A debate resolved

As regular readers will know, I’ve had a long debate[1] with the Productivity Commission on the sources of the supposed ‘productivity surge’ of the 1990s, which, I’ve suggested was primarily the result of increased work intensity and unmeasured increases in working hours at a time of high job insecurity. I was looking back at some of these discussions when Google turned up a Hansard transcript of hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Economics in 2012. It turns out that the Commission now agrees with me, and has done so for some time. To quote the Commission’s expert witness, Dr Jenny Gordon[2]

There was a very big debate with the former branch head, Dean Parham, who did a lot of work on productivity. He looked at the effect of the reforms and ICT, which is one of the points that Professor Quiggin made, in trying to explain the productivity boom of the 1990s in terms of what actually happened. Professor Quiggin’s main point is that work intensity is important, which is quite hard to measure but, in fact, is a major source of productivity growth. If people work smarter and work harder while they are at work, that will improve productivity. So it is cutting the fat of organisations, I suppose you could call it. The other point is that people are working longer hours. But the way the productivity measurement is done takes account of the hours of work. That is actually data collected through ABS surveys of individuals reporting the hours that they work. So we could measures hours properly. It is hard to measure work intensity. It does appear and it is a source of productivity growth … So we were in full agreement with that. So the debate was settled back in the mid-2000s.

It’s good that we are in agreement this far. I would add though that productivity growth achieved by working harder does not, in general, improve economic welfare. As for “working smarter”, if this is a reference to technological progress, it’s fine. In my experience, however, it’s usually management-speak for “do the same job with less resources, and work out for yourself how to do it”.

More importantly, the key implication of my analysis is that, to achieve sustainable improvements in living standards, we ought to be focusing on getting the macro issues right rather than lining up for another round of microeconomic reform. Increases in work intensity don’t last, as experience since the 1990s has shown. Genuine long-term improvements in the productivity of the economy can be gained only through educating the workforce to take account of improvements in technology (only a small proportion of which are generated domestically) and through macroeconomic and labour market policies that avoid wasting human potential through unemployment and other forms of social exclusion.

fn1. In the same hearing I cite here, PC Chairman Gary Banks described it as a ‘rich’ and ‘ongoing’ dialogue. I’ve certainly learned a lot from it, and I hope the same for the Commission and any onlookers patient enough to follow it.
fn2. Not particularly germane, but interesting to this post is that Dr Gordon is married to Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics

Buying back toll roads

Reports that the NSW Liberal government is planning to buy back the Cross-City tunnel, following the bankruptcy of the second set of private owners mark an important step in the failure of the private infrastructure program launched in the 1980s with the Sydney Harbour Tunnel[1].

The interesting failure here is not the bankruptcy of the operators but the recognition that the whole idea of imposing tolls on a road designed to divert traffic from the city is nonsense. The most sensible plan, after buying the tunnel is to remove the toll and free road space in the CBD for a variety of initiatives including light rail and cycleways.

Unfortunately, the lessons have not been learned. The new WestConnex project in Sydney is to be a largely private tollway. The proposed East-West link in Melbourne is also a toll road but “is being procured as an Availability Public Private Partnership (PPP), with the State initially retaining tolling and traffic risk.” Whether or not these projects are economically and socially justified, there is no doubt that the use of toll funding will greatly reduce the benefits, leaving more traffic on congested, but untolled, roads.

fn1. A sham deal, which was eventually reconstructed as a publicly owned tunnel with a private operating contract.

Restarting the History Wars: a decade of silence

Since it appears that the Abbott government intends to restart the History Wars, I thought I would point out that the leading warrior on Abbott’s side of the debate has now been AWOL for more than ten years. Nothing much has changed recently, so I’ll just repost (most of) my remarks from my last post on this topic, in April.

Long-term followers of this dispute will recall that, back in 2002, Windschuttle made quite a splash with The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, which attempted a revisionist account of the tragic history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn’t achieve much except to point out some sloppy footnoting in a fairly obscure recent history[1]. The main interest in the book was as an appetiser for the succeeding volumes, on Queensland and Western Australia, promised to appear on an annual schedule. Here, Windschuttle promised to refute the work of Henry Reynolds and others, who painted the frontier as a scene of prolonged violent warfare between the indigenous inhabitants and the white settlers who sought, successfully in the end, to displace and subdue them.

Year followed year, and promise followed promise, but Volumes 2 and 3 didn’t appear. Finally, in 2009, Volume 3 was published. Not only was there no Volume 2, but the new Volume 3 bore no resemblance to the book originally promised for 2004. Instead, it was a critique of the Stolen Generations report and the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Windschuttle said that this volume had been published “out of order”, and that the missing volumes 2 and 4 would appear “later”.

Even by Windschuttle’s standards, this is bizarre. The Stolen Generations debate refers almost entirely to the 20th century, so this volume, on his reasoning ought to come after the others, and be numbered as Volume 4.

It’s silly enough to see self-satisfied climate “sceptics” who can’t even calculate a standard error, but have convinced themselves they are smarter than professional scientists. But surely even the editor of a literary magazine ought to be able to count to three.

Of course, Windschuttle’s problems with the integers are trivial. His real offence was to attack scholars like Henry Reynolds on the basis of promised evidence he has been unable to deliver. It’s more than a decade since Windschuttle started this stuff and, to the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t published anything since then showing a single error in Reynolds’ work on the Queensland frontier, or that of the other historians he accused of fabrication. His “Sydney Line” website hasn’t been updated for years. If he has produced anything more substantial than opinion pieces, since the forgettable Volume 3, I haven’t been able to find it.

It’s pretty clear who is spinning the fabrications here. In the language of the tech sector, Windschuttle is a seller of vaporware.

fn1. The Tasmanian history Windschuttle wants to deny wasn’t invented by leftwing historians in the 1970s. It was the standard account in the very conservative version of history I was taught in primary school, based on the tragic and undeniable fact that a people who had lived in a harsh environment for thousands of years were wiped out almost completely in a couple of generations by a combination of disease, conflict and starvation.