Living longer

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.

Abandon inflation targeting while we still have time

Back in 2012, I wrote a piece arguing that Australia should abandon the policy of inflation rate targeting, and switch to one in which the target was the level of nominal GDP. As I argued then, inflation targeting is part of a package deal involving a number of propositions, most particularly
* Macroeconomic management should be left to an independent central bank
* Successful inflation targeting will also stabilize real GDP, and therefore fulfil the dual mandate of price stability and full (or as full as possible) employment
* The best policy approach for central banks involves modest regular adjustments of a key interest rate. In Australia this is the cash rate, which is the overnight money market interest rate.

The idea of nominal income targeting has recently been put forward by .Nick Xenophon and economist Danny Price, in relation to the contract with the new Governor of the Reserve Bank, Phil Lowe. The article mentions my support, and I commented on an earlier draft.

Writing in Crikey, Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer criticise the idea, making three points
(a) Unlike other countries, we are not yet at the zero lower bound, so we can continue using interest rate policy
(b) Macroeconomic outcomes in Australia have been pretty good under inflation targeting
(c) A nominal GDP target can’t be achieved using monetary policy alone, we need fiscal policy as well.

My response to point (c) is “Yes, that’s the point of the shift. When we dump inflation targeting, we dump the entire package, including exclusive reliance on monetary policy”. On (a) and (b), it seems to me more sensible to make the change when we can, rather than be in the position of most countries, where inflation targeting remains notionally in force, but in practice the only instrument available is open market security purchases (aka quantitative easing). And in all those countries, macro outcomes in the inflation targeting era have ranged from poor to disastrous.

Although Australia is doing well right now, interest rates are heading down, and would certainly hit zero fast in the event of a crisis. So why not fix our policy now, while we still have time.

Against Locke, Part 3

The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.

The relative rationality of Malcolm Roberts

Among other interesting results, the recent election gave a Senate seat to One Nation member Malcolm Roberts. Roberts is notable for his expressed belief that global warming is a fraud produced by a global conspiracy of bankers seeking to establish a worldwide government through the United Nations.

Unsurprisingly, Roberts has copped a lot of flak for these statements. But his position seems to me to be more credible than that of the average “sceptic”.
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The failure of privatisation and the case for a fully public TAFE system

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.

Can this census be saved?

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.