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Archive for the ‘Economic policy’ Category

GMI + JG = paid work as a choice for all

April 23rd, 2018 8 comments

I’ve been arguing for a while that a Guarantee Minimum Income (or Universal Basic Income) ought to be combined with a Jobs Guarantee to would make paid work a genuine choice for everyone. To spell this out, the GMI/UBI would make it possible to live decently without paid work, while a Jobs Guarantee would ensure that paid work was available to everyone. As a medium term policy, the best form of GMI would, I think, be the participation income advocated by the late Tony Atkinson. That is, a payment conditional on some form of social contribution, including voluntary work, study and childcare. Support for such a policy entails a direct confrontation with the punitive attitudes behind policies like Work for the Dole, while still maintaining the widely-held principle of reciprocity.

I was going to write more about this, but I just received an article by Felix FitzRoy and Jim Jin, in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice which presents the argument very well. So, I’ll just recommend that to anyone interested in the issue.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Fortune favours the brave (updated)

March 27th, 2018 75 comments

Most of the political commentariat were convinced that Bill Shorten had got things badly wrong by announcing his policy on dividend imputation immediately before the Batman by-election. It was even more striking that, despite the pressure, Shorten didn’t cave into demands for changes to the policy. Michelle Grattan, for example, described the policy as an “own goal“. After Labor’s easy win, she backed off a little bit, but still claimed that Labor “has a selling job“. M

Maybe so, but I’d say the government is the one that has scored goals for the other side.

(Update 27/3) As predicted, Labor has tweaked the policy to exclude pensioners. That blunts the remaining lines of attack, but doesn’t cost much money, since the benefits go primarily to high-wealth self-funded (but massively tax-subsidised) retirees. By waiting until after the Batman by-election and the latest Newspoll, Labor looks gutsy (even Dennis Shanahan in the Oz conceded this) and Turnbull looks even weaker than before

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Categories: Tax and public expenditure Tags:

Grattan unreliable on electricity networks

March 26th, 2018 14 comments

The Grattan Institute has just released a report blaming high electricity network costs on public ownership and excessive reliability standards. I commented on a draft of the report, but there wasn’t much change in relation to my comments.

My comments are over the fold. Let me offer the following, slightly ad hominem argument. Grattan has backed the National Energy Guarantee, a radical change in Australia’s energy policy, which was justified mainly by the occurrence of a single blackout in Adelaide. Yet it asserts (without any evidence I can see) that the responses to earlier blackouts in Queensland and NSW represent unjustified “gold plating”.

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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Bitcoin kills the efficient market hypothesis (now with full article)

February 9th, 2018 34 comments

I have a piece in the New York Times looking at the implications for the bitcoin bubble for economic theory and, in particular, for the (Strong) Efficient (Financial) Markets Hypothesis (EMH) which states that prices determined in financial markets reflect all the available information about the value of any asset. If that’s true then governments can’t improve on a policy of allocating investment to those assets with the highest market return, which can be achieved by letting private capital markets determine all investment decisions.

Bitcoins have no inherent usefulness, being a record of pointless calculations. They are useless as a currency (their putative purpose) and are now being promoted as a store of value on the basis of scarcity alone. This leaves supporters of the EMH with a dilemma.

If Bitcoins are indeed worthless, then financial markets should price them at zero. But the introduction of futures trading actually boosted the price in the short run. Even after recent declines, there’s no sign that prices will reach zero any time soon.

On the other hand, if Bitcoins are valuable simply because people value them, then asset prices are entirely arbitrary. The same argument can be applied to any financial asset.

Dean Baker at CEPR has a nice followup, making the obvious but crucial point that, since financial services are an intermediate input to production, we want the financial sector to be as small as possible, consistent with doing its essential tasks. As the experience of the mid-20th century shows, a market economy can function perfectly well with a financial sector much smaller than the one we have today. As Bitcoin shows, the massive expansion since then is nothing but wasteful speculation. The financial sector should be cut down to (a small fraction of its present) size.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The NFF doesn’t understand the difference between argument and abuse

February 6th, 2018 15 comments

I can remember when the @NationalFarmers Federation was an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Now, its response to a detailed critique of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is lame abuse. It reminds me of this classic Monty Python skit

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering …

February 5th, 2018 17 comments

there’s no more time to waste.

That’s the headline for a piece in The Conversation I’ve signed along with a dozen or so prominent scientists and economists who have worked for many years on the problems of the Murray Darling Basin. It’s been released along with a Declaration, reproduced over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Greens back renationalisation

February 3rd, 2018 12 comments

The Greens have announced a policy of renationalising the electricity grid, starting with transmission. Since that’s exactly what I proposed last year, it’s no surprise that I agree.

The crucial aspect of the policy is that it should begin with a reduction in the allowable rate of return to a level comparable with the long-term government bond rate. This ensures that the assets can be reacquired at their true value rather than paying the premium invariably associated with regulated rates of return based on spurious market comparators.

On a more snarky note, I can’t resist the observation that these assets were never fully privatised in the literal sense of the term. Rather, in many cases, they were sold to foreign governments operating through sovereign wealth funds.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Three gigs at the Senate

February 2nd, 2018 5 comments

I’ve appeared (or rather, been heard by teleconference) at two Senate inquiries this week, one on the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and one on the problems of the TAFE system. In addition, i completed a submission to the inquiry into the Future of Work and Workers, which is now available on the inquiry website.

The Future of Work submission was about the way in which technology and labor market institutions have interacted to generate the “gig” economy of insecure employment, continuously threatened by technological disruption. The key point is that decades of anti-union and anti-worker legislation and state action have created a situation where technological change is likely to harm rather than help workers. A summary is over the fold
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Renationalisation needs to break with corporatisation

January 29th, 2018 39 comments

My latest Guardian article is headlined https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/29/privatisation-is-deeply-unpopular-with-voters-heres-how-to-end-it. The core of the argument is that, to make a success of renationalisation, we need to do more than buy back privatised enterprises, and run them as publicly owned corporations. We need a different model. A starting point would be the statutory authority model used in Australia with great success, before the Hawke-Keating government adopted the corporatised model as a step towards privatisation.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The failure of vocational education and training policy in Australia

January 18th, 2018 15 comments

I mentioned a while ago that I was making a submission to a Senate inquiry into Vocational Education and Training in South Australia. My submission has now been published on the Committee website with the title “The failure of vocational education and training policy in Australia”

I was a bit surprised to be told it was Submission Number 1, but it turns out they’ve only published two so far. The other one, from Dr Gavin Moodie makes most of the same points as mine.

As I mentioned the inquiry appears to have been called as a stunt to embarrass the SA Labor government, but it has provided an opportunity to bring the Senate’s attention to the continuing bipartisan failure of vocational education policy. To restate my key points, they were

* The impact of decades of cuts in public support for vocational training
* The disastrous effects of subsidising for-profit providers
* The goal of universal participation in post-school education and training
* Integration of technical/vocational and university education

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The Rise and Fall of Keynesianism after the GFC

January 9th, 2018 17 comments

International Studies Quarterly has just published a symposium responding to a paper by Henry Farrell and me, which has been released from behind the paywall for the occasion. Our paper has the fairly self-explanatory title “Consensus, Dissensus, and Economic Ideas: Economic Crisis and the Rise and Fall of Keynesianism ” In our paper we looked at the resurgence of fiscal Keynesianism in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and of the successful counterthrust leading to the adoption of austerity policies in the US and Europe.

The symposium has comments from a multidisciplinary group of political scientists, sociologists and economists: Abraham Newman, Andrew Baker, Elizabeth Popp Berman, Paul Krugman, Stephen K. Nelson along with a response from us. It’s great to get these different disciplinary perspectives all in one place, since they all have key pieces of the puzzle, and we are very happy they have chosen to engage with us.

The predictable, and predicted, failure of electricity market reform

January 4th, 2018 18 comments

David Blowers from the Grattan Institute has a piece in The Conversation (also on the ABC) headlined A high price for policy failure: the ten-year story of spiralling electricity bills. It’s not bad, and is notable for the observation that

History may judge the introduction of competition to the retail electricity market as an expensive mistake.

I don’t think we need to wait for history; in fact, we didn’t need to wait until 2017.

Most of the problems that have subsequently emerged were evident when I first addressed this issue in a paper in 2001., published in the Economic and Labor Relations Review

Here’s my conclusion

The National Electricity Market is still developing. Some problems that have emerged in the early stages such as the disparity between the substantial price reductions for large customers and the largely unchanged prices paid by households will fade away as the market matures. Other issues such as the structure of the industry and the degree of horizontal and vertical integration will be resolved by a mixture of market processes and regulatory interventions.

Some problems, however, are likely to become more rather than less acute. The Australian National Electricity Market commenced operation in a period of oversupply so that problems of market power and excessive prices have not emerged until recently. It remains unclear whether an electricity auction market can produce adequate incentives for investment while generating appropriate prices for consumers. Similar problems are emerging in relation to the regulated monopoly component of the industry, the transmission and distribution sector. Regulators must set prices that do not reward inefficiency or allow monopoly profits, but nevertheless provide appropriate incentives for new investment. This is a delicate balance.

In the longer term, the problem of the environmental impact of an industry relying predominantly on carbon-based fuels remains to be addressed. A market solution would involve the creation of emissions credits that could be traded along with electricity in national markets. Although limited steps have been taken in this direction, much remains to be done.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

UBI, work and unions

January 2nd, 2018 15 comments

I’m working with Troy Henderson from the University of Sydney on a book chapter looking at union responses to the idea of a universal basic income (UBI),which have covered a range from supportive to strongly hostile, with the latter view predominant in Australia. Here’s a draft of my section of the chapter. Comments much appreciated.

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The end of open access to universities

December 22nd, 2017 30 comments

I’ve had plenty of disagreements with Andrew Norton about education policy. But I couldn’t write a better response to the government’s decision to end open access to university education for young Australians than this one. So, I’ll just link to it and open comments.

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Reviving TAFE

December 8th, 2017 26 comments

I’ve just been invited to make a submission to a Senate inquiry into TAFE in South Australia. From what I can glean, this is a politically motivated exercise by the Turnbull government to make capital out of some embarrassing failures in a Labor state. But it gives me the incentive to write something about the catastrophic failure of vocational education and training in Australia, a failure for which there is plenty of blame to go around. Rather than making political capital out of such incidents, we need to rebuild the TAFE system as the core of a greatly expanded vocational education and training system, including public and non-profit institutions, free from the discredited ideology of markets and competition.

Among the points I want to cover

* The impact of decades of cuts in public support for vocational training
* The disastrous effects of subsidising for-profit providers
* The goal of universal participation in post-school education and training
* Integration of technical/vocational and university education

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Last-minute economic policy post

November 24th, 2017 19 comments

Both Labor and the LNP have released their economic policies just two days before the state election. This isn’t just a matter of “costings”. Essentially, all the new expenditure items and tax reductions were announced with some fanfare during the campaign, while the revenue measures and expenditure cuts needed to fund these goodies have been kept under wraps until now. This is a terrible way to run an election, but the “hardheads” on both sides obviously think it’s a good idea (the same hardheads who gave us compulsory preferential voting on the Labor side and the Commission of Audit for the LNP).

On the LNP side, my assessments here and here have been confirmed. The tax cuts and extra spending promised by the LNP have been financed by cuts to services (euphemistically referred to as “efficiency dividends”) and by the abandonment of the Cross-River rail project, which appears to be vital if we are going to handle a growing Brisbane population in the future. The efficiency dividend will necessarily involve reduced employment. If the promise to avoid compulsory redundancies is adhered to in spirit as well as letter, that will mean a semi-permanent hiring freeze in areas with low turnover, which is likely to have adverse effects on efficiency.

These are big cuts, but not enough to reach the target of a surplus on fiscal balance. That means the stage is set for yet another Commission of Audit and unannounced further cuts.

Labor is planning to finance promised improvements in services through a mixture of tax increases (targeted at the relatively wealthy) and unspecified reallocation of existing funds, yielding a modest net increase in expenditure as compared to the cuts proposed by the LNP.

We have a choice then between Labor offering improved services, which must ultimately be financed by tax revenue and the LNP offering cuts in taxes, services and jobs. It would have been helpful if this choice had been made explicit four weeks ago, but still it is clear enough. Unsurprisingly, I prefer Labor.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Financing a UBI/GMI

November 23rd, 2017 17 comments

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post making some observations on the closely related ideas of a Universal Basic Income or Guaranteed Minimum Income. The most important was

Observation 1: Any UBI scheme can be replicated by a GBI with the same effective marginal tax rates, and vice versa

I meant to follow up with a more detailed exploration of financing issues, but all sorts of other things intervened. However, I’ve now prepared a draft, which is over the fold.

Comments and criticism much appreciated

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The MFP illusion

October 31st, 2017 23 comments

Expanding on a post a little while ago, I have a piece in Inside Story arguing that multi-factor productivity, the Holy Grail of microeconomic reform for the last few decades, is a residual that is and should be equal to zero.

From getting the idea to publishing it took me a few weeks. That’s a huge contrast from last century when the best I could have hoped for is an article in a low-prestige journal, taking a year or more and reaching an audience of, at most, a few hundred.

That’s great for me, as I’m more interested in reaching a large intelligent public than in impressing my fellow economists (I have to do that to keep my job, of course, but it’s not my top priority). By contrast, the general direction of the profession has been towards fewer and fewer articles in an ever-narrower range of prestigious journals.

Save the weekend! (now with link)

October 12th, 2017 19 comments

I have a piece in The Conversation about the decision to cut weekend penalty rates. This decision needs to be put in the context of forty years of policy aimed at pushing down wages, eroding conditions (such as the weekend) and weakening the position of unions.

I talked to Fran Kelly on ABC RN Breakfast just now.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Who will pay for Adani’s infrastructure? We will

October 7th, 2017 19 comments

A couple of days ago, it was announced that the Fly In Fly Out workforce for Adani’s putative Carmichael mine would be split between Townsville and Rockhampton. Since I’ve long argued that the mine is highly unlikely to go ahead, I didn’t read the news stories closely. So, I missed the fact, buried in the middle of this ABC news report, that the deal requires Townsville and Rockhampton councils to build Adani an airstrip at a cost of $20 million. It turns out that not everyone in Townsville is happy about having their money spent on a project far away from the city.

This outcome is consistent with what I and others have been arguing for some time. Adani has to keep the project alive to avoid recognising the loss of the money its spent so far, and admitting that coal volumes at its Abbot Point port will be far lower than planned. On the other hand, there’s no point throwing good money after bad. So the strategy is to move slowly on the development, building a railway with money from the Commonwealth government and, now, an airstrip paid for by the people of Townsville. When, with much regret, the mine is deferred indefinitely, the Australian public will be the proud owners of a railway to nowhere, with the option of a flight back.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Three observations on guaranteed and universal basic income

October 3rd, 2017 27 comments

I’ve been working for a while on the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI), and the closely related alternative of a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI), in which the payment is phased out as income increases. I’ve now developed a very simple model to illustrate some of the crucial points. Here are three observations. Only Observation 2 requires the model, and the assumption that the distribution of income is broadly similar to that prevailing in Australia today.

Observation 1: Any UBI scheme can be replicated by a GBI with the same effective marginal tax rates, and vice versa

Observation 2: A GBI equal to 40 per cent of average income, with a phaseout rate of 40 per cent, would require additional transfer payments equal to between 8 and 10 per cent of national income.

Observation 3: A UBI equal to 40 per cent of average income, with no phaseout, would require additional transfer payments equal around 30 per cent of national income, but would have the same effective marginal tax rates as a GBI.

A rare outbreak of unanimity on PFI

September 19th, 2017 13 comments

I’m doing some work on privatisation and wanted to look at recent UK experience with the Private Finance Initiative. So, I Googled for PFI in the last year (as Google personalizes searches, your mileage may vary). The result is a surprising degree of unanimity. Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that

* PFI is a disaster, enriching private firms at the expense of the public
* The other side is (mostly) to blame

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

How to replace the National Electricity Market

September 12th, 2017 42 comments

There are quite a few proposals around to intervene in, or repair, the National Electricity Market. In my view, it’s much too late for that. We need to scrap the NEM and start on a new path towards a zero-carbon electricity and energy system. I’ve written down some preliminary thoughts. I’d appreciate comments and also suggestions as to how I might push this idea along a bit.

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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Shorten changes the game on electricity

September 8th, 2017 64 comments

Somewhat lost in the noise surrounding yesterday’s High Court decision on the equal marriage survey was Bill Shorten’s statement that privatisation of the electricity industry in the 1990s was a major contributor to the current disaster. He’s essentially correct, though ‘privatisation’ has to be taken as shorthand for ‘the process of disaggregation and market reform of which privatisation was a central part’. I’ve been over this ground many times, including here and here, and have argued that renationalisation is the only solution.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been pushback from the Oz, which ran a piece headlined ‘Bill Shorten’s power play debunked” with the lead ‘Bill Shorten’s claim that the electricity crisis has been driven by privatisation has been dismissed by business leaders and energy experts,’.

It’s remarkably lame job.

The only business leader quoted is Tony Shepherd, formerly of the BCA, and last seen heading the disastrous Commission of Audit. Next up is Labor deserter, Michael Costa, followed by Jeff Kennett. Both Shepherd and Costa are climate denialists, which instantly destroys their credibility. Costa and Kennett have already had their privatisation policies rejected by voters, so it seems unlikely that their criticism will scare Shorten. In fact, he’s already hit back*

The only serious expert quoted is Tony Wood, but he doesn’t really help the Oz. He’s quoted as saying “Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood rejected privatisation as the cause of the energy market crisis. He said 15 years of political disagreement on climate change policy and regulated monopolies in the electricity distribution networks were contributors to the current electricity crisis. He also pointed to the fact that in Queensland, the Palaszczuk government in June was forced to order its state-owned power generator Stanwell to pursue lower profits during heatwaves because of spikes in power prices.”

The first point is accurate enough, but the point about Queensland proves the opposite of what the Oz wants us to believe. It’s only because Stanwell is publicly owned that the Palaszczuk government can order it not to exploit the mess that is the National Electricity Market.

Turning to the politics of the issue, Shorten’s recasting of the debate is going to cause Turnbull a lot of problems. He’s made energy a central issue,, and is convinced that it’s a winner for the government. And, having attacked Shorten as wanting to turn Australia into North Korea, they can scarcely leave the privatisation debate.

This is likely to be disastrous for the government. Not only is privatisation politically toxic, but the government has already undermined any possible credibility on the issue with speculation that it will finance a new coal fired power station, along with Snowy 2.0 and other interventions. Once the debate moves on to the real issue of the failure of market reform, the culture war rhetoric on which the government has relied so far will be totally irrelevant.

* We shoudn’t pay too much attention to comments threads but it’s notable that even the Oz commentariat, almost uniformly made up of rightwing climate denialists, is far from united in support of privatisation.

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Restating the case against trickle down (updated)

September 2nd, 2017 16 comments

I’ve just given a couple of talks focusing on inequality, one for the Global Change Institute at UQ, following a presentation by Wayne Swan and the second at a conference organized by the TJ Ryan Foundation (including great talks by Peter Saunders, Sally McManus, and others), where I was responding to a paper by Jim Stanford from the Centre for Future Work. Because I was speaking second in both cases, I didn’t prepare a paper or slides, but tailored my talk to complement the one before. That can be a high risk strategy, but in this case, I think it worked very well.

It led me to a new, and I hope improved, statement of the case against ‘trickle down’ theory. As always, the most important part of a refutation is a clear statement of the theory you propose to refute, so that it can be shown where it falls down. After the talks I wrote this up, and it’s over the fold. Comments and constructive criticism much appreciated.

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Universal Basic Income: What to aim for and how to get there

August 22nd, 2017 20 comments

That’s the title of a presentation I gave to a workshop on UBI run by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. I wasn’t able to attend in person so I called in for my session. The result is that I can’t give a summary of the event, but Tim Hollo has one here. My presentation is here. Also, there’s a Facebook group and a couple of useful links.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Left hand, meet right hand

August 17th, 2017 13 comments

A crucial part of the case for the Adani coal project is the “pit to plug” strategy in which companies in the Adani Group would mine coal in the Galilee Basin, transport it by rail to Abbot Point, ship it from there to India, burn it in Adani Power’s coal-fired power stations and sell the generated electricity to Indian consumers. This claim is important to Adani for three reasons

* First, it is supposed to mean the big decline in the world price of coal since the project began is not a problem. The idea is that Adani Power will take the coal regardless of price
* Second, it undercuts arguments that exports from the Galilee Basin will compete with other Australian coal mines, leading to a loss of jobs
* Finally, it is central to the argument that the Adani project is necessary to end energy poverty in India.

All of these arguments have been rehearsed at length in the Australian media. But it seems that the memo hasn’t reached Adani Power in India. A month or so ago, they span off their Mundra Power station, loaded with a lot of debt, into a subsidiary, and offered a 51 per cent interest to the Gujarat government for a nominal price. Now, they have announced a strategy to get access to allocations of domestic coal and “do away the need for importing coal”.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to take a look at the Adani jobs portal, announced with some flourish a month or so ago. When it was set up, there were only a couple of dozen Adani jobs on offer. Now there are none at all, though there are a handful on SEEK. AFAICT, the only people employed at the Townsville Regional Headquaters are 80 or so people who have been moved there, presumably from Brisbane.

Given the lavish promises of hundreds or even thousands that have been made to the people of NQ, isn’t it time Adani put its money where its mouth is?

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Tertiary education should be universal, non-profit and free

July 28th, 2017 28 comments

Last week, I spoke at the Australian Conference of Economists in a panel on Higher Education Policy. My talk was covered by John Ross of The Australian Higher Education Section which, unlike much of the Oz, seems still to be more interested in accurate reporting than political pointscoring. I talked to Steve Austin of ABC Radio Brisbane http://www.abc.net.au/radio/brisbane/programs/mornings/mornings/8733698

To sum up my main points

* As a society we should set a goal of providing appropriate tertiary education (that is, post-school through university or TAFE) for all young people. Instead, policy is still heavily influenced by nostalgia for the days when working class kids (actually, just males) could leave school at Year 10 and be apprenticed to a trade, middle class kids could leave school at Year 12 and get a nice safe job in a bank, and universities were the preserve of an elite, either smart enough to jump the hoops to get in or with parents rich enough to pay

* The provision of a universal publicly funded service like this should not be entrusted to for-profit firms, as has been shown by the VET FEE-HELP disaster

* We should abandon the market liberal rhetoric of choice, competition and incentives and instead focus on professionalism and a service ethos.

* Once we get close enough to the goal of universal tertiary education, we might as well finance it through the tax system as we do with schools, and develop some special policies for those who, for one reason or another, miss out. I’ll post more on this sometime.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A couple of quick links on inequality

July 25th, 2017 5 comments

The issue of inequality is finally attracting some attention. I have a piece today in Inside Story, an update of a post here from 2012, on inherited wealth. Also, Greg Jericho in The Guardian and Bernard Keane in Crikey (paywalled) refute the attempts by the government and its apologists to claim that inequality is not growing in Australia. I’ll have a bit more on this soon, I hope.

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Governments are buying up where the market has failed. Is this the end of privatisation?

July 5th, 2017 8 comments

That’s the title of my latest in The Guardian. The write-off sums it up nicely.

What we are seeing is the inevitable chaos that follows the collapse of a dominant orthodoxy. But we shouldn’t see it as a new dawn of socialism

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