We’re only ‘doing it tough’ out of envy

That’s the title of my latest piece in Crikey, over the fold

The perception that middle-class Australians are ‘doing it tough’ is one of the constants of Australian politics. As Treasurer, in 2007, Peter Costello responded to this claim with the observation:

People always have worries. But if you are worrying about getting a job, your worry should be a lot less today than 10 years ago. If you are worried about interest rates they are a lot lower than they were 10 years ago. If you are worried about incomes, they are higher than they were 10 years ago (Costello 2007, quoted by Hamilton, Downie and Yu 2008).

Four years later, announcing another round of good economic news, his successor Wayne Swan, felt the need for the concession ‘we know we have many households still doing it tough,”

This statement, taken literally, is quite true. More than 2 million people, including most people in unemployed households and a large proportion of the indigenous population, live below the poverty line, currently estimated at about $28 000 a year for a couple with no children. But it is safe to say that neither Costello nor Swan was primarily addressing this group. Rather they are addressing those, like the audience of Alan Jones’ radio program (dominated by self-funded retirees for whom the poverty rate is effectively zero), who see themselves as living on ‘Struggle Street’ despite living standards that would have been regarded as luxurious a generation ago.
There is little in the economic data for the population as a whole to support the perception that Australians are doing it tough. Average weekly earnings have risen nearly 25 per cent since Costello made his statement, handily outpacing inflation. While the top 1 per cent have done better than anyone else, as elsewhere, household incomes have risen across the board.

Why, then, do people see themselves, or the community as a whole, as ‘doing it tough’?

One explanation that is often mentioned is that of mortgage stress. The sharp increase in house prices that took place in the early 2000s meant that new home buyers have taken on levels of debt that are historically unprecedented even relative to incomes. Moreover, with low inflation and correspondingly lower growth in nominal incomes, the long-established pattern in which the ratio of mortgage repayments (fixed in nominal terms) to income fell rapidly after a few years, has ceased to apply. A mortgage that is hard to repay when it is first taken out, remains hard to repay for years afterwards, and may become impossible to meet if one earner becomes unemployed or withdraws from the workforce to bring up children.

There was undoubtedly an increase in mortgage stress in the early years of this century, when the ratio of repayments on new loans to household disposable incomes rose above 30 per cent (RBA 2012). But even in the mid-2000s, the majority of middle-income households did not have outstanding mortgages and most of those who did owed less than $200 000 (Hamilton, Downie and Yu 2008). Since then, the ratio of repayments to income has fallen and is now at much the same level as in the mid-1980s.

The ratio of household debt to income has also fallen, though not quite so fast. The rapid increase in the debt ratio from 1990, when it was below 50 per cent for the average household, to the mid-2000s, when it was nearly 150 per cent, certainly caused plenty of alarm, even though it was more than matched by the growing value of equity in housing. But the debt ratio peaked in 2006. Households, which had negative levels of net saving at the height of the housing boom, are now saving around 10 per cent of their income, which implies that debt levels may fall. The much maligned increase in public debt has in fact been part of a rebalancing which makes Australia’s debt levels, as a whole, more sustainable.

Far from reflecting a struggle to put a roof over our heads, the debt boom of the 1990s and early 2000s was associated with a massive upgrade in the consumption of housing services. The floor area of the average new house rose greatly (an increase of around 40 per cent just between 1984-85 and 2002-03, ABS 2005), and the cost and quality of standard fittings increased as well. For example, granite benchtops, an example of luxurious excess as recently as the 1990s, became, and remain, commonplace.

Another possible explanation of the ‘doing it tough’ perception arises from inconsistent responses to price variation. Despite sustained low inflation and falling interest rates, many Australians perceive themselves as facing ‘cost of living’ pressures. Over the past decade some highly salient prices such as the retail price of electricity have risen sharply, but consumption continued to grow until recently, driven largely by the increased use of airconditioning. By contrast the cost of telecommunications services has fallen , but households have responded to lower prices and the availability of new products by increasing their total expenditure. It is easy enough, though misleading, to see this as a story of ever-increasing bills for everything.

Despite all of these partial explanations, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the ‘doing it tough’ perception is nothing more than a manifestation of some of our less appealing human propensities: envy and chronic dissatisfaction. This can be seen all the way up the income scale, to the point of British bankers who complain that they can’t live on a million pounds (roughly 2 million dollars) a year.

News media have an obvious commercial interest in telling stories that make their audiences feel victimised, and politicians have made the judgement that telling voters the truth is too costly. At current rates of growth, incomes will double by 2050, but we will doubtless still be living on Struggle Street.

Ref: Hamilton, C.; Downie, C.; and lu, Y. H., The State of the Australian Middle Class, The Australia Institute 2008.

58 thoughts on “We’re only ‘doing it tough’ out of envy

  1. There are 2 main reasons why I see claims that middle class people are doing it tough as nonsense.
    1. Interest rates are at historic lows.
    2. The CPI is also low, and the Wage Price Index has increased more than the CPI.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention 2.

  2. the middle class is living longer than before and the basket of goods that buy is much larger and of higher quality.

  3. Heard a story from a partner of a large law firm. They, along with everyone else, are having to look at costs and have frozen wages (as profits are falling) for the time being.

    One employee was livid because he had been expecting a few percentage points pay rise and he and his wife (also a lawyer) are expecting a baby soon. He would be destitute, apparently, if he didn’t get a few thousand dollars more per year. Their combined annual income is about $210,000.

    He was particularly upset that his wife would have to take maternity leave! Outrageous!

    Averages are fine, but in the real world the inequality gap is definitely growing.

    So is the “reality” gap.

    I see the US backed military are slaughtering hundreds of people tonight in Egypt.

    As Ed Keupper sang: “Everything’s fine, carry on”.

  4. *Please note I am kevin1, not to be confused with Kevin*

    Is this outbreak of empathising and “feeling your pain” purely a vote-fishing expedition for electoral reasons, or does the political class believe their propaganda? I suspect not, as they get around the country and must know it’s not true, even though it presses people’s buttons. Clive Hamilton in particular has been talking about “affluenza” for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put a serious case that the working and middle class have been doing it tough since the mid 1990s.

    I put some blame on the 3 year election cycle, where pandering to short term politics distracts from long-term policy considerations. Tipping the balance of political activity towards campaigning and media-confected “crises” (rather than governing) might feed a deepseated insecurity and fear of future uncertainty amongst some people. Unable to solve people’s angst, politics hands out bigger doses of the placebo.

  5. @kevin1

    To some extent it depends on how you define the “working class”.

    I define it as including casuals, the under-employed and “contractors” – who are in reality employees but legally are small-business people, and as such are responsible for their own workers’ compensation, GST, insurance and superannuation. They also don’t get holidays, sick leave, long service or RDO’s.

    And they have been convinced to trade all that off for a few dollars extra and the “power” to compete in a “free market”.

  6. By JQ’s own admission, more than 2 million Australians are in fact doing it tough below the poverty line. That is two million too many and an egregious policy failure by both sides of politics. That is 1 in every 10 people in the country in poverty! JQ’s article almost seems to be advocating complacency about this issue. The more people we leave behind in poverty, the more trouble we store up for our society in future. If we follow US trends, as we usually do, something like the lower half of our middle class will start collapsing into poverty and soon.

    Australia is still headed down the neoliberal or “economic rationalist” path. We had better change direction soon or our economy will collapse in a heap. These are the failed policies that have wrecked the US and the EU. We don’t have much time to get off this disastrous path. The debt hangover and the housing bubble are still distorting our economy too. Now is not the time for complacency. We must change our policies markedly or face a EU style depression.

  7. @Ikonoclast

    JQ’s article almost seems to be advocating complacency about this issue.

    That’s a misreading, IMO. PrQ was attacking the notion that people who are doing pretty well are doing it tough. Apart from acknowledging that the 2 million you mention really are doing it tough, he said almost nothing about them.

  8. Maybe the level of financial competence has fallen. This would explain why people on 200k a year are “struggling”. You could conceivably overextend yourself on any level of income. In the space of three decades credit cards have and new debt products have expanded their reach and higher levels of expenditure on cars and holidays seem to have been normalised.

  9. @Michael

    No argument from me, either.

    As an aside: I asked whether they had a huge mortgage they couldn’t afford and the answer was ‘no, they’re renting’.

    Aspirational angst gone mad.

    Although I tend to heartlessly prioritise my concern for the people who are suffering homelessness or sickness or hunger or immediate uncertainty before the first world problems of people earning $210k.

    It’s not that I don’t care about the relatively rich, it’s just that they don’t need society’s attention nearly as much as they get. There are real people who need more concern paid to them.

  10. I’d like to propose an alternative hypothesis to envy, namely empathy. To know that about 8.7% of the population has incomes under the ‘poverty line’ may be a great worry to a lot of people. Who are these 8.7%? How did they end up in this position? How do these people feel? Depressed? Angry? Dejected? Do they know about young barristers who want to incorporate to lower their taxes? It is not only consumption of stuff sold at supermarkets and at K-mart that may matter to these people.

    What about people at the poverty line and those between $28000 and say $50000 from 2 incomes from contract work in a city where it is hard to find a 1 bedroom appartment under $300.–. Toll roads, workers compensation cuts, ………, ICAC…….., ………, student debt…….,

    When people see one or two homeless people pushing a shopping trolly with bags containing their belongings in Gordon it is not envy which may come to the minds of Gordon residents but compassion or a sense of helplessness or a sense of concern as to how big the problem of homelessness may be when it shows up in Gordon, NSW. They do not respond with gated communities to keep ‘them’ out. They may just talk about people doing it tough.

    The problem with macro-economic statistics is that there may not be even one single person for whom the numbers apply – an artificial ‘economy’. As long as these numbers are used by Treasury and various experts they may be useful. But for many people macro-economic talk is fantasy land. For example, the statement ‘interest rates are at an x- year low’ is nonsense for some people because their credit card rate is still over 15% or unchanged for a decade and this is the only debt they know.

  11. The granite kitchen worktops are probably “granite”, a much cheaper synthetic stone with mineral grains evenly embedded in resin and no cracks. Aunt Edna no doubt installed it in fuchsia.

  12. Are we to conclude that JQ writing about inflation is admiting that moderate inflation (above 2%) is a fundamental to capitalist economy and that conservative succes in stabilising inflation down to 2% was the fundamental cause of the GFC?
    Lower inflation also means lower interest rate and also low growth of incomes which normaly provides for growing nominal debt that sustains economic growth as per proof by Steve Keen.

    This line of thinking from prof. JQ shows how moderate inflation is a fundamental factor of capitalist economy. It describes it better then i ever did before , and i had many attempts.

    Let me start from the beggining and explain why debt is esential to capitalist economy and moderate inflation as partial cure of debt burden that enables more debt;

    Lets presume that quantity of money is fixed and also population number and all are working is fixed.
    Lets look at one single corporation in a whole economy. If owner of a capitalist corporation makes a profit and keeps larger share then he could spend on his own products (he works on “capital accumulation”), How it is possible to sell all that company produces in a fixed money quantity environment?
    He can not sell all products since he kept money that could bay last pieces of production. That means that in next production cycle he has to produce even less in order to keep some more money. In sufficient number of production cycles there will be unemployment because of overproduction.
    To circumvent reduced production (and unemployment with it), the owner has to loan his “savings” in order to sell all of his products. That is how fixed ammount of money works. Credit money creation by banks provides for “savings” by owner and for increasing production while workers get to enjoy more then they receive in income. (Who says there is no ‘free lunch’?)

    Now let’s say that there is another corporation that producess another product in such environment. If former owner creates higher desire for his product he will have more savings (profits) while later company will suffer deficits (if there is a bank that provides a credit enabling accounting with deficits). In a fixed money environment surplus corporation can lend deficit company a loan which will enable sale of all second products. Here we see that there has to be surplus recycling mechanism in order to have sustainable production and full employment for both companies while owners keep some surplus (profit).
    Credit created money by banks provide for financial redistribution in order to keep sustainable production levels not to cause unemployment.

    The fact that one corporation can have surplus means that in order to sustain it he has to lower prices or he will keep accumulating more money while other comppany will slowly whither and dissapear. That is a simple system in a fixed money economy.

    But reality is not that simple, there is population growth that forces for even more new money comming in then just surplus recycling. In order to provide for newborn, parents can not only take away from their needs, they have to spend more then they have in present income. That is why they saved and friends, relative provided gifts and more services from family.
    Where the parent’s savings came from. If employees also saved, did corporation sell even less products?

    While one employee saves, another one has to spend more in order to keep production on the level.
    Can all spend more then their incomes together and keep savings without causing reduced production?

    Bank creation of money is providing for inflation and keeps surplus recycling mechanisms between sectors of an economy going while reducing overpricing of particular products.

    Debt is esential for capitalist economy and with it inflation as reducer of burden of debt. Lower inflation and you get full burden of debt forcing reduction in production hence unemployment.

    I am just describing realities, i am not trying to say that this system is bad or such, but conclusion is; when growth of debt is stoped while savings are not spent /(capitalist keep more and more of money without spending it), then there comes unemployment. Moderate inflation is essential for debt growth especially when population growth slows down.
    Another conclusion is that credit => savings, not other way around.
    Government deficits enable for banking creation of debt (not in AUS where there is no reserve requierment) hence government deficits = private savings (after trade deficit is covered)
    Government can have trade surpluses to provide for credit creation but not every country can have surpluses at the same time (we knew that, right?).

  13. @Ernestine Gross

    I agree. I worry about the poor and unemployed of this country partly out of empathy, having been there myself when I was young. I must also admit I worry about the poor now out of something between selfishness and enlightened self interest. I don’t feel happy or safe living in a society with a lot of poor and homelessness. I know that such conditions generate crime, disease and ulimately violence. I know that the crime and disease could come to my door or my neighbourhood.

    I would rather purchase public safety and public health and hence my own safety and health with higher taxes and have a slightly more modest set of personal belongings as a result.

    I am not in favour of private charity. Charity is piecemeal and condescending. Charity has a strong flavour of a system which still allows unconscionable riches to accumulate in a few hands and that the poor should be grateful for a few crumbs from the rich man’s table. I am in favour of public welfare measures. Public welfare and equity measures generate a sense of inclusion and solidarity. They have a different and better effect than allowing a grossly unfair system to keep people impoverished and then rub the results of systemic failure in people’s faces and label it personal failure.

    Personally, I get very angry with the “you’ve never had it so good claim” when there are so many problem being stored up for our society by the current grotesque system. Actually, things are not good. Our university youth are being saddled with huge HECs debts. At current inflated house and rent prices they will struggle to become independent. The way things are going with unemployment they may even be lucky to get a job when they graduate.

    What’s so good about wrecking our climate and environment? What’s so good about doing far too little to change over to a renewable and sustainable economy? What’s so good about grid lock and tollways? What’s so good about urban decay and suburbs with 20% unemployment rates? We are living on our natural capital and p***ing it down the drain. This economy is maladaptive to the nth degree. If anyone thinks this economy is in good shape to face the future they don’t have a clue about the real problems underneath the flashy financial facade.

  14. I also agree with Ernestine and whoever watched ‘The Business’ last night would have seen the report on self funded retirees doing it tough due to interest rate income ie. they’re now eating into their capital due to (a) losing a considerable chunk of their capital from the GFC and now they’re suffering a rotten return of what’s left due to interest rates. One can also sympathize with their reluctance to shift capital to higher returning investments due to recent experiences and the volatile state of economies currently.

  15. I am not in favour of private charity.

    What a sorry specimen you are then. And given that all of us have been given something by somebody at some point I’d say you lack gratitude as well. Whilst the exchange of goods is the essence of commerce the giving of gifts is the essence of community. You really ought to try giving, it is good for the soul.

  16. There are almost certainly more economic shocks in store for us in the near future. The bank “deposit protection” levy is a clear move to eventually enable Cyprus-like raids on bank deposits. Once the levy is in place, it will be possible to levy an emergency amount (say 5% or 10%) on all deposits over (say) $100,000. Amounts of anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 are not that unusual in certain business, family and private super cases. An amount of $500,000 in super would be lucky to sustainably generate a $15,000 p.a. income stream currently. Maybe it could generate $20,000 p.a. if one was willing to let the capital erode. That is not a high income.

    A Cyprus-like raid on bank accounts and investments is being prepared. So, while Banks make record profits, depositors face risks like this. Bankers will be bailed out yet again at the expense of ordinary people’s taxes and savings. You can be certain that depositors will take a haircut and rich shareholder profits will not be touched.

    Systemically, further shocks are in store as follows. One, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) is collapsing a country at a time; Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and now Egypt. These collapses are directly related to resource depletion, especially oil depletion as these countries move from being energy exporters to energy importers thus losing their one reliable source of foreign earnings. The precipitating factor for the actual outbreaks of unrest and revolution is high prices and shortages of essentials especially food. And as a nod to Ernestine, I will say MMT cannot help them as it cannot overcome real resource limits.

    The EU and USA also will not recover from their malaise. Whilst resource limits are not quite binding yet in their cases, the hold of neoliberal austerity economics is so tight that no progress can be made in solving their problems. What we have in the West is a maladaptive and sclerotic political economy which appears to have lost the ability to respond to real needs, requirements and conditions.

  17. @TerjeP
    I don’t see anything wrong with private charity also – it should be encouraged and applauded. I don’t however believe in using it as a substitute for a universalised system such as a national disability scheme or medicare. Private charity for all the good it does is prone to duplications and inefficiencies with some charities using only a small percentage of the money they raise to help the intended recipients.

    It is also prone to emotional surges which might help in the short term but do nothing to address long term needs or identify gaps where non-photogenic recipients are concerned.

  18. More generally why are Australians hysterical about the state of our economy. Relatively low unemployment, very low inflation, massively increased living standards, low public debt and current account deficits that are only significant because hysterics on the right use them as a political point.

    Why are we so prone to pessimism as a nation? If you talk to many people they will non-reflectively say things like the place is falling to pieces etc etc and then go on to talk about their forthcoming holidays in Cairns or Thailand.

    Is it largely the media? Is NewsCorp that destructive? Is it the sniping negative character of our political debates? Is it an Australian conversational style to be debunking and negative?

    I am unsure but the level of general unhappiness is (a) bad from the viewpoint of social welfare since it isn’t good to be unhappy – a bit of American positivism would make more sense and (b) perhaps self-fulfilling or at least somewhat damaging to our economic prospects.

  19. What has happened to the Gini coefficient over the past few decades? A more unequal society means that the class above one’s own becomes more visible, fueling the envy. During the “Great Compression” of the 1950s and 60s, there was much less difference between rich and poor, and the comfortable middle didn’t have other people’s wealth flaunted at them all the time. Perhaps this can explain why everyone feels so economically inadequate.

  20. Doing it tough syndrome reached its nadir when Labor minister Joel Fitzgibbon said that there were people in his electorate earning $250,000 a year who were doing it tough.

    But as ludicrous as that sounds, it might in a sense be right. If they’ve got a $1 million mortgage and two or three kids in private schools at $20000 a year (payable out of after tax income) and drive a late model BMW or two they might actually struggle to maintain that lifestyle, even on that income.

    Even worse, they might observe their peers effortlessly maintaining that kind of lifestyle – or better – so they feel resentful and envious. When the government puts on a carbon tax, or whatever, they get angry.

    It’s been over 20 years since Australia had a serious economic downturn. This has had unintended consequences. There’s no sense of restraint or perspective any more, just unbridled aspiration that is never satisfied.

  21. If our political economy system was not profoundly inequitable and uncharitable in its form there would be little need for organised public charity in a lot of cases. Perhaps my term “private charity” was wrong in this context. Private charity is fine. The existence of a widespread need for organised public charity is diagnostic of fundamental political economy problems leading to inequity and unemployment.

  22. Envy? I think selfishness is closer to the mark.

    Letting everyone know that one is “doing it tough” is a self-preservation exercise, in my opinion.

    In convict days, no-one would want to have been seen as fairing better than anyone else, lest one’s benefits be removed. Nowadays, no-one will want to be seen as fairing better than anyone else, lest one’s benefits be removed … by gangs, thugs, criminals of various sorts; family, friends, neighbours looking for a handout; or by politicians who may come to believe that me/my cohort are fair game for extra tax and/or less government benefits.

    “doing it tough” applies to any income cohort, as per JQ’s examples, and can be viewed as self-preservation within one’s own cohort and as selfishness by those less well-off.

    And why would politicians mention those “doing it tough”? — As a mechanism to personally acknowledge and connect to … EVERYONE.

  23. This may not be any useful indicator, but I just took a peek at our debtor ageing listing (~260 debtors total) and it was brought to my attention that it’s the 1st time that we’ve had nothing owing to us in the 60 and 90day columns. Well, apart from 1 company that went down in May due to poor management decisions.

  24. @Ernestine Gross
    I think that seeing the real struggle of the homeless & poor could lead others who aren’t currently poor to a feeling of “doing it tough” in the sense of increasing their perception of risk and uncertainty. That is, they know they are doing well now, but they sense that as the open and rapidly changing economy creates more risk that they or those like them might be plunged into unemployment and then poverty for reasons outside their control or even comprehension – as has happened to a lot of the US former middle class in the wake of the GFC. This leads people to want to hoard their wealth against future risk (as JQ mentions household savings are rising sharply) – it’s Ricardian equivalence combined with “there but for the grace of god go I”.

    Incidentally, JQ overlooks the implications of a shift in households moving from rising debt levels to rising savings – it means they are dramatically reducing their consumption spending and hedging against risk. So if one’s consumption is much lower than one remembers it being in 2006 then one really might feel one was “doing it tough” in the sense of consuming less luxuries, etc – of course it’s all in savings but savings may not give the same sense of satisfaction as an extra meal out.
    That savings are rising also means that people really are perceiving increased risk to their future financial prospects – even if it’s not a real risk, people who are saving more and spending less aren’t being hypocritical when they complain about economic uncertainty, which might translate to “doing it tough” in casual conversation.

    PS Crikey also had an excellent (extract) article about what “doing it tough” really is like in Australia today – harrowing reading – http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/08/14/doing-it-tough-in-forde-beatties-would-be-electorate/

  25. @ John Quiggin

    I agree with the main thrust of the article and the need to distinguish between those that are “Doing It Tough” (to use Krugman’s style) and the 2 million Australians who really are having a hard time.

    Other than the “self-funded” retirees, I suggest that there the households that have incurred large amount of debt for consumption in the boom also may feel that they are “Doing It Tough”. This is due to that the debt fuelled consumption may have distorted their perception on the purchase power of their income. Thus not only that they consume less from not borrowing money (or borrowing less than before), but also consuming less by cutting back on spending to repay the debt. This change in consumption behaviour may create a perception that they are having a hard time.

    Although this may not be the main point of the article, I would argued that the government should run an expansionary budget at the current circumstances to help the 2 million who really are doing it tough.

  26. @hc

    “American positivism”, if it exists, is surely a non-tradeable commodity.

    You ask: “More generally why are Australians hysterical about the state of our economy”.

    I don’t believe and I have no evidence that Australians are hysterical about the state of ‘our economy’. Perhaps the description of ‘our economy’ irritates a lot of people.

    It seems to me the following language can be understood more easily:

    “Treasurer Mike Baird revealed the figure [$90million] during a budget estimates hearing at the NSW Parliament on Thursday morning.

    ‘Whether it be seven new schools or 900 teachers as an example, the state has been short-changed. ‘…”

    Source: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/eddie-obeid-ian-macdonald-corrupt-conduct-cost-nsw-90m-report-20130815-2rxuk.html. Term in square brackets added to convey the context of the quote.

    Perceived histerics about ‘the state of the economy’ may be worries about how some people become wealthy rather than envy that there are wealthy people or lack of some magic ingridients called ‘negativity’ or ‘possitivity’.

    Such worries may not be confined to politicians’ and union leaders’ source of wealth but more generally. I’d say such worries would be evidence of people being rational as to the conditions under which a society is sustainably well off. Some of us would call it public support for social justice.

  27. Just as money printing by government creates inflation and increases production, with various degrees which one will gain more, the money printing by banks also creates inflation and increases production. Money printing provides gains to what such money is spent on, government spends on reaserch and developement, food for poor and infrastructure hence those sectors inflate. Bank’s money is spent on housing and cars so that inflates prices and productivity (luxury). Banks used to provide money for new production, but now they are doing that in China.

    Inflating particular sectors of economy gives overpricing and overprofiting over other sectors that would decline if government doesn’t react and subsidise it to keep pace. While prices of housing rose to unsustainable levels, changing mortgage terms kept it sustainable. Mortgage terms can not go lower anymore to provide for easing the burden of debt. And there is almost no inflation of wages that relaxes such burden.

    Inflation was a fundamental part of a capitalist economy, it is not there anymore.

    There is a 2,500 year old advice on how to handle an economy; “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.” What better remission of debts then by inflation on fixed rates?

  28. @Ernestine Gross
    Yes, I reckon that if Tony Abbott saying “and they have a bit of sex appeal” (regarding some female candidates) qualifies as major national news story, then surely there can’t be much hysteria about… well, much at all, really…

  29. @Ikonoclast

    “By JQ’s own admission, more than 2 million Australians are in fact doing it tough below the poverty line. That is two million too many and an egregious policy failure by both sides of politics. That is 1 in every 10 people in the country in poverty! JQ’s article almost seems to be advocating complacency about this issue.”

    While we normally agree I think I have a bit of a problem with the poverty statistic and how its used. My understanding was that the poverty line was defined as a proportion of the median or average wage – so in fact you could by definition never get rid of poverty.

    I think there is a need to get a more absolute definition at least to some degree simply because we are heading into the Limits to Growth era when there will be much fewer resources and a need to somehow balance need against availability.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong on this % bit by the way.

    A second point I’d be curious about your thoughts on is that while agreeing with your point that neoliberalism’s direction is problematic there seem to me to be reasons for poverty which have less to do directly with income and more to do with circumstance and which I’m not convinced are amenable to the throwing money at the problem solution – at least not by simply increasing more of the same services e.g.:

    – mental illness which seems in part intractably linked with physiology and money spent on drugs and current psychology might help the service providers but wont drag those badly affected out of poverty. Maybe I’m arguing for more research but I worry about the cynicism of the grant swinging community here too.

    – the homeless who in part seem to be there partly due to mental illness and partly because they have lost connection to society and family and for which money is not strictly a solution

    – people who have been caught in an alcohol, gambling, criminalization or drug trap from which they cant socially escape – at least in the real world – or people blown away by personal crisis – divorce, loss of loved one, or personal delusion. I know from personal experience that they can be bottomless pits which say 20% more unemployment benefits wont help (though of course there others who will benefit).

    – connecting remote indigenous communities to mainstream Australia is prevented in part by the tyranny of distance (except where there are some local money spinners like tourism and mining). White communities often cope by simply collapsing showing how hard it is within economic systems to keep everywhere function like in ‘the good ole days’ – consider mining towns.

    Neoliberalism isn’t the solution to these other poverty creating situations I agree but I’m dubious this is a simple problem of economics.

  30. Of course those living below the poverty line are doing it extremely tough, say on less than $20K and esp if renting also.
    There are many issues like this and just one example is the cost being borne by users for the product of the electricity industry.
    These days we have evolved to a ridiculous amount of unnecessary costs involved. The actual work plus capital and investment costs involved in the generation and distribution of electricity are only one part of the overall cost. There are a lot of other unnecessary costs such as :
    – Many separate companies all with their attendant corporate structures
    structures (e.g. the Electricity Retailers and several Generators)
    – Burgeoning management
    – multiplicity of GOCs,
    – large replications in the number of similar functions repeated over these GOCs
    – creation of new roles. New roles such as; Boards of Directors, CEO, CFO, CIO, Trading, Risk Management, Business Development, Marketing, Sales and so forth.
    – Salaries within upper management and to some degree within middle management are extremely high, not really supportable and a very high burden on users (the customers)
    – sense of entitlement filters down through the ranks of these organisations resulting in upward pressure on wages meaning further burdens upon the consumer.
    – costs of various infrastructures required to support the new GOCs
    – ongoing accommodation leasing of separate multiple office buildings for the staff. These offices did not exist before and all of fairly large footprints and many within the CBDs

    An example in a different industry relates to AllConnex (water) which was disbanded due to the efforts of people power. At the time this was being formed it would have had all the management functions and issues similar to those I mentioned above (Boards, CEO Etc). If it had gone ahead there would have been all the costs involved in building a new Head Office edifice (I think it was on the Gold Coast). I seem to recall that certain dedicated local people caused the reversal of this decision thereby dodging an unnecessary and expensive ‘bullet’ for the residents of Redlands, Logan and the Gold Coast. I believe there was mention of; how many homes water bills would it take just to pay for the CEO salary and related expenses (I think there was mention of over a thousand homes).

    If one took yet another industry to compare; it would be Australian Telecommunications. When this industry was initially restructured in the 1980s; the “Rest of the World” was invited to enter and offer to compete. That is; compete against the single entity named Telecom Australia (as it was known as then). The result was the emergence of such Optus, AAPT, Vodafone etc. I think the overall population of Australia is about 5 times that of Queensland. It would have been a ludicrous situation to first break up Telecom Australia into multiple organisations. If similar had been done as in the Queensland Electricity Industry break up there could have been almost 50 Telecom Australia Corps.

    One other issue to add relates to reduced leverage and loss of economies of scale for expense inputs from service providers and suppliers. An example is the supply of Telecommunications Voice and Data Services. A sinle entity such as the QEC had a much higher capability in this regard than several small corporations. During the 1990s these kinds of expenses were being driven down through negotiations and leverage available only to a larger entity. These sorts of savings also filter through to end users. Telecommunications providers took advantage of the electricity industry break up to target the new entities individually thus increasing their overall revenues .

    I am not claiming that the previous regime was particularly efficient but as shown above it would have been quite lean compared to the situation today.

  31. I am not doing it tough. But I do worry about the future. Life seems much more uncertain, being on short term contracts, and knowing that I don’t have enough to retire on (no really, if I stopped working and got hold of my super, it would all be gone in a few years).

    So its not doing it tough now, but what will come in the future that worries me.

  32. I’ll promise the following is my last alternative hypothesis to envy.

    So far my arguments were restricted to those I can justify on economic theory grounds (eg 1. a person’s utility function at a point in time has not only its own consumption bundles as an argument but also those of other people – maybe not 6 billion people but, say friends, neighbours and relatives, people say meet or read about. 2. a person’s utility function is a composite function to represent a life cycle, consumption bundles further out in the future are uncertain – eg no idea as to what the IT world will produce in 20 years time but I hope bread is still being produced and not all doctors have been replaced with corporate managers. For each case, the budget constraints, including borrowing and repayment schedules, have to be suitably constructed with a correspondingly large number of state contingencies. End of boring stuff.)

    JQ is talking about the public discourse of politics with respect to something that relates to economics but may be psychological. He uses macro-economic statistics to say there is no economic reason for those to whom politicians seem to direct their messages (ie other than the 8.7% of people under the poverty line). If one uses the characature of ‘the economic man’ as a point of reference and searches for a psychological reason, then envy offers itself.

    Beside psychology there is also ‘communication’. How does the public communicate to politicians what they want? We need, conceptually speaking, a message space (a huge inbox, if you like, or a huge radar screen which receives demands for money) for politicians.

    The mining industry spent I don’t know how many millions on an advertising campaign against the Super Profit Resource Rent Tax. (These are huge blocks of messages on the radar screen). The big end of town pays for lobbyists and their unions, called business councils (more blocks of messages on the radar screen) labour unions send their blocks of messages. ‘Everybody’ learns about this and everybody, who has a proverbial unallocated cent left, will spend it on screeming “I am doing it tough”; if they wouldn’t they might lose out.

    Its competition for being heard. The 8.7%, or more, aren’t being heard because to send messages costs money.

  33. I think the discussion about housing costs misses some important elements: at the stage of life associated with greatest mortgage stress (couple with young children) it is now normal for both parents to work, and despite granite benchtops and larger floor area most of the new housing developed in the last twenty years is in less desirable locations and often on smaller blocks of land.

    For example, even though I’m a fairly high earning white collar worker (and, to be clear, I’m not doing it tough by any means) there is no way that I can afford to buy the house that my blue collar father paid the mortgage on when I was growing up in the 80s. Instead, I live in a house on a smaller block much further from the city centre and spend much longer commuting than he did, as well as spending more hours at work. It might be possible to afford a similar house if my wife worked full time as well. But two people working a total of 80 to 90 hours per week to buy the same thing that one person working 38 hours a week afforded a generation ago seems like a substantial increase in cost to me.

  34. @RowanS

    You are absolutely correct. In the time span you cover, housing prices have gone from something like 2 times or 2.5 times an average annual gross wage to something more like 7 times an average annual gross wage. Clearly, it is harder now to get a house.

    This asset inflation has been pushed by incorrect policies (First Home Owners Price Inflation Grant, excess lending regime and inflation of costs primarily pushed by large increases in building trade incomes).

    When I graduated from Uni I had no debt (free university education). Now, my kids will graduate with debt (which I will probably help them pay off because I think it is so unfair to them).

    Our economy is supposedly better. But for whom is it better? For the top 20% I would say. For the other 80% it is either no better or even harder. Those who think the current economy is good have been living too long in business towers and ivory towers. They clearly have little idea of how the lower 80 percentile struggles.

  35. @RowanS
    Elizabeth Warren gave an interesting lecture in 2007 – “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class” where she compared the finances of a typical 1970’s family with one from 2005. It’s interesting how many other costs would have gone down between those times. The main increases are in debt, property and cars with a move from single car households to dual car households. This is in the US context but it seems to apply here as well, more so since property prices remain high.

  36. Class can be subject to different interpretations. I wonder who the middle class might be. I suppose (without assuming any wisdom in these matters), that if you are a home-owning suburbanite like myself, regardless of employment status, you might qualify.

    I notice the sense and cost of housing amenity has increased with a decrease in the size of external space around the dwelling. Fundamentally these judgments are about values. The thing is, we all now have plenty of space to accommodate the homeless and the refugees.

  37. Took particular note of how Swan and Julia were always focused on surplus. I would have thought that in every interview they should turn the focus around to economic positives and policies for the future. Not sure what Kevin is on about with Northern development. What’s that Clinton statement on politicking?

  38. Michael :
    Elizabeth Warren gave an interesting lecture in 2007 – “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class” where she compared the finances of a typical 1970?s family with one from 2005. It’s interesting how many other costs would have gone down between those times. The main increases are in debt, property and cars with a move from single car households to dual car households. This is in the US context but it seems to apply here as well, more so since property prices remain high.

    A BBC television documentary placed two parents and four children in their home with only the amenities available during each of the previous three decades (1970s, 1980s and 1990s) and recording their responses to technological change.

    The programme follows the family’s adaption and reaction to being thrown back in time to a more technologically sparse period and how their pastimes and attitudes change in response to both landing in the early 1970s and coming up-to-date.

    The programmes will reveal the huge transformation that technological change has wrought on British family life over the past 40 years. The children have to cope when they swap Facebook for black-and-white telly and vinyl records.

    it’s was goodbye to their three games consoles, three DVD players, five mobile phones, six televisions and seven computers, not to mention their dishwasher, two washing machines and tumble dryer

    Filming occurred over the winter of 2009, which was particularly cold and snowy for England, a fact which figured into the story when the family had to endure cold nights early in the project when the lack of central heating was simulated for the 70s episode

  39. @Jim Rose
    Technology is a difficult one because the speed of development has meant that computers many times more powerful than the most powerful computers in existence in the 1970’s can’t even be given away now. I grow up in the 1970’s and i can’t really say I was worse off as far as toys go or entertainment than my own kids are today despite the fall in prices. The toys were more valuable then and their utility was greater because of that. One area that has improved is education. The primary school education my kids get at the local state school is better than even the elite private schools would have offered in the 1970’s, and as for the state primary school I attended it seems the education theory back then was why bother?

  40. It all comes down to the sign of the derivative. It ain’t where you’re at, it’s where your headed. Australia is looking over the precipice after scaling the summit and it looks a little scary.

  41. Jim Rose :

    Michael :
    Elizabeth Warren gave an interesting lecture in 2007 – “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class” where she compared the finances of a typical 1970?s family with one from 2005. It’s interesting how many other costs would have gone down between those times. The main increases are in debt, property and cars with a move from single car households to dual car households. This is in the US context but it seems to apply here as well, more so since property prices remain high.

    A BBC television documentary placed two parents and four children in their home with only the amenities available during each of the previous three decades (1970s, 1980s and 1990s) and recording their responses to technological change.
    The programme follows the family’s adaption and reaction to being thrown back in time to a more technologically sparse period and how their pastimes and attitudes change in response to both landing in the early 1970s and coming up-to-date.
    The programmes will reveal the huge transformation that technological change has wrought on British family life over the past 40 years. The children have to cope when they swap Facebook for black-and-white telly and vinyl records.
    it’s was goodbye to their three games consoles, three DVD players, five mobile phones, six televisions and seven computers, not to mention their dishwasher, two washing machines and tumble dryer
    Filming occurred over the winter of 2009, which was particularly cold and snowy for England, a fact which figured into the story when the family had to endure cold nights early in the project when the lack of central heating was simulated for the 70s episode

    Would you kindly stop trotting this out as if it proves anything or is in any way relevant? Thanks. How about “employed and a house in the seventies, versus unemployed and no house in the present day, or big house back then versus small rental apartment today”? Me personally, I would rank employment and affordability of housing as being far, FAR more important than “herpderp more DVD players and iPods”, but whatever floats your boat.

  42. @ JR

    And, what about the case study of early 70’s under Allende, and the late 70’s under Pinochet? You can come up with any result you want by choosing the data set and end points. You should know this from your coursework where I presume you would have done something on stats or econometrics.

  43. Just read this paragraph by Chris Hedges, very apt:

    In “Les Misérables” Victor Hugo described war with the poor as one between the “egoists” and the “outcasts.” The egoists, Hugo wrote, had “the bemusement of prosperity, which blunts the sense, the fear of suffering which in some cases goes so far as to hate all sufferers, and unshakable complacency, the ego so inflated that is stifles the soul.” The outcasts, who were ignored until their persecution and deprivation morphed into violence, had “greed and envy, resentment at the happiness of others, the turmoil of the human element in search of personal fulfillment, hearts filled with fog, misery, needs, and fatalism, and simple, impure ignorance.”

  44. Will :
    And, what about the case study of early 70?s under Allende, and the late 70?s under Pinochet? You can come up with any result you want by choosing the data set and end points. You should know this from your coursework where I presume you would have done something on stats or econometrics.

    Andrei Shleifer in his JEL essay ‘The Age of Milton Friedman’ found that as the world embraced free market policies since 1980, living standards rose sharply, while life expectancy, education and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined.

    XAVIER SALA-I-MARTIN (2006) found that for 138 countries in 2000, poverty rates and head counts were between one-third and one-half of what they were in 1970 There were between 250 and 500 million fewer poor in 2000 than in 1970. All eight indexes of income inequality show reductions in global inequality during the 1980s and 1990s.

    A simple test: visit urban and rural Asia regularly since the mid-1990s.
    • I was tall when I first visited – looking over the top of the crowd.
    • No longer the case for the young adults in the cities and rural areas. I now look up to the young Chinese in Hong Kong.

    BTW, Milton Friedman must be a double-secret communist because he advised communist party tyrants on several times! anyone who meets with a dictator must agree with them?

  45. see http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/queensland-the-exception-as-labor-to-preference-greens-before-all-in-senate-20130817-2s3er.html

    katter’s mob will win a senate seat in QLD on labor preferences! that will deprive the greens of any chance of winning the balance of power in the senate.

    any one of the DLP, nick no pokies and katter can joping with labour to tie in the senate 38 all. all three will be needed to pass government bills.

  46. A large part of the problem is that the Right, apart from a few single issue exceptions, own the public debate in Australia.

    I can’t believe how woeful the ALP has been at articulating a clear and positive social democratic message. Rudd is better than Gillard but he disappoints me almost every time he speaks. So wooden, so reactive and so lacking in vision. Yawn.

    I also share Ikon’s concerns about the bottom 10% who really are doing it tough. It is shameful that the ALP has not boosted unemployment benefits by $50 or thereabouts per week.

  47. @Mel labour now has about 1/3rd of the primary vote as loyal. the greens are a different constituency of middle class radicals. the liberals are doing well in winning working class voters.

    The greens are no more than a reincarnation of the 19th century British Tory Radicals with their aristocratic sensibilities that combines strong support for centralised power with a paternalistic concern for the poor.
    • 19th century Tory radicals opposed the aesthetic ugliness it associated with an industrial economy.
    • Like the 19th century Tory Radicals, today’s liberal gentry see the untamed middle classes as the true enemy. “Environmentalism offered the extraordinary opportunity to combine the qualities of virtue and selfishness”

    Environmentalists have an aristocratic vision of a stratified, terraced society in which the knowing ones order society for the rest of us.

    many supposedly left-winger who thought they were expressing an entirely new and progressive philosophy as they mouthed the same prejudices as Trollope’s 19th century Tory squires: attacking any further expansion of industry and commerce as impossibly vulgar, because ‘ecologically unfair to their pheasants and wild ducks’.

    True to its late-1960s origins, political environmentalism gravitates toward bureaucrats and hippies: toward a global, big-brother government that will keep the middle classes in line and toward a back-to-the-earth, peasant-like localism, imposed on others but presenting no threat to the elites’ comfortable lives.

    The greens are full of meddlesome preferences whereby “the elitist, who somehow thinks that his or her own preferences are ‘superior to,’ ‘better than, ‘ or ‘more correct’ than those of others, tries to control the behaviour of everyone else, while holding fast to his or her own liberty to do as he or she pleases.”

    Big HT: http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_3_american-liberalism.html

  48. @sam #21

    Economist and Labor member Andrew Leigh’s recent book Battlers and Billionaires is all about inequality in Australia but also about perceptions and feelings, so gives some info on whether “middle class angst” is relevant.

    Leigh says the the “great compression” of incomes up to the 1970s changed to the “great divergence” up to 2010, with the percentile distribution of f/t adult wage earners increasing steadily from 15% at the tenth to 59% at the ninetieth. The equalising effect of tax and welfare payments only partly moderates this. People at the bottom and middle have higher real incomes, but “relative poverty”, being the % of people living on less than half the median income, has increased in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, with greater area and family concentrations. The actual distribution of wealth is that the bottom quintile has 1% and the top has 62%; the income share of the top 1% has doubled, with the top 0.1% tripling. Internationally, Australia ranks ninth highest in inequality amongst 34 advanced nations.

    The Gini coefficient rose from 1980 to about 2000 and has been a bit up and down since. His conclusion is that one-third of the rise in inequality since 1980 is due to technology and globalisation, 1/3 to de-unionisation and 1/3 to tax cuts. The education quantity increase (quality seems absent) slightly moderated these outcomes.

    To examine the subjective aspect, he adapts relevant 2010 results from the HILDA longitudinal survey (Melb Inst) and Aust Election Study (ANU). On the quality of life measures, the middle and upper income groups do better than the lower on “pain and violence” . Under the heading of “happiness”, job and neighbourhood satisfaction is greater up the income ladder but not hugely different, except that the middle (38%) and upper (41%) income group are much more likely to “often feel rushed” compared to lower income group (25%). But “stress” as a version of “doing it tough” seems a long stretch.

    From the AES it seems clear that political engagement – such as protesting, lobbying, petitioning, approaching govt – increases up the income scale. It’s not clear if this signifies more dissatisfaction from the higher groups over the 2005-2010 period, or just that politics is not an arena of lower class participation.

    His Chapter 7 on what Australians want is most interesting. Those favouring more egalitarian wealth distribution has fluctuated between 70-76% from 1997-2010 while those favouring more spending over less tax has steadily increased from 23 to 58%. He infers growing support for equality based on tax cuts as usually regressive and social spending progressive, but another view could be that middle class expectations to access “welfare” are more entrenched than ever.

  49. It may be called envy, but in Australia there is a lot of discrimination, like this.
    A retired couple on a modest income o less than $50,000 combined has to pay some $400 tax and another $350 medicare levy , while a single self funded retiree with an income of $100,000 pays no tax nor medicare levy.

  50. Envy is not an objective measure. It is a relative measure, with people always comparing their situation with another persons. An unfavourable comparison produces envy or dissatisfaction whereas a favourable comparison produces satisfaction. Rawls assumed this emotion when he formulated his theory of Justice. As such envy is a very significant function of our welfare state, sadly.

  51. Returning to Australia after 10 years abroad, I’m shocked at the high level of living standards expected by the “average Australian”, and hence their perception of “doing it tough”. The concept of living within one’s means has all but disappeared from the concept of “social fairness”. I’m afraid our government has sold public assets which will now degrade in the name of profits, to pay for instant gratification of so-called “under classes”. I put these terms in quote marks, as they mean nothing in reality.

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