Monday, November 24, 2008


Comview conference, Melbourne
November 24, 2008

Economic developments have come thick and fast during the Rudd Government’s first year in office and, as a result, the policy mix and the stance of policy arms have changed significantly. Since you’ve just heard from Chris Caton on the economy’s current performance and outlook, I’ll focus on describing the changing policy response to those developments.

But first, a little political context. When the Rudd Government came to power last November, two perceptions dominated its approach to matters economic. First, it believed - no doubt on the basis of its market research - it had a serious credibility problem with voters on the question of economic management, thanks to Peter Costello’s success over the previous 11 years in characterising it as the bad manager who left him to inherit a $10 billion ‘budget black hole’ and a mountain of federal government debt. In the process of scoring these political points, Mr Costello managed to roll back decades of Keynesian thinking, convincing many in the public and in political circles that budget deficits and debt were an unarguable sign of economic irresponsibility, whereas budget surpluses and the elimination of government debt were the ultimate proof of exemplary economic management. As a result of this, Labor believed it had no choice but to embrace the Howard Government’s policy mix and fiscal rhetoric without demur.

Second, well before it won the November 2007 election, Labor knew it would be taking over after the economy had been expanding for a record 16 years, but with the economy approaching full capacity, inflation pressure building and the Reserve Bank stepping ever-harder on the monetary policy brakes. Federal office usually changes hands immediately after an incumbent government has presided over a recession, but this time the change-over was occurring before any recession. So Labor knew the chances of a recession during its first term were high, and that if it was to survive such a disaster it would have to start from the very beginning implanting in the electorate’s mind the belief that every adverse economic development was the fault of its predecessors’ mismanagement.

When federal government changes hands once a decade or so, standard practice is for the incoming government to find an excuse to make its first budget a really tough one, in which spending programs are cut hard. The econocrats encourage their new masters to do this, knowing it’s their best chance of ever persuading governments to have a spring cleaning because all unpleasantness can be blamed on their predecessors. This practice is also motivated by a desire to cut out their predecessors’ pet programs to make room for their own pet programs.

As you remember, so concerned was the Reserve about the build up of inflation pressure - which was pushing the underlying inflation rate well above the 2 to 3 per cent target range - that it increased the official rate in August 2007, shortly before the start of the election campaign, and then did so again right in the middle of the campaign. From the moment it took office the Rudd Government would have realised that the Reserve was intent on raising rates further, as indeed it did in February and March 2008. Wayne Swan thus began by emphasising the severity of the inflation problem the new Government had inherited from the Liberals. We were given the clear impression Labor’s first budget would be very tough, with sweeping cuts in spending used to produce the largest budget surplus possible given Labor’s commitment to matching the three years of tax cuts the Liberals had promised in the election campaign.

The object was to change the policy mix, with fiscal policy tightened so it took more of the burden of restraining demand and thus reduce the need for ever tighter monetary policy. As it turned out, however, the budget was not a tough one. Spending was not cut hard and the main way Labor attempted to cover the cost of its election promises was with a few tax increases (on alcopops, luxury cars and oil condensate). Why the sudden change of heart? Because Mr Swan’s private discussions with American and European leaders during his trip to the IMF convinced him the problems arising from the subprime crisis were far from over and that the world economy was heading into recession. This was not the time to add a tightening in fiscal policy to already tight monetary policy. So, in the end, the policy mix wasn’t changed at that time.

The Rudd Government’s first year has thus been one in which a preoccupation with the need to reduce inflation by using policy to slow the economy has been replaced by a preoccupation with the need to prevent the economy being pulled down into the global recession by dramatic reversals in the stances of both fiscal policy and monetary policy. Let’s examine the two policy arms in turn, concluding with a summary statement of the changed mix of those policies.

Monetary policy

Objective and instruments: The Rudd Government made no change to the objective of monetary policy, which is to be the primary instrument for achieving internal balance - that is, low inflation, low unemployment and a stable rate of economic growth. It accepted the RBA’s inflation target - to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 per cent on average over the cycle - and affirmed that the RBA would be allowed to conduct monetary policy independently of the elected government. The new Government agreed to some minor changes to the RBA’s institutional arrangements eg decisions of the monthly meetings of the RBA’s board are now announced at 2.30 on the afternoon of the meeting, rather than at 9.30 the following morning.

The RBA has made some small changes to the way it conducts its open market operations in response to the financial crisis. Most textbooks say market operations are conducted by means of the outright purchase and sale of CGS but, for many years, the main means has been by ‘repurchase agreements’, known as ‘repos’. Under a repurchase agreement the RBA agrees to buy (or occasionally, sell) eligible securities with a simultaneous undertaking by the seller to reverse the transaction at an agreed price and date in the future. This means a repo is essentially a secured loan. A bank that wants to borrow exchange settlement funds (‘cash’) from the RBA hands over an eligible security worth more than the loan, agreeing to repay the debt by buying the security back, with interest, on an agreed date anything from a week to a year later.

Since the subprime crisis began in August 2007, the RBA (like many other central banks) has been steadily widening the range of highly rated securities it is willing to accept for repo agreements. As well as accepting all types of government securities, it is now willing to accept bank bills and certificates of deposit.

Open market operations involve the RBA using its market operations to manipulate the supply of exchange settlement funds so as to ensure the demand for funds equals the supply of funds at the target cash interest rate it has nominated. Every bank is required to end each day with a balance on its exchange settlement account with the RBA of zero or more (ie not be in overdraft). Because the interest rate the RBA pays on ES balances is a little less than the cash rate, banks usually prefer to lend any surplus ES funds to those other banks that expect to be short of funds at the end of the day, with the interest rate on the loan being the (full) cash rate.

However, because the global credit crisis has left banks in Australia and other developed economies reluctant to lend to each other (for fear that they may not be repaid, or fear that no other bank will be willing to lend to them should they need funds in future) the RBA and other central banks have had to use repos to lend much more to banks than would normally be the case. That is, the banks have been hoarding cash. The media sometimes refer to this process as ‘flooding the market with liquidity’. There are three things to note. First, the funds are lent to the banks against security for short periods at normal interest rates. So the banks aren’t receiving any subsidy. Second, the increase in ES funds does not involve any change in the stance of monetary policy. Indeed, the central banks’ willingness to lend the system all the extra funds it needs because some banks are hoarding their funds actually prevents the cash rate from shooting up way above the central bank’s target rate. Third, the process doesn’t involve adding to the money supply and isn’t inflationary. As the banks calm down and start trusting each other again, the surplus ES funds will be withdrawn from the system.

Stance of policy: When the Rudd Government was elected in November 2007 the RBA was busy resisting the build-up of inflation pressure and the cash rate stood at 6.75 per cent, which was ‘tight’ or ‘restrictive’ - that is, it should actively discourage households and firms from borrowing and spending. By March 2008, the cash rate had been raised twice more, to 7.25 per cent, which is quite restrictive.

By September 2008, however, the RBA judged that the economy was slowing rapidly - at that stage, partly because of the negative effects of the global slowdown, but mainly because domestic interest rates had been so high for so long. The RBA also judged that insufficient growth and thus higher unemployment was becoming a bigger risk than excessive inflation pressure. So the RBA began easing policy, lowering the cash rate by a cautious 0.25 percentage points. Not long after, the financial markets’ adverse reaction to the US authorities’ decision to allow the Lehman Bros investment bank to fail caused the credit crunch to worsen into the full-blown global financial crisis, in which various US and European banks and other financial institutions had to be bailed out and propped up by governments. These were frightening events for consumers and businesses around the developed world and many governments had to issue explicit guarantees of bank deposits to prevent runs. In this dramatically worsened environment - in which the risk of a local recession cast out all fears about continuing high inflation - the RBA cut the cash rate by a surprising 1 percentage point in October and a further 0.75 percentage point in early November.

This combined cut of 2 percentage points in just two months - early September to early November - reduced the cash rate to 5.25 per cent. Thus the stance of monetary policy has quickly been returned to ‘neutral’ - neither expansionary nor contractionary. Any further cuts will take the stance from neutral to ‘expansionary’ or ‘accommodating’. And the RBA has left little doubt it is prepared to cut further, either in the hope of avoiding a recession or ensuring one is as short and shallow as possible. The lowest the nominal cash rate has got in the past was 4.25 per cent in the first half of 2002. It won’t be surprising to see the rate get down to that next year, if not lower.

Credit crunch: In the aftermath of the subprime debacle many US and European banks and merchant banks became reluctant to continue lending. The market for mortgage-backed securities froze up. The very best credit risks (eg our Big Four banks) could borrow only at much higher rates, while lesser financial institutions (eg our non-bank mortgage originators) could not borrow at all. Economic theory says that in a free market banks are always willing to lend, although their degree of enthusiasm or reluctance - including their assessment of the degree of risk involved - will be reflected in the size of the prices (interest rates) they charge.

We know, however, that at times of stress, the theory doesn’t hold: banks become unwilling to lend regardless of the price they could charge. In such circumstances, banks are rationing credit on a basis other than price. This is the meaning of the term ‘credit crunch’.

Our banks borrow heavily from abroad. As you probably know, almost all of Australia’s net foreign debt has been borrowed by our banks. The banks have been able to roll over their short-term foreign loans, but only at significantly higher interest rates. The banks have passed these higher borrowing costs on to business borrowers in full, and early this year they sought to pass them on to customers with mortgages, and then to avoid passing cuts in the cash rate on in full. The politicians berated the banks for their greediness, but the RBA Governor has defended them, arguing that higher rates are preferable to the alternative: the banks refusing to lend because lending has become unprofitable.

The point to note is that the RBA has made it clear it will take full account of the banks’ ‘unofficial’ rate rises in the judgements it makes about by how much the official cash rate needs to rise or fall. In the end, what it cares about are the interest rates that affect the behaviour of households and businesses, which are the rates households and businesses actually pay. It will adjust the cash rate to whatever extent is necessary to get actual borrowing rates to where it judges they need to be.

Fiscal policy

Objective and instruments: The objective of fiscal policy has been expressed in the ‘medium-term fiscal strategy’. Under the Howard government this was ‘to maintain budget balance, on average, over the course of the economic cycle’. In other words, if you add up all the deficits in the bad years and all the surpluses in the good years they should total roughly zero. The Rudd Government’s medium-term fiscal strategy is only a little different: ‘maintaining a budget surplus, on average, over the medium-term’. The difference is more apparent than real, reflecting only Labor desire to appear more Liberal than the Liberals on economic management.

In principle, the role of fiscal policy was to act as a back-up to the main instrument used to achieve internal balance, monetary policy. In practice, and while the economy was booming, the budget surplus overflowing and monetary policy struggling to prevent an inflation breakout, the Howard government put fiscal policy into neutral. Rather than assisting monetary policy by allowing the budget’s automatic stabilisers to produce an ever-greater surplus, it chose to hold the planned budget surplus steady at 1 per cent of GDP. It increased spending and cut income tax as necessary to reduce the planned surplus to 1 per cent of GDP. Thus, contrary to the Howard government’s claims, fiscal policy did nothing to ease the burden being carried by monetary policy in restraining demand, thereby requiring interest rates to be higher than otherwise.

Stance of policy: When the Rudd Government came to power it decided to raise the budget surplus target from 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent, and also that any upward revision of tax collections would be ‘banked’ (added to the surplus) rather than used to increase the already-promised tax cuts. It thus budgeted for a surplus of 1.8 per cent of GDP in 2008-09, only a little higher than the 1.5 per cent expected in 2007-08. Judged the strict Keynesian way, the stance of policy adopted in the 2008 budget was expansionary because the cost of the increased spending and tax cuts promised in the election campaign greatly outweighed the value of the spending cuts and tax increases (on alcopops, luxury cars and petrol condensate) announced in the budget. Judged the way the RBA does, however - that is, simply comparing the expected budget balances for last year and this year - the increase was too small to register. That is, under the Rudd Government the stance of fiscal policy remained neutral.

All that changed, however, when the global financial crisis reached its height in mid-October 2008. The Rudd Government announced a discretionary fiscal stimulus - grandly titled the Economic Security Strategy - involving one-off cash payments to pensioners, families with children, and first-home buyers - worth $10.4 billion in 2008-09, with most of that money paid out in mid-December.

When the mid-year budget review was published a few weeks later, it became clear that the rapid slowing in the economy had caused the budget’s automatic stabilisers to change direction. Whereas formerly the stabilisers had been trying to use a higher budget surplus to hold the booming economy back, now they were producing a lower budget surplus to bolster a slowing economy. The originally expected budget surplus of $21.7 billion (1.8 per cent of GDP) is now expected to be only $5.4 billion (0.4 per cent), reduced by lower-than expected tax collections of $4.9 billion and the $10.4 billion stimulus package (plus $1 billion in odds and ends).

Two things are clear from this. First, no matter how you measure it, the stance of fiscal policy is now clearly expansionary. Second, as could long have been predicted, the turn in the business cycle has prompted the Government to shift to an overtly Keynesian approach to fiscal policy. It has stated that it will ‘allow the automatic stabilisers to support economic stability’ - that is, to operate unhindered - and it has acted to add discretionary fiscal stimulus on the top. Both points are, of course, consistent with the medium-term fiscal strategy, which represents a policy of what I call ‘symmetrical Keynesianism’.

The stimulus package was carefully designed and represents state-of-the-art Keynesian policy in that it follows Dr Ken Henry’s advice to ‘go early, go hard and go households’. The Government has initiated this stimulus very much earlier than was done in previous recessions. ‘Go hard’ means spend a lot, and $10.4 billion represents almost 1 per cent of GDP, which certainly qualifies. ‘Go households’ means direct the stimulus to those people who are most likely to spend it immediately, rather than spending on capital works (which take months or years to organise) or job-creation schemes. Note, too, that the one-off or temporary nature of the payments means the package will make no lasting addition to government spending.

Most macro econocrats have in their minds the rough rule of thumb that fiscal stimulus has a multiplier of 1 - that is, it adds to GDP, but that’s all. In this case, however, the mid-year review states explicitly that the stimulus of almost 1 per cent of GDP is expected to cause real GDP to be between 0.5 and 1 per cent higher than otherwise, and cause employment to be ‘up to’ 75,000 higher than otherwise. Why a multiplier of less than 1? Because of leakages to saving and imports.

The Government has made it clear it will be accelerating its capital works program funded (in part, at least) from the three nation-building funds it established in the 2008 budget. It has also expressed its willingness to apply further fiscal stimulus if necessary. Despite its reluctance to say so before it has to, there is no reason to doubt its willingness to allow the budget to drop into deficit.

The new policy mix

The rapid slowing in the economy has caused significant changes in the stances of both macro policy arms and in the mix of policies. Over the Rudd Government’s first year, the stance of monetary policy has moved from quite restrictive to neutral, with little doubt that it is on its way to expansionary. The stance of fiscal policy has moved from neutral to expansionary. The effect on the mix is that now both arms are pulling in the same direction, with fiscal policy now actively assisting monetary policy in the pursuit of internal balance.


Saturday, July 19, 2008


Talk to Hunter Valley Research Foundation Wellbeing Watch
June 19, 2008

I’m very pleased to be back in my home town to support the HVRF and the presentation of the Wellbeing Watch report for 2008. I think the last time I was in this building it was to receive my commerce degree in 1970. By then I’d moved to Sydney to work and I’ve lived there ever since. All my formal education in economics was gained in this town, at Boys High and then the University of Newcastle. Trouble was, at the time I had my heart set on becoming an accountant. I resented all the economics I was forced to study, couldn’t see the point of it and promptly forgot most of it as soon as I’d passed the exam - which I had trouble doing. It wasn’t until I’d passed my last exam to become qualified as a chartered accountant that I realised this great goal I’d been working towards since high school wasn’t very satisfying and wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I soon stumbled into journalism at the Herald - the Sydney Herald - which was what I wanted to do with my life - and was pressed into service as an economic journalist. I’ve been writing about economics and the economy ever since and this month I’ve clocked up 30 years as the Herald’s Economics Editor. I’ve spent most of that time desperately trying to remember what I was supposed to have learnt back in Waratah, Tighes Hill and Shortland all those years ago. Callahan. Three-pointed star steel rods used for fencing.

The economy - the economic dimension of our lives; the bit concerned with working, earning and spending - is very important. I’ve found working out how the economy works - how best to make it work smoothly without too much inflation or too much unemployment, how to make it grow and make ourselves more prosperous - is a subject of great importance and infinite fascination. As I’ve gained an understanding of these things, however, and perhaps as I’ve got older and wiser, I’ve come to realise that there’s a lot more to life than economics. And that’s what we’re here today to discuss.

Economics is concerned with the material aspect of life, with the production and consumption of goods and services. When we pursue economic growth - measured by a faster increase in GDP - as economists, politicians and business people almost universally say we should, we’re trying to raise our material standard of living. Now, the material is very important. Only a fool - or an aesthete - would deny it. But, equally, only a fool would believe that the material aspect of life was all that mattered. Almost everyone agrees that the quality of our relationships with family and friends is more important than how much money we make. Our trouble is the practical one of making sure we actually practice what we know to be true, because we all have a tendency to regard our material concerns as more urgent and pressing than our relationships with spouses, children and parents. Similarly, most people agree that good health is more important than money. It’s very important to us to have a sense of purpose in our lives, to gain satisfaction (not just money) from our jobs and to have a sense that we belong to a community. For many people the cultural side of their lives is important, as is the spiritual dimension.

The dominant measure of the country’s progress from month to month and year to year is the growth in GDP. It measures the economy’s production of goods and services during a period. It’s also a good measure of the growth in our incomes. When you take the growth in the nation’s income per person you have the standard measure of the increase in our material standard of living (though this tells us nothing about how that increase was shared between rich and poor). But there’s a difference between our standard of living and our quality of life. Our quality of life takes in the other, non-material dimensions of life we’ve just agreed are so important. But all of those things are excluded from GDP. So GDP is a good measure of income - of the material side of life - but is far too one-dimensional to adequately measure our broader wellbeing. And, in fact, was never designed to measure our wellbeing.

For that we have to look beyond GDP and inflation and unemployment, which is just what’s been done for the Hunter in the Wellbeing Watch we’re here to discuss. What is wellbeing? Well, it goes by lots of other names: happiness, utility, satisfaction. It’s a subjective measure - not what we’ve got, but how we feel about what we’ve got. It’s about whether people are happy with their lives, whether they feel their life has meaning, how valued by others we feel we are, how satisfied we are with our standard of living, how optimistic we are about the future, and how satisfied we are with our lives as a whole.

Subjective wellbeing is an issue psychologists, economists and others have been studying closely in recent years. They’ve found that most people in developed countries rate themselves pretty high on a scale of one to five. But they’ve also found that, though people on higher incomes generally rate themselves more highly than do people on low incomes at any point in time, the significant increase in all our real incomes over time - the past 40 or 50 years - has produced no increase in our subjective wellbeing. And when you look at partial measures of objective wellbeing - such as rates of depression, illegal drug-taking, and the rate of crime - you find they’ve worsened. It’s generally only in the early stages of a country’s economic development that you can see subjective wellbeing increasing in line with rising real income per person.

So we can’t assume that because the Hunter regional economy has grown strongly in recent years, the people of the region are doing well. Whether or not they’ve been doing well is, of course, an important question for community leaders and the rest of us to have answered. But it can’t be answered from the usual economic measures. It has to be measured in other ways and that’s what we’re here to hear about today.


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.