Archive for the ‘Economics – General’ Category

The IPA and 18C

March 22nd, 2017 60 comments

The obsessive desire of the current government to protect the right to offend and humiliate people on the basis of their race or religion has been driven, in large measure, by the Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA has a mixed* record on freedom of speech, and on the kind of offensive speech that is the subject of 18C.

Some IPA fellows, such as Chris Berg and Matthew Lesh take the Voltaire line, defending free speech even when they don’t like the content. And, as far as I can tell, neither Berg nor Lesh has ever said anything offensively bigoted.

Unfortunately, they appear to be in the minority at the IPA. More representative of the general atmosphere of the IPA are cases like this and this, where IPA fellows were caught saying in public the kind of thing they want to protect legally.

And while Berg is keen to protect the right to boycott, the IPA also published this piece, suggesting that critics of coal could be prosecuted under the Corporations Act. I had a long series of Twitter exchanges with Tim Wilson, then “Freedom Commissioner” and now a Liberal MP, in which I asked if he would disavow this suggestion. He evaded the question repeatedly then (IIRC) blocked me.

Overall, I’d say the IPA should clean up its own act before pretending to lead a crusade (or jihad) for free speech.

* I mean this literally, not as a euphemism for “bad”

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Adani, with an asterisk

March 22nd, 2017 20 comments

Back in December, Gautam Adani came to Queensland and gave a very positive view of the proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin. Things went pretty quiet for a while after that, but it appeared that a final announcement on the project would be made in April. Now, Anna Palaszczuk and a number of lesser dignitaries have been to India and brought back the news that the project will shortly be approved by the Adani board, at least if Mr Adani has his way, which seems guaranteed.

That came as a surprise to those of us who have long argued that the project is hopelessly uneconomic, even on the optimistic view that the current uptick in the coal price will be sustained.

But it turns out that there’s an asterisk. The approval will be subject to finance. Anyone who’s ever sold a house knows that means nothing is guaranteed. In Adani’s case, the initial stages of the project will need $2.5 billion in bank finance, as well as a concessional loan of up to $1 billion from the Commonwealth’s Northern Australia slush fund.

You might think that at least the second of these is a safe bet. But Aurizon (the former Queensland Rail) has come up with a competing proposal, which doesn’t have the problems associated with Adani’s opaque (to put it mildly) financial structure.

The real problem though is with the banks. Of the big Australian banks, Westpac is the only one that hasn’t ruled itself out. But they will presumably want only a small share of the risk, as part of an international consortium and there are no obvious candidates. Moreover, given the combination of reputational and project risk associated with a massive coal mine at a time when coal is clearly on the way out, any sane lender would demand a hefty rate of interest and lots of security. It’s hard to see Adani coming up with either.

So, I’m guessing Adani is still playing for time. We’ll probably see a very big announcement with a very small asterisk. Crunch time won’t come until June, when they need to come up with some real money.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


March 20th, 2017 24 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

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I can’t work with her: Turnbull

March 18th, 2017 41 comments

I read this headline and my immediate thought was that Putin, antivax and the disastrous WA election had finally galvanised our hapless PM into breaking with Pauline Hanson. Alas, it turns out the “her” in question was the newly elected ACTU Secretary Sally McManus, who had dared to espouse the doctrine that it is sometimes appropriate to break unjust laws. McManus joins the company of such monsters as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Fortunately for Malcolm, all of these lawbreakers have one thing in common that ensures that, were they still alive, Pauline Hanson would be doing her best to keep them out of the country. He can rest easy knowing that he stands with all the “ordinary” (sound of dog whistle here) Australians represented by the One Nation faction of his coalition.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


March 13th, 2017 103 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

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A bit more on grid renationalisation

March 7th, 2017 9 comments
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Workless, or working less?

February 1st, 2017 55 comments

That’s the title of my review of Tim Dunlop’s excellent new book, Why the Future Is Workless, published at Inside Story. It’s over the fold.

Read more…

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Jobs, robots and self-driving vehicles

January 15th, 2017 30 comments

Lately I’ve been reading Tim Dunlop’s excellent book Why the future is workless , and thinking about the issues it raises, particularly in the light of the prospect of autonomous vehicles and other transport technologies. Tim raises the obvious question: what will happen to people who currently drive for a living, and the broader issue of whether any kind of work will survive the process of automation.

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The Australian’s clean coal magic trick

January 10th, 2017 26 comments

A day after my post pointing out the failure of CCS, the Oz has a piece by Nathan Vass of the Australian Power Project (which appears to be a solo effort), claiming that it’s finally on the way. My response is in Crikey, with the title above.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


January 6th, 2017 15 comments

In the computer business, the term “vaporware” refers to products that are announced, described in glossy brochures, and even offered for sale, but never actually delivered.

A similar term is certainly needed for books. My own book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is years behind schedule, but a first draft is, at least, in sight.

The prize, in this respect, must surely go to Keith Windschuttle. His Fabrication of Australian History: Volume I, released in 2002, made a big splash This was not so much because of the contents (some quibbles over footnotes, along with a lawyerly attempt to blame Tasmanian indigenous people for their own disastrous fate). Rather, it was the promise of future volumes II and III, on a yearly schedule. Volume II, in particular, was supposed to be in advanced state of preparation and would refute Henry Reynolds’ work on the violence of the Queensland frontier. Volume III was to do the same for WA.

Year followed year, and nothing appeared. Windschuttle got a number of gigs on the strength of his promises, notably including a seat on the ABC Board and the editorship of Quadrant. He also turned out a book on White Australia and then, confusingly, a Volume III of Fabrication, which was not the promised WA volume, but a rehash of the rightwing side of the Stolen Generations debate. He then promised a Volume II, for 2015, which of course has not appeared.

In all the time since 2002, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t released so much as a magazine article backing up his claims about WA and Queensland. I doubt that this can be simple laziness. More likely, he started the research and realised that the evidence wasn’t going his way. Rather than act like the objective historians he claims to admire, and report the facts, he strung along his fellow-believers in the inherent goodness of British civilization with promises that, Real Soon Now, he would come up the facts to refute those nasty leftists.

I was going to let sleeping dogs lie, but Windschuttle has appeared with another new book, this time attacking constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. So, in honour of the non-appearance of the book that was going to set the historians straight, I propose the term “Windyware” for all such non-books.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Are young Australians (mostly) Christians ?

December 16th, 2016 24 comments

Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of analysis based on generations (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on). Most of what passes for insight on this topic consists of the repetition of unchanged cliches about the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, and so on, applied to whichever cohort happens to be old or young at the time.

But there are some genuine differences between cohorts, typically determine by the time they have entered adulthood. One of these is religion.
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Thursday Message Board

December 8th, 2016 41 comments

The site outage that has kept the blog off air for several days has now been resolved, so here’s a once-off Thursday Message Board, for comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language, please.

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A tribute to Fred Gruen

October 24th, 2016 18 comments

A few weeks ago, I gave the FH Gruen lecture, on the topic After reform: the economic policy agenda in the 21st century. Thanks to sound editor Simon Kravis, I now have a version of the podcast with improved audio quality, but unfortunately the part of my tribute to Fred that was drowned out by a hailstorm is permanently lost.

So, I thought I would try to write something like what I said, with a few (I hope) improvements. Here it is:

It’s great honour to be invited to give the FH Gruen Lecture.

Fred was very much a role model for me, and while I will never be able to emulate his effortless personal style, I have done my best to follow his lead in my approach to economics. He saw economic theory as a tool, and only part of what economics should be: what really matters is the application of theory to improve policy.

In a small country like Australia, it’s necessary for economists to take part in public discussion and public debate. The older generation of academic economists, exemplified by Fred, did this, and I’ve tried to maintain this approach.

Like me, Fred began his career as an agricultural economist, and I’ve always thought this was some of the best training for an economist. But Fred’s contributions weren’t limited to agriculture. He ranged across a wide range of policy issues. He always brought to bear both a keen economic insight and a commitment to the use of economic policy to improve the lives of ordinary Australians.

He greatly encouraged me, and many of my generation of economists who worked with him in the Economics Department of the Research School of Social Sciences at ANU.

I am very proud to be able to give a lecture in his honour.

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Dragging the chain

October 17th, 2016 36 comments

Looking at the Abbott-Hanson government that is now taking shape behind the nominal leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, the dominant theme is one of pointless resistance to inevitable change.

The most striking instance of this is the plebiscite on equal marriage, dreamed up by Abbott as a way of dodging the issue of a Parliamentary vote. At this point, it is obvious that the whole thing is just an expensive and painful exercise in delaying the inevitable. Equal marriage is law throughout the English-speaking world, and is rapidly becoming so everywhere, as well as being supported by a majority of Australians. Even if the opponents could somehow carry the day in a plebiscite, the position couldn’t be sustained for long. And of course the Abbott group know this. As soon as Turnbull was locked into the plebiscite they started loading it up with everything they could to ensure it would never happen. Even from the most cynical viewpoint, this seems silly to me. They are going to lose in the end, and when they do, they will be wailing about freedom of conscience for cake-makers and so on. If they agreed to a Parliamentary vote now, they could make it a condition for Turnbull to include such clauses and reject any amendment. But in three years time, or whenever a parliamentary majority emerges, there will be no reason to appease people who have shown themselves to be bigots.

Then there’s climate change. Everywhere else in the world, things are moving fast. Country after country is abandoning coal, and the share of renewables is rising rapidly. Even England is generating more power from solar PV than from coal. But Australia is going backwards. Having dropped any idea of turning Direct Action into an emissions intensity scheme, Turnbull and Frydenberg have joined the science denialists at the Oz in a campaign against renewable energy. At least they have signed on to the agreement to phase out HFCs, an agreement driven by, among others, the US, Canada, China and Brazil (the EU has already legislated an early phaseout). It’s good that the government has agreed to do the minimum required for developed countries under this deal, but takes some chutzpah to say, as Frydenberg does that this makes Australia a world leader.

The only remaining item about which the government seems to care is Abbott’s vendetta against the unions, settling scores dating back to the 1980s.

Abbott and Hanson and are almost exact contemporaries of mine (as is Turnbull, though he scarcely seems to have any active role). But politically it seems to me that they have chained themselves to ways of thinking that were ossified even in John Howard’s generation.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

If professors made $500k/year, would they be Republicans? (crosspost from Crooked Timber))

October 10th, 2016 20 comments

Only a tiny minority of American academics are Republicans, a fact that is a continuing source of angst for much of the political right, as well as quite a few centrists. It’s generally assumed that this fact requires some explanation specific to the way in which universities work. The implicit assumption is that the group of those qualified and willing to take up academic jobs is roughly representative of the US population, and therefore contains roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. To state that submission is to see immediately what’s wrong with it. As a group, academics are obviously not typical of the US population. They have much more education and significantly higher incomes, though not as high as those of highly educated Americans in general. We know that these two characteristics work in opposite directions politically. Other things equal, more income is positively associated with Republican voting while more education is associated with lower support. So, a proper test of the idea that there is something special about academic voting patterns would begin with a multiple regression incorporating income and education as explanatory variables, then see if a dummy variable for academic employment was (statistically and quantitatively) different from zero.

But this is a blog post, so I’m not going to bother with all that hard work. Rather, I’ll point to this New York times article about the voting patterns of doctors. It includes a bivariate regression of voting patterns on income, with specialisations marked as observations It includes a bivariate regression of voting patterns on income for a sample of 30 000 doctors. This graph shows the resulting regression and plots the mean values for different specializations
Read more…

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After reform:the economic policy agenda in the 21st century

September 28th, 2016 41 comments

That’s the title of the FH Gruen lecture I’ll be presenting at ANU on Tuesday 4 October.

I’ll be talking first about the end of the era of reform that began in the early 1980s, and then about the information economy and a policy agenda for the 21st century.
Read more…

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New Zealand’s zombie miracle

September 21st, 2016 39 comments

Twice in the last couple of days, I’ve bumped into the seemingly unkillable zombie idea that the New Zealand economy is doing well and ought to be a model for Australia. Checking Wikipedia to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I found that, as of 2015, NZ income per person was 30-35 per cent below that in Australia, as it has been ever since the miraculous reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. NZ is down with Italy and Spain on most rankings, while Australia is comparable to Germany (above on some rankings, below on others).

This wasn’t always the case. Before the reform era, New Zealand and Australia had almost identical income levels, among the richest in the world. NZ took a bigger hit from British entry into the EU in the early 1970s but after 50 years, that can scarcely serve as an excuse (and of course, no one is predicted that Brexit will be a gigantic benefit to NZ; rather the reverse)

Then there’s migration. I dealt with this here, but I’ll repost crucial points over the fold.

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September 12th, 2016 125 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

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Human services for profit: the evidence is in

September 7th, 2016 91 comments

Over at Club Troppo, Nicholas Gruen has a thoughtful piece on the role of competition and choice in human services. He’s responding to the less-than-thoughtful boosterism of the Productivity Commission and the Harper Review on this topic. It’s well worth reading. Before doing so, though it’s important to take a look at the mounting evidence that for-profit provision of human services is almost invariably disastrous.

I’ll write a longer piece on this soon, I hope. But here are three recent examples from the United States, which has led the way in for-profit human services, and is now beginning to pull back

Shonky for-profit educator ITT closes down without notice, right at the beginning of a new semester.

Following a damning report, the US Department of Justice announces it will no longer use private prisons.

Charter schools (some openly for-profit, many others run as businesses) have been failing at a starting rate.

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After neoliberalism: a snippet

August 30th, 2016 34 comments

Over the fold, some concluding comments from a chapter I’ve written about the rise and decline of neoliberalism. I’m drawing on the “three-party system” analysis I’ve put forward before, in which neoliberalism (in both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms) is increasingly breaking down under pressure from tribalists on the right, and from an amorphous, but still resurgent left.

This is just a snippet, which I hope will evolve into a more extensive discussion of the policies and political strategies the left should adopt in response to the breakdown of the neoliberal order.

Read more…

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Nitpicking on nominal GDP targeting

August 25th, 2016 49 comments

Writing in the AFR, economics correspondent Jacob Greber begins his discussion of the Xenophon proposal with the assessment “What a stupid idea”. Given that he is dismissing proposals with wide support in the economics profession (including economists as different as me and Warwick McKibbin in the Australian context) one would expect that he had a knockdown argument to present. In fact, he offers a valid, but minor nitpick and a string of confusions and errors.

The nitpick relates to the distinction between nominal GDP growth, as reported by ABS, and the way the term is commonly used in the context of monetary policy discussion, to refer to the sum of the inflation rate and the real rate of GDP growth. Inflation is typically measured by the CPI. However, the statistical nominal GDP is associated with a different inflation measure, the GDP deflator, which is heavily influenced by export prices. So, a policy that targeted the statistical measure would imply trying to reduce growth when export prices boomed, and increase growth when they fell. In most times and places, the difference is too trivial to matter, but in the context of the recent minerals boom in Australia, it was substantial. So, I’d suggest we really want to use the phrase “nominal growth targeting” with nominal growth spelt out as the sum of CPI inflation and real GDP growth.

After that valid point, we have a mess of confusions and contradictions. First, Greber objects to Xenophon’s proposal on the basis that it would push up housing prices. If this is to be taken seriously, it means that the RBA should be targeting asset prices as well as CPI inflation. While there’s a good case to be made here (I discussed the issues in a paper with Stephen Bell quite a while back) it contradicts the central claim that everything is fine with inflation rate targeting.

Making the contradictions even worse, Greber notes that inflation has been well below the target range for some time. That is, under an inflation targeting system, the Reserve Bank should be cutting rates. But Greber appears to oppose this, while conceding that “To be fair, there is a legitimate debate to be had about how far and for how long inflation should range outside the current band”. In this context, the question of a shift to nominal growth targeting is a red herring. Real growth (about 2 per cent) is only marginally below the likely long term trend (2.5 per cent), so a monetary policy that targeted both growth and inflation would, if anything, be a little less expansionary than a strict inflation target

The obvious problem being ducked here is that, if the RBA sticks to inflation targeting, it may well have to cut interest rates all the way to zero, as most other central banks have already done. So, the temptation is to accept a long period when we are below the target rate. But that, in effect, is switching from a 2-3 per cent target to a 0-3 target, something for which no real justification has been given.

Like Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer to whom I responded previously, Greber makes much of Australia’s special circumstances, treating nominal GDP targeting as (to quote Keane and Dyer) as “a foreign solution”. This piece of economic exceptionalism is surprising coming from a haven of orthodoxy like the AFR, and even more surprising in the context of monetary policy. Inflation targeting, central bank contracts and 25-basis point interest rate adjustments aren’t Australian inventions. We adopted this approach at the same time as the rest of the world and for the same reasons. We’ve had much better outcomes as Greber notes, but there’s nothing to suggest that inflation targeting is the main reason.

On the contrary, inflation targeting has evidently failed nearly everywhere in the developed world, in at least three ways
* it has not kept inflation within the target range
* interest rates have been driven to zero or below, so that “emergency measures” like reliance on open market operations now appear to be permanent fixtures
* it has not delivered on the promise that targeting inflation would also deliver stable GDP growth

The first of these problems is already evident in Australia, and the second appears imminent. We should think twice before saying that, since nothing has gone badly wrong so far, we should stick with our existing policy framework.

Greg Jericho in The Guardian has some similar thoughts.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Living longer

August 23rd, 2016 60 comments

I’ve been invited to give a talk on the topic of challenges posed by an ageing population. This issue has been around ever since I can remember and, in a literal sense, it’s one I am pretty concerned about. Throughout my life I have, like the rest of the population, been aging at a rate of one year per year, and this poses plenty of challenges. On the other hand, as someone said recently, getting older may have its unpleasant aspects but it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Of course, when pundits talk about an ageing population, they do not mean that we are individually getting older but that we are not dying as soon as we used to. The result of this (and subject to demographic fluctuations) is that the average age of the population is increasing.

While I was a little snarky in my opening para, this is, in fact the correct way to think about things. We are, mostly, living longer and this creates a bunch of individual and social opportunities, choices and challenges. The two big ones are:

* How should the extra years of life be allocated between additional education, additional years of work (including household work most notably childraising) and additional years of retirement?

* What are the implications for our personal health and for the health care system.

I’ve looked at the first of these questions on quite a few occasions and concluded that the problems, if any, relate to the way the labour market works (or rather fails to work) for older worker

On the second, the operating assumption in much of the discussion seems to be that people will live longer, but that their health, at any given age, will be much the same as that of previous cohorts. This is obviously nonsensical. The reason the previous cohorts died earlier (on average) is that their health was worse. If people live longer, this will mostly mean more years of healthy life.

One possible exception I’ve been concerned about is dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and related diseases. Perhaps that’s inevitable deterioration rather than a product of ill health. But the news here is good. Age-specific rates of Alzheimers have been declining for the past 25 years as general health improves.

One remaining issue is that people with severe dementia are surviving longer than they used to, as a result of improved care, and this is socially costly. However, this is a once-off shift that has already happened, so the extra cost has been incurred already. Increases in lifespans associated with improvements in general health, including reductions in the age-specific frequency of dementia should not have any additional cost.

This is, in fact, an illustration of a more general point. The increase in health care expenditure we observe is the result of the development of new, and costly treatments. Unsurprisingly people want these treatments and are willing to pay for them, either privately or through the public health system. To regard this as a problem is like complaining about the availability of flat-screen TVs on the basis that buying them will increase our entertainment costs.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The failure of privatisation and the case for a fully public TAFE system

August 11th, 2016 26 comments

I have a new article in The Conversation, riffing off ACCC chairman Rod Sims’ recent denunciation of privatisation policy in Australia. The Conversation’s ran with the headline “People have lost faith in privatisation and it’s easy to see why“. To be slightly more precise, when privatisation started in the 1980s, most people had an open mind on the issue – there was plenty of dissatisfaction with public enterprises like Telecom Australia. As they experienced privatisation, they became more hostile and, eventually, implacably so, even as the political class remained convinced of the merits of the idea. The successive defeats of the Bligh (Labor) and Newman (LNP) governments in Queensland illustrate the point. The rare cases when privatising governments have been elected or re-elected usually arise only when the Opposition is utterly unelectable (Baird in NSW for example).

Part of Sims speech and my article referred to the continuing disaster of for-profit vocational education. Right on cue, the day the piece came out, the Victorian government terminated the contracts of another 18 shonky providers (though they are still registered with the national regulator ASQA), with the students being directed to the public TAFE system.

Billions of dollars are being wasted and thousands of lives ruined by this continuing policy disaster. Yet, it seems, no one in authority is willing to admit that the whole idea of publicly funded for-profit education is a disaster, guaranteed to generate scams and rorts on an industrial scale. The whole system needs to be shut down and replaced by a fully public TAFE system. The minority of for-profit providers who are doing a decent job could be hired as subcontractors to teach TAFE courses.

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Can this census be saved?

August 10th, 2016 71 comments

It appears that, having crashed last night with only about 10 per cent of households having submitted data, the Census website is now off the air indefinitely. It’s hard for me to see how this exercise can be salvaged. Almost certainly, lots of people who tried and failed to fill in their forms last night will be unwilling to do so again, especially in the absence of any coherent explanation for the failure. It’s looking increasingly as if the only option will be to give up and try again in five years time. Coincidentally or not, a ten-yearly census was exactly what the leadership of ABS was suggesting a couple of years ago.

This fiasco seems to have “reform” written all over it, from the new entrepreneurial leadership of ABS to the contracting out of vital functions to the benign/malign neglect displayed by the Abbott-Turnbull government. Peter Martin is very good on this, as is Chris Graham at New Matilda.

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Monday Message Board

July 18th, 2016 43 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

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June 28th, 2016 67 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

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Why is global finance so profitable (crosspost from CT)

May 12th, 2016 21 comments

In a recent post, I asserted that

activities like tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage aren’t peripheral flaws in a financial system primarily concerned with the efficient global allocation of capital. They are the core business, without which the profits of the global financial sector would be a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion or so now reaped annually

As I’m working on income distribution issues my long-running book project, this seems like a good time to see if this claim can be backed up by hard numbers.

First up, here’s my source for the $1 trillion number (actually $920 billion). As a plausibility check, I’ve tried to estimate the total size of the global financial sector. Various sources, including Wikipedia estimate that the banking and insurance sector accounts for 7-8 per cent of US gross product. Extrapolating to world gross product of about $80 trillion that would give around $6 trillion for the total size of the sector. The US is almost certainly more financialised than the world as a whole. Still, the profit number looks about right. A trickier question is whether the rents accruing to managers and top professional in the sector should be counted as part of profits. I’d guess that these rents account for at least another $1 trillion, but I have no real idea how to test this – suggestions welcome.

Is tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage a big enough activity to account for a substantial share of a trillion dollars a year? Gabriel Zucman estimates that there’s $7.5 trillion stashed in tax havens, of which around $6 trillion is untaxed. He estimates the tax avoided at $200 billion . I’ll estimate that half of that ($100 billion) is creamed off in financial sector, mostly as profits or rents. That implies a profit margin of a bit under 2 per cent, which seems reasonable.

Tax evasion by wealthy individuals is only a small part of the story. Legal tax avoidance is almost certainly more important. Most of that involves companies, but it’s important to distinguish between “close” corporations, which hide the activities of an individual or family and large global corporations. I don’t have any idea how to measure the cost of avoidance through close corporations. As regards global corporations, Zucman estimates that “a third of U.S. corporate profits, or $650 billion, are purportedly earned outside the country, with a cost to the US of $130 billion a year . Extrapolating to the world as a whole, that would be at least $500 billion. Again, assuming the financial sector creams off half of the sum, we get $250 billion (the fact that the finance sector itself accounts for around 40 per cent of all corporate profits means there’s a problem of recursion that I haven’t worked through)

Then there’s manipulation of exchange rate and bond markets. I have no idea how to measure this, but given that the notional volume of trade in some of the markets concerned is measured in the hundreds of trillions, it seems plausible that the profits and rents from market-rigging must be at least in the tens of billions.

These are probably the biggest scams, but there’s also regulatory arbitrage, privatization (a huge source of rent over recent decades), domestic tax avoidance and more.

Adding them up, I’d suggest that $500 billion a year is a low-end estimate for the profits and rents associated with various forms of anti-social financial sector activity.

There’s lots of potential error around these numbers, but the order of magnitude seems reasonable to me. As against the claim that the explosion in financial sector activity and profits over the past 40 years has been driven by the benefits of a more efficient allocation of capital by rational markets, the claim that it’s all about tax-dodging and socially unproductive arbitrage seems pretty plausible.

Obviously, the social cost of a financial system devoted to undermining tax and regulatory systems far exceeds the profits earned from the activity. That’s true of any kind of socially destructive, but privately profitable, activity. But the problem is greater in the case of financial sector activity because of the disastrous effects of financial crises.

Polls vs punters: an explanation?

May 6th, 2016 35 comments

Nearly a month ago, I noticed that betting markets were giving long odds (3.5 to 1) against a Labor win in the (presumably) forthcoming election. That would be a good bet if you thought Labor had a better than 22 per cent (1/(1+3.5)) chance of winning. Given that the polls were pretty much tied, I thought those were good odds.

Since then, the polls have moved steadily in Labor’s favor to the point where their lead is just about statistically significant in a meta-analysis (add lots of independent samples and the margin of error declines). At the same time, the government has barely had a good news day. Their one big hit, the kerfuffle about 10-year projections of tobacco tax revenue (a bipartisan policy) blew up in their faces a few days later when Turnbull and Morrison couldn’t/wouldn’t state the cost of their company tax plan. It seems that they had the $50 billion number ready, but had hit on the clever plan of having the Treasury announce it today, just before Parliament is dissolved so that Labor couldn’t … I’m not sure what (cue underpants gnomes). As a result of all this, the pundits, who dismissed the idea of a Labor win as implausible until very recently, are now coming around to the idea

Yet despite all this, the odds are barely unchanged at 3.3 to 1. That’s good for anyone who gives Labor a 23 per cent chance. There are a few possible explanations of this

(a) The idea that betting markets are highly rational aggregators of information is wrong
(b) Those betting in these markets have inside information or else insights unavailable to the rest of us.
(c) The markets don’t really exist in any substantial form and are just a publicity stunt for the bookmakers. That’s the argument of this 2013 article by Michael West, whom I’ve usually found to be sensible and reliable.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Budget bubble

May 1st, 2016 5 comments

The stream of leaks about Tuesday’s budget suggest that the process was still in turmoil until the last minute. If the last round of leaks are broadly accurate, it looks like a budget that will fit fairly neatly into a class war frame. On the tax side, the government has long been floating a cut in company tax rates and the removal of the budget emergency levy on incomes above $180k. At the last minute, they have apparently decided on an increase in the threshold (currently $80 000) for the 37 per cent marginal tax rate.

Presumably, Morrison and Turnbull think that this will be a vote-winner for people concerned about being pushed into higher tax brackets, or already in the higher brackets. How may such people are there, and who are they? Let’s suppose that the budget measures compensate for the bracket creep since Labor left office. The income tax statistics for 2012-13 showed that, at that time, 18.6 per cent of tax returns reported income of $80 000 per year.

Assuming a 10 per cent increase in nominal incomes since then, I estimate that around 5 per cent of taxpayers would have entered the 37 per cent bracket since then. Of course, most of these would be paying 37 per cent on only a tiny fraction of their income, but people don’t always judge these things sensibly. Still, a budget measure targeted at 5 per cent of taxpayers (a good deal less than 5 per cent of the electorate, even taking account of the fact that many are in couple families) doesn’t seem like an election winner.

The real punch of the measure is that everyone on incomes currently over $80 000 will benefit. Assuming a 10 per cent increase, the full benefit of $360 per year (the 4.5 cent difference in marginal rates, applied to $8000) would go to everyone with a taxable income above $88000. That’s about 25 per cent of the 12 million who file income tax returns or 3 million people.

Those above $180 000 will also benefit from the removal of the 2 per cent emergency levy, which is a much bigger deal for the beneficiaries. Anyone earning over $200k will gain at least $400 from this measure, more than from the tax cut

The threshold change I’ve calculated would cost around $1 billion a year to benefit a relatively small group of voters, most of whom are already Liberals and the rest of whom (including me, for example) are unlikely to be all that responsive to tax cuts.

As a political strategy, this doesn’t make obvious sense. I suspect, however, that most politicians and political commentators (particularly, though not only, on the conservative side) make their political estimates on the basis of people they know, many of whom are exercised about bracket creep, and very few of whom make less than $80 000 a year. I recall studies where members of the political class were asked to estimate the median Australian income, and got the number drastically wrong. The social bubble is reinforced by the intellectual bubble created by an increasingly fact-free rightwing world view.

Bubble thinking isn’t exclusively a problem of the political right. But it’s more prevalent there than at any time in the recent past. It may well prove the Turnbull government’s undoing.

* Peter Martin makes the same point about median incomes. After seeing a lower number in his article, I’ve corrected my original estimate of the budget cost, which was too high.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Predistribution: wages and unions (extract from Economics in Two Lessons)

April 28th, 2016 10 comments

Over the fold, an extract from my book-in-very slow-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m getting closer to a complete draft, and I plan, Real Soon Now, to post the material so far in a more accessible form. But for the moment, I’ll toss up an extract which is, I hope, largely self-sufficient. Encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

The book is aimed at a US audience (if it goes well, an Australian edition will follow, as with Zombie Economics). So, there are US-specific institutional points, but the general argument is applicable more broadly.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags: