Friday, December 2, 2016


Talk to Economics Teachers Association of WA, Perth, Friday, December 2, 2016

The theme for your conference, Economic Cycles - Riding the Waves, is particularly well chosen. At a time when Western Australia is well and truly in the downswing of its cycle, the national economy is celebrating have completed 25 years of continuous growth, a record for our economy and something no other developed economy has achieved in the same period. I’ll leave it to Nicky Cusworth to look closely at the ups and downs of the WA economy, but how can we say the national economy is sailing along while WA is making such heavy weather of it? Because, as the RBA’s chief economist, Dr Chris Kent, reminded us last week in a speech that’s well worth West Australians looking up,

the national economy is just the weighted average of the six state and two territory economies. And whereas a few years back the mining states, WA and Queensland, were riding high and NSW and Victoria were doing it tough, the end of the boom has seen those roles reversed.

Why we’ve gone 25 years without a severe recession

I’ll say no more about that, but switch the focus back to the national economy and the question of how we’ve been able to keep the economy growing for so long. A lot of people think the answer is obvious: China has kept us going. But that’s wrong. For one thing, the resources boom didn’t start till about 2003, roughly half way through the 25 year period. More fundamentally, giving all the credit to China reveals an ignorance of the way economies move in cycles. You can say that China’s resources boom added greatly to the amount of economic growth over the period, but it’s a strange argument to say that introducing a huge boom and bust - first, in coal and iron ore prices and then in mining and natural gas construction activity - explains why the economy has never contracted in 25 years, even though, before that - and still in other developed economies - recessions are usually about seven years apart. To put it another way, economies rarely drop into recession just because they’ve run out of puff. They usually do it because someone jammed on the brakes too hard. And they usually jam on the brakes because they’re reacting to a boom they’ve let run away and become too inflationary.

As the RBA governor, Dr Phil Lowe, remarked in one of his recent speeches, our 25-year expansion is the more remarkable when you remember the major “economic shocks” that hit our economy during the period and could have knocked us off track the way they did many other countries: the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the US Tech Wreck of 2001 and the global financial crisis of 2008.

So why didn’t they? More because of our good management than our good luck. The microeconomic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s made the economy more flexible - better able to roll with the punches from economic shocks - and thus less inflation-prone and unemployment-prone. The reduction of protection and the floating of the dollar made our industries more open to competition from imports, while deregulation heightened competition between domestic players. Increased competition - including in the provision of utilities - also reduced cost-push inflation pressure by reducing the pricing power of some industries and their unions. The move from centralised wage-fixing to collective bargaining at the enterprise level reduced the risk of excessive wage increases and, as we saw in the wake of the GFC, reduced the tendency of employers to respond to downturns with mass layoffs.

A more flexible, less-inflation prone economy is one that’s easier for the macro managers to keep stable. But we’ve see reforms also at the macro-economic level with the establishment of formal “frameworks” for the way fiscal policy and, more notably, monetary policy should be conducted. Monetary policy decisions are now made by the RBA independent of the elected government, and in accordance with the medium-term inflation target.

You can see how the macro stabilisation task benefits both from the greater flexibility arising from micro reforms and from the more deft use of the macro policy arms arising from the introduction of “frameworks” in the way we handled the biggest economic shock to hit our economy since the Gold Rush, the resources boom. Previous commodity price booms to hit our economy have led to inflation surges, followed by belated corrective action, followed by busts and recessions. Knowing this, the econocrats went to great lengths to ensure it didn’t happen this time. In this they were greatly assisted by the move to a floating exchange rate. Rather than having to wait too long while the government accepted the need for revaluation, the floating rate appreciated immediately and significantly in response to the increase in export prices. One effect of this was to shift some of the benefit of the improvement in our terms of trade away from the mining companies to all those businesses and consumers who bought imports. But another effect of the high dollar was to reduce the demand for tradable goods and services - such as manufactures, tourism and international education - thus making it easier for resources to shift from the contracting sectors to the expanding mining sector without great inflation pressure. Decentralised wage fixing, plus the use of temporary 457 visas, kept the rise in mining sector wages from spreading to wages everywhere. The result of all this was that the resources boom’s potential inflation pressure was contained, but at the expense of weaker growth in the non-mining states.

By now, as you well know, the price and construction phases of the resources boom have come to an end and, although the increased-production phase has further to run, the economy has been making a transition from mining-led growth to growth led by other parts of the economy. Growth in the non-mining economy is being stimulated by a very expansionary stance of monetary policy and by a large fall in the dollar (in belated response to the fall in export prices and deterioration in the terms of trade), although we’re not getting much help from slowing growth in China, moderate growth in the United States and weak growth in Japan and Europe.

Recent record and outlook for the economy

We’ll get another reading from the national accounts next week, but previous quarters show real GDP growing at the rate of 3 per cent - which, as we’ll see, is just a fraction faster than our “potential” growth rate. The RBA’s most recent forecasts show the economy continuing to grow at about 3 per cent next year, strengthening to about 3.5 per cent by the end of 2018. This would involve inflation gradually returning to the 2 to 3 per cent target range. The unemployment rate should improve only marginally, with the labour market weaker than it seems from looking just at the level of the official unemployment rate.

If you find that hard to believe, the explanation is simple: most of the growth is coming from NSW and Victoria (which account for 55 per cent of the national economy), with most of the weakness coming from WA (accounting for less than 15 per cent) and mixed performances in Queensland, SA and Tasmania. The NSW economy is growing so strongly it even has strong growth in non-mining business investment; which is going backwards in WA. The RBA estimates we are about 80 per cent of the way through the decline in mining investment as the pipeline empties out.

Australia’s lower potential growth rate

Australia’s present and prospective rate of economic growth is lower than we experienced in earlier years. This is partly for cyclical reasons - the continuing transition from the resources boom, especially in WA - but also for longer-lasting structural reasons. You can see this in the way the econocrats have been revising down their estimate of our “potential” growth rate. Our potential growth rate is determined by the supply-side of the economy, rather than the demand side. It is the average rate of growth in the economy’s capacity to produce goods and services over the medium term. It can be raised by growth in the labour force, growth in investment in business equipment and infrastructure and improvement in productivity. Once the economy is operating at full capacity utilisation - full employment - our potential growth rate sets the speed limit at which the economy can grow without excessive inflation. But while the economy is operating with spare production capacity - that is, while it has a negative “output gap” - it can grow at rates exceeding the potential rate without worsening inflation.

An economy’s output gap is a measure of the extent of its spare production capacity. Where its actual rate of growth is lower than its potential growth rate, the difference contributes to a negative output gap. Where the actual rate of growth is higher than the potential rate of growth, and economy is at full employment, the difference is a positive output gap, which will be causing inflation pressure to build. Note that, because the economy’s ability to produce goods and services gets a bit bigger almost every year, potential is a rate of growth.  By contrast, the output gap is a level, an absolute amount - the deference between one level of GDP and another level.

It’s hard to calculate an economy’s potential growth rate (or, for that matter, its NAIRU - non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment) with any degree of certainty. And the rate will change over time as the factors affecting it change. For a long time Australia’s potential rate - often referred to as our (forward-looking) “trend” rate of growth - was taken to be 3.25 per cent a year. But then this was lowered to 3 per cent and last year it was cut further to 2.75 per cent. Why? Because of slower population growth since the end of the resources investment boom, because the retirement of the baby boomers is lowering the labour force participation rate (only partly offset by the trend to later retirement) and because, as is true for all the developed economies, Australia’s rate of productivity growth is lower than it used to be.

It’s roughly estimated that, because of many years of weak growth until the past year or so, our negative output gap is equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of GDP. That is, actual growth could be a cumulative 1.5 percentage points higher than the potential rate before we reached full capacity and had to slow down to the potential rate to avoid excessive inflation. But each year that we grow by more than 2.75 per cent will take up spare capacity and reduce the output gap.

Now let’s turn to recent developments in the management of the macro economy using monetary policy and fiscal policy, starting with monetary.

Monetary policy

Monetary policy - the manipulation of interest rates to influence the strength of demand - is conducted by the RBA independent of the elected government. It is the primary instrument by which the managers of the economy pursue internal balance - low inflation and low unemployment. MP is conducted in accordance with the inflation target: to hold the inflation rate between 2 and 3 pc, on average, over the medium term. The primary instrument of MP is the overnight cash rate, which the RBA controls via market operations.

The RBA cut the official interest rate hard in response to the GFC in 2008, but then put rates back up once it became clear a serious recession had been averted.

In November 2011, the Reserve decided the resources boom was easing and would not push up inflation. It realised growth in the non-mining sector of the economy was weak - held down particularly by the dollar’s failure to fall back in line with the fall in export prices – at a time when mining-driven growth was about to weaken. So it began cutting the cash rate, getting it down to a historic low of 2.5 per cent by August 2013.

For the next 18 months the Reserve sat back and waited for this very low interest rate work through the economy and have its effect. Not all that much happened, with the economy continuing to grow at a below-trend rate. The dollar did start falling in the first half of 2013, and by June 2015 it had dropped to about US77 cents (from its peak of US1.10 in mid-2011), but this would have been explained much more by the continuing fall in coal and iron ore export prices than by our lower interest rates relative those in the major advanced economies. The Reserve continued to note that the exchange rate hadn’t fallen by as much as the fall in commodity prices implied it should have, explaining this as a consequence of the major advanced economies’ resort to “quantitative easing” (money creation), whose main stimulatory effect on their economies came by forcing their exchange rates lower (thus causing ours to be higher than otherwise).

So in February 2015, after a gap of 18 months, the Reserve resumed cutting rates, dropping the official rate another notch, and again in May, to reach a new low of just 2 pc. It resumed cutting a year later, in May 2016, and then by another notch in August, taking the cash rate to a new record low of 1.5 per cent. There is little reason to doubt that the total fall of 3.75 percentage points since November 2011 has helped to hasten growth the non-mining sector of the economy. In particular, it prompted the boom in the housing market, causing big increases in house prices and new home building, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. How much the lower rates contributed to the fall in the exchange rate is debatable.

The further rate cuts in 2016 were made possible by the weakness in inflation and wages growth, with the inflation rate falling short of the target range. It’s doubtful whether the Reserve expects the recent cuts to do much to encourage borrowing and spending. More likely it is hoping that lowering our rates - which are still high relative to rates in the major economies - will exert some downward pressure on our exchange rate, thus improving the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries. In his final speech, retiring Reserve governor Glenn Stevens acknowledged that the effectiveness of monetary has been reduced by the already-high debt level of Australian households, which has limited their willingness to borrow more so as to spend more - the main mechanism by which lower interests stimulate demand. Mr Stevens noted that Australia’s households are far more heavily indebted than our government, arguing that, if further policy stimulus is needed, it should come from fiscal policy: increased public borrowing and spending, provided this spending is on useful infrastructure rather than recurrent expenses.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - is conducted according to the Turnbull government’s medium-term fiscal strategy: “to achieve budget surpluses, on average, over the medium term”. This means the primary role of discretionary fiscal policy is to achieve “fiscal sustainability” - that is, to ensure we don’t build up an unsustainable level of public debt. However, the strategy leaves room for the budget’s automatic stabilisers to be unrestrained in assisting monetary policy in pursuing internal balance. It also leaves room for discretionary fiscal policy to be used to stimulate the economy and thus help monetary policy manage demand, in exceptional circumstances - such as the GFC - provided the stimulus measures are temporary.

The Abbott government’s first budget, in 2014, set out a program of largely delayed measures to return the budget to surplus over a number of years. The measures focused heavily on cutting spending programs of benefit to low and middle-income families, ignoring the many overly generous tax concessions on superannuation, negative gearing and capital gains tax, whose benefits go predominantly to high income-earners. Because many of the spending cuts were contrary to Mr Abbott’s election promises, and many were judged to be unfair, the budget caused a plunge in the Abbott government’s popularity, from which it never recovered. Many of its cuts were blocked in the Senate.

The Abbott government’s second budget, in 2015, made little further attempt to reduce the budget deficit and seemed to focus mainly on measures intended to restore the government’s standing in the opinion polls. The deficit in 2015-16 was twice the size of the deficit in 2012-13.

The Turnbull government’s first budget, in 2016, attempted to do no more than hold the line on the deficit while it introduced a package of tax reform measures. It propose a minor cut in income tax, but its centrepiece was a plan to cut the rate of company tax from 30 to 25 per cent, phased in over 10 years. To help cover the cost of this cut, the budget sought to increase taxes in three main ways: by big increases in the tax on tobacco, a very worthwhile reduction in superannuation tax concessions and a serious crackdown on tax avoidance by multinational companies. The government is likely to have more success in getting these tax increases through the Senate than its cuts in company tax for big business. If so, its budget may end up making a useful contribution to reducing the budget deficit.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Game of Mates we never quite notice

Not long after he arrived at Sydney Cove as a convict on the First Fleet, James Ruse was granted Australia's first parcel of private land – 30 acres in the heart of Parramatta – by governor Arthur Phillip.

Establishing private property rights in land is one of the core powers of government to this day. Britain had imposed limits on how much land Phillip could give away, but he had discretion over who he gave it to.

He seems to have taken a shine to Ruse, or maybe Ruse knew how to keep in his good books.

Three years later, Ruse sold his original grant for £40. A year later he was given 140 acres. Then another 16 acres, three years later.

The following year he sold these lands for £300. Twenty-one years later, aged 60, he obtained another grant of 100 acres at Riverstone. Altogether, he was given land value equivalent to about 20 years' wages for an English worker. In today's terms, about $1.5 million.

All this is recounted in the book, Game of Mates: New Masters of Australia, by Paul Frijters and Cameron Murray, to be launched on Friday.

Frijters, one of the most promising academic economists in the country, was a professor at the University of Queensland, but some of his research mightily offended the Brisbane establishment, so now he's off to a better job at the London School of Economics.

The book is his parting gift to Australia. He argues that a small class of well-connected operators hanging around the levers of government power are lining their own pockets at the expense of the rest of us.

Since Ruse was the first of them, he names each of these villains James. Frijters wants us to meet his archetypal modern James.

"He is a charming Queenslander who went to the right school, was president of the student union and has both politicians and top civil servants in his contact list. He is a professional in the Game of Mates.

"James is a clever man. When the 1980s housing boom began driving up the prices of houses throughout Queensland, he pinpointed a way to leverage the price gains for himself."

James' genius was to recognise that politicians and bureaucrats were truly in control of the gains from the influx of money for housing.

"It took political decisions to decide where new houses could be built. It took bureaucratic decisions to decide who would get permission to build bigger houses and larger apartment buildings.

"James set to work, using some of the money from his family's wealth to get started. He bought large plots of land just where one would not think the cities would expand and he set to work on the politicians and bureaucrats he knew.

"He spent time with them, shared parties and business dealings with them. He made some of them partners in his firm and, in turn, James' friends were appointed on boards deciding on planning decisions.

"Befriended politicians ran with slogans pronouncing that James' wishes were opportunities for their region, rather than costs to it.

"The politicians were later rewarded with consulting jobs to James and his friends' companies."

Get it? A Game of Mates doing what mates do, look after each other. I do you a favour and maybe one day you'll do me one.

Frijters argues this game is played in many more areas than land zoning. It can be played wherever government departments are supposedly regulating the activities of powerful industries in the interests of the public.

How many times have we seen politicians and top bureaucrats retire, but then pop up a few months later on the board or as a consultant to one of the companies they used to regulate?

How many times have we seen lobbyists brought in to head departments that regulate particular industries?

Frijters says the game has four main elements. First, flaws in our laws and regulations that create an economic honeypot to be snatched.

Second, the need for James and his mates to work as a group to capitalise on these flaws by establishing their networks of favour-exchanges.

Third, they need a way to signal loyalty to the group, a way for new members to join, and a way to rid themselves of traitors.

Fourth, they need to shield their true actions from public scrutiny with plausible myths suggesting James' dodgy dealings are good for Australia.

Frijters stresses that people playing this game aren't necessarily acting illegally, and in that sense may not be corrupt.

"The rules surrounding conflicts of interest, cooling-off periods for politicians [before they begin] working in industry, and exercising political discretion, are weak in Australia," he says.

What can we do to stop the game? "Our basic advice is to charge James for the privileges he trades in his Game of Mates or to establish a public competitor to supply the product he sells ourselves.

"We should charge him for the value increase on his houses. Charge his bank for the profits made by collusion, or introduce real competition by a true state bank. Charge his mines for the value pumped out of our ground. Charge him proper taxes. Set up a state superannuation fund . . . to compete with private ones."

Just as well you're leaving the country, Paul.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Smarter thinking on budget is long overdue

I've been writing about the federal budget for 43 years, for 28 of which it's been in deficit.
So almost two-thirds of my career has been spent backing up Treasury in its recurring campaigns to pressure the government of the day to get the budget back to surplus. Sorry, not any more.
I've resigned from the budget-hectoring brigade because it finally dawned on me there has to be a better way.
You can put the blame for our eternally recurring budget crisis on the voters, whose demand for increased government spending is limitless, but whose willingness to countenance either spending cuts or tax increases is tiny.
Or you can blame the pollies – on both sides – who spend every election campaign pandering to and thus reinforcing this unreal thinking.
They wait until after elections to spring the bad news about the laws of arithmetic, then wonder why it's so hard to be economically responsible.
But I think some of the blame has to be shared with Treasury and Finance. It's true that treasuries – state as well as federal – accept ultimate responsibility for getting the budget back to balance. They care about budget balance above all other policy objectives.
Which is just as well. If Treasury didn't accept ultimate responsibility for fiscal rectitude, who do you reckon would? Certainly not the politicians, nor the media, nor the electorate.
That's why for so long I was happy to throw my puny weight behind Treasury's budget-repair campaigns.
I've stopped because, in all that time, there's been no sign of a learning curve. Treasury goes about attempting repair of the budget in just the same primitive way it did in the mid-1970s.
In all that time it's learnt almost no new tricks. It's applied no new science to its core responsibility of expenditure control, just kept on with the same old, same old simplistic cost-cutting approach.
Economists elsewhere have come up with inventive ways to make government spending more efficient and cost-effective: income contingent loans, activity-based health funding, the investment approach to welfare spending, early learning and other preventive programs, rigorous program evaluation and more.
Some of these techniques are being used in the federal budget, but not to the extent they should be and, to my knowledge, not because they were long championed by Treasury and Finance.
Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if some had been opposed, or long-term investment in preventive medical programs sabotaged for a quick saving.
The best Treasury has come up with is the Orwellian annual "efficiency" dividend imposed on departments and agencies, and the rule that departments proposing new spending programs must also propose offsetting spending cuts of equivalent value.
Both crude devices have been relied on year after year, to the point where their economies are more likely to be false ones.
The efficiency dividend has become a euphemism for indiscriminate compulsory redundancies, which has robbed Treasury and Finance, and even the spending departments, of many of their policy experts.
Not to worry. If we need policy advice we'll buy it from one of the big accounting firms. They'll pretend to know what they're talking about and cost a fortune, but can be relied on to give us the recommendations we were hoping for.
The offsetting-savings rule has turned inefficiencies into valuable currency, to be husbanded jealously by their departments and given up only in return for equivalent spending increases.
It transfers responsibility for finding efficiencies away from the co-ordinating departments and into hands of departments just as likely to have been captured by the business interests they're supposed to be regulating.
The accountants of Finance can hardly be blamed for thinking like accountants. Trouble is, Treasury people too often think and act like accountants rather than economists.
They tend to view spending control as an annual scramble to knock the budget into shape, not a medium-term exercise in delivering value for money to the citizenry the government serves.
Too often they fail to consider the broader economic consequences of the cuts they push through. Like accountants, they think in terms of chopping spending down to the required size, not improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government service delivery.
They bang on about the nation's poor rate of productivity improvement while forgetting they themselves possess considerable scope to raise the efficiency of two of the economy's biggest and fastest growing industries, the two spending areas that dominate combined federal and state budgets and that will, unless made more efficient, do most keep budgets in crisis for decades to come: education and health.
No, no, leave that to the departments – or the other level of government.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reduced competition may be slowing US growth

US financial markets may be betting that the Trump administration's budget policies will stimulate economic growth and inflation, but they're cheered by this prospect only because of deeper fears that America and the advanced economies have entered an era of persistently weak growth.

America's rate of growth has been slowing for decades, starting long before the onset of the global financial crisis.

As part of this, America's rate of productivity improvement has been weakening, despite a short-lived uptick in the 1990s.

So the hunt's been on for factors that may be causing this slowdown. There are many suspects. But one you often see mentioned by economists such as Professor Paul Krugman is a decline in the strength of competition in many American markets.

If markets are significantly less competitive, you'd expect this to mean consumer prices that are higher than they might be, profits that are higher, less innovation, slower productivity improvement, worsening inequality and slower growth.

But what's the evidence of reduced competitive pressure? Earlier this year President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers issued a paper reviewing the evidence, which I'll summarise.

There are various ways to measure the degree of "concentration" in an industry – that is, how much of the business done by an industry is captured by a small number of large firms.

Figures collected by the US Census Bureau show that, over the 15 years to 2012, the share of total sales revenue earned by the 50 largest firms in 13 broad industry categories fell in three, was unchanged in one but increased in nine.

If 50 sounds like a lot of firms, remember this is America, whose economy is about 12 times bigger than ours.

Sales concentration was highest among utilities – electricity, gas and water – at 69 per cent, which isn't surprising considering many are natural monopolies. Even so, concentration increased by almost 5 percentage points.

After that came finance and insurance, where concentration was up by 10 percentage points to more than 48 per cent, followed by transportation and warehousing (up more than 11 points to 42 per cent) and retail trade (up 11 points to 37 per cent).

This picture is confirmed by studies of specific industries, the briefing paper says. One study of the national market for loans found that, over the 30 years to 2010, the top 10 banks' market share increased by 20 points to 50 per cent.

For deposits, the market share increased from 20 per cent to almost 50 per cent.

Another study found that, for hospital markets over the decade to 2006, a common measure of concentration increased by about 50 per cent, to a degree equivalent to having just three equal-sized competitors in a market.

A different measure of possibly reduced competition comes from looking at what's happened to the rates of profitability of big firms.

When researchers take the rates of return on invested capital for listed US companies, then rank them from highest to lowest, they find that for firms at the 90th percentile (that is, 10 per cent down from the top; 90 per cent up from the bottom) their rate of return is five times higher than for the median (dead middle) firms.

A quarter of a century ago, the 90th percentile firms' rate of return was closer to twice the median firms'.

This suggests some firms are better able to extract "economic rent" than they were. Economic rent is the profit you make that exceeds what you'd need to earn to be willing to remain in the industry.

Yet another indication comes from the "long-term downward trend in business dynamism", as indicated by a steady decline since the late 1970s in the proportion of new firms entering markets each year.

This is while the proportion of firms exiting markets each year has been little changed. Since the entry rate has now fallen to be equal to the exit rate, the total number of firms – which used to grow by about 6 per cent a year – is now unchanging.

Part of the explanation for the decline in the number of new firms could be rising "barriers to entry" into many industries.

This could be caused by increased federal, state or local licensing requirements, ever-rising economies of scale or data-mining information advantages to incumbent firms, or successful lobbying for government rules to protect against new entrants.

Labour market dynamism – how often workers change employers – has also declined since the 1970s.

This could have many causes, including no-poaching agreements between employers and greatly increased occupational licensing, which limits people's freedom to move between states.

The briefing paper notes it's not yet clear how these various indicators suggesting the US may be suffering a fall in competition within its markets fit together.

Turning to possible causes of reduced competition, it notes the problem of "common ownership". Researchers have argued that institutional investors who are large owners of the biggest firms in a particular industry, implicitly encourage those firms not to compete with each other, thus raising the investors' profits.

According to other research, the role of institutional investors has grown over the past 30 years so that, in 2014, they controlled 61 per cent of worldwide investment assets.

One anti-competitive development the briefing paper doesn't mention is the US Congress's willingness to keep extending the lives of existing and future patents and copyright.

Meanwhile, US government trade negotiators use bilateral preferential trade deals – going by the Orwellian name of "free trade agreements" – and plurilateral deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement to press partners like us to extend the lives of our patents and copyright to fit with the Yanks' domestic arrangements.

Maybe one reason economic growth is slowing is that the world's multinational corporations are getting too good at finding ways to inhibit competition between them, including by enlisting the help of governments.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

'Nanny state' is cover for exploitation by commercial interests

Oh no, the nanny state brigade is at it again. In their certainty they know what's best for us, they're back with their social engineering, wanting to punish us for being fat and use a tax on sugary drinks to push us towards "healthier choices".

On Wednesday the Grattan Institute will release a report urging the federal government to impose an excise of 40¢ per 100 grams of sugar on non-alcoholic beverages that contain added sugar.

What part of personal freedom don't they understand? If people want to drink sugary drinks, why should anyone else try to stop them? What harm are they doing to others?

Surely this is a matter of personal choice and responsibility. If being fat is bad for the health, it's up to the individual to accept responsibility for their own fate and decide to eat less and exercise more.

How much of our lives is the government going to take over? What willpower will be left if they keep doing more of this stuff?

Actually, I'm never convinced by these arguments from the professed defenders of our personal liberty.

Whenever I hear people banging on about "the nanny state" I wonder about their motives. Many of the critics are trying to keep government small so they're required to pay less tax.

These souls are often full of their own virtue. They attribute their comfortable circumstances entirely to their own efforts (forgetting the outside help they invariably had) and can't see why they should help others who aren't as disciplined as they are.

As for the libertarian think tanks leading the charge against the nanny state, you wonder how many of their undisclosed (but tax deductible) donations come from alcohol, tobacco and food companies anxious to resist any government measure limiting their freedom to profit from unhealthy products.

As the Grattan report – written by Hal Swerissen and Professor Stephen Duckett, a leading health economist – reminds us, there's little doubt that excessive overweight increases the risk of premature death, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Yet the incidence of obesity – a body mass index of more than 30 – is growing in the rich countries. The proportion of obese Australian adults is 28 per cent, up from less than 10 per cent in the 1980s. That's not counting the further 36 per cent who are overweight.

About 7 per cent of Australian children are obese, up from a negligible number in the '80s.

Although it may have plateaued among children, obesity continues to worsen among adults and seems likely to increase further.

Research suggests the main cause is overeating of processed food laced with sugar, fat and salt, which grows ever cheaper and available. The amount of exercise we get hasn't changed much over that time.

Health authorities and governments have been worried about an "obesity epidemic" for years, but nothing they've done so far seems to have worked.

This is probably because they've been tiptoeing around the powerful commercial food interests, focusing on individual responsibility, physical exercise and voluntary food labelling.

I agree it's time we did something more assertive and, though a tax on sugary drinks is far from a cure-all, it's a good place to start.

Lots of other countries are doing it, and have shown it works in discouraging consumption of sugary drinks and reducing obesity somewhat.

For us to impose it as a federal excise would be simple and administratively cheap. We already have excises intended to discourage us from smoking and overconsuming alcoholic beverages.

It would be paid by manufacturers and importers, then passed on to consumers, which would encourage people to move to bottled water, artificially sweetened drinks or even tap water.

A principle of libertarianism is that you should be allowed to do as you please as long as you're not harming others.

But as well as harming themselves, the obese also harm the rest of us. Evidence shows that, relative to others, the obese make more use of doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical benefits.

All these impose higher costs on other taxpayers. Obese people are more likely to be on welfare benefits and less likely to be employed and paying income tax, which imposes further cost on other taxpayers.

Grattan estimates the cost to the rest of us is about $5 billion a year. The sugary drinks tax would recoup about $500 million a year of that.

Libertarianism assumes no one could possibly know our best interests better than ourselves. That's because we are unfailingly rational in the decisions we make. We have an iron will which stops us doing anything we later come to regret or being influenced by the behaviour of those around us.

In reality, all of us have a problem with self-control in at least one area of our lives and probably several.

And here's the bit nanny's critics never get: most of us are pleased when governments help us with our self-control problem by taking temptation out of our way.

Governments have used compulsory seat belts and random breath testing to reduce road deaths per head of population by more than 80 per cent. They've used sky high tobacco tax, bans on indoor smoking and other things to cut the rate of smoking by more than half.

It's high time they stood up to the processed food industry and did something effective about obesity.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Our politicians go populist at their peril

If I were an Australian politician I'd think hard about the ascension of Donald Trump before I drew conclusions for local consumption.

When someone so unattractive surprises us by winning, it's tempting to conclude he must have done so because of a massive surge of anger over immigrants, Muslims and jobs lost through trade agreements.

We connect this with the Brexit surprise and the resurrection of One Nation and conclude we're witnessing a worldwide populist uprising against globalisation and "neo-liberalism".

Pollies on both sides wonder whether they should protect their backs by reverting to more protectionist policies, rejecting more Chinese investment and shouting louder about Australia-first.

But such a reaction much exaggerates the popularity of populism in America – as is clearer now more of the vote has been counted.

First, note that Hillary Clinton got over a million votes more than Donald Trump did. He actually got fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.

How is such a wide discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college result possible? Because the many smaller states get a disproportionate number of votes in the college.

So Trump won because he got more votes in the right places – three or four smaller "swing states" in the midwest Rust Belt, which normally vote Democrat.

It's true Trump won these states because enough white males without college educations found his plain-talking and promise to "make America great again" – that is, bring jobs back to the Rust Belt – more attractive than establishing a Clinton dynasty.

But let's not kid ourselves America is seeing a nation-wide upsurge in populist protectionism, any more than One Nation's ability to exploit an ill-judged double dissolution represents an existential threat to Labor or the Coalition.

Next, remember populist sentiments can't be satisfied. They're about the expression of emotion – anger, frustration, envy, fear of foreigners, resentment of city-slickers and the better-educated – not about rational choices.

They're about wishing the world hadn't changed and wishing some saviour could change it back.

Populism is about ignoring the things that have changed for the good – such as much lower prices for clothes, groceries, hardware, electronic goods, cars and much else – and assuming we can reverse the changes we don't like without losing the benefits we've come to take for granted.

Populism is about explaining the decline in employment in manufacturing, and the shift in economic activity from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, solely in terms of free-trade agreements – which were made by governments and so supposedly can be reversed – while ignoring the much greater role played by technological change, which happened in spite of governments and can't be stopped by governments.

It's perfectly possible for America to make no further trade agreements, but only an American could delude themselves that their government could tear up longstanding agreements with other countries while those countries sucked it up.

Protectionist moves lead to retaliation by your trading partners. That leaves both sides worse off.

Consider all the wild promises Trump made to con the Rust Belt's white male workers into voting for him: a wall along the Mexican border, a 35 per cent tariff on Mexican imports and 45 per cent on Chinese imports, plus renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement.

Assuming he wanted to, he can't actually do these things. Assuming somehow he could, they wouldn't fix the problem the way his dupes imagine, while introducing a new set of problems.

This says it won't be long before the Rust Belt's plain talkers realise they've been conned.

Add to them the majority that didn't want him in first place, and the many who held their nose and voted Republican because they couldn't stomach any Democrat, and it's not hard to see Trump setting records for the time it takes a president to become thoroughly on the nose.

Sound like a winning formula for our pollies to copy? Since populism fosters aspirations that can't be satisfied, it's suited to new, minor parties, but a high-risk tactic for parties that stand a chance of getting to government and having to deliver on the expectations raised.

None of this says the Rust Belt revolters don't have legitimate grievances.

A small group of business heavies and well-educated city-slickers has grabbed almost all the benefits from the structural change that's so disadvantaged the rust-belters, without governments – even Democrat majorities – doing much to oblige the winners to share with the losers.

For once in their lives, rather than going lower when they see the Yanks go lower, our pollies should, to quote Michelle Obama, "go high when they go low".

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How we've grown for so long: safety valves and buffers

How has poor little Oz managed to keep our economy growing continuously for 25 years while, in the same period, other economies have suffered a recession or even two? We've had good insurance policies.

That's the answer the new Reserve Bank governor, Dr Philip Lowe, gave in a speech this week. As he explains it, however, it's a detailed story.

Actually, there are two parts to his explanation for our economic success: the first is our good "fundamentals" and the second is our ability to ride out the various "economic shocks" that hit every economy from time to time.

Lowe lists our good fundamentals as including our abundance of natural resources, our well-educated workforce, our "generally favourable demographics" (I think he means our growing population and that our ageing population isn't too aged), our openness to international trade and investment, our links with the fast-growing Asian region, and our demonstrated ability to reform the structure of our economy to boost its productivity.

Lowe adds that the reforms of the 1980s and '90s have given us a more flexible economy, one better able to roll with the punches than it used to be. He nominates three key areas of greater flexibility: our exchange rate, our conduct of monetary policy and our labour market.

Since we allowed our dollar to float in 1983, it has generally moved up or down in response to developments in ways that tend to limit inflation pressure and to stabilise growth.

Since we decided in the mid-1990s to let the central bank - rather than the politicians - make decisions about when to increase or decrease interest rates, as guided by the target of keeping inflation between 2 and 3 per cent on average over the medium term, we've kept the inflation rate reasonably stable and minimised swings in unemployment.

Since we ended the centralised wage-fixing system and moved to collective bargaining at the enterprise level in the first half of the 1990s, we've avoided wage inflation, kept real wages rising in line with improvements in productivity (until recently, anyway) and made employers less inclined to respond to downturns with mass layoffs.

These great areas of flexibility - the floating exchange rate, the independent, target-based approach to monetary policy (interest rates), and enterprise-based wage-fixing - have helped us avoid being derailed by economic shocks.

And it's not as if there's been a shortage of such shocks that could have derailed us, Lowe says.

First, there was the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which did derail some of our Asian trading partners. Then there was the bust of the US tech boom - the Tech Wreck of 2001 - then the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

 As well, there's the resources boom. With its once-in-a-century surge and then collapse in coal and iron ore prices and consequent surge and falloff in mining construction, the resources boom was a massive, decade-long shock to our economy.

Australia's economic history is littered with commodity booms soon leading to recessions, but not this one (except in Western Australia, thanks to mismanagement by its state government).

But all that's just by way of background. Lowe's main point is to draw attention to the way our possession of certain "buffers" absorbs some of the blow when shocks hit.

We build up and hold these buffers as a kind of insurance policy against the day when trouble arises. Like all insurance policies, they come at a cost. There's a premium to be paid.

So where do you find these buffers? On the balance sheets of banks, governments and households. They're about ensuring your assets exceed your liabilities by a decent safety margin, in case some unexpected problem arises.

In the years leading up to the global financial crisis, our banks maintained higher ratios - of their shareholders' capital to their lending to borrowers - than did banks in America and Europe.

That's why our banks were able to keep lending after the crisis, whereas the others weren't. Their inability to keep lending amplified the original shock.

In the years since then, international authorities have imposed higher levels of capital adequacy and liquidity on the world's banks, including ours.

These greater restrictions make banks safer, but also reduce their profitability. We're still waiting to see how the cost of this insurance premium will be shared between our banks' customers and their shareholders.

At the time of the financial crisis, our government had "positive net debt" - it had more money in the bank than it owed to people holding its bonds.

This made it a lot easier for our government to support the economy by borrowing and spending. Now, Lowe argues, we need to gradually move the budget from deficit back to surplus, rebuilding our fiscal buffer for the next time it's needed.

The total debts of our households have risen to 185 per cent of their annual disposable income. This is a lot higher than for other rich countries, but that's partly because unusual distortions in our tax system encourage borrowing for rental properties to be done by individuals rather than big companies.

More to the point, households have been building up buffers by using mortgage offset and redraw facilities to reduce their net debt by 17 per cent of the gross debt, in the process getting a collective 2½ years ahead of their scheduled repayments.

More than half of all households with mortgage debt, at each level of income, are ahead on their repayments.

If you subtract from our households' debt all the money they hold in currency and bank deposits, the nation's households' net debt falls to about 100 per cent of their annual disposable income.

Our household debt is high, but we've got a fair bit of buffer.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How to get more job satisfaction

How about we take a short break from worrying about the new job Donald Trump has lined up for himself and think about our own jobs.

It surprises me that we spend so much time working – many of us in jobs we don't much enjoy – but are more inclined to seek escape from our work in fiction, or by following the adventures of celebrities such as Trump, than to think about how we could get more satisfaction from all that heads-down time.

It's not a subject of interest to our politicians nor, I fear, many of the bosses we do the work for.

Yet the fact is that psychologists – and even the odd economist – know a lot about what makes some jobs more satisfying than others.

Research published in 2014 by the British Cabinet Office examined the life satisfaction of people working in 274 occupations.

The 10 occupations seeming to yield the greatest satisfaction were, from the top: clergy, chief executives, farm managers, company secretaries, quality assurance regulators, health care practice managers, doctors, farmers, owners and managers of hotels and accommodation, and skilled metal, electrical and electronic trade supervisors.

The 10 occupations seeming to yield the least satisfaction were, from the bottom: plastics process operatives, bar staff, care escorts, sports assistants, telephone sales people, floor and wall tilers, industrial cleaners, debt and rent collectors, low-skilled construction workers and pub owners and managers.

From a quick squiz, it seems the most satisfying jobs tend to be better paid than the least satisfying. (With clergy as an obvious exception. If my dad's pay was any guide, revs aren't rolling in it.)

But if you conclude from this that finding a high-paying job is the best path to a satisfying job you've got the wrong end of the stick.

No, the clearer distinction between the two groups is that the most satisfied tend to be more highly skilled than the least satisfied.

As a rule, work skills tend to be scarce, with employers' demand for them stronger than workers' ability to supply.

So it's reasonable to infer that acquiring skills for which there's strong employer demand is a safe path to a high-paid job.

But there's another distinction between the two groups that does most to explain the satisfaction difference: the most satisfied are nearer the top of the heap, whereas the least satisfied are near the bottom.

It's nice to have status – people treat you with more respect. And it's nicer to do the bossing than to be bossed.

The psychologists will tell you, however, that the most important thing in job satisfaction is personal autonomy: having a degree of freedom in the way you do your job.

Feeling that, at least to some extent, you're controlling the system rather than the system controlling you.

These things take you a long way towards having a sense that you're achieving something. And that's another characteristic of satisfying work the psychologists have identified.

A third characteristic is a degree of complexity and variety. It's obvious enough that we like a bit of variety in our jobs rather than repeating the same tasks day in, day out.

Less obvious is that we like jobs that present us with a challenge – provided it's a challenge we can meet. Jobs that demand the impossible aren't satisfying, but nor is a job that's so easy it's a bore.

One of my favourite websites, PsyBlog, run by the British psychologist Dr Jeremy Dean, nominates a fourth "key to job satisfaction": fair pay.

Note, not high pay, but fair pay. How much is fair? This is the bit so many employers don't get in their fashionable preoccupation with performance pay and bonuses linked to KPIs (if you don't know what those letters stand for, think yourself lucky).

Fair pay is pay that's the same as received by people you consider your equal. We accept that people with more responsibility than us should get more, but we get twitchy when we know or suspect the boss is playing favourites among our peers.

It's clear bosses could do a lot to improve the satisfaction of their troops by avoiding favouritism, giving people at every level a little more freedom and flexibility, treating people lower down with more consideration and respect, and doing more to get individuals into the jobs their personal characteristics make them more suited to.

Dumb bosses live in fear that treating their staff well would allow them to slacken off. The KPI craze is intended to oblige people to work harder, but also to control more narrowly the way they do their jobs.

KPIs should come with a safety warning: careful what you wish for. They invite staff to turn off their brains – just as soon as they've figured out what aspects of their job they can neglect so as to ensure they always hit their targets.

Smart bosses know that treating their workers well, giving them discretion and encouraging them to keep their brains on pays off in greater effort and loyalty, as well as reducing staff turnover, recruitment and initiation costs.

If you don't have the good fortune to work for a smart boss you can use what wriggle room you can manage to make your job more challenging and psychologically rewarding. Failing that, find a better boss.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Little right, much wrong with Trumponomics

For years I've wondered how America's business elite could grab almost all the proceeds of the country's growth, leaving real wages permanently stagnant, without having ordinary workers rioting in the streets.

Now I know. The anger kept building until a political huckster called Trump found the way to exploit it for personal advancement.

The bitter joke is that the populist promises he made to keep out Muslims, Mexicans and Chinese imports would do little to make the mug punters better off, whereas many of his more conventional economic policies will do much to further fatten the pockets of the 1 per cent the punters so resent.

While we wait to see which promises he acts on, the best guess is he'll implement those of his policies that fit with Republican orthodoxy.

After all, he'll be relying on the usual Republican suspects to make up his cabinet and relying on Republican majorities in Congress to put his policies into law.

This suggests he'll be quick to start phasing corporation tax down from 35 per cent to 15 per cent, and lowering all rates of personal income tax (though not necessarily in a way that favours low and middle earners).

He's likely to increase defence spending and maybe even keep his promise to fund a much-needed urban infrastructure renewal program.

But surely this would cause a huge expansion of the still-excessive federal budget deficit, wouldn't it?

Yes, but that's unlikely to stop it happening. It is, after all, similar to what Ronald Reagan did on coming to office in 1981.

We're about to see confirmation of an eternal truth of American politics: the Republicans care hugely about the evils of debt and deficit – it keeps them awake worrying about what we're leaving for our children and grandchildren – but only when there's a Democrat in the White House.

For the most part it will be a giant exercise in trickle-down economics – even though many of the people who fell for Trump's crude charms now rightly see it for the voodoo economics it mainly is.

Protectionism may be the new saviour – in Nick Xenophon's Oz as well as Trump's Rust Belt states – but it's still the delusion it always was. It seems "only common sense", but that doesn't mean it works.

In any case, were Trump to impose a huge tariff on Chinese imports, do you imagine that would re-open the ghostly steel mills in Gary, Indiana, or the rusting automobile plants down the road from Michael Moore's place in Flint, Michigan?

Turning back globalisation is no easier than turning back time. The main thing you'd do is rob working people (and the rest of us) of access to the one aspect of globalisation they've clearly benefited from: imported goods much cheaper than the locally made goods they replaced.

Don't kid yourself: some lost their jobs in factories, but all workers – most of whom never worked in manufacturing – benefited from lower prices.

That's why there's no free lunch in protection: it's a scheme where the fortunate few are subsidised by the less-favoured multitude. It's not foreigners who lose out, it's other locals.

And don't kid yourself on this: far from all the jobs lost from manufacturing were lost through import competition.

Far more than many oldies realise were lost through computerisation. That's a big part of the reason reimposing high tariffs would do surprisingly little to restore manufacturing employment.

It's a convenient delusion that globalisation is solely the product of "neo-liberal" deregulation. Its other, bigger driver is technological advance and the digital revolution. Think any pollie can stop that?

This isn't to say scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement would be any loss. It offered trivial benefits to us, in return for giving foreign multinationals power to push our government around.

Just because preferential trade deals are called "free-trade agreements" doesn't make them a good thing. The US's primary goal in its many agreements is to advance the interests of its exporters of intellectual property, while continuing to protect its farmers.

Its trans-Pacific deal was intended as cover for the bilateral deal with Japan hidden within it, as well as strengthening America's trading links with all the main Asian economies that weren't China.

The Yanks may be paranoid about the rise of China, but the joke is there never were two big economies – the two biggest – more interdependent. The US is China's largest trading partner, while China is the US's second-biggest – and its biggest creditor.

The Yanks are really stoopid​ enough to take a crack at Chinese imports? Trump is a cunning con man, not an idiot.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Why Trump won't be as big and bad as many fear

Sorry, but I find the ascent of Donald Trump more fascinating than frightening. If it's all going to be so terrible, how exactly is he going to make it happen?

If you take literally all the things he's said he'll do, it will be a disaster. But anyone who believes all the things politicians say in the heat of election campaigns isn't too bright.

It wouldn't surprise me if many of the people whose votes got him elected don't know half of what he promised, don't much care what he promised and certainly don't expect him to deliver.

They voted for him because, in their anger with the business and political establishment, they wanted to give the system a kick up the bum. The less he sounded like a proper politician, the more they thought him the man for that job.

Because Trump isn't part of the standard two-party system and didn't win the election the orthodox way, it's more relevant than usual to ask what motivated him to run for president.

It wouldn't surprise me if he was more interested in proving he knew the right buttons to press to be president, or was popular enough to be president - that he could ensure he was the last contestant voted off the island - than he was in actually doing a list of things to "make America great again".

How keen will he be to take on four years of 18-hour days making unending judgment calls?

When you think of all the struggle needed to "drain the swamp", he strikes me as more Phony Tough than Crazy Brave.

Much of the commentary we've seen so far is very "great man theory of history". Trump is such a wild man, he'll single-handedly destroy the American alliance, end America's world supremacy, start a global trade war that reverses globalisation and resumes the Great Depression, and maybe provoke a shooting war with China.

Was that in his first term, or would it take two?

Sorry, I lean more to the view that history is a product of pre-existing trajectory, random developments and the interaction of powerful political and social institutions.

They say that in the race of life, you should always back Self-interest because at least you know it's trying. I'd also put a couple of bob on Inertia.

In the coming history of the Trump administration, I see big roles for self-interest and inertia, aka the status quo.

Start with the Republicans. The hated usurper Trump, rather than dumping them in it, has had a famous victory in their name, ensured Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and acquired control over countless perks and preferments.

If you were in the Republican caravan, what would you be doing? Sucking up.

There's an army of worthies - academics, think-tankers, bureaucrats, retired generals, former lobbyists, business people and Wall Street bankers - who spend their careers moving in and out of taxpayer-funded jobs in Republican administrations.

Trump will be knocked over in the rush to be his special friend. The thousands seeking a gig will have two dominant motivations: a share of the spoils of office and a say in the shaping of policy.

There's probably only one Republican in the country who agrees with every item on Trump's supposed to-do list, and that's the man himself.

If so, every other Republican will be hoping to persuade Trump to drop this, tone down that, add this and put that one on the backburner.

Do you really think he's going to spend his 18-hour days ensuring every bright sales idea written on the back of an envelope during the campaign remains inviolate?

What about all the real, professional econocrats, diplomats and generals? "Alienate our closest allies? Start a trade war? Good idea, Mr President."

Remember, too, that presidents often have trouble getting their policies passed by Congress, even when it's of the same political colour.

There's far less party discipline in the American political system, with individual congress people requiring a small bribe (hopefully, only something for their constituency) before they toe the party line.

They're also anxious to keep sweet with the main interest groups that contributed to their campaign costs.

Which brings us to Washington's other big industry, the lobbyists. They're going to meekly bow before Trump's sacred list of bright ideas, are they?

No, they're going to go on doing what they're so handsomely paid to do: mould the actions of president and Congress to fit the perceived interests of their generous customers.

Who are these big-spending interest groups? Well, the ones with the most money to splash around are the ones representing the most successful and powerful industries. The gun industry, for instance.

But, right at the head of the list, Wall Street - the people whose greed caused the global financial crisis, who got bailed out by the taxpayer, avoided going to jail and left millions of ordinary people to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Many of those ordinary people are those who voted for the larrikin Trump, hoping he'd give Wall Street an almighty kick up the bracket - he being a regular plain-talkin' guy, just like them.

Get it? The business and political establishment is still running the place, still ensuring their interests are put ahead of those of the lesser mortals silly enough to vote for Trump.

Now Trump has no choice but to turn to them, seeking their help in running the joint and implementing his brave plan to put them and their paymasters back in their box.

They'll be falling over themselves to help - and mould the egotistical Trump to their masters' will.

It's a recipe for inertia and preservation of America's system much the way it's always been.

Trump's amazing defeat of the political establishment isn't so much the revolt of the put-upon punters, as just another political con job.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't jump to conclusions on big bad Trump

Keep your shirt on. The world as we know it may be ending, but if so it won't be for a while. And maybe things won't change as much as feared.

Yesterday the experts were confidently predicting Hillary Clinton would be president. Today they are predicting Donald Trump's presidency will be a disaster with equal confidence. How do they know?

I find it hard to imagine Trump's ascendancy won't end up being bad for our economy, for the rest of the world and the Americans themselves.

But that's a long way down the track and lots of unexpected things could happen between now and then. Maybe even a few good things.

The thing of which I'm most certain is that the election of a climate change-denying president will further delay a serious response to the challenge by America and, through its bad influence, the rest of us.

But, hey, we are probably too late already. So no (extra) harm done. And Donald, you and I will be dead long before it gets really bad.

Sorry, back to the present. Don't forget the guy doesn't even get the job until January. And even then he may not yet have assembled the full range of his thousands of appointees.

Not that there is likely to be any shortage of volunteers. They won't be America's finest, but there will be plenty of people keen to be the president's friend.

The delay will give Wall Street and the world's share markets plenty of time to change their mind about Trump - several times.

Remember, share markets took no time to decide Brexit was the end of the world and only a little more to decide it wasn't.

And every new presidency starts with a honeymoon, in which all the people who voted him in rejoice - a new start for America! - some of the people who didn't wish they had, and everyone is glad to be shot of the last lot and all their failings.

Nothing very bad will happen in the honeymoon.

If one of the first new policies to go forward is Trump's plan to end decades of neglect by renewing America's public infrastructure, that would be a good thing of itself, would boost the US economy and spread a little growth on to the rest of us.

At the other extreme, should Trump lose no time in starting a trade war with China, everyone would lose - the US, China and the rest, with Australia prominent among those last.

This is where we must trust that America's celebrated "separation of powers" comes to the rescue, allowing other, wiser heads to prevent Trump from being as foolhardy as he said he would be.

Of course, the one prediction every Aussie voter can make made with confidence is that Trump, being a politician, will fail to keep most of his promises. Good.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Maybe the end of economic growth draws near

If you think the possible ascension of Donald Trump is our one big worry you haven't been paying attention. Some climate scientists are worried sick over the possibility that climate change may be passing the point of no return while we procrastinate over controlling it.

Meanwhile, the nation's – nay, the world's – economists worry that the wellsprings of economic growth are drying up in the developed countries. Think of it – an economy without growth!

On Monday the Productivity Commission issued a discussion paper exclaiming that there is "justified global anxiety" that improvements in productivity and the growth in national income they cause have "slowed or stopped".

In my job I'm not supposed to say it but, sorry, I'm a lot more worried about inaction on climate change than the feared end of economic growth – if for no other reason than that going backward must surely be worse than not going forward.

Why can't most economists see that? Because climate change is not their department. They're meant to be experts on how to make economies grow, and that's all they want to talk about.

Most economists I know never doubt that a growing economy is what keeps us happy and, should the economy stop growing, it would make us all inconsolable.

They can't prove that, of course, but they're as convinced of it as anyone else selling something.

I'm not so sure. I'm sure a lot of greedy business people would be unhappy if their profits and bonuses stopped growing, but I often wonder if the rest of us could adjust to a stationary economy a lot more easily than it suits economists and business people to believe.

And get this: there is a fair chance we may get to find out if I'm right.

The economy – the amount of economic activity, measured as annual production of goods and services – grows as the population and, more particularly, the amount of work being done, grows.

The economy also grows when we save some of our income from producing goods and services and invest it in additional productive equipment – machines, buildings, infrastructure – thus making our workers capable of producing more goods and services with each hour they spend.

But here's the bit many scientists and others don't get: the secret sauce of economic growth is our ability to produce more goods and services this year than we did last year even with the same quantity of labour and capital equipment.

This is the pure essence of economic growth: improved "productivity" – productiveness. How is it possible? Mainly by giving workers not just more machines, but better machines; machines that do better tricks. By technological advance.

And also, these days, by using further education and training to make our workers capable of doing fancier tricks – including working with more sophisticated machines – and organising work in better ways.

This essence of productivity – which economists call "multifactor" productivity – is what seems to be drying up. In Australia, according to the eponymous commission, it hasn't improved since 2004.

But it's much the same story in all the developed economies. Many economists are starting to accept Harvard professor Lawrence Summers' revival of the theory of "secular stagnation" – that we've entered a lasting period of little or no growth in national income (gross domestic product), especially income per person.

What's helping to persuade them is the argument of another American economist, professor Robert Gordon, perhaps the world's leading expert on productivity.

His contention – which no young person would believe – is that the slowdown in measured productivity improvement has occurred because there is now much less innovation than we became used to over the past century.

Despite the unending wonders of the digital age, and the digital disruption of industry after industry, they just don't compare with the life-changing and economy-transforming technological advances of the past: electricity, the internal combustion engine, even underground water and sewerage.

We spent all of last century fully exploring and exploiting the potential just of electricity – from light bulb to production line to dishwasher to the computer and all it has spawned.

But there's more to Summers' secular stagnation. He argues that population ageing is leading people in the West to save more, while digital innovation and weak population growth are reducing the need for much new physical investment by businesses and governments.

Higher saving and lower investment equal permanently lower interest rates and lower economic growth.

Well, possibly. A rival theory is that the digital revolution and the shift from more goods to more services is changing the economy in ways that the economists' conventional measuring system is incapable of picking up.

We're still getting better off, but in ways that aren't showing on the economists' dials. It's certainly true that much of the time-saving and convenience flowing from the internet is not measured by GDP.

That's been my big problem with economists' obsession with economic growth. It defines prosperity almost wholly in material terms. Any preference for greater leisure over greater production is assumed to be retrograde.

Weekends are there to be commercialised. Family ties are great, so long as they don't stop you being shifted to Perth.

But I'd like to see if, in a stagnant economy, we could throw the switch from quantity to quality. Not more, better.