Thursday, November 5, 2015


Sydney, Thursday, November 5, 2015

Paul Samuelson, the famous American economist, is said to have remarked that the stockmarket has predicted nine of the past five recessions. I thought of that this week and decided the Canberra press gallery could top it: the gallery has predicted nine of the past two early elections. They were at it again last weekend, reporting that, with the Coalition now riding high in the polls, serious thought was being given to calling an election - per force a double dissolution - early next year. It was an unconvincing proposition and, perhaps fearing that election speculation wouldn’t help restore business confidence, Malcolm Turnbull quickly scotched it, saying we could expect the election to be when it was supposed to be, in September or October next year.

The sub-title of the book whose launch we’re here to celebrate is, Filling the Policy Vacuum. The media have an important part to play in filling that vacuum - and maybe in having helped to create it in the first place. At present, what’s filling the vacuum - that absence of serious and informed discussion about the many policy issues the government should be grappling with - is what’s called “race-calling” - who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s facing leadership rumblings from the backbench and who’s planning to call an early election.

The gallery loves writing this stuff - it’s much easier and more interesting than discussing policy issues. And the gallery has discovered their editors back at head office love it. It’s reporting politics as though it was a form of sport - my team versus your team, who’s winning on the league table and worries about Plugger’s groin and whether he’ll pull up by Saturday. For most of our lives the newspapers have faced ever-increasing competition, not just from rival purveyors of news - radio, television and now the internet - but, more significantly, from the ever-multiplying ways for us to spend our leisure time rather than sitting down and reading the paper. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media have reacted to this growing competition from rival forms of entertainment by making their political reporting more entertaining; by more race-calling and less earnest discussion of policy choices.

I don’t happen to agree with this approach. For one thing, politics as a fifth code of football doesn’t have that many followers. Most of us in this room would be avid followers, but most people out of this room aren’t all that excited by it. It may well be that all the argy-bargy the media focus on actually turns voters off politics.

Nor do I accept that policy discussion is inevitably on the dry side. Policy can be interesting, provided the journos know enough about the subject, have the confidence to sort the wheat from the chaff and highlight the parts of the policy choice that touch on people’s lives. The real problem is that good policy reporting and discussion requires harder work, not to mention greater specialisation.

In Ken Henry’s introduction to this book’s collection of 48 short policy discussions by 31 contributors covering as many as 15 policy areas - with all those contributors being well-known and well-respected former bureaucrats or academics (none more so than the book’s two editors and most prolific contributors, John Menadue and Mike Keating) - Ken says he “can’t recall a poorer quality public debate, on almost any issue, than we have had in Australia in recent years”.

There may have been a worse time in the past but, like Ken, I can’t remember it. In this talk I could try to come to grips with all the pertinent and challenging things those many authors have to offer on those many problems we face at present, but I’ll content myself with saying a little more about how this policy paucity came about and how the vacuum could and is being filled.

I’ve already acknowledged the part the news media have played in creating the vacuum and filling it with dross. As Michelle Grattan wrote in a piece published on The Conversation website last Saturday (October 31), “if we are talking about improving and enhancing public policy and the debate around that, the media have a significant role to play. They provide prime routes by which information about policy is disseminated; they are also conduits for the ideas being thrown up from these other players”.

It’s easy - and probably correct - to attribute part of the legacy media’s deterioration in performance to their preoccupation with finding a continuing place in the world of the internet, increasingly accessed by apps on mobile phones.

But I want to make the point that, from a policy-debate perspective, digital disruption has brought pluses as well as minuses. People interest in finding thoughtful, well-informed, even expert policy discussion no longer have to rely on newspapers and magazines. They can find new sources of quality supply quite readily on the net. Chief among these is the aforementioned The Conversation. I think this is a wonderful development.

One of the problems with the policy debate has long been the paucity of the contribution to that debate by academics. The universities profess to want to contribute to the debate, but the plain face is their reward system effectively discourages it, overwhelmingly favouring research. Many academics don’t follow the policy debate; they write for publication in journals that aren’t much interested in practical, “applied” matters like policy discussion and, fearing criticism from their peers, they spend months perfecting an article before letting it see the light of day.

The genius of The Conversation is that it has reframed academic contribution to the policy debate as something the uni authorities smile on (because they fund the site) and as something that, because of the unavoidable time pressures, everyone accepts is quick and dirty, the very opposite to what a journal article is supposed to be. The proprietors of the site must have established for themselves a licence to extensively rewrite the turgid prose most academics have trained themselves to write.

Of course, The Conversation is just the biggest and most notable new digital contribution to the debate. Various local academics run their own blogs - John Quiggin is the oldest example - or contribute to high quality group blogs, such as Club Troppo and Core Economics.

Which brings us to blogs by former bureaucrats, the chief among which must surely be our own John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations. All the pieces in the book are, in fact, invited contributions to the special series John and Mike Keating organised earlier this year on Fairness, Opportunity and Security. The 48 articles are still accessible on John’s blog, but as an oldie who usually prints off internet articles to be read on paper rather than screen, I hope this project of turning them into a book will make them even more accessible and more widely read. They certainly deserve to be.

In view of this policy vacuum needing to be filled, it’s really great to have John providing this new platform and encouraging former bureaucrats to use it. Never has their contribution been more needed. We independent media commentators do our best to evaluate the government’s performance, but there’s nothing like a former bureaucrat to be able to see through the smoke and mirrors and decipher the true position. I myself have been delighted to take full advantage of Mike’s superior understanding of budgeting and macro and micro-economic policy.

I should add that the Grattan Institute - itself composed mainly of former academics and bureaucrats - has made a useful contribution to filling the policy gap, as have the many former bureaucrats now kept busy in non-retirement at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy - some of whom have contributed to this volume.

Since the extraordinary economic and political incompetence demonstrated by the Abbott government’s first budget, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who was responsible for its failure and the huge damage this did to the Abbott government’s policy performance in other areas. Was it the econocrats in Treasury and Finance, the people at the top of the spending departments, the government’s youthful private office advisers, the bum steer provided by the strangely constituted commission of audit (which was pretty much contracted out to the Business Council), or just the manifest personal deficiencies of Tony and Joe.

I’ve come to the conclusion that poor advice from the econocrats and the department heads can’t be absolved from some share of the blame. But this can be traced back to the fault of the politicians - Rudd and Gillard as well as Howard and Abbott. The shiny-bums are an easy target for all politicians and, in the case of the Coalition, a very senior bureaucrat told me that they hold public servants in contempt. I believe that year-upon-year of ever-higher “efficiency dividends” has robbed the econocrats and the spending departments of much of their ability to provide their political masters with good policy advice.

The new practice of new Coalition governments beginning their terms by arbitrarily sacking a number of department heads must surely be designed to encourage the others not to provide frank and fearless advice. The Liberals’ “revealed preference” seems to be that they don’t want policy advice from bureaucrats. We’ll make the policy, you just implement it.

I know it’s easy to develop quite unrealistic expectations of what Malcolm Turnbull even wants to change, let alone will see his way clear to. But, even so, I’m sure he must be better than this. He’s too smart not to want good quality and frank advice from his bureaucrats, and I think he’ll want a high quality, intelligent public debate about policy options.

In Michelle’s Conversation piece that I referred to earlier, she implied that one reason for the gallery’s less than inspiring performance on policy issues is the actions of governments of both colours and over many years in discouraging contact between bureaucrats and journalists. It wasn’t like that in the 1970s when she - and, a little later, I - first went to the gallery.

Michelle suggests that the gallery’s coverage of policy issues could be much improved - to the advantage of the government of the day - if contact between the gallery and fairly senior bureaucrats was restored. As she stresses, this wouldn’t be about leaks, but about officials with expertise providing journos with the context and detail they have at their fingertips.

If any politician is able to see the sense in such a proposal, it ought to be Malcolm.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why we're sure to be voting on a rise in GST

About a year ago, I began confidently predicting the Coalition would not be going to next year's election with any proposal to increase the goods and services tax. I've been tardy in advising you that, with the removal of Tony Abbott and the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull, that prediction has become, as George W. used to say, inoperative.

Indeed, I now confidently predict the Coalition will be seeking the voters' agreement to an increase in the GST.

Why the reversal? Turnbull doesn't have much choice but to run with a GST increase for pretty much the opposite reasons that Abbott had little choice but to avoid one.

Abbott and his treasurer, Joe Hockey, would love to have championed a GST rise – and, early in their term, fully intended to do so – but their disastrous first budget, with its blatant unfairness and broken promises, robbed them of their popularity, authority and trustworthiness.

They repeatedly demonstrated their inability explain complex and controversial policy proposals.

But the government's big-business backers – not to mention most economists – have convinced themselves the only cure for the sluggish economy is major economic reform, and top of their list is a cut in the rate of company tax, plus a cut in the top rate of personal income tax.

This is why they became so dissatisfied with Abbott and Hockey, and so expectant of better things from one of their own, Turnbull.

The whole country knows Turnbull will be a better manager of the economy than Abbott and that if this silver-tongued barrister can't "sell" economic reform, no one can.

So great is the confidence in the confident Turnbull that the best way for him to stumble would be to baulk at this challenge.

Trouble is, by the time he's knocked tax reform into political shape, it will have fallen well short of its proponents' grand vision, won't deliver the promised economic benefits and won't make much difference to anything, apart from making the tax system less fair.

Right now, Turnbull is grappling with the desired shape of the GST increase. My guess is he'll definitely want to increase the rate of the tax, and won't go through all the angst for a piddling increase to 12.5 per cent. No, he'll go all the way to 15 per cent.

Broadening the tax's narrow base is more problematic, as the academics say. My guess is he'll avoid the practical minefield of extending the tax's coverage to health and education (even though taxing private health insurance and private schools would do much to reduce the tax's regressiveness​), but may include financial services.

His big temptation will be to tax fresh food but, though this would greatly increase his takings, it would also greatly increase the tax's regressiveness (because low-income households devote a much higher proportion of their budgets to food than high-income households do) and thus require much of this gain to be returned as "compensation", while adding much agonising and indignation from the elderly.

Of course, the GST increase will just be part of a much bigger package of tax reforms. Since the object of the exercise will be to change the "mix" of taxation – increasing indirect taxes on consumer spending while reducing direct taxes on income – it will include big tax cuts.

Turnbull will learn from his predecessors' blunder and ensure his reform package looks fair by including imposts aimed mainly at high-income earners. If he decides to cut the top rate of income tax – benefiting just the wealthiest 3 per cent of taxpayers – he'll probably include a crackdown on superannuation concessions and discounted capital gains tax favouring the well-off.

He'd also want to throw in abolition of some inefficient state taxes, such as the stamp duty on insurance policies.

He's making it very clear that low- and middle-income families would be protected from the effect of the higher GST by adequate compensation, in the form of special increases in pensions, dole payments and family benefits. People on low wages would be compensated by tax cuts.

But just because Turnbull has the smarts, political credit and credibility to raise the GST and hope to keep his job, this doesn't give him a magic wand to wave away the iron laws of arithmetic.

The sad truth is that the untiring advocates of a higher GST have plans to spend the proceeds many times over. Big business wants to devote the proceeds to covering the cost of cutting the rate of company tax.

The nation's grossly over-taxed chief executives want to use the proceeds to cut the top rate of income tax – all to produce a flowering of innovation and agility, naturally.

Then there's the Treasurer and his department, who profess to want to use the proceeds to counter the effects of bracket creep on everyone paying less than the top rate.

And, finally, there are the premiers, who think they own the GST and want to use the proceeds to cover the ever-rising cost of their spending on schools and hospitals. In principle and in political reality – although not strict legality – the premiers have a veto over any increase.

As ever, they'll go along with the deal once they've extorted enough moolah from the feds. Right now, they're in negotiating mode.

But not to worry. St Malcolm has promised to square the circle.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Econocrats propose same old answer to all problems

If Malcolm Turnbull wants policy reforms that make the economy more innovative and agile, he should think long and hard before accepting advice from the economists in Treasury and the accountants in the department of Finance.

If you want innovation and agility, the last people to whom you should look for help are the two professions that, in their approach to problems new or old, demonstrate minimal innovation or mental agility.

I wouldn't want to call them insane, but they certainly recommend the same solutions over and over, while expecting different results.

The trouble with both professions is that their expertise is so narrow: they know a lot about just one aspect of the problem and little about all the other aspects, which they tend to ignore - while failing to warn their clients to match their advice against the advice of experts in other areas.

In the case of economists, they know what the economy needs, but they don't know much about what the economy needs and, thus, how to go about getting it.

For instance, economists see consumption as "the sole end and object of all economic activity". So they're experts on consumption, are they?

Well, no, not really. They couldn't, for instance, tell you how to maximise the utility you derive from your spending on consumption. Not their department. Better to ask a psychologist.

Economists know that improving productivity is the key to achieving faster economic growth and ever-rising material living standards. In fact, in the long run productivity is "almost everything".

So, could you give us a list of 10 things we could do to lift productivity? Well, no, not really. We don't actually know much about how you get productivity, we just know it's a great thing to have.

Of course, we do know a key source of productivity improvement is technological advance. Great, so how does technological advance work? Sorry, we haven't studied it much. We did have a go at developing an "endogenous growth theory" in the 1980s, but we soon gave up.

So what exactly is economists' area of expertise? They'd never admit it, so I'll tell you: prices. They know heaps about how the price mechanism works (given a host of mainly unrealistic assumptions), but not much else.

To make it sound sexier they may tell you economics is "the study of incentives". But in the economists' lexicon, incentives is just a synonym of prices. That's because economics pretty much ignores anything that can't be quantified, so the only incentives economists are conscious of are monetary incentives.

This assumption - that the power of monetary incentives is quite unaffected any other motivations (e.g. Turnbull only knocked off Tony Abbott because prime ministers are paid more than ministers) - does much to explain why the solutions economists propose often work so badly, with so many "unintended consequences".

Note that, in the mind of an economist, things like taxes and wages are just prices. This does much to explain economists' apparent obsession with taxation. It's a government-controlled price that seems to have much to do with the things politicians worry about these days.

It's a way for economists to appear to have useful advice on problems they don't really know much about.

Q: How should we encourage people to work more? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How should we encourage people to save more? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How should we encourage people to invest more? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How should we encourage innovation? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

Q: How can we make the economy more agile? A: cut the company tax rate and the top rate on individuals.

In sum, their preferred advice on such questions is: get the [monetary] incentives "right" and stand back.

Anything more specific to suggest? Yes, prime minister. Increase the tax incentives for spending on research and development. Give more money to scientific outfits like the CSIRO.

But haven't you guys been advising governments for years to keep cutting R&D tax breaks and money to CSIRO? Yes, prime minister, but that was when we wanted to cut the budget deficit and didn't care how we did it. Then, we didn't give a stuff about innovation and agility.

How come your advice on tax reform invariably favours high income-earners? Because when you're giving advice on matters you don't know much about, it's much less critically scrutinised when it happens to favour the rich and powerful.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Talk to group in Maitland, NSW, November, 2015

Particularly for those of us of a progressive or left-of-centre perspective, it’s easy to doubt whether democracy still works in the 21st century.

You look around and see so much you don’t like. You see governments - even Labor governments - pursuing policies that seem to be always giving big business what it wants and disadvantaging ordinary people.

  • Making so-called free trade agreements in great secrecy - clauses that allow foreign businesses

  • Planning to increase the regressive GST so as to finance a cut in the rate of company tax and probably cut the top personal tax rate

  • Allowing the incomes of top executives and others in the top 1 pc to grow far more rapidly

We see all this and we wonder whether we still live in an effective democracy.

I believe we do. Democracy still works - when enough of us want it to.

But let’s not delude ourselves about how democracy works.

Democracy was never designed to deliver perfection.

It doesn’t promise that no government ever does anything we personally disapprove of.

It never gives any individual exactly what they want it to. It’s designed to give most of us a mixture of good and bad we’re prepared to live with.

In particular, it doesn’t give any of us a world that never changes. The world we live in is continually being changed by factors beyond the control of any democratically elected government. Many of these factors originate beyond our shores.

The biggest single factor that’s rapidly changing our world is technological advance. Most of us like most of the technological change that comes into our lives. No elected government is going to try to halt technological change. With things like the internet, it wouldn’t get far if it tried.

Consider digital disruption. It’s caused massive and unpleasant change in various industries - the music industry, movies, book-sellers, it’s ripping the heart out of newspapers, it will hit retailers hard as ecommerce grows, it’s starting tear into the taxi industry, Airbnb is taking business away from hotels. And digital disruption has much, much further to run. It’s cost thousands of workers their jobs.

And yet the great majority of the customers of these industries are left better off by digital disruption - which is why it’s happening and why no democratically elected government will ever seriously try to stop it.

Democracy is democracy. It’s government by the majority for the majority. So it gives us governance most of us are willing to cop.

You think big business is being allowed to ride roughshod over the rest of us and it’s all terribly unfair? Sorry, you may be right but not enough people agree with you.

Democracy brings about or allows changes you may not like, but plenty of others do:

  • Harsh treatment of people who arrive by boat

  • An end to the carbon tax that was adding too much to the cost of living

Democracy doesn’t protect voters who go to sleep on the job. Who aren’t sufficiently interested to pay attention, don’t notice what’s being done to them and don’t make sure they get all the facts.

The way a democracy works is one person, one vote.

The way a market economy works is one dollar, on vote. Those who have more dollars end up with more of what they want.

You may think that gives the rich and powerful a built-in advantage in any democracy.

That’s true - but when the chips are down, I’d still put my money on democracy winning the day.

The trick is that politicians care most about votes. If they don’t get enough votes they’re out on their ear.

They care about dollars only to the extent they think they will help them buy votes. Sometimes that works, but in the end it doesn’t.

Consider the GST tax package. No matter how much Malcolm would like to deliver for his business mates, his primary concern will be to make sure he gets re-elected. To ensure he does, he’ll end up with a package that, even though you don’t like it, business won’t like much either.

In recent times we’ve seen two powerful indications that votes beat dollars. Campbell Newman in Queensland. The first-term Liberal government in Victoria. Murdoch press.

Is it all terribly unfair? I don’t think it can be. Why? Because so few of the people you believe are victims are dissatisfied enough to bother voting against it. That’s actually why the two parties don’t give voters a very wide choice - they don’t think more extreme policies would win them many votes.

My final point is the one Winston Churchill so famously made: what’s the alternative you’re proposing?


Saturday, October 31, 2015

How digital disruption affects jobs and wages

A lot of people worry about the bad economic consequences of the digital revolution. Among the worriers is Dr Andrew Leigh, the shadow assistant treasurer and a former economics professor at the Australian National University.

Leigh made his concern clear in the "distinguished public policy lecture" he delivered this week at Northwestern University in Chicago.

But whereas most people worry that the digital revolution will lead to mass unemployment, Leigh's concern is that it will make our incomes a lot more unequal.

It's not surprising that people observe all the workers whose jobs are taken by computers and worry about widespread joblessness. As Leigh observes, this concern has been around at least since 1811, when disgruntled Nottingham textile workers wrote to factory owners under the pen-name of Ned Ludd, threatening to smash machines if they continued to be used.

But economists soon learnt not to worry. Why not? Speaking to an audience of economists, Leigh regarded it as too obvious to need explaining.

But let me fill you in. New technology leads to increased productivity – more goods and services produced per worker.

This constitutes an increase in the community's real income. When that increased income is spent, more jobs are created.

So whereas non-economists see only all the jobs that have been lost as industries X and Y digitise, economists understand this is just the most visible part of a more complex process in which jobs aren't so much destroyed as "displaced" – taken from some industries and moved to others.

This is why, after 200 years of labour-saving technological advance, we're still only up to having 6 per cent of the labour force unemployed (or about twice that if you add in underemployment).

Of course, this is the economy-wide outcome. The new jobs being created elsewhere in the economy may be very different to the jobs being lost. So this still leaves a problem for those individuals whose skills fitted the old jobs but not the new ones.

This is where Leigh comes in with his concerns about the effects of a newer idea – "skill-biased technological change" – on the unequal distribution of income between workers and, hence, families.

This is the idea that digitally driven technological change tends to disadvantage workers with less skill, and advantage those with more skill. It tends to lower wages for those with less education and raise wages for those with more education.

But the story's a bit trickier than that sounds. Research by David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests jobs can be divided into three categories: manual, routine and abstract.

Abstract jobs – which typically involve problem-solving, creativity and teamwork – tend to be paid a lot more than manual jobs, with routine jobs – occupations such as bookkeeping, administrative support and repetitive manufacturing tasks – in between.

Autor has found that, over the past 30 years in America and the past 20 in Europe, it's routine jobs that have shrunk most. Why? Because they're the jobs that can be done most easily by a computer.

It's turned out that manual jobs – such as cooking, cleaning, being a security guard or providing personal care – are much harder for computers to do. For instance, the problem of shape recognition means that, a best, it takes a robot 90 seconds to fold a towel.

Robot hairdressers do a job similar to what you'd do if you drank a bottle of tequila and tried cut your own hair without a mirror, Leigh says.

He says the job characteristics that are hardest for computers to mimic include those involving communicating clearly with co-workers, showing empathy to clients and adapting to new situations. A lot of manual jobs require these skills.

Many studies – including some Australian ones – show that recent decades have seen a polarising or "hollowing out" of employment. There are a lot more abstract jobs (particularly managers and professionals) and modest growth in the number of manual jobs, but many fewer routine jobs in the middle.

But Leigh says this loss of mid-skill jobs doesn't mean the pain has been greatest for mid-skill workers and middle-income families.

Why not? Because what happens to wages is a product not just of the (declining) demand for mid-skill workers, but also of the supply of workers willing to do low-skilled manual jobs. And as job opportunities have declined for mid-skill workers, more of them have become willing to do manual work rather than be jobless.

So it's been wages at the bottom that have grown most slowly, not wages in the middle. (Because our wage-fixing system is more regulated, this is probably truer in the US than it is in Oz.)

At the top, Leigh says, it's altogether a different tale, with technology actually adding to the skills of the most skilful, making them more productive and so adding to their pay. A top surgeon, for instance, can use technology to do a better job and do more operations per day, thus adding to the demand for his (rarely her) services.

This may partly explain why chief executives' pay is rising, according to Leigh. The biggest firms have got bigger in recent years, and this is partly explained by better technology making it easier to manage larger and more far-flung businesses. As companies get bigger, the boss's pay gets bigger.

This is skill-biased technological change. Technology also helps explain the rise of "winner-takes-all" job markets for such people as actors, pop stars and top sportspeople.

People want to see the very best, much more than the almost-as-good, they'll pay more to do so and technology makes it possible.

At a time when technology is working to make the rich a lot richer and the poor only a little less poor, should we be "reforming" the tax system in ways that add to this income inequality or reduce it?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

We need more agile thinking about "reform"

What do we want of our government? What should it to do for us? It's clear from his recent observations that our new Prime Minister is thinking hard about these things. Good. But we – the governed – should be thinking about them, too.

Malcolm Turnbull says his government's goal will be to set Australia up "to remain and be secure as a high-wage, generous-social-welfare-net, first-world country".

Speaking in Parliament, he said that "the business of government is to get things done. Australians expect us, their elected representatives, to deliver practical, commonsense policy that will improve economic security and general wellbeing".

The coming election, he told interviewers, will be fought primarily "on economic management and competing visions for Australia".

The fact is, Turnbull's predecessor wasn't much interested in the stuff of economics.

So it's not surprising that Turnbull has arrived at a time of great frustration – and expectation – among those business people, economists and media commentators who see the economy growing only slowly and have convinced themselves that major "reform" – especially changes to taxation – is the only thing that will secure our future.

There's no denying that the economy isn't performing particularly well at present, that it needs to be continuously and carefully managed and that, with the world continually changing around us, there's often a need to change the way we regulate particular aspects of the economy.

But we need to use the government's new start to think through something more basic: how do economic concerns fit with all our other concerns?

We've been living in a period where the people with the loudest voices want economic concerns to be paramount. What we need most is faster economic growth, because that's the way we keep increasing our material standard of living.

The implications of all this extra economic activity for the environment, for the distribution of income between rich and poor, for the adequacy of the help given to the disadvantaged, are things we can't afford to worry too much about.

This may be the attitude of some powerful people, but I doubt if it's what most of us want. So if Turnbull wants to be a successful, long-lasting leader of the nation, he'll need to be on about a lot more than changing the tax system in ways that suit big business.

He'll need a "competing vision for Australia" that's a lot broader than good economic management. He needs to remember that "economic security" is about more than having more money than you had last year. And "general wellbeing" covers a lot more than income and jobs.

What do we want of our government? There is much Turnbull could do to improve our "general wellbeing" that doesn't involve what's normally classed as economic reform.

For instance, he'll do a lot to protect our general wellbeing if he resists pressure from commercial interests to reduce penalty wage rates and increase shopping hours and thereby avoids making it much harder for many husbands and wives to socialise with their children – let alone relatives and friends – at the weekend.

How exactly does weakening the weekend leave us better off? Is it OK if avoiding work on the weekend remains possible for the well-paid but not the poorly paid?

Our efforts to reduce domestic violence – which probably need to be greater – can't be classed as economic reform, but would do much to improve the daily lives of many wives and children.

Right now Turnbull is being urged by business people and economists to make the economy more efficient with "reforms" that would do so at the expense of widening the gap between high and low income-earners.

But there are plenty of changes Turnbull could make that raise productivity and participation in the labour force while actually benefiting the less well-off.

It's so commonplace that economists have stopped noticing it, but by far the greatest source of inefficiency in our economy is our high rate of unemployment and underemployment. All those people willing to work but unable to find suitable employment.

Most of the unemployed are unskilled. Many are early school-leavers with inadequate literacy and numeracy. This at a time when technological change is reducing job opportunities for the unskilled but increasing demand for the well-educated.

For decades we've been allowing kids with learning difficulties to get through school unassisted, to live a life in and out of employment, on and off the dole.

The Gonski funding changes could have done much to reduce this problem, but they're dismissed as an expensive social welfare measure we can't afford, rather than an economic reform that could pay big dividends.

It's a similar story with the national disability insurance scheme, where the Productivity Commission itself estimates that its proper implementation could make a significant contribution to economic growth.

Professor Allan Fels has argued that better assistance to people with serious mental illness could greatly benefit the economy by getting more of them off the disability pension and into jobs.

Better public transport could not only reduce the long commuting times faced by people in outer suburbs, but also make our big cities more productive.

Turnbull will be a great prime minister if he's smart enough to see that there's more to improving the lives of Australians than giving tax cuts to the well-off.

Monday, October 26, 2015

To be great, Turnbull must govern for the other side

A great attraction of my job is that I'm paid to offer gratuitous advice to everyone from the prime minister down. So step up, Malcolm, it's your turn.

Everyone has high hopes that Malcolm Turnbull will be the successful, long-lasting prime minister so many of us have been seeking. Business people are hoping he'll deliver the economic reform we need to rejuvenate and energise the economy.

Though his performance won't fail to disappoint those hoping for a perfect politician, it's reasonable to hope for a big improvement on his immediate predecessors, Liberal and Labor.

Turnbull is so intelligent, so articulate, so self-assured it's become possible to believe he can do something that, until now, seemed impossible: reverse the continuing decline in standards of political behaviour.

It's doable if he uses his present commanding lead in the polls to keep the political "conversation" positive, adopts some necessary if controversial policies and devotes all his effort to explaining and defending those policies, rather than incessantly telling us how terrible his political opponents are.

He starts with much goodwill and needs now to turn it into abiding respect by the way he conducts himself as the nation's leader, not a barroom brawler. A leader who brings us together in a common cause, not one seeking to divide and conquer.

It's already becoming apparent that when a new and popular leader chooses the high road, his opponents feel a need to match him, putting up a contest of ideas and policies, not negativity and electoral bribes.

As the election approaches, Turnbull should protect his credibility by keeping promises to a minimum, being sure those he does make are deliverable or setting out up-front the circumstances that would oblige him to abandon them.

Turnbull is no political apparatchik. He came to politics late after successful careers as a journalist and a barrister, having made his fortune as a merchant banker.

This is a good sign. The guy could have retired to count his millions – or make a few more – but entered and stayed in politics to have a crack at being PM.

Why? It's more likely to be because he hopes to be seen as one of our great leaders than because he wants to keep the seat warm for as long as possible.

This suggests he'll be more willing to run a few calculated risks in the interests of notching up some memorable achievements.

It's true Turnbull has already had one short-lived and undistinguished stint as leader of the Coalition. But that's just as true of the Liberals' most long-lasting and celebrated leaders, John Howard and Bob Menzies.

As with those two, Turnbull's first, abortive attempt will prove an asset provided he's used his time in the wilderness to correct the personal weaknesses that caused his initial failure.

If a high IQ is Turnbull's greatest strength, his greatest weakness is a low EQ – a shortage of emotional intelligence. He can be charming when he wants to be, but mostly he prefers you to stand back and admire while he demonstrates his towering intellect. Hardly endearing.

All successful politicians understand that, though they hold more power than most, in any democracy power is widely diffused, so you must always be trying to add other people's power to your own to ensure you've got enough to prevail.

To this end you need to consult widely, include others in the decision-making, listen patiently while people give you free advice, and school yourself to suffer fools gladly.

But if Turnbull really wants to make a difference, his notion of reform needs to be a lot more creative than simply bringing to reality all the rent-seeking "reforms" long advocated by big-business people and their economist handmaidens, who've never had an innovative, intellectually agile policy idea since they encountered the neo-classical model in first year uni.

Turnbull's unlikely to get far if he allows himself to seen as a rich man delivering for his well-off mates at the expense of the rest of us. Every new PM promises to "govern for all Australians"; more than most, Turnbull must demonstrate he really means it.

Paul Keating and Bob Hawke made their names as micro reformers by implementing changes that gave their own supporters more heartburn than the other side's; by doing things the Libs should have done but weren't game to.

Similarly, Turnbull needs to show up his opponents, proposing reforms they could only dream of – but can't now oppose without losing all credibility.

The key is to look for reforms that improve equity at the same time as they enhance efficiency. There are plenty if you look.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Timid financial changes get Turnbull started on reform

Since the election of the Coalition government we've heard a lot more talk about the need for micro-economic reform than we've had actual reform.

Indeed, the main "reform" we've had so far has been abolition of the previous government's chief reforms: the carbon tax and the mining tax.

But all that changed this week, with the announcement of the Turnbull government's response to the recommendations of the Murray inquiry into the financial system.

Next will come the government's response to the Harper inquiry into competition policy, then its proposals for tax reform – and possibly for changes to industrial relations – both to be taken to next year's federal election for approval by voters.

There's no doubting the importance of the financial system and the need to ensure it's performing well.

According to the Australian Centre for Financial Studies, our financial services industry is a cornerstone of the economy – the largest industry, the largest payer of company tax, a major employer of highly skilled workers and a large source of service exports.

The finance industry carries out all the payments made by households, businesses and governments. Its banks act as "intermediaries", taking the money of savers and lending it to investors, in the process affecting "maturity transformation" by borrowing for short periods (say, "at call") but lending for long periods (say, 30 years).

The industry – particularly its insurance companies – helps the community manage risk (say, that your house burns down, or that the person to whom your savings have been lent goes broke). It also manages our financial assets, such as our superannuation savings.

Of course, to say the finance industry is vital to the functioning of the economy is not to say it may not be a lot bigger than it needs to be, nor that all the trading in financial assets it engages in is necessary and productive, nor that its top people should be paid the eye-popping salaries they are.

But that's a story for another day. Today's story is that though the financial sector is a key part of the economy, the reforms announced this week aren't terribly major. There are a few reasons for this.

For one thing, you can only deregulate the industry once. We did that in the 1980s, and the few rounds of reform since then have been progressively less sweeping and more in the nature of fine-tuning.

For another thing, the global financial crisis in 2008 was a harsh reminder that deregulation can go too far, that banks and other financial institutions can do stupid, short-sighted things in their search for profit, that some degree of regulation is essential and that regulators who only pretend to be regulating can end up allowing great damage to be done to the real economy.

Of course, we in Australia did keep our banks under tight supervision and did prohibit our big four from merging any further, which stood us in good stead when the Americans and Europeans were getting themselves into so much trouble.

So regular fine-tuning of our regulatory arrangements is about all we need. Even so, this week's decisions do err on the timid side. They were worked up before the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull, and the previous administration seemed keenly aware of the power of the big banks and their many lobbyists.

The government accepted almost all the inquiry's 44 recommendations and added half a dozen of its own. The main proposal it rejected was that it ban self-managed super funds from borrowing to buy property. A courageous decision, minister. Hope we don't live to regret it.

The government says its response to the inquiry covers five "strategic priorities". The first is to strengthen the financial system's resilience by reducing the impact of potential financial crises. We need to be better able to weather them and to lessen their cost to taxpayers and the economy.

Australia is a capital-importing country, which makes us more reliant on foreign capital markets than some other economies are. To account for this, the main measure is the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority's requirement that the banks – particularly the big four – hold more shareholders' capital (the cost of which they're now busy passing on to their mortgage customers).

The second priority is to improve the efficiency of the superannuation system. The government will ask the Productivity Commission to develop measures of the rival super funds' efficiency and propose ways of making funds compete for the right to be "default" funds (when employees express no preference for a particular fund).

The government has already moved to require the boards of funds to have at least a third of their members as independent directors (that is, more retired business people and fewer union secretaries).

It would be nice to believe these "reforms" were aimed at getting fund members a better deal rather than getting super funds out of the orbit of the Liberals' long-hated class enemies and into the hands of the banks and other mates.

The third priority is to stimulate innovation to "facilitate competition and reduce costs for consumers". Which is fine, provided it doesn't involve wasteful product differentiation and advertising campaigns, or new products aimed at avoiding taxation or getting around the regulation.

Fourth, to support consumers of financial products being treated fairly. The standards of financial advice will be lifted by improving the training and ethical standards required of advisers.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission will be given power to ban or order modification of harmful financial products, but only after the government has "consulted widely" with lobby groups.

The government's final priority is to strengthen the capabilities and accountability of the prudential regulator and the securities regulator.

The absence of industry complaint about all this reform is a sign it's not ruffling many feathers (and that the lobby groups remain hopeful of being able to water down the changes before they're applied).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It's fine to be well-off so long as you pay your whack

It's no doubt true, as many commentators are saying, that Labor has won itself no points by reminding us how wealthy Malcolm Turnbull is. We hear frequently about "the politics of envy", but actually there isn't a lot of it about these days. You've done well? Good luck to you.

In any case, I think there's huge goodwill towards Turnbull. Everyone can see how super smart he is, and we're hoping he'll use that smartness to make Australia a better place to live. A nation with less divisiveness, less fear that baddies are out to get us, more unity, a more positive vision of what we can become and more of us doing our bit to make it a reality.

As with any politician, he'll have his share of policies we disagree with, but it would be so nice to have a prime minister all of us can be proud of.

We might even vote to keep him, despite some disagreement on particular issues. Politicians come as a package, and you never like every item that's in the Christmas hamper.

But to say few Australians envy the well-off is not, I hope, to say we don't mind how little tax they contrive to pay, or how hard they struggle to avoid their obligations to the rest of the community.

Turnbull says of himself and his wife, Lucy, that "we've worked hard, we've paid our taxes, we've given back". It's the giving-back bit I like. And, of course, paying your taxes – in Australia, and in full, according to Turnbull – is the first and most basic way we "give back".

What really gets to me is not the people who've done well for themselves, but their seemingly growing inclination to be mean and grasping about it. I hate their selfishness and their self-congratulation.

I've worked hard for all I've got, it's all mine, but now you have the effrontery not just to make me pay taxes, but want me to pay a lot more than other people.

Taxation isn't theft and never was. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society, as someone once said. And he was even an American.

Expecting the better-off to pay a higher proportion of their income than the less well-off isn't socialism – as the better-off increasingly tell each other on social media - it's the Australian way. You put more in and you get back less. Why? Because you're fortunate enough to be able to afford it.

The Aussie way is that if you don't need the dole or the pension, you shouldn't get it. What's more, you should be too proud to ask for it.

It's not the Aussie way to boast about how much tax you pay, but perhaps we'd be better off if it was. Tax-paid as a status symbol. I paid far more tax than you did last year – see how successful I am?

As for self-congratulation, the bit I liked best in Turnbull's defence of his wealth was his lack of it.

"The fact is that Lucy and I have been very fortunate in our lives ..." he said. "I don't believe that my wealth, or frankly most people's wealth, is entirely a function of hard work.

"Of course, hard work is important but, you know, there are taxi drivers that work harder than I ever have and they don't have much money. There are cleaners that work harder than I ever have, or you ever have, and they don't have much money."

The world is full of people – mainly men – claiming to be "self-made" who are anything but. They seem utterly oblivious to the extent to which their wealth is owed to good fortune rather than hard work.

We're all fortunate to live in Australia. Baby boomers are fortunate to have been born at a time when few were required to go to war, when you could get a good education at little cost, leading to a good job and little unemployment. When buying a home wasn't all that hard and you got in early for a 40-year stint of ever-rising house prices.

It's only relatively recently that many people have begun inheriting sums of money worth talking about. But to see yourself as self-made merely because you inherited no wealth is self-delusion.

IQ is, to a large extent, inherited. And EQ – self-discipline and the ability to get on with other people – is often something we gain from our parents' example. It's good fortune to be born into a family of readers.

All this is why "equality of opportunity" is a worthy goal for public policy, but something no government could ever get anywhere near attaining.

Back to Turnbull: "There is a lot of luck in life and that's why all of us should say, when we see somebody less fortunate than ourselves, 'There but for the grace of God goes me'."

You don't have to be any kind of believer to believe that – and be better for it.

Giving a helping hand to those who weren't issued with as much grace as we were is why, brothers and sisters, we should pay our fair whack of tax and do it cheerfully, grateful we can so easily afford it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Banks ponder their next game with interest

Actual mortgage interest rates have fallen from 7.1 per cent to 4.7 per cent over the past five years, but let one bank – Westpac – increase its rate by 0.2 percentage points and the righteous indignation knows no bounds.

It may not be the end of the world, but it's certainly the end of the housing boom as we know it. Well, maybe.

But outrage is a poor substitute for understanding. Why did Westpac move? Why now? Will the other three big banks match it? And will the Reserve Bank cut the official interest rate to counteract the banks' "unofficial" increase?

Standard economic theory offers little guidance to the classic oligopolistic behaviour we get from our banks. "Game theory" is supposed to be the way economists analyse the strategic decisions of oligopolists, but I doubt it offers much help, either.

Westpac made its rate move at the same time as it joined the other big boys in announcing plans to raise more share capital. The big four are acting in expectation that the government will accept a recommendation of the Murray report that it make Australia's banking system "unquestionably strong" (that is, safe) but requiring it to hold a lot more equity (shareholders') capital.

Part of this is the intention to increase the big four's capital requirement by more than the smaller banks' increase so as put the two groups on a more equal regulatory footing. Westpac gave the cost of this requirement that it hold more capital as its justification for increasing mortgage interest rates.

It's true the requirement does increase the big banks' "cost of intermediation" – that is, the cost of borrowing from some people and lending to others, which is represented by the size of the gap between the interest rate paid to depositors and the rate charged to borrowers.

In principle, this extra cost could be passed back to depositors in the form of lower deposit rates, passed forward to borrowers in the form of higher borrowing rates, or left with the banks' shareholders in the form of lower profits. Or some combination of the three.

Obviously, bank customers would prefer that the banks and their shareholders bear the cost. And there's no reason it shouldn't happen. Our big banks have long been extraordinarily profitable – making a return on equity of 15 per cent a year – in a business that's virtually government-guaranteed.

They could easily take the hit. There's nothing sacred about 15 per cent. And in an intensely competitive banking market that's probably what would happen. In our world, however, "greedy" (read profit-maximising) banks will protect their profitability to the extent that market conditions allow.

And right now they do. It's clear Westpac's intention is to pass the higher cost on to its borrowers. Its three big competitors now must decide whether to follow suit or leave it hanging out to dry as they try to win market share from it.

Going on past behaviour, they'll follow suit. After all, a few months ago when ANZ bank raised its interest rate on investor mortgage loans by about 0.25 percentage points, the other three lost little time in doing the same. The justification was the same: the cost of the tighter capital-adequacy requirement.

But this doesn't guarantee that, this time, the others will follow Westpac immediately or by as much as 0.2 per cent – which, by the way, also applies to investor loans.

One question all this raises is whether the banks are raising rates by more than required to recoup their higher costs. The Murray report said a 0.1 or 0.15 percentage-points rise would cover it.

So, why so much, and why now? Because, at the present exceptionally low rates, the demand for home loans exceeds supply, with the banks under pressure from the authorities and sharemarket analysts to avoid lending too much – to ordinary home-buyers, not just investors.

If you have to cut back your rate of lending, why not do it by raising your prices? This suggests the housing boom may indeed be reaching its closing stages.

One reason the other banks may delay following Westpac is the talk that the Reserve will respond by cutting the official interest rate on Melbourne Cup day. They'd love to be able to hide a rate rise behind a less-than-full pass-through of a rate cut.

The Reserve may oblige, but I won't be holding my breath. Nothing in its rhetoric to date suggests it's keen to cut rather than wait. And I doubt if it would want to be seen as trying to prolong the house-price boom.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nitty-gritty of unemployment shows small improvement

Why does unemployment increase? For a lot more reasons than you probably imagine.

It's a good question to ask this week when the media informed us that, last month, the number of people in employment fell by 5000, the number unemployed fell by 8000 and the proportion of people participating in the labour force fell from 65 per cent to 64.9 per cent, but the rate of unemployment was unchanged at 6.2 per cent.

I could devote the rest of this column to trying to explain that puzzle. Or I could say that the media and the markets make the jobs figures more puzzling than they need to be by focusing on the version of them that jumps about from month to month for no apparent reason, rather than looking at the smoothed, "trend" figures the Bureau of Statistics calculates for the express purpose of helping us see what's going on.

Those figures show the rate of participation rising by a fraction in September, as employment rose by more than 12,000 and unemployment rose by 4000, which wasn't sufficient to change the rate of unemployment from 6.2 per cent – pretty much where it's been sitting for a year.

So back to the question: why does unemployment increase? You can answer that at the macro-economic level or the strictly mechanical level.

From an economy-wide perspective it's obvious: unemployment increases when the economy turns down. But that's not the full story. Unemployment can increase even when the economy's growing steadily and employment's increasing.

Why? Because the labour force is always growing, thanks to "natural increase" (more young people entering than retired people leaving) and immigration. This means the economy and employment have to be growing at a certain rate just to stop unemployment rising.

With that sorted, let's look at the mechanics. Why does unemployment increase? Because people lose their jobs?
Yes, but that's just the biggest reason. As well as those workers who are sacked or laid off are those leaving their jobs voluntarily, hoping to find a better one.

Then there are former workers re-entering the labour force to look for work and, finally, the new entrants to the job market, including young people leaving school or university.

Set beside that, the oppose question – why does unemployment decrease? – is easier: either because people find a job, or because they give up looking and so get reclassified as NILF – not in the labour force.

I raise all this because, Kieran Davies, chief economist of Barclays Bank, has been delving deep into the official figures to get a better idea of what components have been driving unemployment in recent years.

In very round figures, he found that "job losers" account for about 40 per cent of all the unemployed, with "job leavers", "re-entrants" and "new entrants" accounting for about 20 per cent each. Bet you didn't know that.

Next Davies looked more finely at how each of the four categories has been contributing to the rate of unemployment since its most recent low point of about 5 per cent in 2010-11.

He found that most of the increase in unemployment since then is explained by an increase in job losers, caused by "job shedding" by employers.

Unemployment resulting from job shedding rose from a low of 1.7 per cent of the labour force in 2010 to reach 2.4 per cent in late 2014. This was just under the peak of 2.6 per cent reached during the global financial crisis.

Most of these job losses were in mining, manufacturing, professional services and education, Davies finds.

Since late last year job shedding has eased a little, so the stock of job losers has fallen a fraction to 2.3 per cent of the labour force. A good sign, even if a small one.

The stock of (voluntary) job leavers reached a multi-decade low of 1 per cent just before the global financial crisis, when it was easier to line up a new job before jumping.

It then moved up to 1.4 per cent in 2014, its highest level since 2002. This is a sign of increasing confidence – don't worry, I'll soon find one – though it's recently eased back a little to 1.3 per cent.

Former workers seeking to re-enter the workforce accounted for just 0.9 percentage points of the overall rate of unemployment during the global financial crisis, another multi-decade low.

Clearly, not many married women and others thought it a good time to be actively seeking a job.

But with returning confidence since then the rate has steadily increased to 1.4 per cent, its highest since 2003.

That leaves new entrants to the jobs market. The proportion of these people who'd failed to find work fell to a multi-decade low of 0.9 per cent just before the financial crisis, before rising to just over 1 per cent following the crisis.

The proportion rose to 1.3 per cent in 2013, according to Davies' calculations, a sign that education leavers have borne much of the brunt of the relatively weak economic and employment growth in recent years.

Fortunately, the proportion has since eased to 1.1 per cent, which may suggest education leavers are having less trouble finding a berth, though it may mean we've had fewer overseas people – including students and backpackers – coming to Oz and looking for work.

Putting all this together, it's reasonably good news. We already know – and this week's jobs figures confirm – that unemployment has been steady for a year or more, even though the economy hasn't been growing all that strongly.

Davies' delving tells us the worst contributor to unemployment – businesses shedding jobs – has stopped getting worse and fallen back a little, to have its place taken by more hopeful contributors, former workers re-entering the market.

Davies' prediction is that the unemployment rate will remain steady, though there's a chance it may fall a little.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Moratorium on new coal mines makes economic sense

What are we meant to do about coal? For some time now it's looked like Australians face a painful choice between doing the right, moral thing by the rest of the world and continuing to make a living from our rich endowment of natural resources.

The burning of coal is by far the biggest source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Australia is one of the world's biggest producers of coal.

Greenies have been arguing for years that, although it's too much to ask that we just stop exporting the stuff, we should at least get in no deeper by ceasing to build any new mines or expand existing mines.

In August, Anote Tong, President of the Republic of Kiribati, called for an international moratorium on new coal mines as a way of underpinning the efforts to get increased commitment to reduce emissions at the Paris summit in December.

Not surprisingly, Tong's call for a moratorium has been supported by 11 other Pacific island nations worried about rising sea levels. But he's also winning support from such influential figures as the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty and the British economist Lord Nicholas Stern.

For such an international moratorium to be effective, we'd have to be part of it. At present, we have 52 proposals to build new coals mines or expand existing ones.

But isn't it too much to ask us to leave all that black gold in the ground? Mining and exporting coal is an important way this economy makes its living.

The developing countries – including China and India – have a lot more developing to do, meaning they'll need a lot more energy, much of which will be coal. What's so bad about them trying to get rich like us? And why shouldn't it be we who supply that coal?

We need more jobs, and think of all the jobs building more big mines would create.

So what's it to be? Conscience or self-interest? Well, how about both?

The Australia Institute think-tank has begun campaigning hard for a moratorium, and a forthcoming paper by its chief economist, Richard Denniss, argues that economic and political considerations actually say we should be joining the moratorium.

Why? In a nutshell, because coal's days are numbered. The rapidly falling price of renewable energy such as wind and solar, combined with the growing resolve of China, the US and others to reduce their emissions, put a dark cloud over the future of coal.

Coal mines are intended to have lives of 50 to 90 years. Will coal prices be high enough in 30 or 40 years to make continued production profitable? If not, investors in new coal mines won't get their money back, but will be lumbered with "stranded assets" – assets that no longer earn much of a return.

Denniss says it's now widely accepted by international agencies that meeting the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees requires keeping most fossil fuels unburnt and in the ground.

All this helps explain why the world's big banks, including our own, have become markedly less enthusiastic about financing new coal mines. That – plus the present flat state of the world coal market.

According to the BP company's energy outlook, global coal consumption grew by just 0.4 per cent last year, well below its 10-year average growth rate of 2.9 per cent.

Within that, China's consumption grew by just 0.1 per cent. And Professor Ross Garnaut, of the University of Melbourne, is predicting a significant decline in China's demand for coal for the foreseeable future.

Were we to build all our proposed new mines, we'd double our annual exports. According to Denniss, just proceeding with the five biggest projects in Queensland's Galilee Basin would increase the world's seaborne coal trade by 18 per cent.

What do you reckon that would do to world coal prices at a time when coal demand is weak?

See the point? In such circumstances, preventing further coal development – including by governments declining to subsidise new mine railways and ports – wouldn't just reduce future greenhouse gas emissions.

By avoiding causing further decline in coal prices, it would also benefit the owners of existing mines, the banks that have lent to them and those who work for them, as well as the owners of present and future renewable energy projects. Not to mention the governments dependent on revenue from price-based mining royalties and company tax collections.

On its face, by causing coal prices to be higher than otherwise, it would harm the users of coal and coal-fired electricity. But when you remember that, without something like a carbon tax, the price of coal fails to include the cost to the community of the environmental damage that coal-burning does (including the death and ill health caused by the particulate air pollution from power stations), that's not anything to feel bad about.

But what about all the jobs that building new mines would have created? They're temporary and often exaggerated by the projects' proponents. Once they're built, open-cut coal mines employ surprisingly few workers.

The construction workers not employed to build more mines than are good for us could be better employed building more useful infrastructure.

When you think it through, the case for a moratorium on new coal mines has a lot going for it.