Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Aged care crisis a clue we’ll be paying higher, not lower taxes

Do you like paying tax? No, I thought not. With so many other calls on our pockets, it’s easy to tell ourselves we’re already paying enough tax – probably more than enough.

Trouble is, our reluctance to put more into government coffers doesn’t stop us demanding the government spends more on additional and better services.

This presents a problem for politicians on both sides. They solve it by ensuring that, particularly in election campaigns, they tell us what we want to hear, not the unvarnished truth.

They’re often promising a tax cut sometime after the election, but also telling us their plans to spend more on this and more on that. What they don’t mention is what might have to happen after the election to ensure the tax cuts and spending increases don’t add too much to government debt.

But we’ve become so distrusting of our politicians that, in more recent years, they spend less time telling us how wonderful their own policies are and more time telling us how terrible the other side’s policies would be. Fear works better than persuasion.

Scott Morrison won the last federal election partly by claiming the Liberals are the party of lower taxes, whereas Labor is the party of “tax and spend”. It worked so well he’s bound to say it in this year’s election campaign.

So, it’s worth examining the truth of the claim. It strikes a chord because it fits voters’ stereotypical view that the party of the bosses must surely be better at running the economy and managing the government’s budget than the party of the workers.

But just because it fits our preconceived notions doesn’t make it true. It’s true that Labor’s record shows it to be a party that spends more on public services, and so has to tax more. What’s not true is that the Liberals are very different.

The record simply doesn’t support their claim to be the lower taxing party. If you look at total federal tax collections as a proportion of national income (gross domestic product) – thus allowing for both inflation and population growth – over the past 30 years, taxes have been highest under the Howard government and the present government.

Most of this has happened without explicit increases in taxes and despite governments usually having tax cuts to wave in our faces as proof of their commitment to lower taxes.

So, what’s the trick? An old one that all of us know about but few of us notice: bracket creep. It works away behind the scenes slowly but steadily increasing the proportion of our incomes paid in income tax. This usually ends up increasing tax collections by more than governments ever give back in highly publicised tax cuts.

Now, however, the aged care sector’s inability to cope with the additional pressures from the pandemic – where they’re so desperate for workers they even want help from the Army’s clodhoppers – offers a big clue about the tax we’ll be paying in the coming three years: more not less.

Ever since the public rejected Tony Abbott’s plans for sweeping spending cuts in 2014, the government has been trying to keep a lid on government spending in areas where there wouldn’t be much pushback.

By this means the Libs have had remarkable success in limiting the growth in government spending overall but, as the Parliamentary Budget Office has warned, they’re holding back a dam of spending. They can’t keep it up forever.

Eventually, problems and pressures from the public get so great, the government has to relent and start catching up. You can see that in this week’s election-related decision to reverse some of the cuts in grants to the ABC.

But a more significant area where the government’s been trying to limit the money flow is aged care.

It’s clear the sector’s problems getting everyone vaccinated and coping with COVID-caused staff shortages have just piled on top of all its existing problems.

The longstanding attempt to limit costs by moving the sector to for-profit providers has failed, with businesses making room for their profit margin by cutting quality. The aged care workforce is understaffed, underqualified, underpaid and overworked.

Most jobs are part-time and casual; staff turnover is high. When a work-value case before the Fair Work Commission is decided, hourly wage rates may be a lot higher.

After the royal commission’s shocking revelations, the government had no choice but to ease the purse strings, spending an additional $17 billion in last year’s budget. But it’s already clear a lot more will need to be spent to get the care of our parents and grandparents up to acceptable standards.

Turn to the national disability insurance scheme and its problems, and it’s clear we’ll end up having to spend a lot more here, too.

And that’s before you get to the failure of the job network – “employment services” – and the chaotic understaffing of Centrelink.

We have a lot of repressed government spending to catch up with. Don’t let any pollie tell you they’ll be putting taxes down.

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Monday, February 7, 2022

Interest rate rises will be a good thing - provided they're not too soon

Sometimes I think you can divide the nation’s economy-watchers into those desperate to see the Reserve Bank start raising interest rates and those desperately hoping it won’t. As usual, the sensible position is somewhere between them.

To some, interest rate rises are always a bad thing. They’re either speaking from self-interest or they’re victims of a media that unfailingly assumes all its customers are borrowers and none are savers. Tell that to your grandma.

What gets missed in all the angst is that the need to raise rates is always a good sign. A sign the economy’s growing strongly – perhaps too strongly. Trust the media to see the glass as always half empty.

In the present debate, however, the financial-market urgers fear we have a burgeoning problem with inflation, which must be stamped out quickly if it’s not to become a raging bushfire.

On the other side, the econocrats and others not wanting to start raising rates any earlier than necessary see how close we are to achieving a “historic milestone” in getting the rate of unemployment below 4 per cent for the first time in 50 years.

They’re determined to see that goal achieved and put new meaning into the words “full employment” because they see it as key to avoiding a return to the low-growth trap in which we were caught before the pandemic.

And they want to ensure the return to low unemployment is more than fleeting by making sure we play our monetary policy (interest rates) and fiscal policy (the budget) cards right. As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week, “low unemployment brings with it very real economic and social benefits”.

In a way, we’re back to the great monetarists-versus-Keynesians debate of the mid-1970s: which is more important, low inflation or low unemployment? But, to use a phrase of Scott Morrison’s, it’s not binary choice. We need both; the trick is to pursue them in the right order.

Right now, the risk is that, by conning central banks into anti-inflation overkill, the markets will weaken the recovery from the pandemic, sending the rich economies back to the slow-growth trap.

But the debate about whether or when our Reserve should start raising interest rates has overshadowed an important development last week: its decision to end QE – quantitative easing; the Reserve buying second-hand government bonds with money it has created with a few computer key-strokes – by ceasing to buy $4 billion worth of bonds each week.

Lowe announced that, in total, the various elements of the Reserve’s QE program involved buying more than $350 billion in bonds. (He didn’t say that this means the Reserve has, in effect, financed more that all the government’s pandemic stimulus spending with created money. It’s all a book entry between the government and the central bank it owns.)

Among the various benefits of the QE program claimed by Lowe was that it led to Australia having “a lower exchange rate than would otherwise have been the case”. He noted, too, that the US Federal Reserve and other central banks were ending their QE programs.

And there you have the real reason why, with us having avoided QE after the global financial crisis, Lowe felt he had little choice but to join in the second, pandemic-related round.

The least doubted “benefit” of QE is that it puts downward pressure on the country’s exchange rate, at the expense of its trading partners’ price competitiveness.

So, when the mighty Fed indulges in QE, most other central banks feel they have to defend their own exchange rates by joining in. Any country that doesn’t join the game becomes the bunny whose exports suffer.

Lowe reminded us that ending the bond-buying program doesn’t constitute a tightening of monetary policy, but rather a cessation of further easing. True. The tightening – quantitative tightening, or QT – will come if, when the bonds it has bought reach maturity, the Reserve decides not to replace them with new bonds. It hasn’t yet decided what it will do.

The financial markets, the media and ordinary citizens are far more interested in what happens to interest rates than in the arcania of unconventional monetary policy. But this ending of QE is a reminder that it would hardly make sense to keep boring on with QE with one hand while putting up interest rates with the other.

It’s important to ensure we don’t risk cutting off our return to a sustained recovery by lifting interest rates too soon – that is, before our business people have been forced to abandon their perverse notion that it’s best to keep wage rates low forever – or raise interest rates too high.

We do want to emerge from the pandemic with more than just a once-only bounce-back from the lockdowns. We need ongoing growth, which requires a return to real growth in wages.

But remember this: the present “stance” monetary policy is highly stimulatory. That can’t go on for ever. With no sign whatever of wage growth becoming excessive, it’s obvious we don’t need to flip to the opposite extreme of interest rates so high they’re contractionary. We’re not trying to put the clamps on demand.

No, the next move, when it comes, will be from a stimulatory stance simply towards a neutral stance – one that’s neither stimulatory nor contractionary. That time will come when we’re confident the economy’s growth will be sustained. That’s when getting interest rates back to more normal levels will be a good sign, a sign of success.

And remember this: thanks to the world’s dubious experiment with unconventional monetary policy for more than a decade – with almost all the rich world’s central banks printing money like it’s going out of style – the monetary side of the world economy (including ours) is way out of whack.

For too long, borrowers have been paying interest rates that, after allowing for inflation, are negative, with savers receiving little or nothing to compensate them for their money’s lost purchasing power, let alone reward them for letting others use their money.

This is perverse. It’s the opposite of the way the economy’s supposed to work. It’s neither fair nor sensible. It’s the way to encourage investment that’s not genuinely productive. We won’t be back to anything like normal until, ultimately, interest rates are much higher.

Don’t forget that. Your grandma hasn’t.

Read more >>

Friday, February 4, 2022

The news on the economy is better than we're being told

From the way the financial markets – and an easily-led media – are telling the story, our troubles have multiplied. Along with all our other worries, Australia now has a big new problem: inflation is back with a bang. But that’s not the way Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe told the story this week. He thinks we’re going great guns.

According to the markets, recent figures show we’ve caught America’s disease and inflation has taken off. Something must be done urgently to stop the rot and, just as the US Federal Reserve is about to start raising interest rates to get prices back under control, we’ll have no choice but to follow within a month or two.

The bets the financial markets are making about imminent rate rises imply that most of us will be getting big pay rises this year – which I’ll believe when I see it. But if that did happen it would be the first decent pay rise most workers had received in almost a decade. This, apparently, would be very bad news. Really?

In marked contrast, Lowe thinks everything in the economy’s got better, not worse. Right now, he said in a speech this week, “we are closer to full employment and achieving the inflation target than we had anticipated”. Gosh. That bad, eh?

This time last year, the Reserve was expecting the economy - real gross domestic product - to grow by 3.5 per cent last year. Now it’s expected to have grown by 5 per cent. The rate of unemployment was expected to be 6 per cent. Turned out to be 4.2 per cent. Wages were expected to grow by only 1.5 per cent. Now it’s likely to have been 2.25 per cent.

The story in the jobs market does much to explain Lowe’s high spirits. “Australia is within sight of a historic milestone – having the national unemployment rate below 4 per cent” for the first time since the early 1970s.

“This is important because low unemployment brings with it very real economic and social benefits for many Australians and their communities. Full employment is one of the Reserve Bank’s legislated objectives and [its] board is committed to playing its role in achieving that objective, consistent with also achieving the inflation target,” Lowe said.

Already, our unemployment rate is at its lowest in 13 years, along with our rate of underemployment.

Unemployment has also fallen in America and Britain, but whereas in their cases this is partly because a lot of workers have stopped looking for jobs and left the labour force, in our case labour force “participation” is almost as high as it’s ever been.

So why all the market and media gloom and doom? Because the rate of inflation was expected to be a below-target 1.5 per cent by the end of last year, but has jumped to 3.5 per cent.

The market thinks that higher inflation leads immediately to higher interest rates, and the media think higher rates are bad news because all their customers are borrowers and none are savers.

But the news on inflation – and the prospects for more of it – ain’t as bad as they sound, for several reasons.

First, if we really do have an inflation problem, it’s not nearly as great as America’s. The Yanks’ rate is 7 per cent, the Brits’ is 5.4 per cent and the Kiwis’ 5.9 per cent. Even in a globalised world, each economy’s story is different.

Second, it’s not as though most prices in Australia have grown by 3.5 per cent. Much of the jump to 3.5 per cent is explained by big rises in the prices of petrol and home-building. The world price of oil goes up and down over the years. Nothing we did in Australia caused the latest increase, and nothing we could do would have any influence on whether it keeps going up or goes back down a bit.

Other price increases are explained by the effect of the on-again, off-again waves of the virus in causing mismatches between the supply and demand for various goods – mismatches which are unlikely to last very long.

This explains why the Reserve uses a less volatile measure of “underlying” inflation to judge how inflation is going relative to the target of keeping annual inflation between 2 and 3 per cent, on average over time.

Its preferred measure of underlying inflation is running at 2.6 per cent, not the “headline” rate of 3.5 per cent, and 2.6 per cent is close to the middle of the target. So, no cause for concern - unless you have strong reasons to believe it’s rapidly heading up out of the target range.

Third, with this being the first time in six years that underlying inflation’s been high enough to reach the target zone, Lowe’s made it clear he won’t start raising the official interest rate until he’s convinced the return to target is “sustained”.

He made the obvious (but often forgotten) arithmetic point that, for inflation to be sustained at current rates, the prices of many goods would have to keep increasing at their recent rates, not just settle at higher levels.

When we’re talking about petrol prices and virus-caused mismatches between supply and demand, this seems unlikely. That is, there’s a good chance we’ll see a fall rather than a rise in the quarterly inflation rate.

Another basic point. One-off price increases only become part of the ongoing rate of inflation if they flow on to wages – that is, if they add to the “wage-price spiral”.

In the days when we really did have a serious inflation problem, that flow-through could be taken for granted. But over the past seven years, the link between rising prices and rising wages has become much less certain.

That’s why I’ll believe we’re all in for 3 per cent pay rises when I see it. And the man with his hand on the interest-rate lever is saying the same thing.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

We should make the economy less unequal - and we can

Since the working year doesn’t really get started until after Australia Day, it’s not too late to tell you my New Year’s resolutions. Actually, they’re more in the nature of re-affirming my guiding principles as an economic commentator. Why are we playing the economic game? Who are the people it’s supposed to benefit? And would all the policies I write in support of lead us towards or away from these ultimate objectives?

My first principle is that “the economy” – all the daily effort we put into producing and consuming goods and services – should be managed to benefit the many, not the few.

But it’s hard to believe this has been our overriding objective, particularly in recent decades. Although most of the activity in the economy is undertaken by the private sector – households and businesses – this activity is regulated by the public sector, governments.

Since our governments are democratically elected, this ought to mean that governments govern in the interests of all voters, not just some. But, as we all know, sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

Sometimes governments pander to the majority when it gangs up against an unpopular minority – asylum seekers, for instance. Other times, governments act in the interests of powerful individuals, businesses and interest groups.

Since the two main political parties have become locked in a hugely expensive contest to influence voters at election time, they seem to have become more receptive to the interests of businesses able to donate generously to party coffers.

The notion that the economy will work best when governments manage it in ways that best suit the interests of business was hugely reinforced by the 30-year reign of a fad called “neoliberalism” – a movement started by na├»ve econocrats and economists (and supported by yours truly) that was soon hijacked by businesses and politicians who saw an opportunity to advance their own interests.

The neoliberal era is over – the proof of which you see every time Scott Morrison announces another government subsidy to a new gas-fired power station, oil refinery or Snowy Mountains scheme.

But our new project, to redress the balance of benefit in favour of ordinary workers and consumers, has a long way to go. It will make more progress when more voters understand the need to give ordinary players in the economic game a bigger share of the prizes.

Business invariably justifies its demand for favourable treatment by the jobs it creates. But increasingly, those jobs are of a lower quality than we have come to expect.

Many are casual, part-time and insecure. They come with fewer safeguards: sick and holiday pay, workers compensation coverage, super contributions. Pay rises are fewer and meaner. Wage theft has become common.

Voters need to realise the rise of crappy jobs in the “gig economy” is not some inescapable consequence of technological progress. It’s a policy choice that governments have made using the power we give them.

Were voters to tell politicians more forcefully that such a deterioration in the quality of the working life of the rising generation is unacceptable, they would act to stop less-scrupulous businesses finding ways to avoid or evade the labour laws that protect the rest of us.

All this is happening while the share of national income going to profits has risen strongly, at the expense of the share going to wages. And the share of income collected by the top 1 per cent of Australia’s income earners has risen to about 9 per cent of total income.

A capitalist economy wouldn’t work as well as it does were entrepreneurs not always trying new ways to increase their profits. The trouble is that not all the ways they try are of benefit to the rest of us, not just themselves and their shareholders.

In such cases, governments should not shirk their responsibility to act in the interests of the many not the few. Nor should we fear that, unless we give businesses free rein in their pursuit of higher profits, our business people will lose all interest in running businesses.

So, a longstanding view of mine is that we’d all be better off if business executives focused less on maximising profits (and their related bonuses) and more on giving their customers value for money and ensuring all their employees had rewarding jobs.

Not just jobs that were better paid and more secure, but more emotionally satisfying because they gave workers more autonomy – more freedom to choose the best ways of doing their job – and jobs better fitted to a worker’s particular strengths and preferences.

Easier said than done? True. Particularly because, though governments can prohibit certain undesirable practices in the treatment of workers, they can’t legislate to force bad bosses to be good ones.

Not easy, but not impossible to reshape the economy to improve it for ordinary people, not just bosses. And we won’t get any improvement until we accept that it is possible, and that we should measure the politicians we vote for according to their willingness and ability to spread the benefits of economic life less unequally.

Read more >>

Friday, January 7, 2022

It's the holidays, so let's have some fun with economic puzzles

So it’s holiday season, when (almost) everyone takes a break, chills out and tries not to think about workaday worries. So let’s have some fun. Let’s do a few economic puzzles.

There’s an old joke in economics that says, “it may work in practice, but does it work in theory?” If you take that to mean economists care more about getting their theory right than about its usefulness then, yes, too many of them do.

But an empirical revolution is happening in economics, where economists test their standard theory to see how well it explains the real world. A big part of this is the rise of “behavioural economics” which, rather than simply making the conventional assumption that everyone acts “rationally” – with carefully considered self-interest – in the economic decisions they make, studies the many reasons people often make decisions that aren’t rational.

So, first puzzle. When, in 2012, prime minister Julia Gillard introduced what she called a “price on carbon” and opposition leader Tony Abbott correctly labelled a “carbon tax”, which increased the price of electricity, she took care to cut income tax and increase pensions in a way designed to leave households on average incomes no worse off.

Among Abbott’s many criticisms, he claimed the move would fail to reduce electricity consumption because people would simply use their tax cut to allow them to keep buying the same amount of power. Puzzle: conventional economics says Abbott was wrong, but behavioural economics suggests he may have had a point.

In compensating most people for the cost of her carbon tax, Gillard was doing just as economists advised. They were confident people would still reduce their electricity use because theory says a change in the price of some item has two, conflicting effects: the income effect and the substitution effect.

The income effect reduces the consumer’s real (after-inflation) income, whereas the higher price relative to the prices of similar items encourages the consumer to substitute other items for the now-dearer item, at least to some extent.

So even though Gillard’s compensating tax cut eliminated the income effect, economists were confident the remaining substitution effect would still encourage people to use less electricity and use what was left of their tax cut on something else they wanted more of.

But behavioural economics says maybe it’s not that simple. One of its early and major findings is that many people are “loss averse” – they hate losing money from the increase in the price of electricity more than they like getting the money back as a tax cut.

So, contrary to theory, many people wouldn’t have felt the tax cut left them no worse off. If so, they may well have chosen to use all their tax cut to keep buying the same amount of electricity.

For the record – and for whatever reason or reasons (remember, this wasn’t an experiment where all else was held equal) – electricity sales and emissions of carbon dioxide fell sharply during the two years before the Abbott government abolished the “carbon pricing mechanism”.

Then they rose again. History will not be kind to that man.

Second puzzle. An ABC series called How to Live Younger presented scientific evidence showing that regular exercise throughout life can rewind the clock on cognitive (mental) decline, fight cancer, prevent disease, beat depression and even enhance our lives by making us smarter and more creative.

So people who’ve exercised throughout their lives generally do much better in old age. It’s also true that people who aren’t used to exercising find it harder to start working out and so don’t get as much “utility” - enjoyment and benefit – from exercising.

The economists’ convention model of “rational decision-making” predicts that knowledge of all this will lead parents to encourage their children to exercise and lead kids to keep it up as young adults and in middle age, thus setting themselves up for a healthy, happy old age.

Doesn’t always happen that way, you say? True. By why not?

Because, as behavioural economists recognise, many people, even those who fully understand how keeping fit will benefit them in old age, still have trouble making themselves exercise regularly. If they get out of the habit, it’s hard to get back into it.

A finding of behavioural economics is that this is partly explained by the “projection bias” that affects the thinking of many people. They mistakenly believe that the benefit they enjoy from exercise at this stage of their life will be the same in later stages. Actually, they’ll benefit more in later stages if they keep exercising now; if they give up exercise now they’ll find it harder to take it up again later.

So, whereas conventional economics can’t see there’s a problem – also with adverse consequences for the health system and the taxpayer – behavioural economics can see it. It can see the case for a government education campaign to help people overcome their projection bias, for instance.

And there are techniques individuals use to overcome their projection bias, short-sightedness and lack of willpower. Psychologists call such techniques "commitment devices". I did little exercise until, in my late 40s, a diabetes doctor ordered me to start.

I’ve been able to keep going to the gym two or three times a week since then, and I enjoy it. The tricks I’ve used to keep it up are to have a highly qualified trainer and go at set times with a bunch of gym buddies who’ve become good friends.

A couple of times last year I criticised academic economists for not doing enough to make their theories more realistic – and more useful to the students they teach.

The two “puzzles” we’ve just looked at are derived from a university exam paper in behavioural economics, sent to me in response to my criticisms by Professor Simon Grant, of the Australian National University.

It seems that, at least at our better universities, economists don’t just bang on with conventional theory oblivious to its limitations.

Read more >>

Monday, January 3, 2022

There are many ways to stuff up productivity

A good New Year’s resolution for readers of the business pages would be to read more widely and think more broadly, so their thinking about economic problems and their solutions doesn’t get into a rut, returning repeatedly to the same old solutions to the same problems.

No reader of these pages needs to be told that the key to higher material living standards is improved productivity – the ability to create more outputs from the same quantity of inputs of land (raw materials), labour and physical and intangible capital.

Almost continuous productivity improvement over the past two centuries is the outstanding achievement of capitalist, market economies, the proof of capitalism’s superiority as a system of organising production and consumption.

It’s what’s made us so much more prosperous than our forebears were, with much of that prosperity spilling over from the owners of capital to the middle class and people near the bottom.

But, as I’m sure you know, over the past decade or so the rate of productivity improvement in Australia and all advanced economies has slowed to a snail’s pace. Hence, all the talk about productivity and what we can do improve its rate of improvement.

So far, a decade of hand-wringing hasn’t got us anywhere. We need to think more broadly about the problem.

One new thought is to wonder if there is – or should be – more to the good life than economic growth and a higher material standard of living. If there are ways we could improve the quality of our lives even if they didn’t lead to us owning more and better toys.

A negative way to express the same thought is to wonder if being able to afford better houses and cars will be much consolation if we succeed in stuffing up our climate, with more heat waves, rainy summers, droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones and a rising sea level.

But we’ll return to those thoughts another day, and descend now to the more prosaic. One rut we’ve got into is thinking it’s up to the government to lift our productivity by “reforming” this or that intervention in the economy.

This is model-blind thinking on the part of econocrats, hijacked by rent-seeking businesses and high income-earners wanting more power to limit the earnings of their employees and more of the tax burden shifted to other people in the name of improving “incentives”.

The same people show little interest in reforms that really would increase economic growth by increasing women’s participation in paid work, such as free childcare.

Another rut we’re in is thinking that we won’t get faster economic growth until we get back to faster productivity improvement.

This has much truth, but it misses the deeper truth that the relationship between economic growth and productivity can also run the other way: maybe we’re not getting faster productivity improvement because we’re not getting enough economic growth.

In practice, what does much to increase the productivity of labour is businesses – in mining, farming and manufacturing, but also the service industries – replacing old machines with the latest, most improved models.

But business investment has long been at historically low levels, making our weak productivity performance hardly surprising. And the dearth of new investment spending is also hardly surprising considering consumer spending has been so weak for so long.

Nor is weak consumer spending surprising when you remember how weak the growth in real wages has been. One reason wage growth has been so weak, as Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has pointed out, is the present fashion of businesses using any and every means – legal or otherwise – to limit labour costs and so increase profits. There are other paths to profitability.

While we’re thinking unfamiliar thoughts on the possible causes of our productivity plateau, remember this one: when businesses have been investing strongly in new equipment in the past, it’s often been a time when labour costs have been rising rapidly, giving them a strong incentive to invest in labour-saving machines.

(Note, it’s precisely because this increases the productivity of labour, and thus increases real national income, that the pursuit of labour saving simply shifts the demand for labour from goods-producing industries to services-producing industries, leaving no decline in the demand for labour overall.)

Last year some economists at the International Monetary Fund wrote a blog post on yet another contributor to weak productivity improvement, which will certainly come as a surprise to “Brother Stu,” federal Education Minister Stuart Robert, who late last month sent a “letter of expectations” to the government’s Australian Research Council outlining the Morrison government’s desire to prioritise short-term research jobs that service the interests of commercial manufacturers.

It’s possible he and Scott Morrison merely wish to swing one for the Coalition’s generous business backers, but my guess is they imagined they were striking a blow for higher productivity. If so, they’ve been badly advised.

Research by the IMF economists finds that productivity improvement in the advanced economies has been declining despite steady increases in research and development, the best indicator we have on “innovation” effort, the thing so many business people give so many speeches about.

But get this: they find that what matters for economic growth is the composition of spending on R&D, with basic scientific research affecting more sectors for a longer time than applied research (commercially oriented R&D by companies).

“While applied research is important to bring innovations to market, basic research expands the knowledge base needed for breakthrough scientific progress,” they say.

“A striking example is the development of COVID-19 vaccines which, in addition to saving millions of lives, has helped bring forward the reopening of many economies . . . Like other major innovations, scientists drew on decades of accumulated knowledge in different fields to develop the mRNA vaccines.”

Which suggests the Morrison government has just jumped the wrong way in its latest intervention into the affairs of our universities. Should have done more R&D of their own before jumping.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Prep for the new year: what I've learnt about happiness

Let me wish you a happy new year. And not just a happy New Year’s Eve, a whole year of happiness. But the thing about happiness is to be sure you know what you’re wishing for. It’s something that’s surprisingly easy to get wrong.

Normal economic journalists don’t waste time thinking about such a touchy-feely topic, but I went astray. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about it. Even wrote a book about it.

I blame Bob Hawke, who once hit the headlines for saying that economics was about happiness. Though many economists today may deny it, he was right. He meant that economics was about helping people maximise their “utility” – the satisfaction they derive from their consumption.

“Happiness” is a word used by ordinary people, so journalists use it freely. Although some economists study it, most would never use such a frivolous word. “Welfare” is the closest they come. They’ve stopped talking about “utility” because they can’t measure it.

It’s psychologists who take most interest in happiness, but even they prefer to call it “subjective wellbeing”. Sounds more scientific.

A recent article from the British Psychological Society says that “people who are happy – who enjoy ‘hedonistic wellbeing’ - experience plenty of positive emotions and are generally pretty satisfied with life”.

But that’s just a psychologist’s way of saying that happy people have been shown to be ... happy. It doesn’t tell you how to become happy – nor whether happiness is what we should be shooting for.

The article does go on to quote the finding of a review of many studies that, while some strategies recommended for boosting happiness – such as taking time in the day to reflect on what you are grateful for – are far from bad in themselves, if you expect them to make you feel noticeably happier, you’re likely to be disappointed.

The social commentator Hugh Mackay – a man from whom I’ve learnt much – is very critical of the modern preoccupation with happiness. It’s that word “hedonistic” that offends him. It implies that it’s OK to make the pursuit of pleasure our primary goal. Seek out positive emotions and avoid negative emotions as much as possible.

As usual, he’s right. A life of pleasure seeking and avoiding all pain is unlikely to be satisfying. Pain and sadness are part of the human condition, and without our measure of them we aren’t fully human. It’s inhuman not to feel sad over the death of someone we love or the breakup of a relationship.

We’ve evolved to feel pain as well as pleasure, negative as well as positive emotions, for good reason. Pain, for instance, can be a signal to keep our fingers away from hot stoves, or to go to the doctor’s.

The sadness we feel over our own misfortunes should leave us with empathy towards the misfortunes of others, that we should renew our efforts to live up to the Golden Rule.

The British article offers a better kind of happiness: what Socrates called “eudaimonia” – the feeling that your life has meaning, and that you are reaching your potential.

It quotes a study finding that people who felt more strongly that the things they did in their lives were more worthwhile – in other words, that their life had meaning – were better off in all kinds of ways: socially, physically and emotionally.

So, how do we add meaning to our lives? One way could be through our jobs – paid or unpaid. The goal of helping to make the world a better place is easier seen in some jobs than others. But I remember reading of a hospital cleaner who saw her job as vital to speeding the recovery of the patient and the convenience of their visiting families.

The more fundamental way to add meaning is via our relationships with family, friends and workmates. We are, first and foremost, social animals.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says “social relationships are a powerful predictor of happiness – much more so than money. Happy people have extensive social networks and good relationships with people in those networks”.

The other thing I’ve learnt is not to be misled by the US constitution and think you can pursue happiness. The founding fathers meant people should be free to run their lives as they see fit. True. But it’s a mistake to have being happy as your primary goal – and even worse to think you can make yourself happy by treating yourself to all the things you enjoy doing (chocolate, for instance).

People who keep asking themselves “am I happy?” or “what can I do to make myself happy?” aren’t happy – and probably never will be. Happy people rarely think about being happy.

Happiness pursuers have got it the wrong way round. Happiness is a side effect of being too busy leading a fulfilling life to think about it.

The way to be happy is to forget your own happiness and concentrate on making other people happy.

Read more >>

Monday, December 27, 2021

This isn't America, so please stop acting like a Yank

If there’s one thing that annoyed me about 2021, it’s the way people have been aping all things American. Our financial markets copped a bad dose of it, the media got carried away, we looked to the Yanks – the smart ones and the crazies - to know what we should think and do about the coronavirus, and many on the Right of politics took their lead from Trump’s Republicans.

One on one, I like the Americans I know. But put them together as a nation, and they seem to have lost their way. We’ve long imagined the US to be the wellspring of everything new and better, but these days it seems to be racing headlong towards dystopia.

Who’d want to be an American? Who’d want to live there?

There’s nothing new, of course, about American cultural imperialism. You’ve long been able to buy a Coke in almost any country. Or, these days, a Big Mac or KFC.

But globalisation has hugely increased America’s influence in the world. Wall Street dominates the world’s now highly integrated financial markets. What’s less well appreciated is the way advances in telecommunications and information processing have globalised the news media. Call it the internet.

These days, news of a major occurrence in any part of the world spreads almost in real time. One thing this means is that you can read the latest from The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald in almost any country.

But another thing is that we get saturation coverage of all things America. These days, America’s greatest export is “intellectual property” – patents and copyright covering machines, medicines and software, but also books, films, TV shows, videos and recorded music, and news and commentary from all of America’s great “mastheads”.

Of course, the little sister syndrome applies. Just as Kiwis know more about us than we know about them, so we and people in every other country know more about the Americans than they know about us. Just ask John Fraser, Malcolm Trumble and “that fella from Down Under”.

And remember this: when you’re as big and as rich as America, you’re the best in the world at most things – but also the worst in the world. These guys win the Nobel Prize in economics almost every year but, no doubt, have the biggest and best Flat Earth Society. They have loads of the super-smart, but even more of the really dumb.

Back to this year’s Yankophile annoyances, as soon as Wall Street decided America had an inflation problem and would soon be putting up interest rates, our local geniuses decided we’d soon be doing the same.

Small problem – we don’t have a problem with inflation. Our money market dealers know more about the US economy than they know about their own. To them, we’re just a smaller, carbon copy of America. If you’ve seen America, you’ve seen ’em all.

The Americans have a lot of people withdrawing from the workforce – leaving jobs and not looking for another – which they’re calling the Great Resignation. Wow. Great new story. So, some people in our media are seizing any example they can find to show we have our own Great Resignation.

Small problem. Ain’t true. Following the rebound from the first, nationwide lockdown in 2020, our “participation rate” – the proportion of the working-age population participating in the labour force by having a job or actively looking for one – hit a record high. With the rebound from this year’s lockdowns well under way, the rate’s almost back to the peak.

A lot of America’s problems arise from the “hyperpolarisation” of its politics. Its two political tribes have become more tribal, more us-versus-them, more you’re-for-us-or-against-us. The two have come to hate each other, are less willing to compromise for the greater good, and more willing to damage the nation rather than give the other side a win. More willing to throw aside long-held conventions; more winner-takes-all.

The people who see themselves as the world’s great beacon of democracy are realising they are in the process of destroying their democracy, brick by brick – fiddling with electoral boundaries and voting arrangements, and stacking the Supreme Court with social conservatives.

Donald Trump continues to claim the presidential election was rigged, and many Republicans are still supporting him.

It’s not nearly that bad in Australia, but there are some on the Right trying to learn from the Republicans’ authoritarian populism playbook.

When your Prime Minister starts wearing a baseball cap it’s not hard to guess where the idea came from. Or when the government wants to require people to show ID before they can vote, or starts stacking the Fair Work Commission with people from the employers’ side only. Enough.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Have a good break – this time you’ve more than earned it

Looking forward to some time off over the summer holidays? I am. Long time since I’ve been in more need of a decent break. Few more columns to go, and I’m off for four weeks.

This will surprise and shock you, but regular polling by the Roy Morgan outfit has found that, by September, the total annual leave owing to Australian employees had reached a record 185 million days, up almost a quarter on a year earlier.

No need to tell you it was all the lockdowns and lockouts – not just from other countries and other states, but even 100 kms down the coast. We’ve had little ability to take leave. Nor much desire to either, if it meant holidaying at home.

The proportion of workers owed less than two weeks is down and the proportion owed more than seven weeks (including me) is up past 10 per cent. Of course, the almost 40 per cent people working as casuals don’t get annual leave.

Whether they actually get the 15 to 25 per cent pay loading they’re supposed to instead is something you wouldn’t be sure of – but we’ll leave that unpleasant thought ’til we’re back next year.

I’m a great believer in the benefits of annual leave. When I used to worry about burning out, I decided to follow two rules: always take the leave you’re given and always get a change of scenery.

Sometime back there was a fad of employers allowing people to “cash out” their leave. It was a terrible idea and fortunately seems to have died out. When, decades ago, state governments did what today would be unthinkable and simply passed a law compelling employers to provide paid annual leave, they did so for good reason.

Workers who never get a decent break in which to rest and recuperate – to re-create – do eventually burn out. At the least, the quality of their work falls off. Allowing them to use their leave money to buy a new car does both the worker and the boss an injury. It’s self-harm for capitalists.

The festive season carries risks of family fights and overindulgence as well as pleasures, but a great advantage of living Down Under is that it leads seamlessly to the summer holidays. I’ve been boning up on what advice the psychologists and others on the universities’ The Conversation website give on making sure we get the most from our holidays.

Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, of the University of South Australia, offers several good tips. One is: don’t go into debt. I doubt if many people feel pressure to help the economy by spending big, setting themselves up with huge credit card bills in the new year, but if they do, they shouldn’t.

The economy exists to serve us; we don’t serve it.

Another suggestion: go back to nature. I’ve long believed that humans have an evolutionary affinity with nature – trees, greenery, water, views – which those of us who live in big cities must regularly propitiate. Go bush, do some walks. A holiday cottage backing onto a national park is perfect.

In the same vein: do simple things. In my day, parents on holiday left kids to their own devices. No one ran around spending money to keep kids entertained. Dr Monica Thielking, of Swinburne University of Technology, says “your children may complain they’re dying of boredom, but they are not. It may even be good for them”.

A growing body of research suggests boredom in children can make them more creative. Many use daydreaming to regulate boredom-induced tension. Daydreaming is good, shifting attention to thinking about “situations, memories, pictures, unresolved things, scenarios or future goals”.

Adults need to relax, de-stress, forget our jobs completely for a few weeks. But many people (including me) find this very hard, if not impossible. I like to catch up with professional reading. Many of us are still checking work emails and taking work calls.

Drs Dan Caprar, of Sydney University, and Ben Walker, of Victoria University, Wellington, say the problem for many of us is that we derive a strong sense of self from our work. “Whether we work by choice, necessity, or a bit of both, many of us find work inevitably becomes a source of our identity,” they say.

We develop professional identities (“I’m a lawyer”) organisational identities (“I’m a Google employee”) or performance-based identities (“I’m a top performer”). This can be beneficial. It’s been linked with increased motivation and work performance, and even better health, they say.

But it does prevent us from switching off. And, though I suppose I should be turning my attention to post-retirement interests, I can’t make myself read some famous person’s biography. Pop psychology is the furthest I stray from economics.

My retired mates seem heavily into streaming video, and that does tempt me – I’ll watch all the various fictional accounts of the struggles of the Murdochs – or the Windsors - and Vienna Blood on SBS On Demand even beats Vera.

Sorry. Serious suggestion: try a digital detox.

Read more >>

Monday, December 20, 2021

Frydenberg right to put full employment ahead of budget repair

It’s hard to feel sympathy for a government that used ignorant scaremongering about the public debt to get elected in 2013, but now doesn’t want to mention the D-word and is being attacked by its own deluded conservatives (plus point-scoring Laborites). Even so, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has his priorities right in leaving budget repair for later.

It’s noteworthy that the governments’ critics have turned their guns on the likelihood that Scott Morrison will use next year’s pre-election budget to announce yet another one-year extension of the low and middle-income tax offset at a one-off cost to the budget of $8 billion, while studiously ignoring the stronger case for abandoning the stage three tax cut legislated for July 2024, with an ongoing cost of double that.

Stage three is aimed at benefiting higher income-earners. Could this be mere coincidence? Trouble is, as Frydenberg has explained, “we have been working to a clear fiscal [budgetary] strategy to drive the unemployment rate to historically low levels” as we emerge from this great economic shock.

This being so, the only justification for a country with so much debt awarding itself another unfunded tax cut is that most of it will be spent rather than saved and thus hasten our achievement of very low unemployment.

But since households’ rate of saving tends to rise with their income, that makes the cheaper temporary low-and-middle tax cut likely to help much more than the dearer and long-lasting tax cut aimed at higher income-earners.

The belief that cutting tax rates helps by giving people greater incentive to work is an article of (self-interested) faith among high income-earners. And for the Liberal Party. Indeed, Frydenberg repeats this supposed self-evident truth many times a week.

But it’s not based on economic theory, nor supported by empirical evidence. The evidence is that a person’s marginal tax rate (the tax on any extra income they earn) doesn’t greatly affect the work effort of primary earners (mainly, men with full-time jobs) but does affect the work effort of secondary earners – particularly those with young children.

This is why the government’s decision in this year’s budget to greatly reduce the cost of childcare for second and subsequent children should do far more to raise workforce participation than the stage three tax cut ever could. Money well spent.

This, however, doesn’t fit the biases of many of those who profess to be so worried about our high public debt. Their real motive is just to pay less tax, which explains why they think all tax cuts and tax concessions are good, but all government spending is bad. This is economic nonsense.

Leaving aside the self-interest of high income-earners, many conservatives’ concern about our high level of debt is just instinctive. They have a gut feeling that it must be dangerous. They really ought to give the matter more study.

But here’s something even many well well-versed people don’t realise, mainly because it hasn’t suited the politicians and econocrats to tell them: effectively, all the bonds the government has had to issue to cover the huge budget deficits since the pandemic are now held by . . . the Reserve Bank of Australia - which, of course, is owned by the federal government.

So most of the extra interest the feds are paying will find its way back to the budget in the form of higher dividends from the Reserve.

This is not because the Reserve bought the new bonds directly from the government, but because its extensive program of “quantitative easing” – buying second-hand government bonds and paying for them by creating money out of thin air – has amounted to a sum roughly equal to the new bonds sold to the public (mainly to superannuation funds).

But the most important thing to understand is Frydenberg’s repeated statement that the government’s strategy is to “repair the budget by repairing the economy”. This is not just another meaning-free slogan, it’s a statement of fundamental economic truth and political reality.

Governments rarely pay off the debt they incur. Rather, they reborrow to cover their bonds as they fall due, and concentrate on ensuring the economy grows faster than the debt’s growing, thus reducing the debt relative to the size of the economy – and the taxes being paid by the people in the economy.

Which brings us back to where we started: Frydenberg’s strategy of forcing the pace of economic growth to get the rate of unemployment sustainably down to the low 4s or even lower.

This strategy – to keep pushing unemployment down until it’s clear the inflationary pips are squeaking – was first suggested by Professor Ross Garnaut in his book, Reset, and taken up by Peter Martin, of The Conversation website.

It was inspired by the example of the United States which, before the pandemic, got unemployment down to near 3 per cent before wages got moving.

The first point is that there’s nothing better you could do to make the economy bigger (and bigger relative to the public debt) than to ensure more of those who want to work actually get jobs, earning incomes and paying taxes.

Labour lying idle is the worst kind of economic inefficiency.

But the strategy has a deeper objective: to make the market for labour so tight that employers have no option but to increase wages to retain the people they need.

Like all sensible economic managers, Frydenberg’s unspoken concern is the risk that, once the economy has rebounded from the coronacession - with considerable help from temporary fiscal stimulus - it falls back into the “secular stagnation” low-growth trap that the rich countries have been caught in since the global financial crisis.

Our wage growth has stagnated since this government came to power. It’s the most important single cause and consequence of our low growth. Labor will be making hay with this in the election campaign.

Ending wage stagnation is the key to a sustainable return to a healthy rate of economic growth. And given the Coalition’s tribal objection to using regulatory reform to get wages moving, getting unemployment down and tightening the labour market is the right solution to the problem.

Once it has been solved, the budget balance will be improved and the public debt will be less worrying to the unversed. If Frydenberg can get us back to the lowest unemployment since the 1970s, he’ll be up there with Paul Keating as one of our greatest treasurers.


In this column last Monday I overstated the regressiveness of the stage three tax cut. I quoted a summary of the findings of analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office, but should have checked it. The office’s actual findings are that about two-thirds of the tax cut will go to taxpayers earning $120,000 or more. The highest-earning 20 per cent of taxpayers will receive more than three-quarters of the money. My statement that only a third will go to women remains correct.

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Friday, December 17, 2021

Like election promises, many budget forecasts never materialise

You’d think after the fiasco of Back in Black, Josh Frydenberg would have learnt not to count his budgets before they’re hatched. But no, he’s a politician facing an election and nothing else matters.

His message in this week’s mid-year budget update is: the virus is in the past and the economy is fixed – as you’d expect of such great economic managers as our good selves.

Well, it’s not certain the pandemic has finished messing with the economy. Unmessed with, we can be confident the economy will bounce back the way it did after last year’s national lockdown. But there’s no guarantee it will be soaring high into the sky.

The main thing to remember is that a budget forecast is just a forecast. Under all governments – but particularly this one – a lot of forecasts never come to pass.

It was the unexpected pandemic, of course, whose arrival stopped the budget deficit ever turning into a surplus, despite Morrison and Frydenberg’s repeated claim in the last election campaign that we already were Back in Black. They even produced coffee mugs to prove it.

Frydenberg’s big word this week for the economy under his management is “strong”. He is sticking to the government’s “plan to secure Australia’s strong recovery from the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression”.

“Having performed more strongly than any major advanced economy throughout the pandemic, the Australian economy is poised for strong growth” in real gross domestic product of 4.5 per cent this calendar year and 4.25 per cent next year, his budget outlook says.

This reflects “strong and broad-based momentum in the economy”. “Income-tax cuts and a strong recovery in the labour market are seeing household consumption increase at its fastest pace in more than two decades” while “temporary tax incentives will drive the strongest increase in business investment since the mining boom, with non-mining investment expected to reach record levels”.

Consistent with the “strong economic recovery”, the rate of unemployment is forecast to reach 4.25 per cent in the June quarter of 2023 which, apart from a brief period before the global financial crisis in 2008, would be the first time we’ve had a sustained unemployment rate below 5 per cent since the early 1970s.

This, should it actually come to pass, really would be something to crow about. But the return to a goal of achieving genuine full employment has been made necessary by this government’s chronic inability to achieve decent growth in real wages.

Without such growth you don’t get sustained strong growth in consumer spending and, hence, adequate growth in the economy overall. Thus the economic managers have become so desperate they’re trying to create a shortage of labour, as the only way of forcing employers to resume awarding decent pay rises.

Trouble is, this could become a vicious circle: you won’t get employment growing strongly and unemployment falling without sustained strong growth in consumer spending, but you won’t get that until real wages are growing strongly.

Frydenberg’s advance advertising for the budget update said that, under his revised forecasts, the rate of increase in wages will get greater each year for the next four years. According to his modelling, he said, on average a person working full time could see an increase of $2500 a year till 2024-25.

But, assuming it happens, that makes it sound a lot better than it is. Comparing the rise in the wage price index with the rise in the consumer price index, real wages fell by 2.1 per cent last financial year, 2020-21.

Since that’s in the past, we know it actually happened. Turning to the budget’s revised forecasts, real wages are expected to fall by a further 0.5 per cent this financial year, before rising by 0.25 per cent in the following year, then by 0.5 per cent the next year and by 0.75 per cent in 2024-25.

Doesn’t sound like a lot to boast about. If it actually happens, Frydenberg’s “plan to secure the recovery and set Australia up for the future” will have taken another three or four years before it’s delivering for wage earners.

To be fair, this week we did get impressive evidence that the economy is rebounding strongly from the lockdowns in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. In just one month – November – employment grew by a remarkable 366,000, while the unemployment rate fell from 5.2 per cent to 4.6 per cent. And there was a big fall in the rate of underemployment.

It’s a matter of history that the economy did bounce back strongly from the initial, nationwide lockdown last year. (This, by the way, shows the pandemic bears no comparison with the Great Depression.)

It’s noteworthy that, whereas the update’s fine print says the economy is “rebounding” strongly, Frydenberg says the economy is “recovering” strongly. The two aren’t the same. This week’s wonderful employment figures say we can be confident the economy is rebounding after the latest lockdowns just as strongly as in did the first time.

But a rebound gets you quickly back to square one. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, having rebounded, you’ll go on growing at a faster rate than the anemic rate at which we were growing before the pandemic.

That remains to be seen. And that’s where Frydenberg is being presumptuous with all his confident inference that a strong recovery’s already in the bag.

Lots of things could confound his happy forecasts. The obvious one is more trouble from the virus. Less obvious is this. You may think that getting unemployment down to 4.6 per cent in November means we’ll have no trouble achieving the forecast of getting it down to 4.25 per cent by June 2023.

But you’ve forgotten something. One important reason we’ve had so much success getting unemployment down to amazing levels is because we’ve done it with closed borders. When the borders reopen, it will become a lot harder.

Read more >>

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Inheritance: the major life event no politician wants to mention

When I was growing up, my family didn’t have much. We lived rent-free in a succession of down-at-heel manses (the Salvos called them “quarters”), but my father’s stipend was a small one on which to support four kids.

Mum worried about where my parents would live after they retired but, with much scrimping and saving (including making my sisters hand over almost all their wages), they built and paid off a small cottage at Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle.

After my father died, Mum spent many impatient years in God’s waiting room, longing to be “promoted to Glory” and thus reunited with my Dad.

That was in 2004 but, though all she had was the cottage and a thousand or two in the bank, that was enough for the four of us to receive one or two hundred thousand each. By then, we were middle-aged and well established. It was nice to add it to the pile, but we didn’t desperately need it.

More people are receiving significant inheritances these days. They’re getting bigger and will get bigger still.

We worry that houses are becoming unaffordable, but the other side of ever-rising house prices is that inheritance has become an important event in most people’s lives. Many people look forward to it, and family disputes or unhappiness over wills is not uncommon.

But here’s a funny thing. When was the last time you heard a politician talking about inheritances? You didn’t. They never do. I’m sure they think about their own inheritance, but they never want to mention yours or anyone else’s.

In the 1970s, Australia became one of the few rich countries to abolish death duties (state and federal). People were so happy to see the end of them that death duties have become one of the bogeymen of federal politics.

Want to start a scare campaign? Spread a rumour that the other side has a secret plan to reintroduce death duties. Want to oppose limits on share franking credits? Claim it’s a form of death duties.

This is why, compared with other countries, we have little information – and even less reliable figures – on the size and dispersion of inheritances. The pollies fear that if they let the bureau of statistics ask people questions about their wealth, their opponents would jump to conclusions.

This explains why last week’s report from the Productivity Commission was “the first comprehensive research report on wealth transfers” and was initiated by the commission, not requested by the government.

The report explains that rising house prices are just the main reason inheritances are getting bigger. Another is that, with superannuation having been compulsory for about 30 years, more people are dying with unspent super balances. And, of course, family sizes are getting smaller.

The report finds that each generation has been wealthier than the previous one, though Baby Boomers have done particularly well. It found that $120 billion was transferred in 2018 – 90 per cent as inheritances and 10 per cent as earlier gifts – which was more than double that in 2002.

The average inheritance, we’re told, was $125,000. But that included a few large inheritances plus many much smaller ones. The average inheritance received by the wealthiest 20 per cent of recipients was $121,000, and by the poorest 20 per cent was about $35,000. Or so we’re told.

Not surprisingly, the children of rich parents received much bigger inheritances than the children of poor parents. Nor is it very surprising that the children of rich parents tend also to be rich, while the children of poor parents tend also to be poor.

But this may surprise: if you switch from focusing on absolute dollars to looking at relative size, you find that the smaller inheritances received by people without much wealth increase that wealth by a much higher percentage than the larger inheritances increase the wealth of already-rich recipients. The same thing can be seen in other countries’ figures for wealth transfers.

So, to a small extent, the growing prevalence of inheritance is reducing the gap between rich and poor. And, as the report’s authors stress, inheritance isn’t the main reason the children of the rich are also rich and the children of the poor also poor.

No, monetary inheritances explain only about a third. The rest is explained by “all the other things parents give their children – education, networks, values and other opportunities”. And remember, IQ is mainly genetic. Luck is another factor.

Did you notice how little of the wealth transfers gifts accounted for? The authors say they couldn’t find strong evidence of larger transfers from the Bank of Mum and Dad “despite popular belief”.

Sorry, not convinced. By their own admission, the data they’ve been using are “somewhat limited”. My guess is that more people receive inheritances than their figures show. The size of inherited amounts seems very low. As for parents having to cough up to help their kids buy a home, it’s become a big deal relatively recently.

So if the statisticians can’t find much evidence of it, that’s probably because they haven’t been asking the right questions.

Read more >>

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Stop kidding: the 2024 tax cut will be economically irresponsible

It’s a safe bet that, once we’ve seen the mid-year budget update on Thursday, we’ll hear lots of economists and others saying the government should be getting on with budget repair: spending cuts and tax increases.

That’s despite the update being likely to show that the outlook for the budget deficit in the present financial year and the following three years is much better than expected in the budget last May.

It’s also true even though the case for “repairing the budget by repairing the economy” is sound and sensible. The federal public debt may be huge and getting huger, but, measured as a proportion of gross domestic product, the present record low-interest rates on government bonds mean the interest burden on the debt is likely to be lower than we’ve carried in earlier decades.

It’s true, too, that recent extensive stress-testing by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office has confirmed that the present and prospective public debt is sustainable.

It remains the case, however, that both this year’s Intergenerational report and the budget office project no return to budget surplus in the coming decade, or even the next 40 years – “on present policies”.

So, it’s not hard to agree with former Treasury secretary Dr Ken Henry that doing nothing to improve the budget balance is more risky than it should be, too complacent. It leaves us too little room to move when the next recession threatens.

And, indeed, the Morrison government’s revised “medium-term fiscal strategy” requires it to engage in budget repair as soon as the economy’s fully recovered.

But there’s no way Scott Morrison wants to talk about spending cuts and tax increases this side of a close federal election. Nor any way Anthony Albanese wants to say he should be.

Of course, that won’t stop Morrison & Co waxing on about how “economically responsible” the government is – especially compared to that terrible spendthrift Labor rabble. Nor stop Labor pointing to all the taxpayers’ money Morrison has squandered on pork barrelling, and promising an Albanese government would be more “economically responsible”.

But here’s my point. There’s a simple and obvious way both sides could, with one stroke, significantly improve prospective budget balances, and because it would be front-end loaded, disproportionately reduce our prospective public debt over years and decades to come.

There’s no way such a heavily indebted government should go ahead with the already-legislated third stage of tax cuts from July 2024, with a cost to the budget of more than $16 billion a year.

Those tax cuts were announced in the budget of May 2018 and justified on the basis of a mere projection that, in six years’ time, tax collections would exceed the government’s self-imposed ceiling of 23.9 per cent of GDP. That is, the government would be rolling in it.

It was said at the time that it was reckless for the government to commit itself to such an expensive measure so far ahead of time. It was holding the budget a hostage to fortune.

But so certain were Morrison and Josh Frydenberg that the budget was Back in Black that, soon after winning the 2019 election, they doubled down on their bet and insisted the third-stage tax cuts be legislated. Desperately afraid of being “wedged”, Labor went weak-kneed and supported the legislation.

If, at the time, a sceptic had warned that anything could happen between now and 2024 – a once-in-a-century pandemic, even – they’d have been laughed at. But they’d have been right.

Just last week, Finance minister Simon Birmingham righteously attacked his opponents for making election promises that were “wasteful and unfunded” – by which he meant that they would add to the budget deficit.

But the tax cut both sides support is now also “unfunded”. We’ll be borrowing money to give ourselves a tax cut. That’s economically responsible?

It might be different if you could argue that the tax cut would do much to support the recovery, but it wasn’t designed to do that, and it won’t. Stage three is about redistribution, not stimulus and not (genuinely) improved incentives.

The budget office has found that about two-thirds of the money will go to the top 10 per cent of taxpayers, on $150,000 or more. Only a third will go to women. So, the lion’s share will go to those most likely to save it rather than spend it. Higher saving is the last thing we need.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Get real. There’s no way either side would want to repeal a tax cut, especially just before an election.

Regrettably, that’s true. But, this being so, let’s tolerate no hypocrisy from politicians – or economist urgers on the sidelines – making speeches about “economic responsibility” without being willing to call out this irresponsible tax cut.

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Friday, December 10, 2021

Don't let any politician convince you your taxes will be going down

Whenever an election approaches, we can expect the bulldust count to soar on claims about the prospects for the economy and, particularly, about how well the budget’s being managed.

Election campaigns inhabit a financial fantasyland, with both sides promising lower taxes, higher government spending and improved budget balances.

Our politicians have spent decades training voters to believe that, when it comes to the budget, we can have our cake and eat it.

It’s now pretty clear that, whether the federal election is held in March or May, Scott Morrison will be repeating the winning formula he used last time: the Liberals are the party of lower taxes, whereas Labor is the big-spending, big-taxing party.

You want lower taxes? Vote Liberal.

But take my tip. Whatever party gets voted in, and whatever tax cuts they’ve promised in the short term, over any longer period taxes will be going up.

Why? Two reasons, one general, one specific. And remember this: one of Morrison’s claims is to have abolished “bracket creep” – the way inflation causes you to pay a higher proportion of your income in tax. He hasn’t.

The general reason we’ll be paying more in tax is that, as the Australian Council of Social Services reminded us this week, “as people become wealthier, they expect better health, education and income support and modern public infrastructure.

“As the populations of wealthy nations age, we sensibly devote more resources to health and [aged] care.”

Just so. Where it concerns budgets, the notion of Smaller Government – lower government spending and lower taxes – was always a pipedream.

As the Economist magazine has written recently, “stopping further growth of government over the coming decades will be close to impossible. The most important debates to come will be about the state’s nature, not its size.”

Why is it that economists, business people and mainstream politicians unceasingly advocate economic growth? To raise our material standard of living. To give us more income to spend on the things we want, to improve our lives.

But here’s the trick: many of the things we want more of come from the government, or are heavily subsidised by the government. We pay for them indirectly, via the taxes we pay.

That’s true of health (doctors, medicines, hospitals), education (schools, TAFE and universities), all the various forms of “care” (childcare, disability care, aged care) and much else.

As our incomes rise over time, we spend more on some things but not others, as we see fit. Much of what we choose to spend more on comes from the private sector. Better homes, for instance. Not a problem, as young waiters say incessantly.

But when the things we want more of come via the government, suddenly there is a problem. What? You want me to pay higher taxes just because I demanded more and better health care? Outrageous.

We even have conservative politicians trying to tell us paying more tax for more health care is bad for the economy. Bad for jobs and growth.

What? Employing more doctors, nurses and other health workers is bad for jobs? Spending more on health is bad for growth? Are you stupid? It is growth.

Over the 30 years between 1991 and 2019, federal government spending per person grew at the rate of 1.7 per cent a year, after inflation.

What we got for that included the introduction of Medicare, pensions (but not unemployment benefits) linked to wage increases so pensioners’ living standards kept pace with the rest of the community, and introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But get this. Between 2010 and 2018, the rate of real growth in federal government spending per person slowed to just 0.5 per cent a year.

And the budget last May projected that the rate of growth from 2022 to 2024 would be minus 0.7 per cent a year.

But the independent Parliamentary Budget Office warned in its recent review of budget projections to 2032: “Australians’ expectations about the volume and quality of services provided by government mean greater risks that [public expenditures] will be higher”.

That’s a bureaucrat’s way of saying “You guys have got to be kidding”.

The latest growth in real annual spending per person of just 0.5 per cent is unsustainable. The projected fall of 0.7 per cent a year is simply unbelievable.

The Morrison government has been trying to cover the cost of its various tax cuts by, as ACOSS and the community sector have said, running a “low-cost government”. It claims to have guaranteed the provision of “essential services” but, in truth, it’s been cutting corners and penny-pinching all over the place.

Its income support payments to people of working age, of just $45 a day, are well below the poverty line. We have a growing number of people who can’t afford housing, but the government refuses to spend on social housing.

The government imposes long waiting times for in-home aged care packages and other care services – which are often of poor quality. It seems to be yielding to pressure to reduce funding of the national disability scheme.

It has neglected to spend what it should on dental care and mental health care. Its privatised system of employment service providers has failed to reduce entrenched, long-term unemployment. It has allowed a decline in public and community education and training infrastructure.

It has failed to Close the Gap with community-controlled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services.

And it’s made inadequate investment in the transition to a clean economy, disaster resilience and other help for people to adapt to global warming.

Governments can get away with this neglect for only so long before voters start pushing back and – as we saw with the big spending on aged care in this year’s budget, following the royal commission’s damning report – government spending has to catch up.

And where government spending goes, taxes follow – whatever false impressions pollies try to give us in election campaigns.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Beware of governments using algorithms to collect revenue

A great advantage of having children and grandchildren is that they can show you how to do things on the internet – or your phone – that you can’t for the life of you see how to do yourself. But a small advantage that oldies have over youngsters is that we can remember how much more clunky and inconvenient life used to be before the digital revolution.

When you had to get out of your chair to change the telly to one of the other three channels. When you spent lunchtimes walking to companies’ offices to pay bills. When you had to visit your own branch of a bank to get cash or deposit a cheque.

When you had to write and post letters, rather than dashing off an email or text message. When we were paid in notes and coins rather than via a direct credit. When buying something from a business overseas was too tricky to ever contemplate.

Computers connected by the internet are transforming our world, making many of the things we do easier, more convenient, better and often cheaper. Businesses are adopting new technology because they see it as a way to cut costs, compete more effectively, attract more customers and make more money.

Governments have been slower to take advantage of digitisation, websites, artificial intelligence and machine learning. But there’s a lot to be gained in reduced red tape, convenience for taxpayers, efficiency and cost saving, and now governments at all levels are stepping up their use of new technology – which most of us would be pleased to see.

But, as with so many things, new technology can be used for good or ill. The most egregious case of government misuse of technology was surely Centrelink’s “automated income compliance program” aka robo-debt.

Here, a dodgy algorithm was used to accuse people on benefits of understating their income over many years and to demand repayment. Despite assurances by the two ministers responsible – Christian Porter and Alan Tudge – that all was fair and above board, huge anxiety was caused to many unjustly accused poor people.

The Coalition government obfuscated for years before a court finally ruled the program unlawful and the government agreed to return $1.8 billion. For a scheme intended to cut costs, it was an immoral own goal.

But last week the NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller, revealed that something similar had been going on in NSW. Between 2016 and 2019, the state’s debt-collection agency, Revenue NSW, unlawfully used an automated system to claw back unpaid fines from financially vulnerable people, in some cases emptying bank accounts and leaving them unable to buy food or pay rent.

The automated system created garnishee orders, requiring banks to remove money from debtors’ bank accounts, without the debtors even being informed. The computer program took no account of any hardship this would impose.

Between 2011 and 2019, the number of garnishee orders issued by Revenue NSW each year jumped from 6900 to more than 1.6 million. The Ombudsman began investigating after receiving “a spate of complaints from people, many of them financially vulnerable individuals, who had discovered their bank accounts had been stripped of funds, and sometimes completely emptied.

“Those people were not complaining to us about the use of automation. They didn’t even know about it.”

As usually happens, we find out about this long after the problem has been (apparently) rectified. Unlike the feds, the NSW Revenue office agreed to modify its process in 2019, so that garnishee orders are no longer fully automated.

People identified as vulnerable were excluded from garnishee orders. And a minimum amount of $523.10 (!) is now left in the garnished account.

But Revenue NSW didn’t seek advice on whether the original scheme was legal, so the Ombudsman did. It wasn’t. The lawyers say the law gives the right to extract money from people to an “authorised person” – not to a machine.

So, two isolated incidents – one federal, one state – and everything’s now fixed? Don’t be so sure. Miller says that, in NSW, other agencies are known to be using machine technologies for enforcement of fines, policing, child protection and driver licence suspensions.

How do we know it isn’t happening – or will happen – in other states?

NSW Finance Minister Damien Tudehope said garnishee orders were a last resort after a person had been contacted multiple times in writing and given options about overdue fines.

“For those who have chosen to ignore our notices and simply don’t want to pay, the community has an expectation we take action to recover what is owed,” he said.

Yes, but few of us want governments riding roughshod over people who can’t pay because they’re on poverty-level social security benefits.

I leave the last word to Anoulack Chanthivong, NSW opposition finance spokesman: “The pursuit of economic efficiency through artificial intelligence should never come at the expense of treating our more vulnerable citizens with dignity and decency.

“Governments at all levels are meant to serve our community and make their lives better, not find unlawful ways to make them worse.”

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Monday, December 6, 2021

Panicking financial markets could stuff up another global recovery

In economics, there’s not much new under the sun. When I became a journalist in the mid-1970s, the big debate was about which mattered more: inflation or unemployment. You may not realise it, but that’s the great cause of contention today.

With prices having risen surprisingly rapidly this year in the US and Britain – but few other advanced economies – we’re witnessing a battle between people in the financial markets, who fear inflation is back with a vengeance and want interest rates up to get it back under control, and the central banks.

The central bankers see the higher prices as a transitory consequence of the supply and energy disruptions arising from the pandemic. They fear that, once their economies have rebounded from the government-ordered lockdowns and fear-induced reluctance to venture forth, their economies will soon fall back to into the “secular stagnation” or weak-growth trap that gripped the advanced economies for more than a decade following the 2008 global financial crisis until the arrival of the pandemic early last year.

The decade of weak growth involved high rates of saving but low rates of business investment, record low interest rates, weak rates of improvement in the productivity of labour, low wage growth and, not surprisingly, inflation running below the central banks’ target rates. All that spelt adequate supply capacity, but chronically weak demand.

In the months before the arrival of the pandemic, central banks grappled with the puzzle of why economic growth had been so weak for so long – and what they could do about it.

In particular, our Reserve Bank had to ask itself why it had gone year after year forecasting an imminent rise in wage growth, without it ever happening. With such weak growth in real wages – the economy’s chief source of income – it was hardly surprising that consumer spending and growth generally were weak, and that inflation remained well below the Reserve’s target.

Earlier this year, with the economy rebounding so strongly from last year’s nationwide lockdown – but before the Delta setback – the econocrats in the Reserve and Treasury realised that recovering from the coronacession wouldn’t be a problem.

But once all the fiscal stimulus and pent-up consumer spending had been exhausted and the economy returned to its pre-pandemic state, where would the impetus for further growth come from? Certainly not, it seemed, from healthy growth in real wages.

What explained the way we’d finally joined the Americans in their decades-long wage stagnation? And what could central banks do about it? The obvious answer seemed to be to run a much tighter labour market and see if that got wages moving.

Perhaps, as a hangover from the 1970s and ’80s, when the world really did have an inflation problem, we’d continued worrying too much about inflation and not enough about getting the economy back to full employment.

For years we’d been making these fancy theoretical estimates of the NAIRU – the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment; the point to which unemployment could fall before labour shortages caused inflation to take off – but unemployment rates had fallen quite low without the remotest sign of excessive wage growth.

Perhaps we should be less pre-emptive. Stop relying on theoretical estimates and just keep allowing the economy to grow until we had proof that wages really were taking off before we applied the interest-rate brakes.

And perhaps we should base decisions to raise rates on actual evidence of a problem with inflation – including, particularly, evidence of excessive growth in real wages – rather than on mere forecasts of rising inflation.

Our Reserve’s thinking was matched by the US Federal Reserve’s. Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress in July 2019 “we have learned that the economy can sustain much lower unemployment than we thought without troubling levels of inflation.”

Which brings us to this year’s budget, back in May. Although the economy seemed clearly to be rebounding from the coronacession, and debt and deficit were high, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg swore off the disastrous policy of “austerity” (government spending cuts and tax increases) that panicking financial markets had conned the big advanced economies into after the Great Recession, thus crippling their recoveries.

While allowing the assistance measures for the initial lockdown to terminate as planned, the budget announced big spending on childcare and aged care, following a strategy of “repairing the budget by repairing the economy”.

Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy and Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe made it clear they wanted to keep the economy growing strongly until the unemployment rate was down to the low 4s – something we hadn’t seen for decades – as the best hope of getting some decent growth in real wages.

This is still what the central banks want to see: a new era of much lower unemployment and, as a consequence, much healthier rises in real wages to power a move to stronger economic growth than we saw in the decade before the pandemic.

But now Wall Street is panicking over the surprisingly big price rises caused by the pandemic’s disruption, and has convinced itself inflation’s taking off like a rocket. If the Fed doesn’t act quickly to jack up interest rates, high and rising inflation will become entrenched.

Despite our marked lack of worrying price rises, our financial markets – not known for their independent thinking – have joined the inflation panic, betting that, despite all Lowe says to the contrary, our Reserve will be putting up rates continuously through the second half of next year.

So convinced of this are the market dealers that the (better educated) market economists who service them have begun thinking up more plausible arguments as so why rates may need to move earlier than the Reserve expects. ANZ Bank’s Richard Yetsenga, for instance, fears that if everyone tries to spend all the money they’ve saved during the lockdowns, “rates will need to rise to crimp spending intentions”.

See what’s happening? According to the financial markets, the pandemic has not merely cured a decade of secular stagnation, it’s transported us back to the 1970s and out-of-control inflation. That’s the big threat, and unemployment will have to wait.

Apparently, this dramatic reversal in the economy’s fortunes has occurred without workers getting even one decent pay rise.

There are three obvious weaknesses in this logic. First, globalisation has not made our economy a carbon copy of America’s. Second, there’s a big difference between a lot of one-off price rises and ongoing inflation. If the price rises don’t lead to higher wages, no inflation spiral.

Third, even if the central banks did get a bit worried, they’d start by ending and then reversing “quantitative easing” – creating money from thin air – before they got to raising the official interest rate.

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Friday, December 3, 2021

A quick economic rebound seems assured - but then what?

The good news in this week’s “national accounts” for the three months to end-September is that the Delta-induced contraction in the economy was a lot less than feared – not just by the financial market economists (whose guesses are usually wrong) but by the far more high-powered econocrats in Treasury and the Reserve Bank. So now it’s onward and upward.

According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, real gross domestic product – the economy’s total production of goods and services – fell by 1.9 per cent in September quarter, thanks to the lockdowns in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

This contraction of 1.9 per cent compares with the fall of 6.8 per cent in the June quarter of last year, caused by the initial, nationwide lockdown. We know that, as soon as that lockdown ended, the economy rebounded strongly in the second half of last year, and kept growing in the first half of this year – until the Delta variant came along and upset our plans.

So we have every reason to be confident the economy will rebound just as strongly in the present December quarter now the latest lockdowns have ended. We’ve yet to assess and respond to the latest, Omicron variant but, now so many of us are vaccinated, it shouldn’t require anything as drastic as further lockdowns.

We can be confident of another rebound not just because we now understand that the contractions caused by temporary, government-ordered, health-related lockdowns bear little relationship to ordinary recessions, but also because the early indicators we’ve seen for October and November – including those for what matters most, jobs – tell us the rebound’s already started.

In ordinary recessions, it can take the government months to realise there is a recession and start trying to pump the economy back up. With a government-ordered lockdown, the government knows what this will do to reduce economic activity so, from the outset, it acts to make up for the loss of income to workers and businesses.

As with all contractions, most people keep their jobs and their incomes and so keep spending. In a lockdown, however, they’re prevented from doing much spending by being told to stay at home.

This means everyone has plenty they could spend – even people whose employment has been disrupted. So their savings and bank balances build up, waiting until they’re allowed to start consuming again. When the lockdown ends, the floodgates open and they spend big.

After last year’s lockdown, the proportion of their income being saved by the nation’s households leapt to more than 23 per cent, up from less than 10 per cent. Over the following four quarters, it fell to less than 12 per cent.

What we learnt this week is that, following the latest lockdown, the household saving ratio jumped back to almost 20 per cent. So there’s no doubt households are cashed up and ready to spend.

The main drop during the September quarter was in consumer spending (down 4.8 per cent), with business investment spending down 1.1 per cent, and housing investment treading water. Even so, earlier government support measures mean the outlook for business and housing investment spending remains good.

Why was the blow from the latest lockdown so much smaller than that from last year’s? Mainly because it only applied to about half the economy. The other states grew by a very healthy 1.6 per cent during the quarter.

But the main reason this year’s contraction proved smaller than economists were expecting seems to be that businesses and households have “learnt to live with” lockdowns. We now know they’re temporary and we’ve found ways to get on with things as much as possible.

Businesses have thought twice about parting with staff, only to have trouble getting them back. Businesses have become better at using the internet to keep selling stuff and consumers better at using the net to keep buying.

The volume (quantity) of our exports rose during the quarter and the volume of our imports fell sharply, meaning that “net exports” (exports minus imports) made a positive contribution to growth during the quarter of 1 percentage point.

However, this was more than countered by a fall in the level of business inventories, which subtracted 1.3 percentage points from growth. The two seem connected.

The fall in imports seems mainly explained by temporary pandemic-related constraints in supply. And inventory levels are down mainly for the same reason. Seems cars are the chief offender.

Our “terms of trade” – the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports – improved a little during the quarter to give a 23 per cent improvement since September last year.

Both the improvement in our terms of trade and the improvement in net exports help explain some news we got earlier in the week: the current account on our balance of payments (a summary record of all the financial transactions between Australia and the rest of the world) rose by $1 billion to a record $23.9 billion surplus during the quarter.


The surplus on our trade in goods and services rose to almost $39 billion and, while our “net income deficit” (the interest and dividends we paid to foreigners minus the interest and dividends they paid us) rose to more than $14 billion, that was a lot less than it used to be.

If you think that sounds like good news, you have more economics to learn. We’ve run current account deficits for almost all the years since white settlement because, until recent years, we’ve been a “capital-importing country”.

The sad truth is, in recent years we’ve been saving more than we’ve needed to fund investment in the expansion of our economy, so we’ve been investing more in other people’s economies than they’ve been investing in ours.

But that’s because we haven’t had much investment of our own. The rebound to a growing economy seems assured, but returning to the old normal isn’t looking like being all that flash.

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