That was the title for the John Freebairn lecture on public policy I gave in Melbourne on Monday (Sorry for not giving any advance notice, I’ve been a bit swamped). Having offered that ambitious title, I decided to confine myself to the subset of policy issues surrounding the knowledge economy, and how it renders the reform agenda of the 1980s obsolete or irrelevant.
The title of this post is taken from that of the recent Treasury Discussions Paper on Tax, entitled Re:Think. Sadly, as I point out in this Guardian piece, there’s very little evidence of rethinking from Treasury. Most of the paper could have been lifted straight from the Asprey Review of 1975, and the sensitivities of the current government have ensured a step backwards from the Henry Review, with carbon taxes and resource rent taxes now off limits.
Undeterred, I’m going to start on my own review. I’m going to try something a little different in blog terms. This post will be updated whenever I get a chance, both with new material and in terms of publication date so that each new version will appear at the top of the homepage, hopefully with the comments being carried with it. I’m putting in some headings, and starting off with an idea I mentioned recently, that of a tax on bank profits
Aggregates: Revenue, expenditure, budget balance, debt and net worth
* A tax on the super-profits of banks, reflecting their privileged position. Tax base $29 billion. Possible revenue $5-10 billion, or 0.3-0.6 per cent of national income/GDP.
* Reforming the treatment of negative gearing “Quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains. Revenue estimate: rising over time to $5 billion a year, or 0.3 per cent of national income/GDP.
As I mentioned a while back, I’m planning a series of posts on tax policy. Since debate about “negative gearing” has been spurred by the suggestion that Labor might restrict it, this seems like a good time to cover the topic.
I’ll give my summary upfront, then go on. The problem is not negative gearing in itself but its interaction with the concessional treatment of capital gains. There are a variety of solutions, but the best is probably to “quarantine” business losses for individuals, at least with respect to housing investments, and allow them only to be used as an offset against capital gains.
Like Mark Bahnisch, Eva Cox and a number of others, I’ve resigned as a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. It’s a sad day, since CPD has done a lot of great work, and I’ve enjoyed being involved in it. But the leadership of the Centre has taken a decision to move to the right in the hope of being more relevant to the policy process. The most recent outcome has been a paper on tax policy that broadly accepts the Treasury view of the issue, and pushes for a broadening of the GST base, which means taxation of fresh food. This isn’t a new or innovative idea. Rather, it has been part of rightwing orthodoxy for decades. CPDs endorsement allows its advocates to claim some “left” support. That claim obviously gained credibility from having Fellows like Mark, Eva and me. So, we had no alternative but to resign.
I should clarify that, apart from a nice title and a publishing outlet, I wasn’t getting any direct benefit from being part of CPD. So, I’m making a statement rather than a sacrifice.
Among the many failures in the education ‘reform’ movement, the attempt to promote for-profit education has been the most complete. The Swedish experiment, for quite a few years seen as the exemplar of success, has turned out very badly.
In the US, the for-profit schools company Edison failed completely. Far worse for-profit universities like Phoenix, which have prospered by recruiting poor students, eligible for Federal Pell Grants, and enrolling them in degree programs they never finish. Phoenix collects the US government cash, while the students are lumbered with debts they can never repay and can’t even discharge in bankruptcy.
Several years ago, there was a major scandal in Victoria (which led the way in privatising vocational education) about similar practices.
This did not, of course, lead to any change for the better. Instead, governments across Australia followed the Victorian model. For-profit providers responded by emulating the University of Phoenix, with recruiters offering free laptops to anyone will to sign up for a course and the associated debts: the targeted groups were low-income earners who would not have to repay the income contingent loan except in the unlikely event that the course propelled them into the middle class.
This isn’t just a matter of fringe players: a report on A Current Affair identified some of the biggest for-profit firms, such as Evocca, Careers Australia and Aspire. The Australian Skills Quality Authority is supposedly investigating. However, as with the authorities that are supposed to regulate greyhound racing, the obvious question is why, when these rorts have been common knowledge for years, a current affairs show can find the evidence ASQA has apparently missed.
It’s clear enough that privatisating VET-TAFE has been a failure, as would be expected based on international experience. But the answer isn’t to go back to the past. Rather, we need a national framework for post-school education, with funding both for TAFE and universities on an integrated basis.
There’s still the problem of how to wind down the for-profit system. I’d suggest that we could start by converting the better ones into contract providers of TAFE courses, and then gradually absorbing them into a unified system.
Those who don’t like that deal could compete like good capitalists in the open market, charging upfront fees and serving whatever market they could find, subject to ordinary consumer protection laws.
fn1. Presumably reflecting a change in the audience, A Current Affair has started targeting large-scale corporate wrongdoing rather than going solely after the easy target of dodgy tradespeople and low-grade con artists. Unfortunately, the story was spoiled by an apparently irrelevant attempt to drag in the Mormon affiliations of some of those involved in the basis, but you can’t have everything.
The first real Budget leak of the season has sprung, with indications that the government will introduce a tax on bank deposits, aimed at financing a deposit insurance fund. This was proposed by Labor in 2013, and attacked by Tony Abbott at the time. Judging by Andrew Leigh’s comments that “I don’t think we’re going to take any lessons on bipartisanship from Joe Hockey”, they haven’t forgotten.
The best course for Labor would be to support the measure, but to impose ACCC supervision to stop the banks passing the charge onto consumers. That should be the wedge for permanent ACCC oversight of fees and charges.
None of this, however, gets to the real issue. Banks are immensely profitable, and their profitability rests on the fact that they can never really fail. It’s nearly always cheaper for the regulators to bail a bank out (for example, via a takeover) than to actually shut it down and pay out the depositors.
The appropriate tax base for a profit-enhancing subsidy is profits, currently running at $29 billion per year. Bank profits should be subject to a special tax, reflecting their special status. This would raise substantially more revenue than a deposit insurance levy.
Now that the Senate has rejected Pyne’s university deregulation plan, the obvious question is, what is Plan B? The first, negative answer: there is no acceptable plan that will deliver what the advocates of deregulation wanted, namely a highly stratified system, catering to a smaller minority of the population than at present, and topped by high-status institutions comparable to Yale and Harvard. That’s the US model and, as a system for educating young people, as opposed to generating research and reproducing a tiny elite, it’s been a miserable failure.
The correct way to think about this is to begin with the core objective of the process: to provide young Australians with post-school education that fits them for work in a modern economy and life in a modern society. That leads to two main principles
* A single system encompassing both universities and post-school technical education with easy flow between the two
* Uncapped access with an objective of (near) universal participation in some form of post-school education
* As with school education, the aim should not be stratification by quality, but the provision of a high-quality education for all, with resource allocation based on educational needs, not institutional history or individual wealth
I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the problems of the TAFE sector, though these are, I think, more urgent and difficult than those of the universities.
The big problem with what I’m proposing is that it will require more money for undergraduate education. That’s because the existing system relies on a mixture of student payments (through HECS), government funding and a cross-subsidy from fee-paying overseas students. There’s no substantial scope to get more money from overseas students, so the more domestic students the more thinly that cross-subsidy is spread. Similarly, although more government funding is merited, maintaining existing funding on a per-student basis while expanding numbers is probably too much to hope for. However, a clear focus on the core goal of universal post-school education would help a lot, though it necessarily poses some tough choices.
Broadly speaking, the goal I’m thinking about is to maintain existing teaching resources per student, while expanding access to cover a steadily increasing proportion of the population.
Some ideas are listed below (over the fold)
Summary: It’s bad, and our only hope is that the US Congress will block it.
I’ve had the unusual experience of being cited as an authoritative expert* by both the Oz and AFR this week. Unfortunately, the Oz got the story wrong, and the AFR report, while correct on a careful reading, is misleading. The issue is the impact of electricity privatisation on power prices.
Direct comparisons suggest that consumer prices don’t differ much between NSW and Queensland (with public ownership) and SA and Vic (with privatisation), though SA is highest.
The advocates of privatisation have focused on distribution charges, showing in the process that they don’t understand the National Electricity Market reforms they and their ideological allies pushed through in the 1990s. Under the system of regulation, distributors are allowed to charge a price sufficient to cover their “efficient costs”, which are determined in large measure by benchmarking against other distributors. So, if private firms are more efficient than public firms, that should have no effect on regulated distribution charges, only on relative profitability. **
As the AFR and Oz both gleefully pointed out, that analysis contradicts what they called Luke Foley’s “great lie”, that prices will rise if privatisation takes place. Unfortunately, it also contradicts the equal and opposite lie, that prices will fall if privatisation takes place. The AFR gives a misleading headline, but is correct in the body of its report, saying “The prices charged by the government-owned NSW network companies will go down – not up – whether or not they are leased out to private operators.” That contradicts Foley’s claims, but also the opposite claims made by the Liberals.
I look forward to the AFR and Oz correcting this error and presenting the correct analysis (only joking!).
More seriously, I’m hoping to do a proper analysis of electricity prices and why they have risen so much under the NEM, contrary to the predictions of the micro reform lobby of which both the Oz and the Fin are part.
* Of course, I was cited in an “even the liberal New Republic …” way. The AFR noted, reasonably enough, that I was opposed to privatisation. The Oz went full-on as only the Oz can do, reprinting some of Michael Stutchbury’s hit piece, written for them before he jumped ship to the Fin. Since this piece earned me a very nice write up in the New York Times, I guess I can’t complain.
** Disclosure: I was for some years, a member of the Queensland Competition Authority, which regulated distribution charges. I’ll write more about this, if I get time.
I made this observation in comments on a Crooked Timber post, and got some pushback, so I thought I’d take a look back at the data
Both the number and the percentage of families in poverty dropped sharply during the 1960s when the “War on Poverty” was being waged actively, and remained near their all-time lows through the Nixon and Carter years until 1979, when the Volcker recession hit, followed by the election of Ronald Reagan. These events can reasonably be said to mark the point at which the government unequivocally changed sides.
The number of households in poverty has risen steadily since then and is now higher than in 1959, the year for which the poverty level was first defined by Mollie Orshansky. The poverty rate has remained consistently higher than in the 1970s, except for a brief deep at the peak of the late-1990s boom.
Among the scary numbers in the Intergenerational Report was the estimate that, by 2050, life expectancy would have risen to 95/96 years, which would seem to imply a huge increase in the number of years spent in retirement. I checked and found that the report gave current life expectancy as 92/93 years, far higher than the 80 or so that is usually quoted. The reason, it turns out is that the standard estimate is done on a “period” basis, using the age-specific mortality rates of the present. The higher estimate is done on a “cohort” basis, taking account of expected future reductions in mortality. More on this here.
A few observations on this point.
* An increase of four years is neither surprising nor alarming. This is doubtless why this comparison ins not made in the IGR.
* In my last post, I noted the use of the obsolete 15-64 category to estimate the working-age population. One possible defence was that this was done in consistency with past practice. But clearly this can’t apply to the (unannounced) shift from the standard period basis to a cohort basis
* More importantly, the 95-year figure is an estimate of the likely life expectancy of children born in 2050, who would reach retiring age some time after 2115. Even the current birth cohort won’t be of pensionable age until near the end of this century.
A cohort measure of life expectancy is more relevant to projections of future pension expenditure than a period measure, though it requires the use of estimates of future mortality. But the relevant cohorts for the purpose of the IGR are those born before 1983 who will be 67 and over in 2050 and will then (assuming no policy change) be eligible for the age pension.
So, the latest round of the Greek debt crisis has ended in a typical European combination of delay and compromise, much as Yanis Varoufakis predicted a week ago. But in view of the obvious incompatibility of the positions put forward, someone must have given a fair bit of ground. The Greeks wanted continued EU support, and an end to the Troika’s austerity program. The Troika (at least as represented by German Finance Minister Schauble) wanted Syriza to abandon its election program and continue with the existing ND/Pasok policy of capitulation to the Troika.
Put that way, I think it’s clear that the Troika blinked. The new agreement allows Syriza to replace the Troika’s austerity program with a set of reforms of its choice, focusing on things like tax evasion. Most of Syriza’s election platform remains intact. Of course, it’s only for four months, and none of the big issues has been resolved. But four months takes us most of the way to the next Spanish election campaign, hardly an opportune time to contemplate expelling a debtor country from the eurozone with utterly unpredictable consequences.
If the negotations were a win for Greece (feel free to disagree!) how did it happen?
The Murdoch press is touting a report from Price Waterhouse Coopers, predicting all manner of disaster for Australia if we do not mend our debt ridden ways. A typical example is a projection of $1 trillion in debt by (IIRC) 2037. There’s no link in the stories I’ve read, and nothing obvious on the PwC website, so I’ll make some more general observations.
* It’s startling to read this kind of sermonizing from an outfit like PwC, recently described by the British Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee as ‘promoting tax avoidance on an industrial scale’. If we are facing a fiscal crisis, shutting down firms like PwC seems like an obvious prerequisite to achieving a solution
* Even on the hypothesis that this was in fact a serious effort at assessing our fiscal condition, why would anyone give any credence to one of the accounting firms that gave us the Global Financial Crisis
* The projections are highly implausible, though without access to the report I can’t point to the specific dodgy assumptions used to derive them.
* The same issues are regularly examined by the Commonwealth Treasury in its Intergenerational Report. The 2015 report was legally required to be published on 3 February but has not appeared. Now instead of the IGR, the government’s media arm comes out with this piece of tripe. Was the IGR not alarmist enough for Hockey?
Update My point about the IGR was pure conjecture when I wrote it. But on TV last night I saw Hockey pushing the PwC “report” (still vaporware, AFAICT), even though he is supposedly too busy to fulfil his legal obligation to release the IGR.
Further update Commenters Megan and Liam have dug up a link to a two-page paper from a talk given a few days ago. This in turn links to publications from 2013 and 2014, drawing on estimates published in 2012 which (I imagine) rely on data going back even earlier. The same alarming projections appear, but still without any basis for the calculations. To sum up, this is a total beat-up.
One of the most politically effective arguments made for selling publicly owned assets, such as government owned corporations is that, by reducing debt, it will reduce the interest rate on government bonds. This is plausible enough, and not by itself a conclusive argument. The interest saving (including the benefit of lower rates on remaining debt) needs to be set against the loss of earnings. But it would be nice to know how large this saving might be.
The Queensland state election, just passed, provides something of a natural experiment. The LNP government proposed to sell $37 billion in public assets and repay $25 billion in debt ($18 billion associated with the enterprises to be sold, and $7 billion in general government debt). Going in with 73 of 89 seats, the LNP was almost universally expected to be returned. Instead, they lost their majority and will probably lose office. Although the result is not yet final, everyone is now agreed that asset sales are off the table.
So, we should be able to look at the secondary market for QTC bonds to see how much this surprise changed the interest rate demanded by bondholders (this is what’s called an “event study” in the jargon of academic finance). You can get the data from https://www.qtc.qld.gov.au/qtc/public/web/individual-investors/rates/interactive%20rate%20finder/!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOLdnX2DLZwMHQ383QwtDDy9DUIsPTwDDA2NTPULsh0VAVfZvz4!/
and I’ve included it over the fold (a bit of a mess as I can’t do HTML tables)
The data shows that interest rates have generally been tending downwards, as you would expect given the Reserve Bank’s much-anticipated cut. On the trading day after the election, rates on longer term bonds rose by between 0.05 and 0.1 percentage points (or, in the market jargon 5 and 10 basis) points. But all of that increase, and more, was wiped out the next day when the RBA confirmed its cut. Overall rates on QTC debt have fallen by around 0.25 percentage points since Newman called, and then lost, his snap election.
To sum up, the surprise abandonment of one of the largest proposed asset sales in Australian history caused only a momentary blip in interest rates on Queensland government debt, immediately wiped out by a modest adjustment in monetary policy at the national level.
The announcement by the Conservative UK government of a tax on diverted profits (popularly referred to as the “Google Tax”), along with reports that the Abbott government may follow suit, has received only limited attention (as far as I have seen) but seems like a very big deal. A few observations on this
* It’s notable that these are conservative, business friendly governments that are, like all governments, short of money. It appears that, thanks to the steady drip feed of revelations about the “Double Irish”, Luxembourg private rulings and so on, that, even for such governments, highly profitable multinationals have become an appealing target, at least relative to domestic taxpayers
* If successful, this tax will turn two of the standard presumptions of the corporate tax debate on their heads. First, that corporate tax minimisation is not only legitimate but part of the obligation of managers (the corresponding shift was made with respect to individuals, in Australia at least) decades ago. Second, and more important, that global corporations can choose where they pay tax. The point of the UK tax is that, once corporations are found to be engaged in tax avoidance (pretty much a slam dunk), they can be made to pay in any jurisdiction, at rates that jurisdiction considers appropriate.
* It’s hard to see how corporations like Apple and Google can dodge this. They could refuse to supply their goods and services to the UK, but that would be immensely costly, and would be likely to provoke retaliation from other EU members.
* This will make a big change to the OECD processes aimed at a co-ordinated response to base erosion and profit shifting. Until now, corporations have had a strong interest in slowing this process down, and shopping around for good deals from the likes of Ireland, Luxembourg and, of course, Delaware. Now that they face the risk of facing unco-ordinated punitive action applied in many different countries, enlightened self-interest would suggest that they should support a global deal.
* In combination with the GFC, which revealed the extent to which “global” banks actually depended on protection from their home national governments, limits on global tax evasion undermine much of the analysis of globalisation that was dominant in the late 20th century
* If capital income can be taxed effectively in the countries where profits are generated, there’s much less need for ideas like Piketty’s global wealth tax.
A while ago, I suggested that bodies like Universities Australia should dissolve themselves and make way for a body that actually represents universities as communities of scholars (students and academics) and the workers (professional and administrative) who support them. I see I’ve been joined by Stephen Parker from the University of Canberra who describes UA support for deregulation as a “suicide ritual”. Meanwhile, Pyne is quoting the support of UA and its elite subset the Go8 as evidence of “consensus” in favor of his reform, treating the support of 30-odd individuals as more important than the overwhelming opposition of hundreds of thousands of students and staff.
Since these organizations appear determined to drag out their useless existence, can I at least ask for some honesty in labelling. How about
University Senior Management Australia and
Group of Eight University Senior Managers Who Are Better Than All The Others.
Seriously, it’s obvious that, while students, academics, other staff and senior managers have some common interests, they also have lots of conflicting interests. That’s true of universities, just as its true of the workers, bosses and customers of any industry in the private sector. The idea that a policy supported by top managers must be good for universities as a whole is on a par with the old claim that “what’s good for General Motors is good for American”
As the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook approaches, talk about the budget deficit is approaching panic. This piece from Deloitte, warning that “the budget is burning” is typical. It predicts a 2014-15 budget deficit of $34.7 billion, and future deficits “as far as the eye can see”.
Billion dollar numbers are big and scary, but some perspective is useful. Australia’s GDP is currently $1.6 trillion dollars per year, so the massive deficit is about 2 per cent of GDP. On Deloitte’s current “disastrous” predictions, the deficit should be below 1 per cent of GDP by 2017-18.
But wait, there’s more. Australian government debt is currently about 20 per cent of GDP. It has been around this ratio, varying with the business cycle, for many years. Since GDP grows at around 5 per cent a year in nominal terms, the debt/GDP ratio stays unchanged if debt also grows by 5 per cent, that is, if deficits are equal to 1 per cent of GDP (that is, 5 per cent of 20 per cent).
Simply put, the budget is so close to balance that it doesn’t matter. In the absence of the terms of trade shock from coal and iron ore, it would have made good sense to aim for a surplus. As it is, the sensible short-term macro strategy is to take a modest hit to the deficit and cushion the economy from contraction, a point that has been made by the OECD.
As always, there are long term problems that need to be addressed. But absurd panics about whether a (necessarily arbitrary) budget measure is a little above or a little below zero don’t help.
I was going to post on the Newman government’s announcement of subsidies to development of new coal mines in the Galilee Basin, but this piece by Michael West says it all. Key observation
The very day after the G20 concluded, with its recommendations about ending government subsidies to fossil fuels, it appears the Queensland government is poised to ramp up its subsidies for the humungous Galilee Basin coal project.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/business/mining-and-resources/wise-investment-or-fossil-fools-queensland-backs-coal-as-g20-moves-the-game-on-20141117-11odkq.html#ixzz3JM8yeHsw
I was contacted by a journalism student here who would some commentary on the rosy projections being made about how the G20 meetings will put Brisbane on the world tourism map, assisted by such initiatives as a month of cultural celebrations (beginning tomorrow) along with “Team Brisbane” and “Global Cafe”. I offered the following response
G20 will provide a short-lived but substantial boost in demand for accommodation and restaurant services in the Brisbane CBD, associated with the arrival of thousands of delegates and media representatives. This will be offset by a negative effect on all other kinds of tourism, not only because of the difficulty of obtaining accommodation but because of the lockdown and other security measures associated with the event, and perhaps with fears of terrorism.
Longer-term effects on tourism, economic growth, and so on will be negligible. International news coverage of G20 will focus on staged events in the CBD, such as media conferences, held in settings indistinguishable from those of any other CBD. Viewers will scarcely be aware that the event is being held in Brisbane, let alone that there are associated cultural celebrations or that Brisbane is a desirable place to visit. A Google search on “G20 cultural celebrations” reveals zero coverage outside (greater) Brisbane, even though the event is starting today.
As regards “Team Brisbane” and “Global Cafe”, I was entirely unaware of these marketing efforts. I suspect that I am typical of the world’s population in this respect.
I’ve spent the last couple of days in Sydney at a conference organized by the Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality. It’s striking that this is the only research group of which I’m aware that takes dysfunctionality, rather than the Efficient Markets Hypothesis as a starting point.
Various people have asked me about the paper and slides, so I’m putting them up for download.
Black Swans and Financial Regulation (presentation
That’s the title of my latest piece in Crikey. Paywalled, but I’ve reposted over the fold
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.
Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.
There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.
Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.
But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.
This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.
This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.
That’s the title of my submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry into the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.
You can read it here
Michael Gallagher of the Go8 has put out a press release in reaction to my piece in The Conversation on higher education reform, accusing me of “an attack on a straw man”. It’s a fine example of John Holbo’s two-step of terrific triviality. Gallagher backs away from his previous advocacy of deregulation as a positive benefit to the much weaker position I mentioned in the article that it is “unpalatable but necessary response to cuts in funding”, or, in Gallagher’s words that “the status quo is not an option”.
For the last twenty years, I’ve been engaged in a lengthy debate with advocates of microeconomic reform who claim that reforms produced a surge of productivity growth in the 1990s and that more such reforms are urgently needed. I argued that the apparent surge was the result of increased capital utilization and higher work intensity in the aftermath of the 1989-92 recession. Hardly anyone in the economics profession was convinced.
Their views were unchanged after 2000 when (as I had predicted) productivity growth tailed off and then turned negative as the fear of unemployment decelined and the work intensification of the 1990s was reversed. First, this decline was attributed to a range of special factors (drought, Y2K and so on). Then it was said to be a measurement problem associated particularly with mining (true, but why accept measurement error in the 2000s while denying it then 1990s). Finally, after 2008, it was blamed on the end of Workchoices.
As everyone on both sides of the debate understands (though some choose to deny it at times) “productivity” is code for “working harder”. Microeconomic reform is supposed to increase competitive pressure and thereby keep workers on their toes at all times. In addition, they are suppose to “work smarter” which essentially means “find ways of getting more work done with no additional resources”.
Now, at last, it seems that I’m not alone in casting doubt on all this. Ross Gittins, always more sophisticated than the majority of economic commentators, has picked up some remarks by Ric Simes and Mike Keating telling business leaders to stop complaining about their workers’ laziness and start doing what they are supposed to be paid for: promoting innovations that yield genuine improvements in productivity. I’ve quoted at length over the fold, but do go and read the full piece.
The website of the Group of Eight long-established universities has a section devoted to “Leaders Statements” supporting the Abbott government’s university reform program. It’s a pretty depressing read. Not only are our leaders going in a direction that almost no-one in the sector wants to follow, but the quality of their arguments is depressingly mediocre. It’s a sad reflection on the university sector if this group is the best we can come up with to lead us.
First, there’s executive director Michael Gallagher (a longtime education bureaucrat rather than a former academic). His boilerplate advocacy of microeconomic reform reads as if he hasn’t had a new idea in 20 years. Most notably, he’s still beating the drum for the discredited for-profit model of the University of Phoenix. After giving the most glancing acknowledgement of the scandals that have exposed Phoenix as a machine for ripping off federal grants, he says
The important policy point is not about individual providers but about the directions of change that pioneering providers indicate for the future through their successes and failures. The thing about the US enterprise culture, unlike Australia’s, is a willingness to accept learning from failure as a step to success.
I thought we’d got over this “succeeding by failing” stuff back at the time of the dotcom bubble.
Then we have Warren Bebbington of the University of Adelaide who asserts
in a competitive environment, some fees will go up and some down. Students will have a range of choice they have never had before
Seriously? If Bebbington really believes this, I have a perpetual motion machine to sell him. His Go8 colleague, Ian Young was much more honest when he said that the Go8 institutions will not only raise fees across the board but will use the resulting financial freedom to cut intakes and offer smaller classes. That is, students will face both higher prices and less choice.
But the prize for embarrassment must surely go to the University of Western Australia whose Vice-Chancellor, Paul Johnson, asserts
“Government does not decide what businesses can charge for a loaf of bread, a litre of milk or any other product or service. Why should universities be any different?”
Apparently Professor Johnson has never heard of the Economic Regulatory Authority of Western Australia which, like its counterparts at state and federal level regulates the prices of a wide range of products and services, for a wide range of very good reasons. This is a level of argument which would be lame even for a random rightwing blogger.
Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this. Back in the 1990s, Alan Gilbert of Melbourne was pushing the Phoenix model and asserting that traditional academics were “handloom weavers” doomed to extinction. Among his many achievements was the $50-100 million or so wasted on U21Global, Melbourne University Private and similar initiatives. Before his unfortunate brush with plagiarism, David Robinson touted Monash as “the world’s first global university”, launching a series of overseas campuses that rapidly turned into money pits. At CQU, Lauchlan Chipman pioneered the use of universities as devices to rort Australia’s immigration system, with expensive central city campuses devoted entirely to overseas students majoring in Permanent Residency, while the domestic students in Rockhampton got nothing. The same advisors who pushed these disasters, along with likeminded successors, are driving education policy today.
fn1. I’ve given up using scare quotes around “reform”. Reform is just change of form, and there’s no reason to expect it will be beneficial.
A few days ago, the Courier-Mail ran an editorial supporting privatisation. They were kind enough to run a reply from me, which I’ve reproduced over the fold. The headline picked up the point at the end about the choice between higher taxes and reduced services, which is relevant more general