the years that it has learnt to protect itself by instantaneously agreeing to every policy Howard proposes.

But me tooism is best seen as one way of competing, with clues to what’s happening coming from Hotelling’s law. Labor has sought to make its product indistinguishable from the Liberals’ in areas where the Libs are perceived by voters to be more capable (such as the economy, defence and security), but sought to differentiate its product in areas where Labor’s perceived to be more capable (education, health, the environment and industrial relations). So Labor has not said me too in these areas, but has sought to focus the election debate upon them. But me too is a game for both sides. Consider all the respects in which Howard sought to narrow the gap with Labor because he was fighting on Labor territory and wanted to shift debate back to his own territory: he has heavily modified Work Choices by restoring a safety-net, completely reversed his scepticism on climate change and opposition to an emissions trading scheme, suddenly discovered a belief in symbolic reconciliation, gone cold on nuclear power and stumped up big bucks for water, tertiary education, hospitals and child care.

What kind of a man is Rudd?

Australian election campaigns have become more presidential and so have the day-to-day operations of government - that is, more centred on the personality and preferences of the prime minister. That’s been true of Howard; it will be truer of Rudd. The Libs have always been a leader-calls-the-shots party, whereas Labor has been more democratic, with caucus having the final say. Rudd seems more self-willed in the style of a Liberal prime minister, as revealed by his unilateral announcement that he, not caucus, will decide who gets into cabinet. The question is whether, once Labor is safely back into government, the rest of the parliamentary party is still willing to stifle their differing preferences in the way they have been in their efforts to defeat the cleverest politician of our age, John Howard. My guess is they won’t be, and that Rudd will face a fair bit of internal dissent.

With all of Rudd’s me tooing, there is a suspicion in many people’s minds that, once he’s installed, he’ll be revealed to be something other than he presented himself as before the election. Liberal supporters fear he’ll reveal himself as a closet socialist; Labor supporters hope he’ll reveal himself as any kind of socialist. I suspect both sides will be surprised - that, with Rudd, what you see is what you get. He really is just the younger version of John Howard he’s portrayed himself as. I believe he’s a very conservative man, with views on foreign affairs, defence, national security and terrorism that are little distinguishable from Howard’s (even on Iraq), and views on economic issues that aren’t far from Howard’s, either. Despite the Libs laughable attempt to portray him as a tool of the union movement (like Bob Hawke was, d’ya mean?) and imaginary claim that he would return us to centralised wage-fixing, the changes he’ll make to the now heavily modified Work Choices are quite cautious.

I suspect Rudd is big on tactics, but weak on strategy. You can see that in his decision to adopt 90 per cent of Howard’s tax cuts. As a political tactic, this was smart: he knew the Libs’ advantage on taxation meant he couldn’t win a comparison of rival tax cuts, so by matching the Libs he removed taxation as an election issue. As a strategy, however, it left much to be desired. He claimed that the hugely expensive areas education and health were his highest priorities but, at the first opportunity to spend $31 billion on cutting tax rather than fixing education and health, he seized it. Nor was he prepared to use a refusal to match Howard’s tax cut to demonstrate his superior credentials as an economic manager and economic conservative.

Rudd is highly ambitious and I suspect his ambition outweighs his commitment to Labor values. If so, he’ll be good at winning elections, but not at knowing why he wants to win apart from the obvious. He’ll survive for a long time, but achieve surprisingly little. He’s not a class warrior nor highly ideological, but he is a control freak, who looks set to expand the role of his own department. He’s self-willed, a tough boss, a hard worker and a detail-man.

Rudd as an economic manager and reformer

This is not a good election to win. The longstanding pattern is for federal governments to be tossed out only after they’ve presided over a recession. That’s true of the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke/Keating governments. But the Howard government will be the exception to the rule: it presided over 11 years of strong economic growth, low inflation and falling unemployment, all the time grinding into the public’s consciousness its claim that Labor was a hopeless economic manager. The Rudd government is unlikely to be as lucky as the Howard government. With the expansion phase now in its 17th year, the chances of recession occurring some time in the next three years would have to be high. And in the meantime, of course, the Reserve will be grappling with a runaway economy, possibly raising rates a fair bit further. So there’s a fair chance the Howard government will go down in history as an exemplary economic manager, whereas Labor’s reputation as hopeless economic manager will be confirmed for a generation. Added to this we have a government that said me too to pretty much all of the Howard government’s now clearly inappropriate three years of tax cuts and general spending spree. It’s standard practice for incoming governments to use their first budget to change the direction of their pre-election rhetoric and also clean out a lot of the favourite spending programs of their predecessors. Labor has announced spending cuts it says are worth $3 billion and also made noises about establishing a razor gang. The press gallery has treated these announcements with scepticism; if it knew a bit more economic history it wouldn’t.

I think that when economists look back on the economic record of the Howard government they’ll conclude it had such good luck it didn’t have to try very hard and, in fact, didn’t try very hard. They spent so long telling us what good managers they were they came to believe their own bulldust. Paradoxically, Labor’s reputation as a hopeless economic manager means it knows it must always try hard on economic policy if it wants to survive in government. Similarly, when you’re a Liberal you can afford to take the business community for granted, but when you’re Labor you always have something to prove. Rudd Labor will be seeking legitimacy and will try hard to establish good relations with business. Labor is likely to listen more closely to Treasury, and Treasury stands a good chance of giving Rudd and Wayne Swan something to believe in and fight for, just as it did Keating. Between Treasury and Professor Ross Garnaut, I expect Labor’s implementation of the tradable emissions regime to be quite sensibly done. It wouldn’t be realistic to expect a Rudd government to be as committed to micro reform as Treasurer Keating was - the days of continuous reform are gone - but I do think there’s a good change it will be more interested in reform than the Howard government was.

Labor will not, of course, have control of the Senate. But nor are the Libs likely to retain control - certainly not after the new senators take their places in July. The balance of power is likely to be held by the Greens, which raises a novel circumstance. In the past, having the Australian Democrats holding the balance of power acted as a brake on Labor implementing some of its more radical policies, probably no bad thing. But now with the Greens in may be that Labor has to make some of its policies more radical to get them through.

Observations on monetary policy

Over the past couple of years the Reserve Bank has developed a clear modus operandi in which it waits for the quarterly CPI release, revises its inflation forecast on the basis of the new information and then adjusts the stance of policy if necessary at the board meeting about two weeks later. This says rates are most likely to be adjusted at the February, May, August and November meetings. This established MO has many attractions for the Reserve. For a start, the timing of the quarterly Statement on Monetary Policy has been adjusted to come soon after those board meetings and also come shortly before the half-yearly appearances before the parliamentary committee. This means that, whether or not the board decides to move, only a few days pass before the Reserve is able to provide a highly detailed exposition of its reasoning. A late draft of the SoMP would be available at the time of the meeting. It’s always difficult for central bankers to make a detailed public statement - or worse, be subjected to detailed public questioning by their parliamentary masters - when the case for a rate change has become apparent, but before they’ve had a chance to put it into effect. They always want to be in a position to assert that, in present circumstances, the current policy setting is ‘about right’. So the beauty of this alignment of meeting, SoMP and hearing is that it maximises the chance of the central bankers been able to report publicly after they’ve acted, not before.

Another advantage of this MO is that it focuses attention on inflation and the prospects for inflation. Rate rises are never popular, but neither is inflation, and this alignment - acting so soon after the release of the CPI - highlights the Reserve’s justification for its unpopular action. When you’re trying to control inflation expectations, it’s important to keep reminding the public that you’re obsessive about controlling actual inflation and about achieving your target. But it’s worth remembering - as we were reminded by Glenn Stevens’s statement last week - that while inflation is the end result we’re worried about, it’s excessive growth that’s the cause of the result, so it’s growth that interest rates work on to get to the result. A simple point, but one the politicians were happy to dissemble in the election campaign, with their eulogising of growth in one breath and their pious expressions of concern about inflation in the next.

A further advantage of this MO is that it makes it easier for the financial markets and business economists to form more accurate expectations about future rate movements. It’s a very clear signalling device. The Reserve has nothing to gain and a little to lose by catching the markets out. The downside of catching the market with its rates down is that it makes embarrassed economists more likely to want to cover their embarrassment by arguing that the rate rise is unjustified. It’s a mistake to imagine that being an independent central banks means you can do as you please. In a democracy, no public institution can do as it pleases. If it becomes too unpopular, eventually it will have its wings clipped. The consequence is that independent central banks have to do their own worrying about politics. And one consequence of this is that, when you’re doing unpopular things like raising rates, it helps to have a chorus of market and business experts calling for and predicting a rate rise, thereby giving the rise an air of legitimacy as well as softening people up.

Finally, when you’re tightening rates in a heavily indebted economy, this MO allows you to proceed cautiously, responding to the flow of incoming evidence as you go ever higher - something that’s important if you believe, as most central bankers seem to, that rate rises aren’t linear. That eventually you hit a point where the penny drops and behaviour really starts to change.

But there are a couple of qualifications to be made to this happy story. First, making one potential move a quarter is fine provided it allows you to move fast enough. It may not. As you know, the Reserve probably would have tighten at its September meeting after seeing the June quarter national accounts, had it not been for the sub-prime turmoil. Second, this as an MO for a tightening cycle. It doesn’t make as much sense for an easing cycle - rate cuts are never unpopular - and, particularly if you thought the economy was slowing sharply, you might want to move a lot faster than once a quarter. The moral of the story is that, no matter how entrenched the quarterly MO becomes, the Reserve with always reserve the right to make changes in other months if it judges that to be necessary. Were that to happen and were you to be caught out, there’d be no point feeling aggrieved and claiming the bank had broken an unwritten convention. This MO will last only as long as it suits the Reserve.

Looking to next year, some economists think they can see two, even three more rate rises coming. They may prove right but, if you’re in this camp, just remember that you’re making a pure forecast. That is, you’re getting ahead of the game. The Reserve has no game plan that calls for two or three more rises. While it clearly has a bias to tighten, it will take things a month at a time, responding to the data as it rolls in. That data includes the national accounts and the labour price index, not just the CPI, of course. Remember, too, that the need for further rises in the cash rate will be affected by the likelihood of the major banks instituting a mortgage rate rise of their own and by the possibility of a further slowing in the world economy, particularly the Asian end of it.


Friday, October 19, 2007


Public Lecture in Economic and Social Policy, University of Wollongong, Friday, October 19, 2007

I could today say something terribly polite and complimentary about economics, but instead I want to keep you awake by saying something a little thought provoking and challenging to the economic orthodoxy, influenced by some of the reading Ive been doing lately, particularly a most interesting book by Avner Offer, a professor of economic history at Oxford, called The Challenge of Affluence.

As many of you know, the overriding goal of conventional economics – specifically, microeconomics – is to help the community deal with the problem of scarcity – the fact that the physical resources available to us are finite, whereas our wants are infinite. Theres any amount of goods and services wed like to consume, but the wherewithal to produce those goods and services is strictly limited. So micro economists see their role as to advise the community on ways to stretch those limited resources further, to help us get more bang for our buck. This explains economists obsession with efficiency, because its by using resources more efficiently that we can stretch them further. Economists seek to promote more efficiency in the sense of greater economy in the use of resources, the reduction of waste and the discovery of better ways to do things, but also in the sense of more efficiently allocating resources to that particular combination of goods and services the community values most highly. If you think about the push for microeconomic reform that weve seen economists successfully urging on governments for the past 25 years, its been all about using increased efficiency to raise the communitys material standard of living.

But Offer and others have advanced an interesting proposition: that the developed market economies attack on the problem of scarcity over the time since the industrial revolution has been so remarkably successful that weve actually defeated the problem of scarcity and replaced it with a different problem, the problem of abundance. Now, technically, for an economist to say that a resource is scarce is merely to say that it can only be obtained by paying a price, that its not so abundantly available as to be free. Clearly, in that technical sense, the problem of scarcity is still with us.

But, in the broader sense, its hard to deny that the citizens of the developed world live lives of great abundance. Our material standard of living has doubled or trebled since 1950 and has multiplied many times over since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s. No one in the developed world is fighting for subsistence; even the relatively poor among us are doing well compared with the poor of Asia or Africa; we satisfied our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter a mighty long time ago; our real incomes grow by a percent or two almost every year, and each year we move a little higher on the hog. Our greater affluence can be seen in our ability to limit the size of our families, in the growth in the size and opulence of our homes, the fancy foreign cars we drive, our clothes, the private schools we send our children to, the restaurants we eat in and the plasma TVs, DVDs, video recorders, personal computers, mobile phones, stereo systems, movie cameras, play stations and myriad other gadgets our homes teem with.

How has this unprecedented and widespread affluence come about? Its the product of the success of the market system and even of the sound advice of the economists in identifying ways to fine-tune that system. But above all its the product of all the technological advance – the invention and innovation – the capitalist system is so good at encouraging. Malthuss dismal prediction in the late 1700s that the growth in the population would outrun the growth in food production was soon disproved.

It's therefore reasonable to say that, when we look around us, what we see is not scarcity but abundance. This is something to be celebrated. But, as with everything in life, no blessing is unalloyed. Every good thing has its drawbacks and difficulties. The first and most obvious problem with abundance is the damage the huge expansion in human activity – most of it economic activity – is doing to the natural environment. For millennia, the environment was so vast and economic activity so limited that it was easy to see the environment and the economy as completely divorced. Air and water and fish in the sea were in such abundance that economic analysis could class them as free goods and promptly ignore them. By now, however, the huge expansion in economic activity has started to overwhelm the environment. We see that everywhere around us: air pollution in cities, widespread over-fishing and the destruction of species, waste discharges leading to the degradation of waterways and beaches, the damage caused by European farming methods, the near drying up of some of our river systems, the opening of the hole in the ozone layer and, of course, global warming. All these environmental concerns are the product of the abundance of human and economic activity, a concern that didnt exist when our major concern was scarcity – our then limited success in overcoming natures impediments to the satisfaction of wants.

The next but less obvious problem with abundance is that it exacerbates humankinds difficulty achieving self-control. Thanks to their assumption of rationality, this is a problem that simply doesnt register on the conventional economists radar. You and I are assumed to know exactly what we want, to always want whats in our best interests, to have a clear idea of what the future holds, to have no difficulty balancing short-term benefits against long-term costs, and to have an iron will in being able to choose and stick to what we judge to be best for us in the long run.

In truth – and as the psychologists have demonstrated – humans have a big problem with self-control. Consider the simple example Offer quotes of the student trying to decide whether to go out tonight and have fun with her friends, or to stay home and study. To make the right decision, she must know her own preferences, and how they rank; must be confident that if she chooses to go out, she will not regret it tomorrow morning. She must know the payoffs for academic distinction, that she will like them, that she will be around to have them, that the world will have a use for her skills, that her vision of the future will not change, that some completely unforeseen factor or event will not sideline her prudent choice. In short, were always facing choices where the benefits are clear and immediate, whereas the costs are uncertain and distant. The greatest problem is our willpower to defer gratification, but its compounded by uncertainty about our own preferences and about what the future holds.

Problems of self-control are ubiquitous to daily life. The one were most conscious of these days is the temptation to eat too much. But there are many more: to get too little exercise, to smoke, to drink too much, to watch too much television, to gamble too much, to shop too much, to save too little and put too much on your credit card, to work too much at the expense of your family and other relationships.

The more stuff we have – the fewer among us whose main problem remains satisfying our basic needs – the more problems of self-control emerge as our dominant concern. But theres a deeper point: humans have never been good at self-control, but as long as we were poor and resources were scarce, our self-control problem was naturally held in check. Its when things become abundant, when we can afford to indulge so many more of our whims, when we have a huge range of things or activities to choose from, that self-control problems become more prevalent and we have trouble making ourselves choose those options that are best for us in the longer term, not just immediately gratifying.

Its worth asking a question economists dont ask because their model assumes it away: why do humans have such trouble controlling their emotional urges and behaving in a more thoughtful, far-sighted way? I think the answer lies in our evolution, specifically in the way our brains have evolved. Our brains evolved to cope with the problem of scarcity, not abundance. The older, more primitive part of our brain – the part that deals with the fight or flight response, for instance – has evolved to make an instantaneous, emotional response to cues without waiting for more information or for more evaluation of options. Its the newer, more cerebral part of our brain that cuts in later with a more careful analysis of the choices and the longer-term implications. This is the neurological dimension of the problem of abundance and it explains why its common for psychologists and others to speak of humans as having two selves: our present-self and our future-self. This is the essence of the self-control problem: finding ways to allow our future-self to have more wins over our present-self.

The highly topical and worrying problem of obesity provides an excellent example of the way the move from scarcity to abundance has exacerbated self-control problems. Humans evolved in conditions where nutrition was scarce. Our brains are therefore hardwired to eat everything that comes our way while weve got the chance, and theyre are surprisingly poor at signalling to us when weve had enough. For as long as food remained scarce – that is, relatively expensive – and work remained highly physical, there wasnt a problem. But as we triumphed over scarcity the former natural balance was lost. Technological advances in the growing, transport, storage, preservation and cooking of food greatly reduced its cost to consumers. As humans have become more time-poor, weve seen an explosion in inexpensive fast food, all of it cunningly laced with those three ingredients our brains were evolved to crave: fat, sugar and salt. Then, on the output side, weve seen technological advance strip the physical labour first out of work and then out of leisure. We dont play sport, we watch it being played and these days we dont even go to the effort of travelling to the grounds.

There's a third aspect to the problems of abundance: the increased resources devoted to the socially pointless pursuit of social status through consumption. When we have long passed the point where our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are being satisfied, but our real incomes continue to grow by a couple of percent a year, we have to find something to do with the extra money. Partly, we spend it on superior goods – goods you want more of as you get richer – such as health and education. Thats fine. But a fair bit of the extra income is spent on positional goods – goods whose purchase is designed to demonstrate to the world our superior position in the pecking order. Everyone needs a car, but that need can be met quite adequately by a 10-year-old Toyota. When we feel we must buy a new car every few years, or when we buy an expensive imported European car, the extra we pay is commonly motivated by a conscious or unconscious desire to impress people and so constitutes a positional good. The fields in which we can use our spending to demonstrate our high social status are legion: the size, opulence and desirable location of our homes is probably the most significant instance, but theres also the clothes we wear, the clothes we put on our children, the restaurants we visit, the cars we drive, the schools we send our kids to and much else. The point here is that, from the viewpoint of the community rather than the individual, the pursuit of status is a zero-sum game: the gains of those individuals who manage to advance themselves in the pecking order are offset by the loss of status suffered by those they pass. Thus a perpetual status arms-race is socially pointless. From the perspective of society, a lot of resources are simply wasted.

So thats the case for believing that, at this late stage in our development, the problem of scarcity has been superseded by the problem abundance. This has happened without the economics profession noticing. And should the profession fail to take notice, it will go on urging on our political leaders policies that make things worse rather than better. If Im right then the economists hitherto single-minded pursuit of efficiency is inadequate at best and damaging at worst. Economists will need to add more strings to their bow, learn some new tricks. But which new tricks?

The first point to make is that, while economists have a major – perhaps the major – contribution to make in fashioning policies to reduce the conflict between economic activity and the natural environment, this is the exception to the new rule: here, their conventional approach of using greater efficiency to fight scarcity remains appropriate. The trick is that, while its the abundance of economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions that are doing so much damage to the environment, its still best to define the problem as the scarcity of water and the scarcity of low-emission-intensive goods and services. Internalising the externalities to the prices of goods and services by means of economic instruments such as pollution taxes and tradable permit schemes is the best way to achieve environmental goals with minimum economic disruption.

In the main, however, to contribute to solving the problem of abundance economists need to learn the new trick of helping people cope with their self-control problems. People know they have trouble controlling themselves, trouble allowing their future-selves to dominate their present-selves and so avoid myopic choices. The way they do this is by developing commitment strategies and commitment devices. Economists must, first, understand the need for and accept the legitimacy of commitment devices and, second, become expert in the development of such devices. This will require a small revolution in their thinking.

Commitment devices come at three levels. First, the restrictions individuals choose to impose on their own behaviour. Second, the restrictions the members of groups choose to impose on themselves by submission to group norms of acceptable behaviour. Third, the restrictions governments impose on us to remove temptation from our paths. Economists will have trouble coming to terms with each of the three levels. With self-imposed commitment devices, conventionally trained economists are tempted to regard them as irrational behaviour. I may try to limit my consumption of ice cream by keeping only one small serve in the fridge. Should I want to eat more than Ive pre-decided should be my daily limit, I have to go the shop and get it. Technically, this behaviour is inefficient and irrational: its cheaper and easier to by ice cream in bigger quantities.

With group-imposed behavioural norms, conventional economists often arent conscious of their existence or dont appreciate their value until some economic upheaval destroys them. Increased competitive pressures, for instance, can cause a breakdown in professional standards of behaviour towards clients.

With government-imposed restrictions, conventional economists assumption that individuals behave rationally – that is, always in their own best interests – leads them to disapprove of many government interventions. How could governments know better than individuals what was in those individuals best interests? Why not leave people free to choose for themselves? Short answer: because individuals know they have trouble controlling themselves and would appreciate government taking temptation out of their way. In practice, we see any amount of often quite punitive government intervention aimed at protecting both the individual and the community from the consequences of speeding on the road, excessive drinking, smoking, air and water pollution, drug use, gambling, usury and much else. Its notable that most of these impositions on our freedom were introduced without great opposition and today are quite uncontroversial. Prohibition of smoking in pubs is a recent example. Why do we accept these restrictions so readily? Because we – and the politicians who impose them – know they help us control our more myopic selves.

If economists are to help the community deal with the problem of abundance by assisting us to control ourselves theyll need to develop greater awareness and respect for group behavioural norms and also see the value the rest of us see in government-imposed solutions to our self-control difficulties. There is probably scope for a lot more carefully judged intervention, appalling though that may sound to libertarians. One obvious candidate, relevant to the obesity epidemic and more, is greater controls over advertising. Will the day come when economists are designing and advocating such interventions rather than opposing them? Psychologists know something economists dont: that rather than it taking a change in attitudes to bring about a change in behaviour, if you can use intervention to force a change in behaviour, people will then change their attitudes to fit.

As well as such coercive interventions there are less intrusive ways governments and others can change behaviour merely by changing the way choices are framed. For instance, in encouraging employees to join voluntary saving schemes, automatically enrolling them but permitting them to opt out will be far more successful than inviting them to opt in. Economists can master these behavioural tricks.

The remaining domain of self-control for us to consider is individuals imposing their own commitment devices on themselves. In his book Mindless Eating, the Cornell psychologist Brian Wansink writes that the 19th century has been called the Century of Hygiene and the 20th century the Century of Medicine. This century, he predicts, will be the Century of Behavioural Change.

Changing your personal behaviour isnt easy, but it is possible. It involves adopting better habits, which eventually become part of our unconscious selves and so become lasting. In The Happiness Hypothesis, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that trying to control yourself is like riding an elephant. The elephant has a mind of its own and cant just be ordered to obey. It can, however, be carefully trained and cajoled into more desirable ways.

There is work to be done here in researching the use of personal commitment devices and in educating the public about the usefulness of this approach and the effectiveness of particular devices. It maybe that this is more a role for psychologists than economists, but that really brings me to the pointy end of this lecture: will economists simply go on fighting the last war – the war against scarcity in which efficiency is the sole objective – or can they learn new tricks and help us cope with the new problem of abundance, a problem where the solutions often involve some loss of efficiency? If they cant, they may find their dominance in the provision of public policy advice being usurped by interlopers from the newer science of psychology.



Thursday, September 27, 2007


Industrial Relations Commission of NSW annual conference
September 27, 2007

I want today to give you a crash course on the strengths and weaknesses of economics, with special reference to the labour market. It occurs to me that, because of the specialised nature of your work, most of you probably already know a fair about the topic. If so, I hope you’ll find what I say reinforcing rather than boring. Let me start by saying that I don’t see myself as an economist, but rather as a journalist who writes about economics. This allows me to act as a kind of interpreter and go-between, standing between the economists and the public. I see my role as providing my readers with a critique of economics and economists, much as our theatre critics provide our readers with a critique of the latest plays. My goal is to explain and demystify economics, advising my readers on when they ought to accept the advice of economists and when they shouldn’t.

The subject matter of economics

Economics is the study of how market economies organise the production and consumption of goods and services. In other words, it deals with a very important aspect of life - all of us are consumers and most of us are producers - but only one aspect. It’s preoccupied with the practical, material aspect of life, so that if you get too preoccupied by economics - as many business people, politicians, economists and economic rationalists do - you risk neglecting or devaluing the non-material aspects of life, such as the social, the artistic and the spiritual.

Macro-economics is concerned with seeking to manage or guide the overall, national economy as it moves through the ups and downs of the business cycle. The managers of the economy use various instruments to stabilise demand, holding it back when the economy is growing strongly and threatening to worsen inflation, but boosting demand when the economy’s growth is weak and unemployment is high or rising. The object of demand management is simply to reduce the amplitude of the cycle, pulling down the peaks and filling in the troughs, thereby keeping both inflation and unemployment low. Historically, the main instrument used to manage demand was the budget (known as fiscal policy). But for the past 20 years or so the dominant instrument has been the manipulation of interest rates by the now-independent Reserve Bank (known as monetary policy). The Reserve raises interest rates when it wants to discourage borrowing and spending and thus inhibit inflation pressure; it lowers rates when it wants to encourage borrowing and spending and thus hasten growth and job creation.

A primer on microeconomics

But that’s as much as I want to say about macro. Micro-economics is trickier, more interesting, more germane to our purpose and more controversial. Micro is the study of individual consumers, workers and firms using markets to produce and consume goods and services. At the heart of microeconomics is what’s called the ‘neo-classical model’ in which price is set by the interaction - and intersection - of demand on the one side and supply on the other. So conventional microeconomics is preoccupied with price; it strips away other commercial considerations so it can get to what economists regard as the heart of the matter, price. If economists wore tee-shirts, what they’d say is: Prices Make The World Go Round.

It’s the ‘price mechanism’ that economists see as bringing supply and demand - and hence markets - into equilibrium, or balance. Movements in relative prices - that is, the price of one good relative to other goods - are seen as conveying ‘signals’ to both buyers and sellers, consumers and producers. A rise in price says to producers, produce more - it’s now more profitable to be selling these things, so get cracking and make more of them. A rise in price says to consumers, buy less - look for cheaper substitutes or be more economical in your use of this stuff. Now, if a rise in price calls forth an increase in supply on the one hand, but a decrease in demand on the other, what happens? The price falls back and supply and demand settle at a new equilibrium point. Similarly, a fall in relative prices will send the opposite signals to buyers and sellers, calling forth a reduction in supply and an increase in demand which raises the price and establishes a new equilibrium. Here you see the rationale for the cry of laissez faire - the market is assumed to be a self-righting system, provided you leave it alone to do its own thing.

Another definition of economics is that it’s the study of ‘the economic problem’, which is the problem of scarcity. Scarcity arises because our resources - of land, labour and capital - are finite, whereas our wants are infinite. Scarcity in this context doesn’t mean as scarce as hen’s teeth, merely that things aren’t free - they can be acquired only at a price. Economists believe the right price for something is the price that reflects the degree of scarcity (ie the cost) of the resources embodied in it. Prices are too high when they exceed the item’s scarcity value; prices are too low when they understate the item’s scarcity value.

So microeconomics is about economists seeking to help the community grapple with its abiding material problem, the problem of scarcity, which causes many of our wants go unsatisfied. Economists’ contribution is to help the community use its finite resources in ways that allow it to satisfy the optimum quantity of wants - that is, not the maximum number of wants but the combination of wants the community most highly values. In other words, microeconomics is about helping the community get a quart out of a pint pot, get more bang for its buck. This explains the microeconomists’ preoccupation with efficiency - getting the most bang for your buck - and its close relative, improved productivity. But ‘efficiency’ is a word to which economists attach their own meanings. At one level, what economists call ‘technical efficiency’ (or sometimes productive efficiency) is about being economical in the use of resources, eliminating waste, finding better ways to do things. That’s pretty much the common meaning of efficiency. But economists are more interested in what they call ‘allocative efficiency’ - which is about making sure the community’s resources are allocated to producing that combination of goods and services that it most highly values. The market could throw up lots of different combinations, but economists want to help us strive for the combination we most highly value. While we’re at it, let me just define productivity - it’s not production, its production relative to the resources used to produce it, or output per unit of input. The most common measure of productivity is the productivity of labour - output per worker, or per hour worked.

But economists aren’t engineers or management consultants or even business people. So how do they think they can contribute to making factories more efficient or improving the overall allocation of resources? They don’t profess to know much about the detail of any of these things. But they don’t think they need to because what they understand is the power of market forces, and it’s market forces that - if you stand out of the way - will bring about improvements in technical efficiency and allocative efficiency. Firms seek continually to improve their technical efficiency because of their assumed desire to maximise their profits. Consumers, in their efforts to maximise their utility (satisfaction), unconsciously seek to maximise allocative efficiency. And firms co-operate in this, giving consumers exactly what the consumers want because that’s the way firms maximise their profits.

How do consumers and firms decide what to do? By reacting to prices and changes in prices. Prices (and remember that interest rates and wages are prices) act as incentives, and yet another definition of economics is that it’s the study of incentives. If a market isn’t as efficient as it could be, the reason is likely to be that the incentives it faces have been distorted in some way, probably by misguided government intervention. So you should reform intervention in the market (deregulate), which will increase the competitive pressure on firms in the market. Increased competition will increase the pressure on firms to improve their technical efficiency - raise their productivity - but will also oblige those firms to pass the benefits of their higher productivity on to their customers in the form of improved service or lower prices. The lower and less distorted prices - prices that more accurately reflect scarcity value - will lead to greater allocative efficiency. As I’m sure you’ve realised, what I’ve been outlining is the rationale for micro-economic reform, the goal of which is simply to use improved technical and allocative efficiency and higher productivity to increase our material living standards.

Economic rationalism

Mention of microeconomic reform brings me to explaining the difference between economists and economic rationalists. Not all economists are economic rationalists and not all economic rationalists are economists. Economic rationalists are people who take a fundamentalist attitude towards the neo-classical model that’s at the heart of conventional microeconomics. They have a simple, almost religious faith in the efficacy and applicability of the model. Most government, business and media economists and many academic economists would be happy to wear the economic rationalist label, but many academic economists wouldn’t. The latter are far too conscious of instances of ‘market failure’ and other limitations of the simple neo-classical model, whereas economic rationalists tend to think problems of market failure aren’t a big deal. The non-economists who are economic rationalists - such as the former Liberal backbencher John Hyde and the chairman of the ACCC, Graeme Samuel - tend to be libertarians and great believers in individualism, who are attracted to the certainty, logicality and simplicity of the model. It offers a simple, obvious (though not necessarily easy) answer to every problem - which is the attraction of all forms of fundamentalism.

In my experience, those mainly academic economists who specialise in the study of particular markets - such as health economists and labour economists - tend to be much more conscious of the relevance of instances of market failure to that market, whereas general economists are happy to run any particular market through their pocket neo-classical model without worrying too much about the peculiarities of that market.

This may be the place for me to observe that, in my experience, labour economists (and the related discipline of industrial relations specialists) tend to be highly factionalised. Most tend to be openly sympathetic to the union cause, though you can always find a few who defend the employer interests. I regret that it’s so hard to find knowledgeable labour economists who try to call it down the middle.

The strengths of economics

Having given you a very basic explanation of what economics and economists are on about, let me move to the critique. The first thing to say is that there’s a lot of truth and power to demand-and-supply analysis. Market forces are powerful. People do change their behaviour in response to price signals. You do see people driving the long way to avoid paying a toll, driving round to find the cheapest service station, queuing and pushing and shoving to get the best bargains at the Boxing Day sales. You do see black markets emerging where governments attempt to hold prices below the market-clearing level. You do see rent control leading to an inadequate supply of rental accommodation.

One of the useful roles economists play is to remind us of the importance of opportunity cost. Because resources are finite and can be used only once, if you use them to acquire item A, you can’t use them to acquire items B to Z. The opportunity cost of an action is the cost of the next most desirable action you must give up. It’s a pathetically simple concept, but it’s surprising how often we forget it, so economists do well when they continuously remind us to be sure we really want the things we say we want because, in choosing them, we’re giving up other things.

A related benefit of the economic way of thinking is that it encourages us to continually ask the follow-up question: but then what happens? People are always coming to wrong conclusions on economic questions because they look only at direct, first-round effects, failing to trace through the second, subsequent or indirect effects. For instance, non-economists often conclude that computerisation destroys jobs in the industry in which it’s applied. They don’t go on to ask the question: but then what happens? What happens is that the productivity of the firm’s labour improves - it can now produce more output per worker, which constitutes an increase in real income. Some of that increase may be passed on to the firm’s remaining workers in higher wages, some may be passed on to customers in lower prices (or prices that are ‘lower than they otherwise would be’) and some may be retained by the firm’s owners. The point is that, wherever the income ends up, it will be spent, and when it’s spent it will create jobs. This why economist say that new technology doesn’t destroy jobs it ‘displaces’ them, moving them from the original industry to industries elsewhere in the economy.

Now, you may say, but what if the jobs lost are for middle-aged blue-collar males in manufacturing, whereas the jobs created are more suited to white-collar women working in the service industries? Good question. I think this happened a lot as computerisation worked its way through manufacturing in the 1970s and 80s. Sometimes the problems of the individual tend to be overlooked as economists focus on generalised answers. Some would say we should have done more to help these men retrain to make them suitable for other jobs, but a hard-line economic rationalist would claim that these men would have found jobs had it been possible for the price of their labour to fall to a level low enough to reflect its now reduced value, thereby making that labour attractive to some employer.

One way to test an economic argument you’re being given is to ask whether it’s approaching the issue from the demand side or the supply side. An argument isn’t fully persuasive unless it takes account of both sides. For instance, it’s not enough to say that part-time jobs have become more prevalent over the past 30 years because it’s more efficient for a firm to employ two or three workers for a few hours on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, rather than one worker for 40 hours a week. This is undoubtedly true and it’s a good example of the kind of things employers do to keep the productivity of labour steadily increasing from year to year. But, in the context of the labour market, it’s a demand-side explanation; it focuses on what suits the buyers of labour, employers. It’s not fully convincing until you can find a story that explains the growth in part-time work from the viewpoint of the suppliers of labour, the workers. But you can find such a story, of course: it’s not hard to believe there’s been a growth in the number of married women and full-time students who’ve been happy to take up part-time rather than full-time jobs.

The role of models

Even so, the neo-classical model often oversimplifies things and leads to mistaken analysis and wrong predictions. Just like model trains or model planes, economic models consciously simplify complex reality. They’d be of no use if they didn’t. The idea is to include and highlight the key factors and get rid of the unimportant issues that merely cloud the workings, thereby capturing the essence of what causes what. The question to ask of a model is not whether it’s left things out, but whether what it’s left out is important. And the test of that is how good it is at predicting how people (‘economic agents’) will behave in given circumstances. I believe that, in many circumstances, the standard model’s prediction record is poor.

The weaknesses of the model can be seen by looking at the assumptions on which it’s built. It’s important to understand that formal economic reasoning, which is often done mathematically, is rigorously logical - given the assumptions on which it’s based. So if you don’t like the conclusions of economics, the thing to examine is the assumptions on which the reasoning is based.

The weaknesses of economics

To me, conventional economics’ greatest weakness is its assumption that agents are ‘rational’ - that is, that we always act with carefully calculated self-interest. We know from much psychological research - not to mention common observation - that people are instinctive rather than rational. They frequently make decisions contrary to the model’s predictions, they have trouble predicting their own utility, make logically inconsistent decisions, have trouble making themselves do what they know is in their longer-term best interests, are moved by altruism and perceptions of fairness and much, much more. One of the most effective criticisms of economic analysis is: I don’t believe real people behave that way. How do you, the economist, know they do? Honest answer: we don’t know it, we just assume it.

One major weakness of the model that economists readily acknowledge (but don’t necessarily take sufficiently seriously) is its inability to take account of factors than aren’t reflected in prices. Any costs or benefits that aren’t reflected in market prices are known as ‘externalities’. When I run a factory that emits pollution into the atmosphere or the river this imposes a cost (a ‘negative externality’) on the rest of the community that isn’t reflected in the actual costs I incur and pass on to customers in my prices. When, in the good old days, statutory authorities trained far more apprentices than they needed, knowing they’d be poached by the surrounding private employers, they were generating a benefit (a ‘positive externality’) those firms didn’t have to pay for and for which the statutory authorities received no recompense. The existence of externalities - positive or negative - constitutes an instance of ‘market failure’. That is, the market and its price mechanism can’t be relied on to deliver the favourable outcomes the standard model promises. The solution is to find ways to ‘internalise’ the externalities to the costs and benefits faced by firms and consumers - to get them reflected in prices - so the price mechanism can deal with them. This is done by devices such as pollution taxes, tradable permit schemes and government subsidies.

There are various other classes of market failure apart from externalities, but I tend to think of them in terms of ‘model blindness’. Economists suffer the same problem as every other profession: what I call model-blindness - a tendency to view the world and to analyse problems exclusively through the prism of their model. To focus on those variables their model focuses on and a tendency to ignore all those factors from which their model abstracts. This is a simple error, but it’s amazing how often it’s made.

The community is preoccupied with perceptions of fairness, whereas standard microeconomic analysis ignores equity considerations. When you press them, economists will tell you they have nothing to say on the fairness and redistributive effects of their policy prescriptions because this involves value judgments that are beyond their area of competence. Yet it’s remarkable how often economic rationalists in particular will press policies on the community without bothering to warn people that, in reaching those policy prescriptions, they have taken no account of equity issues. This is unprofessional behaviour.

The neoclassical model focuses on one often very important factor – price – while ignoring a lot of other potentially important factors. It assumes that buyers and sellers have complete knowledge – about the qualities of the product being exchanged and about all the prices being charged by other sellers. In reality, sellers usually know far more about these things than buyers do, giving them a significant advantage. This ‘information asymmetry’ explains a lot of problems and market failure. It’s what allows doctors to over-service their patients and allows the CEOs of public companies to enjoy salary packages many times greater than the value of their contribution to the firm.

The conventional model assumes away the importance of institutions – including laws and social norms of behaviour – that are critical to the efficient functioning of markets. It’s only recently, for instance, that model-blinded economists have realised the valuable role that ‘trust’ and other aspects of social capital play in lubricating a market economy. But other important institutions include the well-enforced law of contract, bankruptcy law, accounting standards and trustworthy auditors. Economists’ failure to understand this simple truth – because it’s not part of the model – led to them having a hand in some terrible disasters in recent times, such as the Asian crisis (where developing countries with utterly inadequate commercial infrastructure were urged to open their financial markets to hugely destabilising ‘hot money’ flows of foreign capital) and the badly botched transition to capitalism of Russia and other formerly planned economies.

Problems with the simple model of the labour market

These are general problems with economists’ use and abuse of their model, but let’s cut to the chase and focus on problems with the use of the conventional model to analyse issues in one particular market, the market for labour, in which workers are the suppliers and firms the demanders. General economists have a tendency to analyse the labour market as though it’s just another market, but there’s an obvious and most important respect in which the labour market differs from other markets. In every other market you’re dealing with the buying and selling of inanimate objects, whereas in the labour market the thing being bought and sold can’t be separated from the seller - that is, whether you like it or not, the unit of labour you buy comes with a live human being attached. That human may be agreeable or disagreeable, cooperative or uncooperative, hard working or lazy, capable or incapable. The fact that labour comes with humans attached cannot fail to affect the behaviour of both the buyer and the seller, something the model makes no allowance for. The role of humans is a strong argument against analysing the labour market in a way that totally ignores considerations of fairness. Another consequence is that the cost of labour to the employer is the income of the employee (ignoring the role of labour ‘on-costs’ such as payroll tax, workers compensation premiums etc). The attachment of humans to labour also invalidates the usual assumption that the items being bought and sold are homogenous. Two carpenters with identical qualifications and experience may be quite different as employees.

The standard model of the labour market assumes that, ceteris paribus, the higher the price of something, the less of it people will buy. This is the rationale for economists’ opposition to minimum wage rates. Set the minimum wage at a level higher than the rate the market would determine - that is, set the rate at a level that’s ‘binding’ - and the result is the market doesn’t ‘clear’. Some people remain unemployed. There is truth to this simple argument, but it ignores a complication: by how much would wages have to fall to achieve the elimination of unemployment? In other words, to what extent would people already employed under a binding minimum wage have to suffer a loss of income to achieve jobs for those at present unemployed? Would a small fall in the rate bring about a large increase in demand or would it take a large fall to bring about a small increase in the quantity demanded? In the jargon, is the demand for labour relative to its price elastic (sensitive to changes) or inelastic? This is the question on which economists need to be pressed. They will come armed with empirical estimates of the price elasticity, but how much faith you should have in those estimates is another matter. They’re pretty safe to have picked estimates that suit their case and to have ignored estimates that didn’t.

The basic model of the labour market assumes that the suppliers of labour face a simple choice: supply an hour of work and earn income or choose an hour of ‘leisure’ (which just means non-work) and enjoy yourself. The bit the model gets right is that leisure yields utility (satisfaction) - though this is something business people and economists often fail to acknowledge in their rhetoric. However, what the model gets wrong is its assumption that work yields disutility - that the only reason people work is for the money, the spending of which yields utility. In real life, most of us derive considerable utility from our work; much of our very identity comes from our work. This flaw in the model prompts economists to underestimate the importance of job satisfaction, job enrichment and job security. They underestimate the personal pain of unemployment - pain greater than can be explained by the loss of income involved - partly because of the hidden assumption of their model that the unemployed are to be envied for all their leisure time. (Another reason is the neo-classical model’s assumption that the macro economy is in a permanent state of full employment, so no one stays jobless for long.)

A related problem - which should really come under the heading of model-blindness - arises from the fact that the model takes account of only those factors that can be readily expressed in monetary terms. This leads to the sloppy assumption that the only incentives that matter are monetary. In truth, the working world abounds in non-monetary incentives: the satisfaction of a job well done, loyalty to employers and a desire for the boss’s approval, not to mention the pursuit of power and status.

An implicit assumption of the model that’s highly relevant to Work Choices, but which many economists conveniently forget, is that the parties to a transaction have roughly equal bargaining power. Where the parties’ bargaining power is highly unequal you won’t necessarily get the mutually beneficial outcomes the model promises. Certainly, the gains aren’t likely to be evenly distributed. This is the economic rationale for economists’ long-standing acceptance of the legitimacy of collective bargaining. The fact that so many economic rationalists are supportive of the push for individual contracts makes me suspect their analysis has been clouded by partisanship.

Work Choices has made me increasingly conscious of another of the model’s weaknesses: its neglect of what you might call ‘social externalities’. I’m disturbed by the attack on - the demonisation of - penalty rates for work at unsociable hours and the scope for partially cashing out holiday pay. My worry is not so much that the compensation for the loss of these benefits may be inadequate, but that these penalties performed an important social function. Combined with the deregulation of shopping hours, the attack on penalty rates is bringing about the steady demise of the weekend. Why is this a good idea? Although all of us like being free to shop or visit places of entertainment on the weekend, the trend to working at unsociable hours must be harmful to family life - something of great utility to all of us.

There’s no denying that, if increasing productivity and our material standard of living were our sole objective, keeping our shops, offices and factories operating for as close to 24/7 as possible would help us achieve it. But who in their right mind would have such an unbalanced approach to life? Workaholic businessmen and economists blinded by their model to the importance of social externalities.

Labour market reform

I have no doubt that our move from the centralised wage-fixing system to bargaining at the enterprise level - the end of flow-ons and one-size-fits-all national wage increases and the downplaying of comparative wage justice - has played a major part in the economy’s improved performance: the return to low inflation, the record-length 16-year expansion phase that has allowed so much progress to be made in reducing unemployment and the fact that our biggest commodities boom in 50 years has so far led to no wage breakout.

But I think this has more to do with the decentralisation of wage-fixing than the deregulation of it. It’s far too soon for Work Choices to have played a significant part in these outcomes - with the possible exception of the remarkably low wage increases being recorded in retail and hospitality. The productivity of labour grew extraordinarily strongly in the second half of the 90s and this helps explain the quite strong growth in real wages during the Howard Government’s term, notwithstanding the maintenance of low inflation.

When it suits them, the economic rationalists like to attribute all the credit for our improved productivity performance to the reform of the labour market. They can’t prove this, of course, and at other times they’re inclined to give the credit to all the other reform we’ve seen in the financial system and the markets for particular products: the floating of the dollar, the deregulation of the banks and countless other industries, privatisation, the virtual ending of protection, the reform of monopoly public utilities, tax reform and so forth.

My guess is that more of the credit should go to product market reform. The intensity of competitive pressure - both domestically and from imports - in so many markets has reduced the market power of firms, ended the sweetheart deal and put a lot of pressure on managers to improve the performance of their firms. They, in turn, have passed the pressure on to their workers, exhibiting a toughness, even callousness that wasn’t there to nearly the same extent in the good old days. Having said that, the move to enterprise bargaining has undoubtedly made it easier for managers to drive a harder bargain with their employees.


Economists specialise in studying the material aspect of our lives and how we can improve it. They are knowledgeable and their advice is effective. As we have proved for ourselves over the past 20 years, following that advice will make the community more prosperous. But while the material aspect of our lives is important, it’s not all important. Sensible people seek to balance affluence against other considerations - fairness and the social, artistic and spiritual dimensions of our lives. The trouble with economists is that their advice is narrow - sometimes narrower than they’re aware of and often more narrow than their hearers realise. Sensible communities don’t allow economists to advise on areas outside their field of competence and balance the advice of economists against the advice of experts in the other important aspects of life.