The average (median) worker does not earn the (arithmetic) average wage

Eryk Bagshaw, recently[1] appointed economics correspondent for Fairfax, is certainly aware of that. In fact, mentions it right near the end of this scare story about the effects of Labor’s rejection of the second-stage of the Morrison government’s legislated tax cuts. But that didn’t stop the Fairfax subeditor running his article under the headline “Average full-time workers to be $1000 a year worse off under Labor”

To spell it out, the trick here is that Bagshaw is looking at workers who earn between $90,000 [the arithmetic mean of wages for full time workers} and $120,000. He estimates that there are about 1.6 million such workers. That’s a bit over 10 per cent of the workforce (about 13 million people). As he admits, the median full time wage is well below this, and the median wage for all workers lower again. Once pensioners and welfare recipients are taken into account, it’s evident that Bagshaw’s “average workers” are well towards the top end of the income distribution.

This is amusing since I had a previous run-in with Bagshaw over this very issue of headlines. On that occasion, Bagshaw was scathing about a sloppily written ACTU press release, which ended up with a totally inaccurate headline. I don’t think a defence of innocent error is available here. Bagshaw’s story is written in a way that would lead any casual reader to make the same inference as the subeditor. Moreover, there’s no obvious reason why workers receiving between $90K and $120K should be of more interest than any decile of the workforce. Certainly they aren’t average in any meaningful sense. So, without the misleading phrasing, the story would probably have been spiked.


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The weakness of dictatorship: China and coal

Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace India, and the Sierra Club have just released the fifth annual Boom and Bust report, tracking the global coal plant pipeline. The news is mostly good, with three glaring exceptions, all related to China.

First, as reported last year, provincial governments appear to have restarted construction on a number of coal-fired power plants, previously suspended on the orders of the central government. Second, the China Electricity Council, which represents the country’s power utilities, has proposed setting the country’s coal capacity cap at 1,300 gigawatts, a level that would allow 290 gigawatts of new capacity to be added—more than the entire coal fleet of the U.S. (259 gigawatts). Finally, Chinese financial institutions, mostly state-owned are the last large scale backers of coal-fired projects at a global level.

It remains to be seen how this will play out. Perhaps the central govenment will pull the provinces and state-owned enterprises into line and override the Electricity Council.

The bigger lesson here is that even though China is well on the way to becoming a personal dictatorship of Xi Jinping, and despite the supposedly Leninist organization of the Communist party he leads (the official phrase is “democratic centralism“) most of the real power in the country is exercised by local magnates, just as it was in the days of warlord rule. That seems to be characteristic of dictatorship.

Over the fold, the good news

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Half right, and all left, on coffee

Back in the Paleozoic era of blogging, I wrote, in relation to a prediction that latte drinkers would soon be in the majority

I would view this prospect with horror, but I think it will not come to pass. Latte is the Cold Duck of the 21st century, and like Cold Duck will be shaken off with a shudder as people realise what real coffee is about.

Recent research from the Australia Institute suggests I was, at best, half right. Latte drinking hasn’t become the norm but it has survived, while real coffee (short black) remains such a minority taste that it has to be lumped in with the watered down long black.

The good news, (that is, the news that confirms my prejudices) is that latte drinkers are more likely to be LNP voters than anything else. The same is true, though only marginally, for chardonnay.

Shorten gets opportunity cost right

The concept of opportunity cost “The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up so that you can have it.” is the central theme of my book Economics in Two Lessons, due out in the US on 19 April and hopefully in Australia soon after that. My central claim is that two lessons based on opportunity cost and their relationship to market prices provide a framework within which almost any problem in economic policy can usefully be considered.

That’s not the way economics is usually taught (opportunity cost gets a brief nod before the focus moves on to supply and demand). So, I was impressed to see Bill Shorten use the term in relation to climate change inaction. Not only that but he used it correctly! Here’s Bill, quoted in the SMH

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten defended the new policy by urging voters to consider the cost of inaction on climate change, saying “There is a huge opportunity cost when we don’t take action,”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Labor’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer is Andrew Leigh, a fine economist who has had nice things to say about my book. And Labor has been listening to Richard Holden, who is, I think, the brightest young economist we have right now.

Surprising or not, it’s great to see a return of economic literacy to public debate, after years dominated by vapid slogans.

Climate instant reax

The Australian Science Media Centre provides responses from scientists and other experts (including me as an economist) to news releases about science-related issues, including climate. A couple of recent examples;

A very quick response to Labor’s climate policy. My take

“As an oil importing country with no domestic car manufacturing industry, Australia is well placed to make the shift to electric vehicles proposed by Labor. A crucial step towards this goal will be the restructuring of the National Electricity Market, and the design of charging infrastructure to encourage flexible recharging of electric vehicles to match peaks in the availability of renewable energy.”

and one on the very depressing Global State of the Climate Report, where I said

“Following the depressing news from the International Energy Agency that global CO2 emissions rose to a record high in 2018, the WMO report confirms that severe impacts of climate change are already being felt.  This scientific analysis only confirms what is evident to anyone who examines the evidence with an open mind: the global climate is changing in ways that are unprecedented in human experience. Sadly, many of our leaders do not have an open mind. Rather, they are committed to denying the findings of climate science at any cost, in order to defend sectional economic interests and backward-looking identity politics. Australia in particular needs urgent action to achieve substantial reductions in emissions over the next decade.”