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Archive for the ‘Economic policy’ Category

A data point on minimum wages

April 29th, 2016 23 comments

I’m currently working on a section of my Economics in Two Lessons book dealing with minimum wages in the context of predistribution policies, so I thought I would compare Australia with the US, where the idea of a $15/hour minimum wage is currently a hot topic. In Australia there are two kinds of minimum wage. The PPP exchange rate is estimated at $A$1.30 = $US, which is fairly close to the market exchange rate at present, so I’ll give both $A and estimated $US equivalents

The standard minimum wage for workers aged 21 and over is $A17.29 hour ($US13.30) applying to employees under standard award conditions. These include four weeks annual leave, sick leave, employer contributions to pension plans and so on.

More comparable to the situation of US minimum wage workers are “casual” workers, employed on an hourly basis. Casual workers get a loading of at least 25 per cent, bringing the wage up to at least $A21.60 an hour ($US16.60), to compensate for the absence of leave entitlements. In addition, they have entitlements including:

* “Penalty” rates for weekend and night work (usually a 50 per cent loading, 100 per cent on Sundays)
* For workers employed on a regular basis, protection against unfair dismissal.

The policy question is: what impact have these high minimum wages had on employment and unemployment. That’s too big a question to answer comprehensively, but we can look at the obvious data points: the official unemployment rates (5.7 for Oz, 5.5 per cent US) and the 15-64 employment population ratios (72 per cent for Oz, 67 per cent US). So, it certainly doesn’t look as if the Australian labor market has been crippled by minimum wages.

Note: I’ll respond in advance to the widespread misconception that Australia is a special case due to mineral resources. Mining accounts for about 2 per cent of employment in Australia, and (because most mines are owned by multinationals) its contribution to Australian national income is also so, probably around 5 per cent.

* Workers aged 18 get about 70 per cent of the adult minimum, equivalent to around $US11.50 for casuals. But the great majority of US minimum wage workers (about 80 per cent) are 20+.

What do Australian economists think about policy?

April 28th, 2016 9 comments

Jan Libich of La Trobe University has a new book out called Real-World Economic Policy: Insights from Leading Australian Economists. Each chapter has a fairly accessible introduction to an economic policy issue, along with an interview with an Australian economist: examples include Bob Gregory, Andrew Leigh and Warwick McKibbin. It’s useful both as an intro text and to get a bit of insight into how some of our leading economists think about the issues facing Australia.

Categories: Books and culture, Economic policy Tags:

The Smart State saves Queensland

April 24th, 2016 31 comments

I’ll be talking tomorrow (Tuesday) at the Queensland Jobs Growth Summit organized by the University of Queensland School of Economics and The Australia Institute.

The core point of my presentation is that the resilience of the Queensland economy, despite the end of the coal boom reflects the transition to a knowledge based economy, symbolized by the Beattie government’s “Smart State” strategy and the opposite of the nostalgic and reactionary Four Pillars (agriculture, mining, construction and tourism) strategy pushed by the LNP.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A Royal Commission to end all (or most) Royal Commissions

April 18th, 2016 28 comments

In political terms, it’s hard to fault Labor’s call for a Royal Commission into the banking system. It’s a neat riposte to the government’s Double Dissolution trigger, the ABCC bill derived from the Royal Commission into trade union corruption, which spent $100 million to announce that it had discovered a handful of cases of petty corruption*, claimed to be “the tip of the iceberg”. (That was one of a string of Royal Commissions set up as political vendettas by the Abbott government, none of which found anything useful.) The hypocrisy of this effort, when we are daily bombarded with evidence of corruption in business, finance and the LNP itself is obvious, and the proposed Commission provides a convenient political hook. And doubtless there will be plenty of evidence of individual wrongdoing, real or alleged.

However, I don’t think this proposed Commission will be any more useful, in practice, than Abbott’s. The problem with the banks is not so much breaches of the rules but the rules themselves. What we need is another inquiry which, unlike the Campbell, Wallis and Murray inquiries is not run by advocates of financial deregulation.

The Royal Commission we should really have is one into Abbott’s Royal Commissions, taking the same nakedly political approach as those Commissions did. The Commissioners, the counsel assisting and the government ministers who called the Commissions should be questioned on the political understandings with which they approached the job, the waste of public money involved. With luck, that would deter any future use of Royal Commissions as partisan vendettas, and leave them to inquire into real issues of public concern, where the powers of Royal Commissions really are necessary.

Finally an observation and a question: Having been critical of the TU Royal Commission, I’ve tried to be consistent in the prediction that this one will be similarly ineffectual. Did any of those now arguing that we don’t need a Royal Commission into banking make the same observation about TURC?

* As far as I know, no union offical has yet been convicted of a corruption offence as a result of the Commission’s work, while at least four prosecutions have failed or been dropped. My guess is that the total number of convictions will end up below 10, and the total amount of money involved not much more than a million dollars. That’s a pretty appalling return for $100 million of public funds that could have been used to protect the community against armed robbers and burglars, not to mention white collar criminals.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

The Oz makes the case for higher taxes

April 14th, 2016 13 comments

A couple of days ago, I was one of fifty signatories to a letter opposing the proposed cut in company tax rate and rejecting the general idea that Australia needs lower taxes. We got excellent coverage from the ABC, Fairfax papers and so on. But by far the most extensive was from The Australian. I counted at least four stories all with a prominent run on the website

* A straight new story, though of course replete with phrases like “the left wing establishment”
* The IPA attacking the signatories as the “fatuous fifty”
* Shorten also attacking the company tax cut as a recipe for “mayhem”
* A front page piece saying a tax increase is a lazy way of solving our problems

Not so long ago, the Oz would have ignored a statement like this (or stuck it in a short story on the inside pages) with the plausible justification that it’s just a bunch of lefties saying what lefties usually say. The fact that they felt the need to reply over and over is revealing, in two ways.

Read more…

Proof by exhaustion that we need a higher top rate of income tax

April 4th, 2016 79 comments

Watching the flailing of the Abbott-Hockey-Turnbull-Morrison government on budget policy has been grimly amusing, for those who enjoy politics as theatre. But it has also provided a nice lesson in the policy process, related to an apocryphal[1] story about (IIRC) Thomas Edison. After a thousand or so failed attempts to design a workable filament and design for a lightbulb, Edison was supposedly reproached with discovering nothing, and answered “On the contrary, I’ve discovered 1000 ways that don’t work”.

The AHTM government came to power with the twin slogans “axe the tax” and “fix the debt”, along with a commitment not to cut any public spending that people cared about, and to spend even more on the military than before. That created an obvious problem: how can we bring the budget back into something like balance, given that we have taken on substantial expenditure commitments, and that we can’t rely on bracket creep. To give them credit, they’ve tried just about every answer but one

* First, they tried the standard LNP approach of setting up a Commission of Audit, discovering a budget emergency and breaking promises on spending. That produced the disastrous 2014 Budget, which ended the careers of Abbott and Hockey in due course. Thanks to the backloading of the big cuts, it’s now destroying Turnbull and Morrison. Turnbull has backed off a little way on health, and is still stalling on education. But his disastrous floating of the idea of completely endingFederal funding for state schools means he’ll be in a politically untenable position when he tries to sell smaller cuts, while claiming not to want to kill the sector.

* Second, having killed the carbon and mining taxes, thereby making the deficit even worse, Abbott realised that it would be impossible to claw back the compensating tax cuts given to low income earners.

* Next Abbott called for a tax debate, but ruled out just about everything in advance. Turnbull and Morrison went one better, putting everything on the table, and then killing off each possible option as it ran into trouble. That included the GST, superannuation concessions, the tangle of negative gearing and concessional capital gains taxes, changes to dividend imputation and so on.

* Finally, long after the “all options” discussion was over, Turnbull popped up with the idea of giving income tax back to the states, which lasted all of two days. He is now trying the ludicrous spin that, having rejected his half-baked idea, the states are on their own financially.

So, the government has succeeded in finding lots of approaches that don’t work. The only one left is higher income tax for those who can afford to pay it. The first step would be to maintain the Temporary Budget Repair Levy until the budget is actually repaired. But the real answer is to recognise that the big gainers from the changes in the economy over the past decade or more have been high income earners, and this is the group who need to pay more.

I’m planning to do some proper calculations on this, when I get a little free time.

fn1. Retailing apocryphal stories is anachronistic, now that they can be falsified (or occasionally verified) with a quick Google search. But it’s habitual for old academics, and I regard it as a kind of performance art, like doing a high wire act without a net. In any case, Google is getting less and less useful for anything except selling stuff, so we may have to rely on old skills like memory again.

Refighting World War II

February 26th, 2016 64 comments

In keeping with his commitment to do exactly what Tony Abbott would have done, but with more style, Malcolm Turnbull has just announced that we are to spend a trillion dollars on fighter plans and submarines. Apparently, there are lots of problems with the hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Australia has on order. Rather than look at the details, it’s worth asking we are, yet again, arming ourselves to refight World War II.

World War II was fought on land, sea and air. Submarines and fighter planes played a crucial role. But since 1945, things have changed. The 70 years since 1945 have been marked by near-continuous land warfare in various parts of the world [1]. On the other hand, there has been essentially no naval warfare, in the sense of battles between ships or carrier based aircraft, with the exception of the absurd and unnecessary Falklands conflict. Air combat between fighter planes lasted a bit longer after 1945, playing a big role in the Korean War, but has been pretty much non-existent since the 1980s. All warplanes, these days, are effectively bombers, usually hitting targets that have previously been rendered defenceless by missile attack. Yet the problems of the F-35 stem, in large measure, from its capacity to engage in hypothetical dogfights.

Fighter planes and their pilots still attract most of the attention, and nearly all the glory, in air warfare. But the real work is increasingly done by drone operators, commuting from the suburbs to undertake their task of destruction in air conditioned offices: since they see exactly what they have done, the job is apparently much more stressful than that of a fighter pilot. So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars. The specific problems of the F-35 are irrelevant in this context: it will in any case be obsolete by the time it’s delivered.

As for submarines, Wikipedia gives a list of submarine actions since 1945. There have been six of them, three involving the sinking of surface ships, and three involving the firing of cruise missiles, something that can be done from craft as small as corvettes.

Submarines have been much more notable for sinking themselves. Wikipedia lists four US submarines sunk at sea since 1945, two with all hands. The Russians have done far worse, losing 18 subs, most notably the Kursk, lost with all hands in 2000.

Submarines aren’t obsolete in all their possible uses. If the world ends in a nuclear holocaust, the final missiles will probably be fired from nuclear-armed submarines. But the revival of old-style submarine warfare, using our subs to sink (say) Chinese naval vessels seems remote: the increasing power and range land based anti-ship missiles will soon make naval power obsolete. Even more remote (thankfully) is the use of submarines to attack merchant ships without warning, as was done in both World Wars.

Of course, no one can be certain that seemingly obsolete modes of warfare won’t be revived: For example, there was a cavalry charge during the Afghan war. But spending a trillion dollars on weapons systems that haven’t been used anywhere in the world for decades does not seem like a sensible use of public money.

Having posted this, I’m fully prepared to get a hammering from military buffs who will point out that I have got this or that detail of air and naval warfare wrong. But the idea that detailed knowledge of tech specs or the minor points of military history constitutes expertise is, in this context, quite wrong. In the absence of any significant air or naval warfare within living memory, supposed expertise is about as useful as Scott Morrison’s knowledge of unicorns. The only important thing to know is that, like nearly all military expenditure and nearly all wars, these proposed purchases haven’t been subject to a cost-benefit test and would fail it if they were.

fn1. There’s a case that land warfare has become less frequent, or at least less bloody over time. But it’s hard to tell.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy

February 10th, 2016 26 comments

The sudden collapse of four for-profit vocational education enterprises including Aspire college is the latest in a string of scandals, failures and license revocations in the sector.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Apollo Education Group, owner of the “University” of Phoenix, has been taken private for $1 billion, a fraction of its peak market value. UoP pioneered the model of providing a bogus education to publicly funded students, ripping off both the students and the public purse. As the US has cleaned up the worst abuses, UoP and others have seen their profits shrink, to the point of bankruptcy in some cases.

The provision of public funds to for-profit operators has been a predictable, and predicted disaster. Of all the disasters perpetrated under the banner of microeconomic reform, education reform has probably been the worst.

In these circumstances, it would make sense for the national government, which has borne much of the cost, to take over the vocational education sector, properly fund the public TAFE system, and close down the for-profit sector, as was recently done in Chile.

The idea of a national takeover is, indeed, on the cards. But far from closing down the for-profit sector, it appears the Turnbull government plans to push the reform agenda even further.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said, Carry On.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The patrimonial society comes to Australia

February 7th, 2016 80 comments

Forbes just released its annual list of the ten richest Australians. Of the top eight, four inherited their wealth. The other four range in age from 75 to 85, suggesting that new heirs are likely to be joining the rich list before too long.

This pattern isn’t yet representative of the Australian wealth distribution as a whole, but it is becoming more so. Piketty’s patrimonial society is not far away.

There are a lot of things we can do to promote a more equal distribution of opportunity and outcomes, but a return to taxes on inheritance (preferably levied on the recipient rather than the estate) would be a good start.

Increasing GST: not worth the effort. How about inheritance taxes?

February 5th, 2016 104 comments

I posted this analysis in December, suggesting that, once the necessary compensation is paid for, an increase in GST wouldn’t be worth the effort. Apparently Treasury modelling (which I haven’t yet located) produces the same conclusion. Given that everything is supposedly on the table, maybe it’s time to look at some new options. An obvious example is inheritance taxes, which raised a fair bit of money before being scrapped in the late 20th century. As the inequality of wealth increases, the case for such taxes becomes every stronger.

Repost

The Grattan Institute has just released a report suggesting that the government should get more revenue from the GST, either by broadening the base to include food, health and education (yielding an extra $17 billion) or by raising the rate to 15 per cent (yielding an extra $27 billion). As you’d expect from Grattan, the analysis is sound and careful. As long as you accept the standard framing of the tax reform debate, in terms of the need to shift from direct to indirect taxation, it is reasonably convincing.

Grattan suggest using 30 per cent of the extra revenue to increase welfare payments and 30 per cent in cutting the bottom two tax rates, thereby compensating low income earners. The overview concludes:

Around 40 per cent of the additional revenue from a higher GST would be left over after welfare increases and tax cuts. At least some will need to go to state governments to help them address their looming hospital funding gap, as the price for their support of the change. This would leave a little – but not much – to reduce the Commonwealth’s budget deficit, or to pay for other tax cuts that promote economic growth.

(emphasis added).

Is that enough to sell the package? I can’t imagine the states going along with a deal like this for less than 20 per cent of the total extra revenue, which implies the Feds are left with 20 per cent, somewhere between $3.5 and $5.5 billion. From a political viewpoint, it’s hard to see this being worth the effort for the Turnbull government, especially with no guarantee of success.

As a comparison, the FBT concession for motor vehicles, reinstated by Tony Abbott costs the budget around $1.5 billion. Exemptions for non-profits, which have been comprehensively rorted, cost at least as much. Add in a few ‘rats and mice” concessions, and the Federal government would have as much as it could get, in net terms, from the Grattan package (Getting rid of the non-profit concession would probably require some compensating expenditure, but the same is true of the health and education concessions under the GST.)

That’s before we get to the elephants: superannuation concessions (also supported by the Grattan report), corporate tax avoidance, land tax and higher income taxes for (say) the top 5 per cent of income earners (reflecting elite opinion, the Grattan report suggests cutting these rates). All of these are hard, but not obviously harder than the GST.

So, why is GST reform at the top of the government’s list? The answer is simple enough. The advocates of reform haven’t had a new idea, on taxation or anything else, in 30 years. They didn’t get the GST out of Keating’s Tax Summit in 1984 and they didn’t get the version they wanted from Howard and Costello in 2000. So, the same old idea keeps on coming up.

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Education is an investment, not a filter

January 28th, 2016 44 comments

There’s been a fair bit of fuss about reports that it’s now much easier to get into a university course than it used to be. This is the unsurprising result of decades of public policy aimed in this direction (with some brief reversals, most notably when David Kemp was minister). This piece by Leith van Onselen is fairly representative

Thanks to the former Labor Government’s uncapping of university places in 2012, allowing universities to recruit as many students as they can fit, actual tertiary entrance scores have plummeted, meaning every man and his dog can now get a degree, devaluing their worth in the process.

Implicit in this statement is the “screening” theory of education, that the point of getting a university degree (or finishing high school for that matter) is to show that you are smarter than the people who didn’t. The idea that doing a degree might equip you with useful specific knowledge, or with general skills in reasoning, writing and so on, doesn’t get mentioned.

Assuming, as is fair in this context, that the “worth” of a degree is being conceived in monetary terms, the claim that degrees have been “devalued” depends on the future earnings of the students now being admitted. We can’t know this (neither can van Onselen). However, the long-term evidence is clear: in Australia, as everywhere else in the world, the wage premium for graduates has remained large enough to make going to university a very good decision, even as the proportion of young people undertaking university education has risen from a tiny minority in the mid-20th century to around 40 per cent today.

One interpretation of this is that, over the past century or more, the entire world has been engaged in more and more elaborate screening for no good reason. A more plausible explanation is that technological change has eliminated the kinds of jobs that used to employ kids with a Year 10 education (the median level of achievement when I was young), and replaced them with jobs that need the skills (specific and general) of a university graduate.

There’s every reason to think that these trends will continue in the future, so we are going to need more education not less. In my view, just about everyone should undertake post-secondary education either at university or TAFE.

In this context, I shoud note that van Onselen is spot-on about the disaster area that is for-profit education, particularly in the vocational sector. As I’ve said before, the for-profit providers should either be shut down or turned into contract providers for the TAFE system.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

More reform threatened

January 10th, 2016 56 comments

The Turnbull government is apparently keen to undertake more reform, in this case applying to the welfare system. This weekend I saw a couple of media reports, unsourced but apparently based on material supplied by Social Services Minister Christian Porter, based on the “alarming” projection that welfare payments will rise from $154 billion to $270 billion in a decade, more than can be accounted for by inflation and population growth.

A huge dollar figure makes for a scary headline but not for sensible analysis. The prosaic facts underlying this projection are
(a) Welfare payments are dominated by the old age pension
(b) The value age pension increases in real terms over time, since it is linked to earnings
(c) Even allowing for an increased age of eligibility, and more reliance superannuation, the proportion of the population eligible for the old age pension is unlikely to fall

Put these facts together, and it’s virtually certain that the welfare bill will grow broadly in line with national income (usually measured by GDP), and therefore will outstrip growth in population and inflation. Indeed, a quick check suggests a compound rate of growth of about 6 per cent*, almost exactly in line with nominal GDP (assuming 3.5 per cent real growth and 2.5 per cent inflation).

The government’s proposed reforms appear to involve attacks on recipients of welfare in the popular media sense of the term (Jobstart, disability benefits and so on). But the only ways in which the growth rate of the welfare bill can be held much below that of GDP are
(i) Freeze the real value of age pensions, as has been done to Jobstart since the 1990s; or
(ii) Reduce access to the age pension, either by further raising the access age or by tigntening means and assets tests.

* Porter’s briefing apparently suggested 7 per cent, which I can’t replicate. Feel free to check.

The Australian exception (crosspost from Crooked Timber Piketty seminar)

January 2nd, 2016 20 comments

Note I wrote two pieces in response to Piketty’s Capital . This one, on Australia, was based on one already published here, but I was asked to crosspost it and I’ve now done so.

Read more…

Categories: Books and culture, Economic policy Tags:

Do we need a global tax to stop rising inequality (crosspost from Crooked Timber seminar on Piketty)

December 30th, 2015 33 comments

One of the more depressing features of Capital in the 21st Century is the air of inevitability attached to the much-discussed r > g inequality. This is exacerbated, on the whole, by the fact that Piketty’s proposed policy response, a progressive global tax on wealth, seems obviously utopian.

What about a much simpler alternative: increasing the rate of income tax applied to the very rich, and removing preferential treatment of capital income? Piketty’s own work with Saez yields the conclusion that the socially optimal top marginal rate of taxation, after taking account of incentive effects, would be 70 per cent or more. Such rates prevailed, at least nominally, in the mid-20th century, without obvious ill effects. Again, Piketty provides the relevant evidence.

So, is there something about a globalised world economy that renders a return to high marginal rates of taxation impossible?

Read more…

Bracket creep: How to get the answer you want

December 23rd, 2015 18 comments

NATSEM recently released modelling showing that discretionary tax cuts have more than offset bracket creep since 2005 (that is, taxes are lower than if the income tax scales had been indexed to the CPI or a wage index). The Centre for Independent Studies replied with a study pointing out that you get the opposite conclusion by looking at the period since 2013. Why 2013?

We chose 2013 as the starting year because this is when the last change to tax thresholds occurred

Well, yes. If you pick a period in which there have been no discretionary tax cuts, you will certainly find that discretionary tax cuts have not outweighed bracket creep. As author Michael Potter observes

This shows the importance of the starting year.

There’s no need to check the CIS numbers: given the setup, only one answer is possible.

Correction Michael Potter advises that the CIS study includes the impact of the tax changes in 2012-13, making it possible in principle that these could have offset bracket creep. But the 2012-13 changes weren’t a general tax cut aimed at offsetting bracket creep. They offered small tax cuts for low income earners to offset the very modest impact of the carbon price/tax. These were clawed back by higher marginal rates so that upper income earners (appropriately) bore the full cost of the carbon price. The key point, stated below, is that the Howard-Rudd tax cuts introduced after the 2007 election were so large that they have more than cancelled out all the subsequent bracket creep.

Read more…

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Innovation: the test is yet to come

December 11th, 2015 18 comments

I have a piece in Inside Story, responding to the Innovation Statment. If Turnbull is really serious about an innovative society, he’ll show it by delivering the Gonski funding in full.

Comments welcome (Inside story doesn’t get much discussion, so best to comment here).

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Increasing GST: not worth the effort?

December 7th, 2015 30 comments

The Grattan Institute has just released a report suggesting that the government should get more revenue from the GST, either by broadening the base to include food, health and education (yielding an extra $17 billion) or by raising the rate to 15 per cent (yielding an extra $27 billion). As you’d expect from Grattan, the analysis is sound and careful. As long as you accept the standard framing of the tax reform debate, in terms of the need to shift from direct to indirect taxation, it is reasonably convincing.

Grattan suggest using 30 per cent of the extra revenue to increase welfare payments and 30 per cent in cutting the bottom two tax rates, thereby compensating low income earners. The overview concludes:

Around 40 per cent of the additional revenue from a higher GST would be left over after welfare increases and tax cuts. At least some will need to go to state governments to help them address their looming hospital funding gap, as the price for their support of the change. This would leave a little – but not much – to reduce the Commonwealth’s budget deficit, or to pay for other tax cuts that promote economic growth.

(emphasis added).

Is that enough to sell the package? I can’t imagine the states going along with a deal like this for less than 20 per cent of the total extra revenue, which implies the Feds are left with 20 per cent, somewhere between $3.5 and $5.5 billion. From a political viewpoint, it’s hard to see this being worth the effort for the Turnbull government, especially with no guarantee of success.

As a comparison, the FBT concession for motor vehicles, reinstated by Tony Abbott costs the budget around $1.5 billion. Exemptions for non-profits, which have been comprehensively rorted, cost at least as much. Add in a few ‘rats and mice” concessions, and the Federal government would have as much as it could get, in net terms, from the Grattan package (Getting rid of the non-profit concession would probably require some compensating expenditure, but the same is true of the health and education concessions under the GST.)

That’s before we get to the elephants: superannuation concessions (also supported by the Grattan report), corporate tax avoidance, land tax and higher income taxes for (say) the top 5 per cent of income earners (reflecting elite opinion, the Grattan report suggests cutting these rates). All of these are hard, but not obviously harder than the GST.

So, why is GST reform at the top of the government’s list? The answer is simple enough. The advocates of reform haven’t had a new idea, on taxation or anything else, in 30 years. They didn’t get the GST out of Keating’s Tax Summit in 1984 and they didn’t get the version they wanted from Howard and Costello in 2000. So, the same old idea keeps on coming up.

Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Oz and the Anglosphere

November 11th, 2015 17 comments

Here’s a piece for Inside Story, pointing out the rest of the English speaking world is doing worse than Australia, and that New Zealand, in particular, should never be used as a model in anything to do with economic policy.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

For-profit education: plenty of blame to go around

October 30th, 2015 33 comments

Success has a thousand parents, failure is an orphan. The truth of that proverb is illustrated by the blame game now going on around the disaster that is for-profit Vocational Education and Training (VET) in Australia. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen dozens of different stories illustrating the extent of the failure. The Oz alone has at least ten.

Reading these stories, it’s clear that this isn’t a matter of bad apples or abuse of the rules. The for-profit sector as a whole is delivering abysmally poor results while chewing up billions of public dollars.

Unsurprisingly, Labor is blaming the government for allowing this to happen. Equally unsurprisingly the Oz is running the line, pushed by Minister Simon Birmingham that it’s all the fault of the ALP who extended the FEE-HELP scheme to the VET sector in the first place.

I had to check back on the history, which reveals that this was actually an initiative of the Howard LNP government, announced in its final year, implemented by the Rudd Labor government, and carried on by the Gillard and Abbott governments. Victorian governments of both parties led the charge at the state level. So, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

But, that’s history. The real problem is that no one is willing to admit the obvious lesson, already evident from the US; for-profit education, funded by public subsidies, is a recipe for disaster.

I should concede though, that Birmingham is already edging towards the right answer, saying that he is and not as keen as he was to extend subsidies to bachelor and sub-bachelor courses at private colleges.

Another piece of good news is that the ACCC and Auditor-General are finally getting their teeth into this, doing what should have been done by the supposed regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which has been asleep at the wheel ever since it was established.

But no amount of tightening up at the edges can fix this problem. The only solution is to abandon subsidies to for-profit providers and put a serious effort into restoring and upgrading the TAFE system.

Finally, a blast from the past. Back in 2012, ACPET, the for-profit VET lobby group cited me as saying

“I think we will continue to see many examples of (dodgy) educational institutions. They are going to be much more common than examples of successful profit driven training or educational enterprises”.

The report in question (paywalled) concluded by quoting me as saying

The only solution is ultimately for the federal government to take over this area [of VET] and to then have a much more robust accreditation system for private providers than we have, and a much more sceptical one”

ACPET suggested that my position was reminiscent of the Flat Earth Society. At this point, I’d say the Flat Earth Society has at least as much credibility as ACPET.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Populism, Patrimonialism and US politics (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

October 17th, 2015 22 comments

Nuance is nearly always appealing to academics. For a long time, that was true of my approach to economic issues, particularly including income distribution. When presented with simplistic populist solutions to inequality like “Make the rich pay!”, I was inclined to responses along the lines of “It’s more complicated than that”.

A big problem with “Make the rich pay!” is that with the kind of income distribution that prevailed in the mid-to-late 20th century, any change to income tax that would raise significant revenue would have to apply to the top quintile (20 per cent) of the income distribution. People in the top quintile of the income distribution mostly derive their income from (typically professional or para-professional) employment, don’t think of themselves as rich, and aren’t, in general, seen this way by others. So, the slogan didn’t match the implied policy.

But with the rise of the patrimonial society that’s largely ceased to be the case. The top 1 per cent of the US population now get more than 20 per cent of all pre-tax income, considerably more than the total revenue of the Federal government. Within that group, the top 0.1 per cent have done better than everyone else, and the top 0.01 per cent even better.

So, taxing the 1 per cent more makes sense. I responded a little while ago to a piece trying to argue increasing the top marginal tax rate would make no difference to inequality. And while I was drafting this post, the NY Times came out with an article that reached broadly the same conclusion as mine.

There’s nothing inherently ludicrous in the suggestion that the very rich should pay most or all of the costs of sustaining a system that benefits them so greatly[^1]. And, as in the 1920s, the very rich are different from everyone else. Their wealth is derived primarily from capital, or from control over capital (as business owners or from the financial sector). And, while most of the current cohort of ultra-wealthy did not inherit large fortunes, that’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that there weren’t many large fortunes to inherit until recently. As Piketty demonstrates, a society dominated by large accumulations of wealth will inevitably one in which inheritance, rather than effort, education or talent, determines life outcomes.

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Thinking the unthinkable

October 16th, 2015 24 comments

Thirty odd years ago, Richard Cockett wrote a classic analysis of the role of UK think tanks, most notably the Institute of Economic Affairs, in the economic counter-revolution that ushered in the present era of market liberalism. The crucial “unthinkable” idea put forward by the thinktanks was that profit-driven firms might do a better job of providing a variety of services that were then part of the public sector. This contrasted with the dominant view that any failings of the public sector were the result of specific problems such as poor management that could be overcome by better oversight, organizational restructuring and so on.

The resulting policies of privatisation, corporatisation, competitive tendering and contracting, PPPs and so on have transformed the public sector. Their success has also transformed the public debate, rendering their own ideas as part of the common sense[1] of the political class, and making other ideas unthinkable.

The case of for-profit education provides an example. There is now overwhelming evidence that for-profit education has been a disastrous failure wherever it has been tried, and particularly where for-profit firms can gain access to public funds through policies designed to enhance “consumer choice”. Here are some recent examples:

* A New York Times report pointing out that for-profit universities are getting millions of dollars in public funds every month despite a sustained track record of fraud and failure

* One of many reports from Sweden, until recently the poster child for the for-profit sector, now in a state of crisis, with declining performance an growing inequality

* A Senate Committee report, describing “rampant abuse, accelerating costs, and doubling of bad debt” under the FEE-HELP scheme for vocational education

The common element is that the abuses are well known and long-standing, but the proposed remedy is more of the regulation that has failed in the past. The unthinkable option is to shut off the flow of public funds to the for-profit sector and return to the combination of public and non-profit provision that has worked so well in the past.

Of course, once this unthinkable thought is allowed into public debate, the entire premise of National Competition Policy, based on the idea that “contestable” markets are invariably good for the public, would be cast into question. That would open up a reassessment of reforms in electricity, telecommunications, water, health and many other services provided successfully by the public sector over the course of the 20th century.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Lots of different things

October 6th, 2015 61 comments

For no particular reason, I’ve been very busy in the past few days, commenting on this and that.

There’s this piece on the recently announced (but still secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Also, this SMH article by Clancy Yeates, citing my criticisms of the Productivity Commission case against penalty rates.

And, Campus Morning Mail links to my criticism of the bodies representing and regulating post-school education.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Would a significant increase in the top (US) marginal income tax rate substantially alter income inequality?

October 5th, 2015 38 comments

Yes.

This, you might think, qualifies as another in the series “Short Answers to Silly Questions”. But a Brookings Paper study by William G. Gale, Melissa S. Kearney, and Peter R. Orszag reaches the opposite conclusion. (Hat tip: Harry Clarke).

The study looks at increasing the top marginal tax rate (currently 39.6, applicable to incomes above $400k for singles), with the strongest option being an increase to 50 per cent. The proceeds are assumed to be redistributed to households in the bottom 20 per cent of the income distribution.

The headline finding is that the Gini coefficient is barely changed, as are other popular measures including the 99/50 ratio (the ratio of income at the 99-th percentile to 50-th percentile, that is the median). But the 99/10 ratio and 90/10 ratios change a lot, from 50 and 17 under current law to 37 and 12.5 with the redistribution.

What does this mean? Two things:

(i) As is well known, the Gini coefficient is a lousy measure of income inequality, much more sensitive to the middle of the income distribution than to the tails
(ii) The proposed redistribution would substantially improve the welfare of the poor, with most of the burden being borne by taxpayers in or near the top 0.1 per cent.

It’s obvious, as the authors note, that the 90-50 measure won’t change, since neither group is affected (there’s no simulation of behavioral responses which might have indirect effects). But, since the 99-th percentile income is very close to $400k, there’s very little impact on this group either. But the tax, as modelled, raises a lot of money from the ultra-rich incomes. As a result, distributing the proceeds at the bottom of the distribution raises incomes substantially, which explains the big changes in the 90-10 and 99-10 ratios.

The real lesson to be learned here, one I came to pretty slowly myself is that old-style measures looking at quintiles or even percentiles of the income distribution are no longer very relevant. The real question, in the economy of Capital in the 21st Century is how much should go to the ultra-rich.

Some post-school education bodies we could do without

October 1st, 2015 39 comments

First, there’s the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which is supposed to regulate the quality of vocational education. AQSA’s performance makes the Greyhound Racing Queensland Board look good

In 2012, when I wrote a report on vocational education, it was common knowledge that the for-profit education sector was comprehensively rotten, particularly in Victoria where the push to privatisation began. This ABC report suggests that ASQA was on the case. But three years later, the only thing that has changed is that the rot has spread nationwide. All the big names in the industry – Evocca, Aspire and so on – are engaged in practices like using laptops as inducement to recruit low-income students who have no chance of either completing their courses or repaying their HECS-HELP debts. There’s no surprise here – it’s exactly the business model of US for-profits like the University of Phoenix.

The right solution is to stop giving any public money to for-profit education businesses. But, in the current market liberal environment that would probably fall afoul of competition policy. So, my suggestion is to cap the amount any publicly funded institution can spend on marketing to Australian students. Ideally the cap would be well below the amount currently being wasted by universities and other public providers competing against each other with our money. That in turn would be far below the rake-off being taken by the recruiters on whom the for-profits depend.

In the meantime, AQSA is a proven failure. It needs to be scrapped and its functions turned over to a body with some real teeth and a willingness to defend the interests of students and the public purse, rather than being a captive of the industry it is supposed to regulate. A joint investigation by the ACCC and the Auditor-General would be a good start.

Next, Universities Australia, the Go8 and the other Vice-Chancellors’ clubs. Fresh from the fee deregulation debacle, they’ve turned their attention to the question of how we should allocate research training places (such as PhD programs).

In the case of fee deregulation, the VC groups were uniformly wrong, not to mention tin-eared. This time, we have the odd spectacle of the Go8 directly opposing UA, even though one is a subset of the other. The Go8 want to stop departments with poor research records, based on the “Excellence in Research Assessment” from getting funding for research training places. UA is opposed, making the point that ERA is not “fit for purpose”.

In the abstract, I have some sympathy for both sides of this argument but in practice it just looks like special pleading on both sides – UA wanting to keep something for all its members, and the Go8 lobbying for special treatment.

But the real problem is the one I identified in the deregulation debacle. The VC groups claim to speak for universities, but exclude all but 40-odd of the people who work and study in them. In the present case, wouldn’t the perspectives of research students and the academics who supervise them be more useful than those of VCs and administrators? To repeat, we need to replace UA with a body that represents students and staff as well as top management.

And, while we’re at it, how about dropping the linguistic abomination of names like Universities Australia[1]? Even knowing nothing else about the group, a name like this reeks of the worst kind of 1990s managerialism.

[^1] Are there any grammar experts who can give a name to the part of speech represented by “Australia” in this title? It’s not known to Standard English, I’m pretty sure.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A CHAFTA election? (updated)

September 17th, 2015 47 comments

Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Abbott has been the subject of much commentary, and I didn’t have anything to add. But now it’s time to look beyond the juggling of Cabinet positions and to consider some of the long term implications. Turnbull’s rise takes off the table, or radically changes the politics of, a number of issues that would have been central to an Abbott election campaign. Most obviously, there are the issues (climate change, equal marriage, republicanism) where Turnbull is known to agree with Labor but has said he will stick with Abbott’s policies. Obviously, Turnbull can’t run hard on these. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make political mileage out of the contradictions involved.

The ground Turnbull wants to fight on is that of economic liberalism, primarily as represented by the so-called Free Trade Agreements with Korea, Japan and, most importantly, China.

Turnbull has the near-unanimous support of the elites on these deals, even though it’s hard to find even a single economist who would support them with any enthusiasm. Anyone who has looked seriously at the issue understands that the trade aspect of these agreements is trivial. What matters are the side clauses on issues like Investor-State Dispute Settlement procedures, intellectual property, environmental protection and so forth. Unfortunately, political journalists, as a class, don’t do much thinking.

Here, for example, is Laurie Oakes, asserting that

>Labor needs to end up supporting this trade deal. That is the bottom line

but not providing a single argument in favour. In typical “Insider” style, Oakes says

The government charge that Labor is sabotaging jobs would not be a difficult one to sustain.

without worrying about whether this charge is actually true (it isn’t).

In the case of CHAFTA (the unlovely acronym for the China deal), the big problem is not in the agreement itself, but in a “Memorandum of Understanding”, which provides for circumstances under which a Chinese company can import its own workforce, without labour market testing (that is, even if there are Australians willing and able to fill the jobs) and without matching existing conditions.
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Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

When did “Free Trade Agreements” become “reform” ?

September 8th, 2015 15 comments

The Oz is pushing hard for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Support for the deal was (AFAICT) the only significant output from the “National Reform Summit” held by the Oz and AFR a week or so ago. This raises a few points of interest.

* Until very recently, bilateral trade deals of any kind were seen as the antithesis of free-market reform. Reformers favored either unilateral removal of trade barriers or global deals through the World Trade Organization. Admittedly, the latter is clearly a forlorn hope, but what happened to unilateral free trade

* Second, it ought to be clear by now that “reform” means “whatever the Oz and IPA wants”. For example, tax reform doesn’t mean taxing mineral rents or carbon externalities or tax-dodging trusts and shell companies. In essence, it means taxing food and giving the proceeds to the rich. Anyone concerned with good policy should stop using this word in a positive sense

* Most importantly, “Free Trade Agreements” are nothing of the kind. The key to the China deal is the expansion of the 457 system to allow for 100 per cent overseas workforces. Even if you think that’s a good idea, it should be addressed in the context of immigration policy. There’s a startling contradiction between this stuff and Joe Hockey’s high profile persecution of Chinese buyers who are allegedly pushing up the price of Sydney houses.

* The same is true of the other FTA’s this government has signed, and even more so of the proposed TPP. At most, the trade component of these deals consists of Australia selling its domestic policy sovereignty to foreign governments in return for the removal of their trade barriers.

Three word slogans

August 22nd, 2015 18 comments

I have a piece up at the Drum, looking at how the three-word slogan approach of the Abbott government helps to explain their budget problems. Text is over the fold

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Green jobs

August 17th, 2015 13 comments

The question of “green jobs” has arisen in a lot of different contexts. At present, the most relevant is the problem of how to deal with the employment effects of the necessary and inevitable decline of industries based on fossil fuels. Part of this question is whether expanding sectors of the economy will create a number of new jobs comparable to those that disappear , and whether those jobs will be appropriate for the kinds of workers who worked, or would have, in the declining sector (that is, predominantly, male manual and trades workers). There are a lot of conceptual problems here, which I’m not going to address in detail. Rather, I’ll just look at some raw numbers and throw in some comments.

I was struck recently to read that, in the United States, the solar power industry now employs 174 000 people. That’s twice as many as coal mining. And, while these aren’t direct substitutes, they are, it would appear, broadly similar kinds of industries in the sense that the core workforce is dominated by male manual and trades workers.

Looking quickly at similar stats for Australia, I found that the numbers were reversed. According to the ABS, there were just under 40 000 Australians employed in the coal mining industry in May 2015, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012, but well above the 20 000 or so employed in the early 2000s.

The Clean Energy Council estimates around 20 000 jobs in the renewables sector in 2014 – that’s up from virtually zero before 2010. So, broadly speaking growth in renewables has offset the decline in coal mining.

One specific issue in the US, that’s less of a problem here, at least in Queensland, is that of declining communities in places like Appalachia. Thanks to the practice of Fly-in Fly-Out, there are many fewer Australian communities focused on coal mining.

Finally, some related statistics I found in the process of researching this. The forestry and logging industries currently employ 3900 people (this number bounces about a lot, so I’m not sure how reliable it is). That’s about the same as the combined total for the NSW and Victorian National Parks systems. I expect if you added in various kinds of manual/trades jobs in adventure tourism and similar, you would find a net gain over the past 25 years or so.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

How our Senate (and not the US Senate) blocked the TPP

August 4th, 2015 17 comments

Following the breakdown of talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership last week, I did a quick reaction piece for Inside Story, making the point that our much-maligned Senate was the most important source of resistance to the demands for yet more protection for US pharmaceuticals, demands that make a mockery of both the claim that the TPP is a “free trade agreement” and the “diffusion of knowledge” rationale for the patent system.

Is an emissions trading scheme a carbon tax?

August 4th, 2015 23 comments

I was recently asked this question by ABC Fact Check. Here’s my answer:

The core idea of an ETS is to limit the volume of emissions (of carbon dioxide) by creating a set of permits that must be used by emitters. The permits may initially be auctioned or given away. Since the permits are tradeable a market price will be determined by the demand for permits and the willingness of permit holders to sell their permits. By contrast, a carbon tax sets a price on carbon emissions and allows the market to determine the volume of emissions.

There are a large variety of schemes that resemble the ETS in general structure. Within the environmental area, both the Renewable Energy Target and the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (if augmented with a baseline allocation and penalty structure) fall into this class. Other examples include taxi licenses, electronic spectrum auctions, and tradeable catch quotas in fisheries. None of these policies is normally described as a tax.