Yes, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek approved a coal mine.

But save the angst for decisions that matter more

My latest piece in The Conversation looks at Tanya Plibersek’s masterclass in the delivery of bad news. We were softened up with the rejection of two zombie coal mines, then distracted by the approval of a relatively unimportant mine. The real news is that the Labor government, having rejected a formal “climate trigger” for environmental approvals, intends to complete disregard the climate effects of our coal and gas exports.

Reviving post-post-Fordism

I had an odd intellectual experience recently. A US high school student wrote to me as part of an assignment, asking for my thoughts on Brave New World, and its current relevance. I replied talking about the role of “Our Ford”, and Gramsci’s contemporary concept of Fordism.

That got me thinking about post-Fordism, and then to the idea of post-post-Fordism, referring to the information economy that has emerged since the rise of the Internet. I expected that this would be a reinvention of the intellectual wheel on my part, but when I popped the phrase into DuckDuckGo, I got a single hit, which was part of a 2015 interview with UK radical economist Robin Murray. whose ideas about the concept were very similar to mine, but whose comments were very brief.

I didn’t know of Murray, but I thought I should write to him and ask him how he had developed the idea. Sadly, I was led to Wikipedia, which reported that Murray had died in 2017, apparently without writing anything further on the topic. I’ve found a handful of citations, but of the “in passing” variety.

I’m not sure where to go next with this. I’d like to revive the idea (if indeed it died with Murray), but I’m not sure how to deal with an intellectual history like this. Perhaps some of my readers knew (or knew of) Murray or have seen the idea of post-post-Fordism?

Job creation isn’t always a good thing.

Hobart’s new stadium can only make Tasmania’s housing crisis worse

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The Conversation

The Albanese government’s announcement it will provide $240 million for a new stadium in Hobart has not had the favourable reception it might have hoped.

Those concerned with the proper operation of the federal system can point out that this kind of funding is the concern of state and local governments.

Anthony Albanese's Twitter account spruiks the federal funding for Tasmania.

Twitter, CC BY

Concerns about process are reinforced by the sorry history of “sports rorts”. Both Labor and Liberal federal governments have funded sports facilities to curry political favour.

To be fair, it is hard to see this project as targeted at a particular seat, but presumably the aim was to win support in Tasmania as a whole. Even compared with the dubious economics of sporting events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Olympic Games, stadium developments stand out as boondoggles.

Extensive research in the US is summarised by the conclusion that over the past 30 years, building sports stadiums has been a profitable undertaking for large sports teams, at the expense of the general public.

While there are some short-term benefits, the inescapable truth is the economic benefit of these projects for local communities is minimal. Indeed, they can be an obstacle to real development.

Read more: Devils in the detail: an economist argues the case for a Tasmanian AFL team – and new stadium

Making the business case

The economic case for the Hobart Stadium is startlingly thin. The only clear-cut benefit attributable to the project is that the new Tasmanian AFL team will play its home games there, replacing the small number of AFL rounds played at Hobart’s existing stadium, Bellerive Oval.

In 2022, eight AFL men’s games were played in Tasmania – four at Bellerive, four at UTAS Stadium in Launceston. A local AFL team will play 11 home games.

The North Melbourne Kangaroos warm up before their Round 15 match against the Adelaide Crows at Blundstone Arena, also known as Bellerive Oval. Linda Higginson/AAP

The state government’s business case estimates that 5,000 interstate visitors will attend seven matches a year. It seems safe to assume some will fly in and out on the same day, and that few will stay more than two nights.

If we allow an average of one night per visitor, that’s 35,000 bed nights, or an increase of about 0.3% in current visitor nights for Tasmania (about 11 million a year in 2022).

Against that must be offset the Tasmanians who will travel to Melbourne and elsewhere for away games.

What about housing?

All of this is par for the course for projects of this kind. The big problem for both state and federal governments is that it comes at a time of a housing crisis.

The federal government’s press release contains some vague references to housing developments associated with the project. But this is little more than the sort of PR spin we’d expect from, for example, the proponents of a new coal mine.

The numbers here are quite startling. The centrepiece of federal Labor’s election platform was a $10 billion fund for housing, providing $500 million year to support social housing. (Labor’s bill is currently held up in the Senate, with the Coalition opposed, and the Greens demanding stronger action.)

Read more: Labor’s proposed $10 billion social housing fund isn’t big as it seems, but it could work

If this $500 million were allocated proportionally by population, Tasmania would get about $10 million a year. The Commonwealth’s $240 million contribution to the stadium would cover this expenditure until nearly 2050. The total public outlay on the Hobart stadium (with $375 million from the Tasmanian government) would cover most of this century.

At a time of extreme fiscal stringency, such a massive outlay on a luxury project is very hard to justify.

What about job creation?

No serious benefit-cost analysis of this project has been made. Instead, supporters have relied on announcing the number of jobs it will create – 4,200 jobs during construction and 950 jobs when operational.

Such numbers are questionable. To make them bigger, governments typically count on the “multiplier effect” of work created for suppliers of various kinds. This is a long-standing tradition taken to new heights by the Albanese government. The announcement of the AUKUS submarine project, for example, was all about the jobs it would create.

Read more: $18 million a job? The AUKUS subs plan will cost Australia way more than that

But wait a moment. At the same time as trumpeting the creation of jobs for construction workers, the government is seeking to solve Australia’s “skills shortage” arising from historically low unemployment.

Tasmania’s unemployment rate is 3.8%, marginally above the average for Australia, but lower than at any time since the economic crisis of the 1970s. This low rate represents a situation of full employment, where numbers of unemployed workers and job vacancies are roughly equal.

In such circumstances, creating a job means luring a worker away from another. If the new job is on a major construction project, that means one less worker available to build housing.

As I argue in my book, Economics in Two Lessons (Princeton University Press, 2019), the true costs of wasteful public expenditure are opportunity costs – the alternatives that are foregone.

Multiplier effects make opportunity costs even larger. The project diverts the workers employed directly, and takes all kinds of resources that could otherwise be used for socially useful purposes. This diversion of necessary resources is the truly pernicious aspect of publicly subsidising projects like the AFL stadium.

Tasmania, like the rest of Australia, does not need government action to create any more jobs, particularly in construction. It needs to ensure skilled workers are employed where they can be most valuable.

May Day

Yesterday was May Day, celebrated as the Labour Day public holiday here in Queensland*. And this week, appropriately enough I’m giving two presentations on the case for a four-day working week, one to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, a business-oriented thinktank, and one to a parliamentary inquiry.

I started writing a post about the prospect of a radical change in the relationship between workers and managers in the information economy, arising from the combination of near full-employment and the shift to remote work for large groups of workers. But I ran out of time, so for now, I will just toss up some points I want to discuss

  • Will full employment be sustained, or will central banks succeed in recreating the reserve army of labor ?
  • How real is the threat of employer spyware extending surveillance into home workplaces ?
  • How should we conceptualise the relationship between workers, managers and owners of capital ?
  • What are the implications for unions?

I’ll throw it open for comments, and think some more about all this

  • At least until the LNP get back in, which I hope is a long time off