Podcast episode

Wider economic benefits of infrastructure projects – EP136

Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit system (under construction), an example of a public transport program which could deliver wider economic benefits.

Wider economic benefits are increasingly being estimated in the economic assessments of infrastructure projects. In Episode 136 of Economics Explored, show host Gene Tunny and his colleague Arturo Espinoza Bocangel chat about how some infrastructure projects, particularly transport projects, can stimulate new economic development, increasing the density of businesses and workers in an area. This can boost innovation and productivity through knowledge transfer and greater specialisation, among other mechanisms. The expected wider economic benefits of the Cross River Rail subway project in Brisbane, Australia are discussed.

You can listen to the conversation using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps. A transcript and relevant links are also available below.

Transcript of EP136: Wider economic benefits of infrastructure projects

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored. The more we engage with each other the more knowledge is shared, the more we learn from other people. And this actually helps us in an economic sense.

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 136, on wider economic benefits. I’m joined this episode by my Adept Economics colleague, Arturo Espinoza Bocangel. Arturo and I chat about how some infrastructure projects can stimulate new economic development, increasing the density of businesses and workers in an area. We talk about how this can boost innovation and productivity, through knowledge transfer, and greater specialisation among other mechanisms. Please check out the show notes for relevant links, clarifications and details of how you can get in touch with any comments or suggestions. I’d love to hear from you. Also, check out our website If you sign up as an email subscriber, you can download my e-book, Top 10 Insights from Economics. Righto, now for my conversation with Arturo on wider economic benefits. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts, for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Arturo, good to be chatting with you again.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  01:33

How are you? It’s my pleasure to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:36

Excellent. Yes, keen to chat with you about wider economic benefits. So you helped me out regarding that presentation I gave last month in March to the Indonesian government officials. So as part of a short course, through University of Queensland international development, so you helped me get ready for that. And yeah, that was great. And you dug up some really interesting studies on wider economic benefits, and it helped me understand what they are and how you might measure them. So I thought that was really useful. I thought it could make a good conversation. And hence, I thought, well, let’s chat about it on the programme.

So yes, I guess where we should begin is just this. What is this idea of wider economic benefits? It’s benefits that are additional to the standard ones that you estimate in a cost-benefit analysis, isn’t it?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  02:41

Yes, that’s true.

Gene Tunny  02:42

It’s benefits that are in addition to the travel time savings, for example, or the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that you might get, or the reduction in vehicle operating costs that you would get if you invest in public transport, for example, or if you make the roads more efficient, if you build a new road, you increase road… Actually, that’s probably going to… Yes, that would. That should reduce greenhouse gas emissions to an extent if people aren’t stuck in traffic as long. But yeah, it’s something additional to those normal benefits that are counted in a cost-benefit analysis. And it’s things like an improvement in productivity that comes from what they call agglomeration effects, that sort of thing, isn’t it, and having more people in a region, a thicker labour market? I think that’s how they refer to it. There are all these benefits that they try to estimate, in addition to the standard benefits, is that right?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  03:55

Yes, that’s right, Gene. And also, those wider economic benefits can involve some potential impacts on the market, the labour market. They can create more jobs in terms of supply and demand. So that is another WEB that we can consider too.

Gene Tunny  04:17

Right. So yeah, the idea is that there’s some sort of development or infrastructure investment, typically a transport infrastructure investment, and it opens up a new area, or it increases the access to a particular area. And we know that there’s been a bit of focus on what’s called transit-oriented developments, the TODs, whereby if you have a new railway station or subway stops, so you have a new subway system, then the idea is that this can activate new parts of the city. It can create little hubs, little clusters of activity and we see that with what is called the Cross River Rail project here in Brisbane. So this is a subway system.

Now, I’ve questioned in the past the economic viability of it, but they did manage to produce a cost-benefit analysis which had a positive benefit-cost ratio of over 1.4. And they also looked at, well, what could the wider economic benefits of this project be. And if you look at what the government says about the project, a lot of how it sells the project relates to what you might call wider economic benefits. So it talks about revitalised inner city precincts ready to connect, create and advance the region globally for generations, connect industry talent and major facilities, create communities employment and economic value, advance global competitiveness, livability and visitation.

So these are really sort of high level, or these are ambitious benefits, and not just your standard, oh we’re building a new subway system, and people will be able to get to work faster. And so they won’t be wasting time on a congested train network anymore. So that’s one of the ideas of Cross River Rail. Their concern was that there was a bottleneck at this railway bridge in Brisbane, the Merivale Street Bridge. Do you know that one? It connects South Brisbane and the city, so via Roma Street Station. I don’t know if you know that railway bridge.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  06:45

Probably yes, I pass by that bridge, but I’m not sure.

Gene Tunny  06:51

That’s okay. That’s okay. But apparently there’s some congestion issue there. And they needed to build this subway system to take pressure off of that. And there’s a bit of a debate to what extent that’s actually the case and whether that is such a serious issue. But anyway, let’s just take their word for it. Let’s just accept that that’s the case for now.

And it’s interesting that in selling this project, probably because perhaps they realise that the actual benefits in terms of travel time aren’t really that great. They have to make this bigger case for Cross River Rail. And it’s all about… Well, it seems to me a lot of it is about the wider economic benefits. And it’s about activating or revitalising some of these inner-city precincts, and they’ve got an interesting document, and I’ll put this in the show notes about Cross River Rail.

And they talk about their Boggo Road precinct. So that’s out near the… There’s an old jail that they’re no longer using, or an old prison at Annerley called Boggo Road. There’s no Boggo Road. Boggo Road was Annerley Road. And because once upon a time, it didn’t have any bitumen on it, it would just get muddy if it rained. And people would get bogged in the road, you know, in their horse and cart or their horse and buggy. And so they call the Boggo Road.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  08:30

That’s funny.

Gene Tunny  08:31

We’ve got this area of Brisbane now called Boggo Road, even though there actually is no such thing as an actual Boggo Road. But anyway, and what the government’s tried to do there is it’s tried to create, they call it a world class innovation precinct specialising in health science and education jobs of the future.

So I guess this is consistent with this idea of agglomeration effects, because if you make it easier to get to this Boggo Road precinct where you’ve got this cluster, this health sciences or biotech cluster, then that might encourage biotech firms to locate there or suppliers to biotech firms to locate there. And then you get these conglomeration benefits these efficiency benefits from colocation of businesses that can benefit from being near each other, the synergies so to speak. Economists talk about increasing returns to scale from having more economic activity and having the sum of the parts, sorry, the actual outcome being greater than the sum of the parts, so you get more than the components. Does that make sense? I probably didn’t explain that very well. You get more than the actual sum of the parts. That’s the idea, isn’t it? You get all these synergies.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  10:01

Under economic theory, when we talk about economies of scale, that mean a firm or an industry is operating under decreasing cost per unit. So as soon as you use more input, could be labour, capital, etc, that mean, as you increase in that proportion, let’s say a given proportion of those inputs, your return is going to be rather than that. So that is when we talk about when we are under economies of scale.

Gene Tunny  10:42

Yeah, yeah. Yep. So, there’s this idea that you get these benefits from greater density, this clustering. And I mean, we’ve got it to some extent in our cities. I mean, all cities have clusters of some kind, or many cities do, and they’re talking about this health sciences cluster at Boggo Road. They’ve got some other examples. Wooloongabba they want that to be a vibrant world class centre for community sport and health. So that’s centred around the Gabba Stadium, the Wooloongabba Stadium, which is a cricket ground. They play Australian rules football there, Aussie rules as well. And it’s going to be where the opening ceremony of the Olympics is going to be held in 2032. So there’s going to be a lot of investment there. I think they’re going to spend over a billion dollars upgrading that stadium. Yeah. Again, whether that’s economic or not, who knows? But let’s put that aside for now.

Yeah, so this idea that we sort of have all of these clusters, and we’re going to get similar firms locating with each other, and there are all these stories about what benefits this brings. And so as part of getting ready for this and getting ready for the short course presentation, I mean, we had a look at how do you explain these wider economic benefits, these agglomeration effects, these benefits from greater density? We know they exist. I mean, we know there are regions such as Silicon Valley, which specialises in tech, and you get the benefits from having firms and, you know, co-located near each other, you’ve got the workers from the firms talking to each other. They’re learning from each other informally. Yeah, there could be more formal learning between, say, a business and its suppliers. I mean, businesses could be learning from suppliers who are helping them out on something. But there’s informal learning, there’s the watercooler effect that they talk about. And so we had a look at what are some of these wider economic benefits, how do you explain them, and there are some really great articles out there.

There’s one I found by Gerald Carlino, Gerry Carlino. This is one of the best ones I’ve found. He was an economic adviser in the research department of the Philadelphia Fed, so the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. He’s still got some emeritus professor there now, but I don’t think he’s active as he was when he wrote this article in 2001. Knowledge Spillovers: City’s Role in the New Economy. So this is terrific. I’ll put it in the show notes. And I mean, he gives some great examples, particularly from tech because a lot of the really good examples are from that technology industry.

And he refers to a book by AnnaLee Saxenian. In the 1994 book, I’ll have to look that up, she described her gathering places such as the Wagon Wheel bar, located only a block from Intel, Raytheon, and Fairchild Semiconductor. This is in Silicon Valley. She wrote about how they served as informal recruiting centres as well as listening posts. “Job information flowed freely along with shop talk.” So that’s what she wrote. And then other examples of high-tech hotspots include the Route 128 Corridor in Massachusetts, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and suburban Philadelphia’s biotechnology research and medical technology industry.

And then Gerry Carlino goes into some other examples and he talks about Los Angeles he talks about Hollywood. “The geographic concentration of the motion picture industry in LA offers a network of specialists, directors, producers, script writers, set designers, each of whom focuses on a narrow aspect of moviemaking. The network allows easier collaboration, experimentation and shared learning among individuals and firms.” And then he gives some other examples. Talks about medical research, facilities and teaching institutions having concentrated along York Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And so he goes into these different examples. So that’s a great article.

And that’s an example of where you’ve got benefits from firms and workers in the same industry clustering together. So that’s a particular type of agglomeration benefit or knowledge spillover. So there’s a knowledge spillover. The knowledge spillover is driving the benefit there, isn’t it? It’s the fact that there’s this knowledge being transferred from people who have the knowledge to people who don’t have it, obviously. And so what Carlino, how he describes this, he calls it an MAR spillover, and he names it after three famous economists, Alfred Marshall, Kenneth Arrow. Can you guess who R is, Arturo? It’s Paul Romer. Sorry, that was a…

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  16:39

I am not sure.

Gene Tunny  16:40

It’s all right. I was just wondering if it was obvious, but it’s… You know Paul Romer, did all that work on endogenous growth theory?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  16:49

Oh Paul Romer.

Gene Tunny 16:50

Yeah, Paul Romer.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel 16:51

Definitely, yeah, I know him.

Gene Tunny  16:53


Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  16:54

Thanks to him I learned about endogenous growth, economic growth.

Gene Tunny  17:00

Oh, right. Yeah, yeah. So he’s one of the big names in that literature. Love to cover that in another episode. I guess this is related to it. I mean, this is about increasing returns to scale. In part, so, I mean, that’s relevant to endogenous growth. So that’s what we’ve been talking about here. So Carlino, what he writes is in 1890, Alfred Marshall… So Alfred Marshall was one of the great British economists at Cambridge University at Trinity College at Cambridge. He was a teacher of John Maynard Keynes. So he developed a theory of knowledge spillovers that was later extended by Kenneth Arrow and Paul Romer, hence the name MAR spillovers. According to this view, the concentration of firms in the same industry in a city helps knowledge travel among firms and facilitates innovation and growth. Employees from different firms in an industry exchange ideas about new products and new ways to produce goods. The denser the concentration of employees in a common industry in a given location, the greater the opportunity to exchange ideas that lead to key innovations. And that’s what we were talking about just before. There were these common places that people would get together such as this Wagon Wheel bar in Silicon Valley, and that was a source of knowledge exchange, people learning from each other.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  18:31

That’s interesting.

Gene Tunny  18:34

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  18:39

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Gene Tunny  19:08

Now back to the show. So we’ve talked about the MAR or MAR spillovers. There’s another concept of spillovers, which is called Jacobs spillovers, which is named after Jane Jacobs and this is the idea that you get benefits when people from different industries are different sectors clustered together or are co-located and you get synergies in that way. So that’s another concept. And just because you’ve got that flowing of ideas, so of things that people may not have thought about before. And one of the one of the points that Carlino makes in his article is that refers to some other authors here. As John MacDonald points out, both Jane Jacobs and John Jackson… So Jane Jacobs is the – I think she was a journalist, but she became famous for writing that book The Life and Death of American Cities. And she had a really interesting take on what made for a good city and she was very much into the medium density type of city you want to have. You don’t want to have tall towers, because they’re really lifeless. You want to have some intensity, some density. So it’s medium density. So similar to what you see in the apartment buildings in New York City, but not the really tall ones, not the Trump Tower. But you want people to have eyes on the street. So you want enough people that it’s vibrant, and exciting, but you don’t want too many that it just becomes lifeless and soulless. So she’s got a really interesting take on the life of cities.

But anyway, as John McDonald points out, “Both Jane Jacobs and John Jackson have noted that Detroit’s shipbuilding industry was the critical antecedent, leading to the development of the auto industry in Detroit. In the 1920s, Detroit exported mainly flour. So Detroit exported flour because of the industry was located north of Lake Erie along the Detroit River, small shipyards developed to build ships for the flour trade. The shipbuilding industry refined and adapted the internal combustion gasoline engine to power boats on Michigan’s rivers and lakes. As it turned out the gasoline engine rather than the steam engine was best suited for powering the automobile.” Okay, and so that’s interesting. And so because they had that sort of knowledge to begin with, and that sort of led on to the motor industry. So that’s an interesting example.

And there’s another great example in this book by Cal Newport, Deep Work. So Cal Newport’s got a great podcast, Deep Questions, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone is interested in productivity and working on the right things. So doing the things that matter. And he’s got this great example of building 20 at MIT, which was this temporary structure that they built during the Second World War. It was meant to house the overflow from the school’s bustling Radiation Laboratory. It wasn’t a very well made building. And they just put all of these different departments in it, people who couldn’t fit it in another building. And this is how Cal Newport describes it. “The result was a mismatch of different departments from nuclear science to linguistics to electronics. They shared the low-slung building alongside more esoteric tenants, such as machine shop and a piano repair facility. Because the building was cheaply constructed, these groups felt free to rearrange space as needed. Walls and floors could be shifted and equipment bolted to the beams.” And there was an article in The New Yorker where the author pointed out regarding the scientist Gerald Zacharias, his work on the first atomic clock, it was important that he was able to remove two floors from his building 20 lab, so he could install the three-storey cylinder needed for his experimental apparatus. So that’s pretty interesting.

But in MIT law, so in the stories they tell at MIT, it’s generally believed that this haphazard combination of different disciplines thrown together in a large reconfigurable building, so this is the important bit, that led to chance encounters in a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace, innovating topics, as diverse as Chomsky grammars, so that’s what Noam Chomsky contributed to linguistics, the Loran navigational radars. I think that’s how you pronounce it or Loran, and video games all within the same productive postwar decades. So he’s saying that this sort of odd mix of people from different disciplines led to these breakthroughs because people were talking to different people, perhaps that that encouraged them to think differently. Does that make sense? That sort of thing?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  24:35

Yeah, that makes sense? Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. I think the most popular example is all the technology developed in the military side was then, for example, in the case of microwave, that is a technology developed by the military side on military technology. And then that was applied for civil life. So I think that is the most popular example that we can use. But it’s true. You enrich your thoughts, your knowledge, when you have information from other fields, for example, in this case rather than economy.

Gene Tunny  25:28

So guess what all these stories are trying to show is that there are benefits from having people interact. I mean, it sounds obvious, doesn’t it when you think about it? Well, yeah, I guess that that makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, the more we engage with each other, the more knowledge is shared, the more we learn from other people. And, you know, this actually helps us in an economic sense. And I mean, this is very difficult for… Well, you can’t really model this or predict this, but it’s something that occurs. And so hence, there can be benefits from getting people in the same place, making investments that can create these hubs, so improve the density, increase the density of particular areas. I mean, we know that density does matter to an extent because we know that cities develop central business districts and over the decades firms have found it advantageous to be in the CBD. I mean, it used to be more obvious that there was a benefit from being in a CBD, or a major activity centre somewhere in the city. It used to be more obvious than it is now. We can chat about that in a moment.

But I guess, if we’re talking 20 or 30 years ago, you could say, well, if you want to be in the CBD, or in an activity centre, say in Brisbane, Toowong or if you’re in Melbourne, it could be Box Hill or wherever, or if you’re in Sydney could be Parramatta. So you want to be in a place like that, because then you’re close to the bank, you’re close to the post office, you’re close to the stationery shop, you might be close to your clients. And so therefore, you’re going to get benefits that way, it’s going to make your life, your business easier to run.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  27:28


Gene Tunny  27:29

Yeah. And so that’ll make you more productive. Now, of course, now, we’ve discovered with COVID that, and this is one of the questions that one of the course participants asked, well, what do you think’s gonna happen with everyone’s working from home now? I mean, are these agglomeration benefits as big a deal now that we’ve discovered that we can work virtually and, you know, maybe there aren’t the same benefits to colocation as there once were? And I think that’s an interesting question. I mean, I think that’s something we probably do need to explore and look at what the evidence is over the next couple of decades or so. So I thought that was a good question. I mean, I don’t have the answer to that at the moment. All I know is that pre-COVID It did appear that regions which were denser, where there was a greater concentration of workers, and businesses seem to be more productive. And there were real benefits from this colocation. Do you have any thoughts on that, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  28:37

Yeah, I remember that. I heard something about that, how it will be the impact of working from home in terms of productivity. I remember that. The results were positive, some cases, and the people now is more productive than before. So definitely, that topic is very interesting and it should be studied.

Gene Tunny  29:11

I think where we’ll end up is that it’ll turn out that that hybrid mix is probably optimal. I mean, you want the best of both worlds in a way. Now, I found this write-up of a study on the Vox EU website so Working From Home: Too Much of a Good Thing. So this is by Kristian Behrens and some of his coauthors. And this is on 13th February 2021. So Kristian Behrens, he’s a professor of economics at the University of Quebec in Montreal. And their abstract of this article, “Containing COVID 19 has required more people to work from home accelerating the trend towards telecommuting. This column uses a general equilibrium model to analyse the long-term effects of this trend, and finds that it may prove to be a mixed blessing.” I think that sounds right. So they go on. “Working from home saves time that would be spent commuting, but deprives firms of the benefits from information and knowledge spillovers. Firms use less office space, but workers require more space at home. Overall GDP will likely be maximised when working from home occurs one or two days per week.” Okay, so I think that sounds pretty much what I would expect. So I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. Do you have any reactions to that, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  30:55

I need to check that papers in detail.

Gene Tunny  31:00

Yeah, of course. Yeah, it’d be worth having a look at. This one I just found preparing for this conversation today. But yeah, I’ll send that to you. And I’ll put a link in the show notes. So if you’re listening, and you want to check that out. But that sounds fairly sensible to me. So there will still be benefits of agglomeration, there are, but you may not need to be in the office five days a week. You’ll get a benefit if you come in three days a week or something and you’re mixing with your colleagues. You want some mixing with your colleagues. But you don’t need to be mixing with them all the time.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  31:45

That’s right.

Gene Tunny  31:47

And that’s what we’re finding, people are just, you know, they’re coming in for a few days a week. And it seems to be that the days people don’t come in… And I think this is replicated in cities across the world, or at least Australian cities. I’ve seen a study of this. People don’t come in Fridays. I mean, there are always fewer people coming in Fridays anyway. But that was because people tended not to… They wouldn’t have a part-time work day on a Friday. But now we’ve got a lot of people working from home on a Friday or Monday too.  People who want to have those days that adjacent to the weekend. So you can have a long weekend. Yeah. So that’s increasingly popular. But I guess there is still that recognition that you need to be working together for some time. There are these benefits from colocating. And so yeah, I don’t think the pandemic has wiped out the argument in favour of wider economic benefits. I think that’s still there. And this is what these authors, Kristian Behrens and his coauthors are arguing that you wouldn’t want people working from home all the time, because then you will lose these benefits. Yeah.

Okay. So, what I thought we should chat about… What else? Oh, what are actually these benefits from agglomeration? I mean, how substantial are they? And there was this great paper by Peter Abelson where he reported that the average elasticity of output to employment density, so this is the percentage by which output… So the value added, the percentage by which that changes for every percentage point increase in employment density. So he reported the average elasticity of output to employment density appears to be in the order of 0.02. Doubling employment would increase output per worker by 2%. So if you have twice as many people in an area, so, say a square kilometre, or say a pocket of the city, precinct of the city, you have twice as many people, then you can increase your output by worker by 2%. So that was the empirical finding.

And it appears that the most important mechanisms, so this is from our presentation, from our slides, the most important mechanism is that both scale and density created an environment where firms and workers can develop highly specialised products, services and skills, e.g. these typically are inputs to firms from specialised  suppliers. Okay, so more firms, more businesses, specialisation and you get efficiencies from that specialisation. So that’s the general idea, isn’t it?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  35:15

Yep, that’s the general idea.

Gene Tunny 35:17

Good one. Okay. And then we also note that a further mechanism arises as competition is likely to be intense in a large and dense cluster. So monopolistic pockets of inefficiency are less likely to survive. Okay, so there’s that idea that you get more people in an area, it’s a bit of a hothouse, isn’t it? There’s more competition. Everyone’s striving, everyone’s working harder to compete against the others. And then that benefits everyone through greater efficiency and productivity. So I think that’s a good point. What did you think of the whole agglomeration economies argument and these estimates such as what Abelson reported, that if you double the amount of people in an area, you’re going to increase output per worker by 2%? Do you think that sounds reasonable?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  36:08

Yeah, I think so. Isn’t that depend on which area you going to study? Right? Each country, each city has its own features. And you need to take into account that. Of course, you will have different electricity from each cities or areas.

Gene Tunny  36:33

You need to take into account the specific circumstances. But I think generally, it sounds reasonable. It’s not over the top. I mean, if he was saying that it increased productivity by 10%, maybe I’d be sceptical. But there certainly are some benefits from increasing density.

Cost-benefit analysis studies, one way they estimate a dollar value for wider economic benefits is through looking at how density and productivity for particular industries appear to be related across the city or across different cities. And that’s what they did in that cost benefit analysis of Cross River Rail. So I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. They’ve got a bit of a discussion, not as much detail as I would have liked on wider economic benefits, but they do mention that they’ve estimated these wider economic benefits by looking at how much Cross River Rail could increase the density, the effective employment density, or the business to business effective density, they call it, how it could increase that in those particular clusters. So places like Dutton Park, or the Boggo Road precinct there, or RNA or in other places, and it looks at well what could that… It makes some assumptions as to what that could do to productivity, and then estimates a dollar value based on that. So that’s an interesting approach.

They estimate that that if you take that into account, then that increases the benefit-cost ratio of Cross River Rail from something like 1.4 to 2.2. That’s one of the major benefits. And I think there are a couple of other types of benefits they estimate in their wider economic benefit analysis, but it’s something that’s on top of the standard cost-benefit analysis. They report the normal cost-benefit analysis. And then they say, well, okay, there are these other things you could take into account. They’re not standard. They’re additional lists. They’re a supplement to this. They bolster the case. They enhance the case. That’s the idea with wider economic benefits. They’re not your standard benefits you include in a cost-benefit analysis. But you can estimate them. Your estimates of your wider economic benefits are probably more… Would you say they’re more speculative, more of a guess? You could say they’re a guess. They probably aren’t as robust or reliable as your normal estimates of travel time savings, because what they’ll be doing with the travel time savings is they’ll have a detailed transportation model for the city. So they’ve probably got more confidence in our estimates of what it means for travel time savings. If you build a new road or you have a new subway system, they probably got more idea what that means for travel and how much time people save than they do of what is this actual benefit from creating this new activity centre.

Look, to some extent, what happens is you open up a new regional, you make it easy to travel to one particular part of the city. You’ll just have firms moving from another part of the city to that part of the city, right. So, you know, the benefit has to come from this increased density, so a greater density than you’d get otherwise, because these… I mean, how much benefit is that really? Like, it’s hard to know. I mean, you can tell stories about knowledge transfer, but I mean, does that always happen? I don’t know. I often wonder how much confidence we can place in these wider economic benefits. I would say you’d probably have a very wide confidence interval, a very wide gap between the lower and the upper bound of the estimates.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  41:05

Yeah. Those are estimates. You need to take into account some source of potential benefit that perhaps they’re not going to accrue.

Gene Tunny  41:18

Yeah. Yes. Right. So yeah, wider economic benefits. And the one other thing I wanted to mention was that you discovered this great paper from the World Bank on wider economic benefits of transport corridors. And this is something that the world, the World Bank, has been interested in these wider economic benefits, because the World Bank has a mandate to improve developing economies, emerging economies to promote economic development. And they’re looking at well, are there investments, we can finance transport projects that can increase economic growth opportunities. And one way you can possibly do that is building railroads or building ports or building roads.

And they’ve done this great study where they looked at a few dozen, or maybe it was over 40 transport corridor projects in developing economies. And they looked at the nightlight data from satellites, and they use that to assess how successful these different projects were. And then they determined Well, what are the markers of success, what actually contributes to the success of a project? And in a way, what they found was, I guess a little bit obvious. I mean, if there’s a project that connects with the sea, then that actually is more likely to lead to additional economic activity as measured by the nightlights, more nightlights. And that’s probably obvious, I guess, in a way because, well, if you’ve got that port, then what you produce, you can easily export. And that’s one way that we know that export led development. That’s been important for quite a few developing economies that ended up going into middle income or advanced economy status around the world.

And another thing that mattered a lot was the actual logic behind the investments. So did they have a real theory of how this would deliver benefits? And in a way, that’s just the rationale. Was this a sensible thing to invest in to begin with? And so I guess that shows that you got to do the thinking about, okay, do we actually have a legitimate reason for building this project? Does it make sense? It’s not just if we build it, they will come. You need to think about are we actually providing something that is delivering real value. This transport corridor is, say, connecting important city centres or it’s connecting a hinterland to an urban area to a port where the products can be exported. I mean, is it actually delivering some real benefit like that?

So I think this is a really great paper. And it begins by talking about how there’s a number of ongoing and proposed initiatives for transport corridors. One ambitious proposal is to revive the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul, Afghanistan to Chittagong, Bangladesh, connecting areas that are home to a significant share of the world’s poor. That’s probably on hold now that you know what’s happened in Afghanistan with the US pullout and Taliban taking over. An even more ambitious initiative is the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China.

Okay, now, again, look, there are all these geopolitical issues related to these projects we can’t go into. But it’s interesting that the World Bank, they’re examining it, they’re thinking about these wider economic benefits. Can we develop new roads, new railways that open up regions, that encourage investment, foreign direct investment, for example, that create jobs, that lead to additional economic activity, and, you know, help these economies grow? So I thought that was a really great paper, and I’ll put a link to the show notes. So yeah. Well, that’s me having rabbeted on a little bit about wider economic benefits. Is there anything we should add before we wrap up, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  45:54

Well, I think you have covered the most important WEBs, the wider economic benefits related to [unclear 46:02] and productivity. Also, you mentioned some positive impacts on labour markets. Also, you should have mentioned some important things related to land. In the case of, for example, when you improve on infrastructure, for example, this case, a corridor, the land use, for example of some bar or close to that in infrastructure improvement, possibly that will cause more investment. For example, new households, new unit can be built after improving that corridor, let’s say. So I think that is another thing that we need to take into account, some potential effects in terms of change of land.

Gene Tunny  47:04

Yeah, right. I think that matters a lot in developing economies in particular, so if you’ve got land that’s being used for agriculture, and maybe not used very productively, and then suddenly you open up this new… You’ve got this new road, or this new rail line, and then that encourages industrial development and urban development. And that’s a higher value use. And you mentioned the labour market. So this is this idea of a thicker labour market, or say, for example, Silicon Valley, if you’ve got Silicon Valley as a cluster, and then you’ve got, you know, all the specialised tech firms, all the people who are interested in tech or have got the qualifications in tech or experience, they move to Silicon Valley. And so it’s easier for the firms to find the people they need. That’s that sort of thing. That helps with the firm’s finding the people. You could have a transport investment that makes it easier to get to a particular area, or a particular cluster or an activity centre. And that increases the supply of labour. People might be more willing to work because it’s easier for them to get to work, to travel. So I think that’s an important benefit.

Okay, that was a bit of a whirlwind tour of wider economic benefits, agglomeration effects, increasing returns to scale. I think we’ll have to come back to this again, because there’s so many… There are a lot of different economic concepts here. And they’re important ones, and I think probably need to cover this again, to really do it justice and get that conceptual framework right. These are very important concepts, very important issues. And I think I might have to come back to really explore this again. So any final words, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  49:14

No. Thank you again for having me here. Was a pleasure again. Thank you.

Gene Tunny  49:19

Very good. Thanks, Arturo. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Links relevant to the conversation

Cross River Rail business case

Cross River Rail project benefits

Knowledge Spillovers: – Cities’ Role in the New Economy – article by Jerry Carlino Gene quotes from in the episode

The wider economic benefits of transport infrastructure paper by Peter Abelson 

Working from home: Too much of a good thing – article by Kristian Behrens and others

Wider Economic Benefits of Transport Corridors : Evidence from International Development Organizations – World Bank paper using nighttime lights data


In the episode Gene didn’t get the title of Jane Jacobs’s famous book on cities right. The correct title is The Death and Life of Great American Cities


Big thanks to EP136 guest Arturo Espinoza Bocangel and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at or sending a voice message via Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

Podcast episode

Risk, CBA, & the Enlightenment w/ Prof. Deb Brown – EP128

In Episode 128 of Economics Explored, Philosophy Professor Deb Brown helps us explore some big questions around risk, cost-benefit analysis (CBA), and public policy, particularly relating to the pandemic. Deb also explains what was so important about the Enlightenment. 

You can listen to the episode using the podcast player below or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcasting apps. A transcript of the conversation is included below.

About this episode’s guest – Prof. Deb Brown

Deborah Brown is Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland, Australia. During her time in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deb has coordinated a wide range of projects focusing on critical thinking. She has been instrumental in establishing connections and partnerships within the school sector, including with the Queensland Department of Education, as well as building partnerships across UQ and with international education providers. 

As part of her role, Deb works to link the UQ Critical Thinking Project into relevant projects within the university to provide educators with an understanding of how to embed critical thinking in classroom practice and assessment and to maximise outcomes for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Deb has established a professional development program for educators, booster courses for school and university students and research collaborations with a diverse range of researchers from the broader UQ community. 

Deb has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland and a Master of Arts and PHD from the University of Toronto.

Truth (or the lack of it) in politics and how to think critically with help from Descartes – EP123


QALY Quality-Adjusted Life Year

Transcript of EP128 – Risk, Cost-benefit analysis, and the Enlightenment w/ Prof. Deb Brown

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny 00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Deb Brown 00:04

What is the Enlightenment is that the movement is about promoting intellectual autonomy, not just relying on what others or testimony or what authority tells you.

Gene Tunny 00:17

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 128, on philosophy, risk, cost-benefit analysis and the Enlightenment. This is part two of a conversation that my occasional cohost Tim Hughes and I had in January 2022, with University of Queensland philosophy professor Deb Brown. Part one of their conversation was broadcast in Episode 123, in which we chatted with Deb about truth and critical thinking. In part two, which is in this episode, we consider some big questions around risk and public policy, particularly relating to the pandemic.

Assessing government policy measures during the pandemic has been very challenging. In my view, there aren’t easy answers. Basic Facts are disputed and people are making different subjective assessments of what restrictions on our liberty are justifiable, for public health reasons. I found this conversation with Deb really helpful in clarifying some of the important issues for me. And I’ll aim to come back to the pandemic in a future episode soon with some further thoughts.

Deb also helped me understand just what is meant by that critically important period in our history known as the Enlightenment. Part of the way forward out of the mess that we’re in globally at the moment, in my view, surely has to be a greater appreciation and a recommitment to the values of the Enlightenment. Okay, please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode, and for any clarifications and abbreviations, such as QALY, Q-A-L-Y, which stands for quality adjusted life year, that’s one of the abbreviations that Deb uses in our conversation. You can find the show notes via your podcasting app, or at our website, If you sign up as an email subscriber, you can download my new e-book, Top 10 Insights From Economics. So please consider getting on the mailing list. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, then please either record them in a message via SpeakPipe, see the link in the show notes, or email me via

Righto, now for our conversation with Professor Dave Brown on philosophy, risk, cost-benefit analysis and the Enlightenment. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts, for his assistance in producing the episode, I hope you enjoy it.

One thing that I’m always conscious of is that as economists, we do cost-benefit analysis studies. And we try to put everything in dollar terms. And we do this over the lifecycle of a project or over X number of years, 30 years. And we come to conclusions such as, well, the present value of benefits exceed the present value of costs, and therefore this is a good thing to do. But we’ve always got to bear in mind that there are some big philosophical assumptions we’re making when we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis. And in some cases, those assumptions are fine. Or if we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis of a bridge or a new raw railway tunnel or a road, okay, well, then, maybe that’s okay to put everything in dollar terms. But it’s difficult in the context of the pandemic, because we’re dealing with people’s lives and you’ve got –  there are all the issues of like, can you quantify that in dollar terms? And then even if you did a cost-benefit analysis, there’s a utilitarian assumption underlying cost-benefit analysis in economics is Benthamism, this Benthamied approach. And I think if you understand that, as an economist, that helps you in understanding how much you should take out of any particular bit of analysis you do. You need to be honest about what it is and you need to have an understanding of this – I think it’s  David Hume, his problem.

I find I’ve been thinking a lot about that during the pandemic and I’ve been tried to be less dogmatic or less – maybe it’s making me less confident in saying that if you’ve got a particular cost-benefit analysis result and that’s the right thing. That’s a bit of a ramble. Sorry, Deb, but do you have any thoughts on that or in response?

Deb Brown 05:01

Yeah. First of all  cost-benefit analyses have their place. Sometimes I wish there were more of them driving decision making because sometimes I look at decisions and think that that isn’t even valid from a cost-benefit analysis. The fact the matter is, is that there are other considerations as well. There are considerations of ethics and equity and morality and so on. And I actually sort of do hold the view that morality has its  advantages, and that we only get those advantages if we aim at morality, not if we aim at something else. And I think the problem with utilitarianism is that because it focuses on the consequences and maximising what’s perceived as utility, that other factors can be obscured in the process. So the pandemic is a good example.

I was part of a webinar series with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which included virologists from UQ, and people in the medical faculty, and as well as people who worked in biomedical ethics, which is not a specialisation of mine, so bit out of my league there. But, I was looking at these quality based arguments against lockdowns and, I actually think that… There, the argument was that you should only lock down if the quality0adjusted life years of doing so from a cost-benefit perspective outweigh not locking down. This was back in 2020, and at the time, it was relatively older people who were dying. So the quality0adjusted life years saved by locking down compared to the $11 billion a week it was costing during lockdown looked like it wasn’t justifying locking down in terms of pure monetary value. But the problem with this is that quality0based analyses and decision making, they make sense in certain contexts. So, here’s where I think that cost-benefit analyses do have a point.

So if you’re a hospital, and you’re trying to decide whether to invest in in one medical technology over another, and you’ve got information about how much QALYs each one will save, then you should go for the one that has the highest return on investment, in terms of QALYs. But the thing is, there’s an implied ceteris paribus clause there. All else being equal, if you’re choosing between A and B, and A gives you the biggest return on investment, in terms of QALY, then B should go for A.

But what was happening in the pandemic is that it wasn’t the case that all things were equal. So there were certain communities who were more durable than others. So not just the elderly, but also migrant communities in the United States. It was African American communities and indigenous communities who are being adversely affected by COVID. Often, because they’re frontline workers they’re often living in more crowded housing, and all of these different reasons contributing to them being a more vulnerable group, than say whites, or in the US, Asians. Here in Australia we were seeing that we’re certainly affecting low SES communities more, and in the UK, same deal. And also in the UK we’ve seen recently that disabled people are more adversely affected by COVID than other communities as well. And so things are not equal. So in those kinds of circumstances, you can’t just rely on the cost-benefit analysis, you have to take into account these fundamental issues of equity.

Gene Tunny 09:31

Yeah, there are all sorts of issues to take into account. Equity is important. So I’m trying to think how Gigi Foster, who is someone who came out and she was against the lockdowns because of she thought it wasn’t justified. You couldn’t justify it with a cost-benefit analysis for the reasons you were just describing before. And I think that Gigi is associated with that view. She would probably counter that, well, we could take that into account in our cost-benefit analysis with weights. We could, we could weight the loss of life for particular groups, we would provide more of a weight to that or that there’d be some way you could adjust it, I’m sure she’d say.

The problem is, what I think is incredibly difficult in analysing policy during the pandemic is we just don’t know. Early on, we just didn’t know how bad this would be. And now, the pandemic keeps surprising us with Omicron. And it’s just incredibly difficult to know what the right policy is. And we’re going to have to assess this in future decades. Well, what made sense, what didn’t?

I think we also need to take into account issues of civil liberties. And I think one of the problems with lockdown as a policy, even if you did think that in a cost-benefit sense it maybe it did make sense, o if you took into account the effects on different groups in the community, maybe you could argue it made sense. But even if it did, there are people who value those individual rights, the civil liberties, and you could argue that well, this was a breach of that this is something that really – I don’t think anyone contemplated government would do what they did during the pandemic. I think it’s quite extraordinary measures. I never thought governments would impose those lockdowns and stay at home orders that they did implement. And they saw what happened in China. That’s one view, argument, that we imported this policy of lockdown from China, which is an authoritarian regime. So depending on what your values are, you could argue against lockdown, because you think this is such a breach of our individual liberty. Am I on the right track there, Deb? Is that an important value to consider too?

Deb Brown 11:52

Well, certainly liberty is an important value, but the concept of liberty and the , associated concept of a right is not unqualified or unconditional. So from the earliest discussions of rights, take for example, John Stuart Mill back in the 19th century, so, you only have a right, if the exercise of that right does not interfere with the liberty or rights of others. Okay, so this is often referred to as Mill’s harm principle. So I don’t have a right, I don’t have a right to drive on whatever side of the road I like, because that will deprive you of your freedom of movement and your right to life. So that’s always been a constraint on the notion of freedom and the notion of freedoms and rights is that you just do not have a right to something, if that right is going to deprive somebody else of their rights and their liberties.

The interesting thing to me about this whole discussion around lockdowns is that we accept all sorts of curtailments of our freedom big so as to avoid harming others, right. I don’t remember this kind of stink about not allowing people to smoke in public places. Right? So we ban smoking in bars and clubs and public places and buildings and so on. And we’ve all just sat that out, because, and the argument was, is that people are exercising their right to smoke whenever they like actually causes harm through secondhand smoking to others. And so it can interfere with the exercise of their rights, their right to health and life and so on. And the kind of mask mandates lockdowns whatever might be our infringement on what you might think of as our freedoms, but we don’t have the liberty to harm others. And that’s the justification for those kind of mandates.

Now, it doesn’t mean when you when you curtail somebody’s freedom or their rights, it doesn’t mean that you are you are not respecting the concept of a right or a freedom. Right. But as I say, right, it has to be measured against what are the foreseeable harms here. I think that’s very different from embracing authoritarianism and I think we need to keep a distinction there. Not every curtailment of our freedom means that we’re subject to authoritarian control, right.

But it was interesting. I don’t know whether either of you saw this this wonderful publication pre 2020 by the Rockefeller Institute. They do this scenario kind of planning. And, and one of the scenarios that that they discussed is called Lockstep and they anticipate a global pandemic, and, and what sort of behaviours it will drive. And one of the things that that they envisage there is that in some countries, it will drive authority an acceptance of authoritarian control, and it predicts that those countries will do better in terms of managing the managing the pandemic, but at considerable costs to the liberty of citizens or subjects in those countries. Right. And that that may have long term consequences that are not justified by the authoritarian control. It also predicted that there would be anti-authoritarian movements. So, you can read this document and think, oh, my gosh, they were reading the tea leaves on the pandemic, because all of those sort of anti-authoritarian anti Vax movements are also predicted as well where people , do feel that they are suddenly being thrust under authoritarian control. And that’s why it’s very important to distinguish between authoritarianism to not sort of operate with extremes, to not just think because we have to wear masks in public spaces we’re heading in the direction of an authoritarian regime. No, it’s more subtle and complicated than that.

Gene Tunny 16:38

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker 16:44

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Gene Tunny 17:13

Now back to the show. Did you have any thoughts, Tim?

Tim Hughes 17:18

Actually there’s so much involved in this whole in this whole talk. Could go on for hours. I’m cool with that. For instance, with the authoritarian lockdowns, etc. it is a very effective way of treating with contagious diseases and everything. So it’s been around for centuries that that whole thing. It’s an authoritarian measure, but it’s still very effective in locking down or containing contagious diseases.

Gene Tunny 17:52

I think quarantine or cordoning off particular areas.

Tim Hughes 17:56

Yeah, isolation.

Gene Tunny 17:57

Where there is infection. Yeah.

Tim Hughes 17:58

As far as measures go, it was a predictable measure that was going to come in. But I understand and agree. There’s this lively debate around how long and if it was the right thing to do, etc. I just hope that we get good modelling from this for whatever comes next, because who knows what may come in the future, but hopefully, we’ll be better prepared for it for what we’ve gone through with this.

Gene Tunny 18:26

Oh, absolutely. Let’s hope. We certainly will be. We’ll be talking about this and analysing this for decades. Deb, I was just thinking, this point about how we, you’re right, we don’t have a right to harm others, that’s right. The issue is what level of harm or risk or probability of harm, what’s the threshold, because every time we go out into the community, there’s a risk that we could be involved in a traffic accident, say, and we could harm someone else so there’s a level of risk that’s assumed, but this may be too big a question to deal with. This is where I think this whole issue of the lockdowns, that’s what annoys people. Some libertarians are thinking well, okay, well, what’s really the risk? I guess that the argument is that each person, anyone breaking the rules could actually start off a cluster and then that could grow in numbers. This is not relevant now in Australia, because it’s gotten out of control and it’s out there so that we’re not going to have any more lockdowns so there’s probably no point. But in the early days, the argument was that anyone doing the wrong thing could actually start off a cluster and so therefore, yeah, that could affect everyone else. Maybe I can see the logic there but that’s what I’ve been struggling with, what’s that level of risk to others in the community that would justify a restriction on liberties. And I don’t think we’ve got an answer to that. Has anyone been doing any thinking on that?

Deb Brown 20:07

I don’t know, although I think you’re exactly right, that we really need to, we really need to think about risks here, because you’re right, that there’s all sorts of things that we do. We assume normal risks, because the benefits of taking those risks warrant the risk. As you say, every time we get in the car there’s a risk that we could lose our lives, or suffer serious bodily harm. But overall, people agree to those risks, because driving has benefits, let’s say. Maybe less so as climate as climate change takes off. But for a long time, that’s what really justified people in assuming a level in that level of risks. And so then the question there’s been a lot of discussion.

I think, actually, Robert Nozick had something to say about this, and there were economists that he was drawing on as well, about the difference between a normal risk and an abnormal risk. Right. So we allow certain levels of normal risk in a society but we don’t allow, for example, people to play Russian roulette, right not for any amount of money, not for any benefit, right. And we regard that as, as an abnormal risk, it’s not justified and so on. And so the question is, like, where at various stages of the panic of the pandemic,  … Panic pandemic, that’s interesting. Where at various stages of the pandemic, what kinds of risks are we actually facing here? And I think I think that underlying a lot of the policy changes that we’re seeing recently is just the assumption that we are moving more into that normal risk space. And because I’ve sort of gotten tired of hearing about sheer numbers of people with COVID. The relevant data is numbers of hospitalizations, numbers of deaths. Deaths and hospitalizations, per capita, those are the relevant figures. If it’s true, I think it’s probably too early to say, but if, if we are moving more with the kind of vaccination regime into to having fewer hospitalizations, per capita from the pandemic, then that will sort of shift the balance. And lockdowns won’t be as justified as they were when the risks were much higher, when it was a bit like playing Russian roulette in terms of number of people dying from the from the pandemic. So I’m not myself a risk analyst. And you in your field you’re kind of masters of risk analysis. So I would have to learn from you here. But conceptually, it seems to me that’s the sort of space we need to be in.

Gene Tunny 23:10

Absolutely. I haven’t seen an authoritative analysis along those lines yet, for the pandemic. Hopefully. I’m sure economists will be turning their minds to that. There have been some. Judy Foster’s done a cost-benefit analysis of a sort for Victoria. She presented that to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry. Gigi and some of her colleagues have written a book on the great panic. You could consider it polemical, in a way, but we do need to have some sort of authoritative analysis along those lines, because these are big questions about just how do we manage these things and what regulations are acceptable, what level of risk are we willing to bear. I’m going to have to look up that, that work by Nozick. It seems to ring a bell, but I’ll look it up, the normal risk versus abnormal risk. That looks like it could be highly relevant.

Deb Brown 24:14

Yeah. It’s a chapter in Anarchy, State and Utopia. as I as I recall, though it’s been a while since I looked at it.

Gene Tunny 24:24

Okay, I’ll I’ll look that up.

Deb Brown 24:28

I’m trying to remember the name of the economist, whether it was French or something beginning with F. I’m not sure. Yeah, there was an economist on whom he was, I think drawing in terms of that risk. He was sort of particularly interested in compensation, so when is compensation warranted for risky behaviour? And of course, being very interested in… He’s a libertarian right. So he’s sort of interested in in when is it ever justified to restrict people’s freedom to take certain kinds of risks, and when is compensation warranted and so on. That’s what I recall from that.

Gene Tunny 25:07

Okay. Oh, yeah, I’ll look it up. But that may be of interest. I may try and cover that on the podcast in the future. We’ll probably have to wrap up soon, given how much of your time we’ve taken, Deb. Sorry.

Deb Brown 25:18

No, I’m having a ball.

Gene Tunny 25:19

Oh, very good. Okay. Oh, well,

Deb Brown 25:21

I was just going to talk about the media literacy issue because I think in terms of the critical thinking project, that’s, that’s a massive area. And I’ve been shocked learning from colleagues at Queensland University of Technology, and University of Western Sydney, and particularly Tanya Notley there is a specialist on youth media literacy. I’m kind of shocked at the data coming out about not just the general public, but also sort of academics capabilities, in terms of fact checking and checking the sources of media articles and being able to do lateral searches, and so on to see what different sites say about the same the same article. Then I’m also shocked that the youth, right, get most of their news entirely from social media, there’s very little engagement with mainstream media, very little engagement with credible news and media. So I think this this is another kind of – the lack of media literacy is another kind of pandemic, and it really does contribute substantially to that culture of, of confusion and mistrust.

Tim Hughes 26:45

I love you’ve said that because that was what I was going to come back to because way back and, we’ve touched on it with intention and trust. And I think it’s such a big area, and you’ve gone straight to it, which is great. And how do we trust the new sources? And this isn’t a present day problem. This has always been a thing for everyone throughout the ages. How do you how do you trust your source of any kind of news, whether it be from a person or from an agency, or whatever it may be. And so with that also comes a limited amount of time that we may have as individuals to make our minds up on these different things that come up to us where we form an opinion, and any opinion is only as good as the information it’s based on. So if we’ve got good information, we’re going to have a reasonably good opinion, the more varied information, again, better opinion. So all of these things, and like you’re touching on, for instance, people getting their information, information from just one source is going to be biased, or maybe not a full picture. There are all these different ethical sort of problems with … We form our opinions. And we find our trusted news sources. And of course, there are more and more coming out all the time. Where does this sit in with critical thinking and to try and do this in a in a reasonably quick period of time, knowing that most people only have  a certain amount of time in their day to give towards forming an opinion on something in the new cycle? How can we do this better?

Deb Brown 28:31

I mentioned earlier we have this collaboration with the Impact Centre, which works with office forces and critical thinking to school students. And last year, one of my colleagues, who was the UNESCO Professor of Journalism at the University of Queensland, Peter, Greste – do you know Peter Greste, the foreign correspondent with that awful experience in in Egypt? So he approached me and he said, “I really want to work with schools to try and get a kind of journalism media literacy course going with schools. And I know you have all these collaborations with the Department of Education.” And, and he and I together, and other colleagues as well, and colleagues and the collaborators in the Impact Centre, put together this course on media literacy in journalism, and it’s offered to senior secondary students. And effectively what they’re doing is they’re learning about media literacy, but they’re also learning it in conjunction with critical thinking.

So often, when you look at the media literacy courses, they often concern tips and tricks for checking sources, right, finding out who the sponsor is of a page, doing lateral searches, but adding a layer of critical thinking over that. What you get is you get students thinking about how their thinking is framed, within, within an article. So what gets to be in the headline? The headline shapes how you’ll think about the rest of the article. How’s the information presented? What’s up front? Right? Is there an argument developed? Is there an analysis? Right? What justification is there for the things that are said in the article, so getting students to interrogate an argument, look within those practices of justification.

Then in conjunction with that media literacy course – and then there are teachers at the Impact Centre, particularly Dr. Luke Zaphir and, and Dave Thornton, who put together a fantastic course for school students, developing all those critical thinking and media literacy skills. It’s just amazing. In conjunction with that, the students also develop their own article. Sorry, they work with journalists from In Queensland, which is an independent news service in Queensland, and has a commitment to public service journalism. Journalists from In Queensland work with students in the, in the Media Academy to basically construct articles for publication in In Queensland. So if you look at the In Queensland website, they’ve got a Media Academy tab, and those are all the articles that were written by students in school. Fantastic opportunity for students to learn how journalism works, how it’s actually produced, and to think critically about the way in which information is presented in an article.

And I think , another big problem within media is that if you haven’t got a kind of blatantly biased media outlet, right, on the right, or on the left, whatever it might be, you’ve got this kind of bizarre assumption that all you need to do is to provide a balance of opinions. Right, and you’ve done your duty in critical analysis. First of all, there’s very little analysis. Often it’s just kind of putting together these polarised opinions and this assumption that as a journalist, you have to stay neutral. Neutrality will come through, if you actually do a critical analysis, right. I think that sort of presenting balanced opinions just contributes to the confusion out there, right. People think well, there’s this opinion and that opinion, and everybody has got a different opinion. So I can believe whatever I like. No.

Tim Hughes 32:52

Actually, one of the things with this, because we seem to, which isn’t a bad thing, but we look for certainty where we can. We’re always looking for definitives and absolutes. We like to know this is this is correct, and that’s wrong, etc, whereas, of course, the reality is, there’s a spectrum of likelihood or possibilities with so many things that we look at. And I love that in the article, the ABC article, you mentioned that one of the keys was being comfortable with doubt and uncertainty, and feeling free to change position if evidence or new information required it, which we touched on earlier. But it’s just such a great statement, I think, in allowing people to be okay being not so sure, this is the best yet, at the moment, this is the best information that’s out there is going to change and being open to that change and to changing opinions when things evolve now, so I think that’s a really … When we talk about polarisation, quite often, that’s because people have found a certainty maybe too soon or without researching it very much, whatever the issue may be, and, and then being sort of loyal to that certainty, regardless of what other information comes through, which of course, is a problem.

Deb Brown 34:17

I think being able to divest one’s ego from the argument of work is very, very important, but it’s very difficult for people to do because their identity is so much bound up with what they think and what they believe.

Tim Hughes 34:30

That’s right. And so to change their mind would be affecting… It’s a decision then to change their identity, or tribe, even. It can be part of the group that you’re in or the environment that you’re in, which you identify with. And so the incentive to change opinion or to change mind or to hear different views, of course, is not a welcome one.

Deb Brown 34:53

Yeah. It’s interesting that in collaborative reasoning environments, if they’re run effectively, you do see that behaviour shift, because the focus of the group is on the on the pointed issue, on the topic. And if you sort of don’t allow people to just make assertions, but to actually back that up with reasons very soon you start to see them giving and taking reasons where – not just giving out reasons, but taking them standing corrected. In children, you see that behaviour shift remarkably quickly. And then something happens to us, and we end up terrified to change our minds. Where did it all go wrong?

Tim Hughes 35:39

With this, with the critical thinking project, teachers and students, is it also open to anybody who might want to get in touch and learn from this? You might have mentioned this before, so apologies if you’ve mentioned it. But this is open to everybody? Is there something there for everyone? Because everyone I think could benefit from it.

Deb Brown 35:58

Oh do I get to do some product placement here?

Tim Hughes 36:02

 You do. Well, you are God after all today.

Deb Brown 36:05

[unclear 36:05]. Of course, working with the Department of Education, that’s restricted to government schools. But we also, we also have contracts with other schools. Peter and I have both done corporate training, for example, in critical thinking. I had a wonderful time in India with fin tech capital of the Tata Group, Tata’s biggest company in India. Had a wonderful session doing critical thinking with them. It was it was really fun. Like I said, we’ve got contracts and done work with Singapore, and UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles. They actually included the media literacy and journalism course in their critical thinking summer programme last year. And it was a huge hit. And I think so I think that that course could easily be made available to anyone. And I think it should. This is not just for kids. We all need this.

Tim Hughes 36:18

Yeah, for sure.

Deb Brown 36:19

The other issue that the other issue that’s driving along misinformation is just the unavailability of peer-reviewed publication sites. So the more open source publishing, open access publishing we can do – I would love it if university libraries we’re open to the public again, not just coming onto campus, but actually the online edition, but there’s all sorts of issues there around publishing as an industry as well, right? So that’s what sort of impedes that. But the more information we can make accessible, and quality information, we can make this accessible, the better off we’d all be.

Gene Tunny 38:03

Yeah, you’ve got those big journal companies, such as Elsevier and – is it Springer, I’m trying to remember – but they make millions or hundreds of millions or whatever out of university libraries paying for subscriptions to journals. It’s, it’s a bit of a racket, arguably.

Deb Brown 38:25

It’s very strange. We do all the work, the writing, reviewing. We do all the hard yards, and then [unclear 38:33] business model that one.

Gene Tunny 38:35

Yeah, that’s true. Okay, I think we’re gonna have to wrap up at a minute. This has been great. I did have one question. We’re hearing a lot about the need for these Enlightenment values. More people are talking about the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, because there’s this recognition that we’ve, maybe we’ve lost touch with that. And then I know you’re an expert on Descartes. And he’s associated with rationalism. Is rationalism, like, how does that fit in with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reasons. Is the Age of Reason the same as the Enlightenment? Is rationalism – is that a very specific part of the Age of Reason? Is that just a hyper or a total reliance on reason, or is the Enlightenment something broader? Is there a way for us to understand this, Deborah, or is it just such a big question that it’s not really answerable in this context in this podcast?

Deb Brown 39:29

No, it’s a great question. And I’m all for a renaissance in the Age of Reason. So I think those terms are often used interchangeably, Age of Reason and Enlightenment. And a lot of people trace the Enlightenment as beginning really with Descartes, the publication in 1637 of his Discourse on Method, which really was sort of that introduction to the new method of relying on reason and needing yourself to be intellectually autonomous, as opposed to intellectually heteronomous, where you’re relying on authority.

The Enlightenment was connected up with this metaphor of light that permeates discussions in the, the 17th and 18th century. So Descartes appeals to the natural light, and distinguishes that from the teachings of nature, right? Nature might teach you that things are hot and cold. But if you examine them from a scientific point of view, it’s more likely that that heat is certain motion of molecules, and cold is nothing at all.

So the light of reason will revise what nature teaches you, if you like, and one should be guided by the light of reason, not by what seems to want to be true on the basis of sensory apprehension. The light metaphor was common. So you get lumiere in French, and you get aufklaren, which means sort of clarity or light in German, as being in opposition to Aristotelian scholastic philosophy, which dominated philosophy, particularly in the schools and universities, up to the end of the 16th century. And it was perceived as being doctrinaire and authoritarian so, even though a lot of original work went on in the Middle Ages, there was always this deference to authorities as Aristotle said, as Augustine said, and so on. And with the advent of the scientific revolution, that begins in the late 16th century, with people like Copernicus, and Kepler, and Galileo sort of developing a heliocentric view of the universe and really starting to develop this new mechanical, scientific theory and doing a lot more sort of experimental work and observational work using telescopes and so on. That all sort of doctrinaire, the categories of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy were thought to be mysterious, occult and didn’t fit with the new science.

Also coming into the 17th century, you’ve got] the European humanist tradition, right, this reclamation of ancient texts, particularly the Stoics, but also the sceptics as well. And both Latin and Greek texts, and that revival of kind of classical as opposed to Scholastic philosophy. All that sort of feeds into the 17th century.

And then you get Descartes who thinks that we can’t just keep going with philosophy has to kind of catch up with these revolutions in science and also in engineering as well. And it needs a nice new face, and it needs a new message, right? And it needs to be grounded in reason, because only that will sort of, in a way fit the kind of mechanical mathematical science that that is really taking over the whole scientific space. And Descartes, of course, is also motivated to ground that new science in a system of philosophy that’s not antithetical to religion, but is really basing his connection to religion on reason, right? And I think when people talk about the Age of Reason, this is what they mean is they mean a sort of rational foundation for religion as opposed to faith, right.

And that goes all the way through to Thomas Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, which is really like a rationalist kind of attempt to sort of ground religion on reason, as well. But yeah, so the Enlightenment is sort of set in opposition to the so-called Dark Ages, which is a term that seems to be coined by Petrarch, who’s one of these European humanists in the 14th century, even though he’s embedded in that mediaeval context, but he’s sort of arguing against this kind of authoritarian aspect of philosophy in that period.

And so when you get to the 17th and 18th century, you’ve got a new method, you’ve got this method of doubt, you’ve got scepticism being taken seriously again, and that scepticism becomes part of the message. Again, that’s just subjecting what you believe to doubt and upholding the highest standards of reasoning and evidence. It wasn’t as if it was all rationalist. I don’t actually like the division between rationalism and empiricism myself because the so-called rationalists like Descartes and Spinoza and the Leibniz, Newton, these are often [unclear 45:06] people are doing experimental philosophy, and often the empiricists so the people like Barclay and Locke and Hume and so on, are often relying on philosophical reasoning as well, not just sort of observation and induction. And, of course, Hume famously problematizes the very inductive method of science anyway, so those kind of binary categories are not really helpful.

But I think in a way, Kant kind of encapsulates in his essay what is the Enlightenment, is that the movement is about promoting intellectual autonomy, right? Not just relying on what others or testimony or what authority tells you, but applying the the methods of reasoning and analysis, so that your own beliefs on the securest foundation they can possibly be.

Gene Tunny 45:57

Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s a great explanation of that, Deb, I was just thinking, not trusting, don’t necessarily trust authority. And this is where we’re getting into problems nowadays, because we’ve got people who are thinking, oh, well, I’m doing my own research. Fauci says this, but I’m doing my own research, but often it’s on the internet. It’s on the net, and the source might not be that accurate. And you could argue that maybe they haven’t thought enough about the reliability of what they’re looking at, to justify their dismissal of what the certain authorities such as the CDC, or in our country, what different state chief health officers are saying.

I guess this is where it’s challenging, because there is value in being sceptical. And this is an important part of, of scientific method is being sceptical. Then the challenge is, sometimes there is something valid being said by some of these authorities, and you can take that scepticism too far. Particularly if you’re not relying on , good information, if you’re not, if you’re not fully embracing that critical thinking and you’re thinking critically about the information you’re getting and the points of view you’re putting across. So that that just occurred to me, then when you talked about the importance of being sceptical and not necessarily deferring to authority.  I thought that was a really good point.

Deb Brown 47:36

Yes, it’s interesting. My husband and I spend each morning looking at World Metre. That’s what passes for fun nowadays. Let’s have a cup of tea and see how the virus is doing, darling. In general, I’m a little frustrated, just that you often can’t get the data. I think there’s an issue that maybe a lot of people are not going to be able to even interpret the data. And that’s certainly a problem. And that’s why everybody needs some training and statistics and critical thinking. But there’s a lot of data that you just can’t get like this data, I want to know, hospitalizations, I want to know deaths. Then there’s also this issue about how much of this is being reported. Make more data, make more information available. That’s sort of one thing.

And then there is also this question of trust. So who can you trust in this in this context? And one of the I guess the most important questions to ask is who has a vested interest in a certain kind of outcome being reported? I’m happy to trust Fauci because I don’t think that he has any vested interest in this. I’m less inclined to trust somebody who I think is spinning a yarn, because they’re only interested in being reelected or making their political party look good. Right. That’s an important question to always ask about any source. Then you do have to do those lateral searches, right, how is this being reported by these different organisations, what are their interests, who’s sponsoring this page and so on. You’re right, it’s a minefield, and the more information that there is out there that is just sort of polarised and politicised and all that, it just noise that interferes with being able to give an accurate assessment of the situation.

Gene Tunny 49:52

Absolutely. Okay. Deb, that’s been great. I think we’ve got to wrap up there. We’ve taken so much of your time. I’ve got so much tape here. I’ll have to think about whether release it as a whole episode or Imight have to split it up in two.

Tim Hughes 50:08

Six parts. Six-part series.

Deb Brown 50:12

I’m sorry.

Gene Tunny 50:14

Not at all.

Deb Brown 50:15

I’m just not getting out enough. This constitutes as getting out. I’m just so excited, I got a bit carried away.

Tim Hughes 50:21

Not at all.

Gene Tunny 50:22

That’s great.

Tim Hughes 50:23

We could completely carry on because it is fascinating. And they are very big topics. So really appreciate the care you’ve put into the responses there, Deb.

Gene Tunny 50:34

Yeah, thanks so much. Deb, really enjoyed chatting with you. And I’ll put links to as much of the material that you mentioned in the show notes so people can find that. Really valued your perspectives and your great knowledge of philosophy, which it’s given us a lot, given me a lot to think about, and a lot for Tim and me. I’m sure we’ll be chatting about this a lot in the future, these issues that came up today.

Tim Hughes 51:06

That’s the thing. They’re big issues that remain big no matter where you are in history, and important questions.

Deb Brown 51:18

Thank you. I really enjoyed your questions, and it was such a great conversation. Thanks for having me.

Gene Tunny 51:24

It’s a pleasure. Professor Deb Brown from University of Queensland. Thanks so much.

Tim Hughes 51:29

Thanks, Deb.

Deb Brown 51:28

Thank you. Bye-bye.

Tim Hughes 51:29


Gene Tunny 51:31

Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.


Thanks to Deb Brown and Tim Hughes for their great conversation and insights, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at or sending a voice message via Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

Podcast episode

EP90 – Lockdown Cost-benefit Analysis with Professor Douglas Allen

Episode 90 of Economics Explored features a discussion regarding COVID lockdown costs versus benefits with Professor Douglas Allen from Simon Fraser University, Canada. Professor Allen has concluded COVID lockdowns have been the greatest peacetime policy failure in Canada’s history. Please check out our conversation for Professor Allen’s justification for this claim.

Links relevant to the conversation include:

Professor Allen’s Lockdown CBA for Canada

Economist: Lockdowns ‘Greatest Peacetime Policy Failure’ in Canada’s History – Foundation for Economic Education

Our World in Data – Coronavirus

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at

Podcast episode

EP85 – Business cases for public infrastructure projects

Episode 85 of Economics Explored is a conversation on business cases for public infrastructure projects, featuring a case study of an Australian dam project. It includes a discussion of the requirements and processes for the development of public infrastructure business cases in Australia, with a case study of a current business case process relating to an irrigation dam which program host Gene Tunny is involved in. While Australian examples are used, the insights and lessons are relevant internationally. In many respects, Australian processes and requirements for developing public infrastructure business cases are world-leading. 

Links relevant to the conversation:

Business Case Development Framework of Building Queensland

Paradise Dam Improvement Project

$2.4 billion cost to economy if Paradise Dam not fixed

Australian lungfish

Please check out our conversation and let us know what you think via email:

Economics Explored is available via all the usual podcast providers including Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Podcast episode

EP79 – Running the numbers on COVID-19 measures

One year on from when many countries started imposing tough COVID-19 control measures, Economics Explored host Gene Tunny asks eminent Australian finance Professor Peter Swan whether lockdowns pass a cost-benefit analysis test. In Episode 79 Running the Numbers on COVID-19 measures, Professor Swan says he stands by his view expressed last year that they do not. Listen to this episode to hear why Prof. Swan believes this is so.

About this episode’s guest – Professor Peter Swan

Professor Peter Swan AO FRSN FASSA is currently in Banking and Finance, UNSW-Sydney Business School. Peter completed his Honours Economics Degree at ANU, his PhD at Monash and after a visiting position at the University of Chicago, joined the Economics faculty at ANU, then to a chair at AGSM (UNSW), and was foundation professor in the Finance Department at the University of Sydney prior to returning to UNSW in 2002 with a Scientia Professorial Award in 2003.

He was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 1997 and gained recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours lists in 2003 and 2016 with the Order of Australia (AM) and (AO), respectively. In 2018 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales (FRSN). His Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) Citation states: “For distinguished service to finance and commerce as a leading academic, journalist, and commentator on domestic investment, and on a range of political and economic issues.” His Member of the Order of Australia (AM) Citation states: “For services to academia as a scholar and researcher and through contributions to public policy in the fields of economics and finance”.

Links relevant to this episode

Prof. Swan’s Quadrant article Run the Numbers, Survey the Folly

Open letter from 122 Australian economists: don’t sacrifice health for ‘the economy’ (which Prof. Swan critiques in his Quadrant article and in this episode)

COVID-19 deaths worldwide per million population as of March 19, 2021

If you’d like to ask a question for Gene to answer in a future episode or if you’d like to make a comment or suggestion, please get in touch via the website. Thanks for listening.