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Podcast episode

Do environmental and business sustainability go hand in hand? w/ John Engelander  – EP172

Planet Earth Cleaning Co. and Ecobin founder John Engelander proposes that environmental and business sustainability can go hand-in-hand. Show host Gene Tunny asks John about the benefits and costs of businesses adopting more environmentally-friendly practices. 

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What we discuss with John Engelander, founder of Planet Earth Cleaning Co. and Ecobin

  • John’s epiphany that led to the birth of the Planet Earth Cleaning Company [4:15]
  • What are the costs and benefits of adopting environmentally friendly business practices? [8:00]
  • “It’s not an investment if it is destroying the planet” discussion, in which Gene mentions how economics has been trying to account for environmental impacts [20:38]
  • Do we have enough time to avoid a climate/environmental crisis? [25:50]
  • John asks Gene if we need to own cars? [33:54]
  • John’s final thoughts on the importance of being a conscious consumer [44:29]

About this episode’s guest: John Engelander

A true force of nature, CEO & Founder John was green way before it was cool. It was his belief in profit with a purpose that led him to start The Planet Earth Cleaning Company circa 1994, and he has been inspiring people and companies to be greener and better for the planet ever since.

In 2007, John completed his certificate in Sustainability Advocacy at Swinburne University.  He believes, “when you look after the planet, you look after yourself”. When we influence others to take responsible actions, there is a ripple effect. And that’s part of doing good by being good.

Today, John works with people that are looking for a healthier alternative & genuinely cares about making a difference to the planet, whether that’s through The Planet Earth Cleaning Company, the EcoBin business, or his personal advocacy & public speaking. John believes “conscious consumption is a great way to start. After all, less is more, and your planet will be healthier for it.” Now that’s good for business.

Out of the office, John burns off some of his high energy levels with water sports, snow skiing, mountain bike riding, cardio pilates and enjoying time in nature. And when not running after his kids and dogs, he likes to tinker on the piano, watch movies and have dinner with friends.

Links relevant to the conversation

John’s business EcoBin:

https://www.ecobin.com.au/

Quote by Vandana Shiva:

https://quotefancy.com/quote/925201/Vandana-Shiva-It-s-not-an-investment-if-its-destroying-the-planet

Mastercard study quoted by Gene:

https://www.mastercard.com/news/insights/2021/consumer-attitudes-environment/

CSIRO article on natural capital accounting:

https://ecos.csiro.au/knowing-the-price-of-nature-the-rise-of-natural-capital-accounting/

UN article on The Rise, Fall and Rethinking of Green GDP:

https://seea.un.org/news/rise-fall-and-rethinking-green-gdp

Australian Government guidance note on cost-benefit analysis, which makes it clear CBAs should consider environmental impacts, quantitatively if possible but otherwise qualitatively:

https://www.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/cosst-benefit-analysis.docx

Transcript: Do environmental and business sustainability go hand in hand? w/ John Engelander  – EP172

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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.

Ep 172 31 December 22

Sat, Dec 31, 2022 6:16AM • 49:58

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

people, business, economists, cleaning, planet earth, john, economics, planet, sustainability, clients, cleaners, green, company, eco, thought, buy, organisation, price, good, world

SPEAKERS

Gene Tunny, John Engelander, Female speaker

Gene Tunny  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored,

John Engelander  00:03

And I do believe that businesses that are purpose driven, people are attracted to that. And that attraction makes people happier and more productive.

Gene Tunny  00:15

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 172 on environmental and business sustainability. My guest is John Engelander, founder of the planet Earth cleaning company, and also the founder and CEO of Ecobin. In this episode, John and I discussed his proposition, but environmental and business sustainability go hand in hand. After my chat with John, I provide some reflections on the conversation, so please stick around for those. Also, please check out the show notes for relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either John or I have to say in this episode, whether you have any thoughts on environmental and business sustainability? To what extent are they aligned or in conflict? I’d love to hear from you. Before we get into it, I would like to let you know that I’m going to take a short break from the podcast over January and come back in early February. Righto, and now for my conversation with John Englander of Ecobin. Thanks to Obsidian Productions for their assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. John Engelander, welcome to the programme.

John Engelander  01:26

Well, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here today, Gene. So, thanks for having me.

Gene Tunny  01:30

It’s it’s fantastic to chat with you, John. So you’re very keen to chat about issues around business and environmental sustainability. So you’ve had a very successful career as a business owner, with the planet Earth cleaning company. And also with you’ve been involved in Eco Bins. I’m keen to understand those businesses, what you’ve done there. To start off with, I’d like to ask you about this. This philosophy of yours, I think it is that environmental and business sustainability go hand in hand. I mean, what do you mean by that? What does that mean to you, John?

John Engelander  02:14

Okay, it’s a good one because often I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to combine sustainability, and commerciality almost as a cocktail. And ther is some perfection in that because you give a lot of thought, I give a lot of thought and consciousness to how we think about the products that we consume, or what we offer our clients. Because I feel that the impact matters. And I think the price we pay for something, let’s call it whatever it might be, dollars, whatever. And then the price we have on our planet require some kind of balance, because, frankly, we don’t have an economy without getting it right with the ecology. Wouldn’t you say?

Gene Tunny  02:58

No, I absolutely agree with you there. I mean, we certainly need the environment to sustain us. So yeah, absolutely, absolutely, agree there. And would you be able to tell us about the planet Earth cleaning company? How you got involved in that? How did you figure out that this was a way that you could have a business that that met these, you know, that was both financially sustainable, and also environmentally friendly?

John Engelander  03:28

I think the like most things that can work out well, is there’ll be a problem. And if you can solve a genuine problem, then there’s likelihood there’s an opportunity, I don’t think you can make up. Often an idea, I’ve done it many times, it’s a good idea should do it. But in fact, there’s no problem to really fix or it’s not going to give people a great deal of joy. And I think there’s a problem when people buy a mountain bike, they buy that for joy, that’s not a problem. So it’s two ways, you either look at it as joy or you’re solving a problem. From my perspective. So how did it come about? I think, purely, it was by accident. I wasn’t planning on going into the cleaning industry at all. In fact, I still don’t plan on getting into the cleaning industry. I plan on trying to resolve something that made sense, and that was that. For those who have heard my story before, it was that one of the cleaners were sick, like they didn’t show up, and I ended up rolling my sleeves and ended up in a toilet cubicle of all things. Cleaning a toilet bowl, which never imagined that would happen. And as I opened up, the cleaning chemicals, the fumes were intoxicating. I also thought I was gonna suffocate and then if I thought that was bad, my hands were starting to crack split from the stingingness, I felt stinging you know, it was like burning, and that was it. Honestly, there’s got to be a better way. How can you subject people to this who were cleaning every day when that happened, and I guess that was one would call an epiphany moment, you know, if there has, if I can look after a way of fixing it for people cleaners, then there’s a there’s possibly a business opportunity, hang on a minute, if it’s good for them, it’s good for the planet. And that was essentially the birth of the Planet Earth cleaning company. Totally. Now, that didn’t mean that three decades ago, people talked about sustainability, then you can talk about green, greens is a fairly new word, back then it was just a colour. So I guess, feeling and believing and having purpose in my day-to-day life all the time drove me. And I could actually lead my people. So they understood that I was actually looking for a way to make their lives healthier. And that was a huge thing, until people started to wake up. Probably more recently, and I say recently went out when Al Gore brought out the documentary Inconvenient Truth, there was a bit of aha moment. And then that slowed down. And that now it just seems, there’s a real inertia in terms of the word impact. And it seems like that the whole idea of impact has become a big topic around what I do and probably attract investors, you know, get the calls, you know, I’ve been doing it for so long that I must know. I do. So that’s it sort of come together. So yeah, it was by accident to see a problem, the problem made sense to fix. And then I figured this is a good business to get into.

Gene Tunny  06:40

Yeah, for sure. John, would you be able to tell us a bit about I mean, how, what your scope of operations mean, where you operate the types of clients or customers that you have

John Engelander  06:52

Sure, so our clients are boutique large, or not so large, when I say not so large, that can fall under the type of clients that that would work with us. we have clients like Katmandu, we have clients like realestate.com, seek.com built a whole lot of building companies, McConnell Dow, which ones largest structural engineering firms in the world, and so forth, just to name a few and Cricket Australia, and other ones. So just a little, few little companies that probably they have good branding, good identity, recognise the need to not just take on cleaning, but see that by having planet Earth, it’s a huge upside for them in terms of letting their people know, when think about what that does to culture when you know, you’re a values based organisation. And we do this in Melbourne and Sydney, we’re looking at Brisbane, but at the moment, it’s really, really the two main cities in this country.

Gene Tunny  08:00

Okay, could you tell me a bit about what you do your operations? I’m interested in this because you mentioned the, the fumes, you mentioned the chemicals that cleaners traditionally use? And I imagine there are companies out there that are still using these chemicals? I mean, what what precisely are they are there some examples you could talk about? And then what what are substitutes? And are they as good? I mean, the thing that I’m wondering is, okay, do you do get the same quality of cleaning is at higher costs. So is this something that is a bit is a bit of a luxury? Or is this something that businesses across the economy can afford? Could you just talk about that, please?

John Engelander  08:44

Great question. First of all, chemicals. What price do you pay for your people getting sick? When those fumes go through your air conditioning wafting through something must happen, can’t measure it. But something must be going on, if it’s happening to my cleaners, because they’re right there and then it’s going to be happening somehow, indirectly to the clients. Better cleaning. Okay, let’s look at acid. It’s really good, isn’t it? I mean, you think about it, you’ve seen urinals we all have as men go into toilets and urinals and the only way to clean a urinal properly apparently is with acid, really. And an interesting story was some years ago, one of my prospective clients who became a client loved the whole story about Planet Earth, but he thought he would prepare cleaning his urinal without telling us so he went out and bought acid and did it. And a very sad story. He suffered for years. Now he called on us I would have gone no way. I’d never give that to my own people. He’s a client. I really adored this person. He took us on board for the very right reasons. And yet, sometimes consciously, it’s possible not to think so his health got a price when he paid for that. Do we have enough money for it? Well, I’m sorry, if you can’t look after yourself and pay for that. There’s an issue, how much more you pay is interesting, right? So think about this, we use chem free, we have a system, which is chem free by planet Earth, we actually installed it in the building’s plumbing system, it converts water through an electrolysis process and turns it into a sanitizer cleaner. The Cleaners just turn up with their little spray bottle, push it in, plug it in, it does that good noise rush, and then it fills the bottle up. And they can use that to clean and yes, it’s effective. And it’s not toxic. It was water, water through electrolysis process. Now, not every body wants to invest in that. So could you say it just cost us not, can do. But are we interested in getting it right for our people? And let’s face it, when you throw away chemicals into your waterways, after you clean toliets or mop floors, do you think that’s really good, can’t be good for the planet. And so all of that, and the beauty of about chem free is that we don’t have the containers. Because when you have containers delivered, that’s transport emission, then you have great big plastic containers filled with chemicals. That’s transport not only transported, but the plastic it took to make it one use. Maybe not, maybe you can send it back to the factory and they fill it up. Well, it’s got to be sent back again, transport. But imagine all you do is plug a little spray bottle in and it fills that up. Now, sometimes you just got to use a little bit more elbow grease. But if you care enough, you’ll do that. Is the price higher? I doubt it. I think what, if anything, it’s really good value. And it all comes down to the effort you put into the job. So the beauty also of that is, if I may, is that, think about this? Is everyone complaining about not being able to get labour at the moment, in this time? It’s 2022. And it’s really hard to find labour. Why is it that a purpose driven company like us doesn’t have a problem, that has to have a great outcome for our clients, because you’ve got people that actually are doing something because it matters for them beyond a dollar, because you’d never pay cleaners enough money to come do their job. But purpose will drive. And purpose if the message is properly conveyed to our clients, people, it all becomes it starts to build culture in terms of value based. And I do believe that businesses that are purpose driven, people are attracted to that. And that attraction makes people happier and more productive. Can you put a price to that? You betcha. You spent $100,000 on cleaning, you’ll get an outcome of three, four times then in your culture development, if you make sure you promote that you’ve taken on Planet Earth Cleaning Company, because it’s a big deal to make the right choices.

Gene Tunny  13:07

Yeah, I think the point you make about health and safety is a good one. I’m not familiar with the data for cleaning, I’ll have to check it out after this. I mean, I’m not sure what the studies show whether there is a significant improvement in health and safety outcomes with using these environmentally friendly products. 

John Engelander  13:35

Yeah, no, I’m saying the same thing I can’t measure. All I can say is it’s a good chance. But it’s good to know, if you’ve taken on a cleaning company they care enough about their people to you know, I mean, we go as far as even caring about their mental health, we have a service where they can call up if they’ve got issues. None of my management are allowed to know about it. So yeah, we’ve gone from product to people’s minds to actually having them, you know, on board with, with, with this whole idea of we’re getting it right, because let’s face it, we all have the planet in common.

Gene Tunny  14:13

John can ask you betting impact investing? I think you were talking about that earlier, you were talking about impact everyone people are interested or investors are interested in impact now. So does that. Have you been dealing with that in investment impact or what does it impact investing community? How substantial Do you think that is? Is? Is that going to help support or help grow a lot of businesses such as yours or other businesses and that are environmentally friendly?

John Engelander  14:43

I think that look I don’t know a lot about impact investing. I prefer to invest in myself. But the truth of the matter is that I do believe that there’s a there’s a whole movement towards looking at being ethical, and ethical and impact seems to have they complement each other, don’t they? So let’s, let’s look at it this way. My couple years ago, I think my brother in law showed me a return on investment with an organisation called Australian ethical. Did that year, he made close to 50%? I’ve never heard of that in my life. I fact, I was blown away. I don’t know if they continue to do that. Was that just a fluke that year? Either way, was it settled? It spoke volumes? Didn’t you look at businesses like? Well, if you bought Tesla a few years ago, just 2000. And I don’t know, let’s call it 2020 20, February to 2020. And that share price is $480. I know because I actually invested in that. And it got it went up and up and up and up, went to 2400 got split by five, what was that worth? Then it went up and up. And now I’ve got slipped by three, not doing so well at the moment, which is really interesting, because they’ve been more profitable than they ever have been. But they’ve actually led the field where they go to in the next 10 years. Who knows. Some have faith in it, and some don’t. But it brings a whole lot of other industries together about looking at what’s viable, both commercially and sustainably. Have To be frank, I’m not a big fan of the word sustainable. So which often shocks people, but I think we should consider the idea of being enabled enable the planet, the planets in trouble, we say it’s overheating the the blanket in the sky of greenhouse emissions that are just get thicker and thicker, holding the heat under. So our temperatures change on the planet. Is is that an interesting? An interesting idea. So I think, you know, when we consider the future we’re talking about so that the health of the planet, you know, with all these things, that people plan it all together pretty, pretty combined. I think there’s a good investment even to look after our children’s future that is enabling the planet, I think it’s an essential part of it all. So, you know, often I can call our teams and enablers, they’re proud of it. We recently had our tree growing programme, we do this, you know, half day tree grow, growing programme. And we’re actually looking to do that for our clients next year, too. So because the half day programme really enables a whole, I guess, one’s team to really come together and, and be connected, which is another part of it, too. We all feel connected, we feel better about ourselves and have something in common. So that whole thing has to be viable, I believe for the organisation. To give you an idea when we when we did the most recent one 30% of our staff actually weren’t working that morning. But they showed up to be part of it. What does that say? Yeah,

Gene Tunny  17:59

yeah, that’s a good culture. Yeah, not bad. That’s really good.

John Engelander  18:04

So that has to make, you know, if you have happy culture, and they’re more productive, which I mentioned earlier, that’s going to be a viable proposition for anybody.

Gene Tunny  18:11

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

Female speaker  18:20

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Gene Tunny  18:49

Now back to the show. I think I may have asked you this. So I think you may have answered it before. But one thing, one thing I’m interested in is whether it does cost you money to do the right thing as a as a business owner. So does it make you less profitable than than otherwise? You may have answered that earlier. But if you can just reflect on that, please, John, that’d be great. Good.

John Engelander  19:13

Okay. So yes, it can and, and like anything, what you choose quality always cost more. But let’s look at it this way. If it’s not, if you don’t see it as quality, but you see it as doing the right thing. Can it cost more? Possibly? I don’t believe if you buy quality, like if we offer a quality service, you pay for it. If we provide green, I don’t believe we’d need to charge you more because we’re agreeing. I don’t think that’s necessary if we manage it fine, right. But when you can talk about what would you pay to drive your workforce? Because you’re purpose driven? What would you would you bring a you know the term people and culture that and companies bring people in and spend Lots of money, right? We don’t have to do that with us. And I think that’s a huge, huge tip, as is bringing in Sustainability Consultants, you don’t need that we, we can give it all eco been planning to go in and give advice on what to do next next year will be big plans to helping organisations transition to a green future. Because I really believe that’s the direction we need to take otherwise, why would you do business with companies that are destroying the planet, and then look at that. It’s not investment, it’s destroying the planet.

Gene Tunny  20:38

So this is a quote behind you. That whose it

John Engelander  20:42

by John, Dr. Vandana Shiva writes it. 

Gene Tunny  20:47

not an investment if it’s destroying the planet? So look, I don’t think that that makes sense. What it’s suggesting, as an economist, the way I think about that, is that if you do have something that is degrading the environment, then if we were properly account doing if we were properly doing the economic accounts, then what we would do is we would, we would recognise the subtraction of value in the environment. And, look, I know that economists, you probably object to the way that economists look at this sort of thing, economists would put a value, they would try to put a value on the environmental capital stock, or the natural resources. And then to the extent that there’s degradation of that you could subtract from that. And we should be recognising that in our national accounts as a, as a negative investment as a disinvestment in that in that natural resource asset. So there is a, there are economists that are looking at how we can measure that environmental damage that’s occurring. And it’s a field called natural capital economics, if I remember correctly, or there’s an environmental economics field, and there’s ecological economics, which takes a different perspective. Yep. So it’s not as I mean, economists are thinking about these issues. So yeah, I think that’s that is an interesting quote, to reflect on. I’ll put a link in the show notes to while reproduce it in the show notes and link to put some links regarding it, because I think it is a it is a very good quote.

John Engelander  22:33

Look, I don’t blame economic, economical economists. I often believe that where I sit in this world is to be highly relatable. And you can’t do that without understanding others. It’s not enough for me to be persuaded and say, hey, you know, staunch Greenie and you guys are bad. I think that’s not the way to go. And nor is that the other way. Extreme. No one listens to extremist. Really, really interesting. I mean, look, I know both sides of the story. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book, how the world really works. And it believes that we’re in such a heavy hitter, but

Gene Tunny  23:12

I’m trying to remember if maybe, maybe I haven’t read that one. I’ve read a I’ll have to look it up. I’ve read a book about maybe a thinking of a book about the deals that made the world I think I got confused momentarily. I don’t think I have read it. Sorry, John, can you tell me a bit about it’s okay,

John Engelander  23:29

so, look, all of us we don’t think about what we buy, we just buy it that way. And so don’t consider if we buy a plastic tub, how much oil has gone into it? Or we don’t think about whatever it might be. Oh, when was it the Climate March and I was wearing my planet Earth t shirt. And some young 21 year old came up to me and says, Hey, dude, I love your planet Earth T shirts. And hey, dude, I love your one use water bottle. And it went red. And I actually looked back at him. I said, Look, I’m really not looking at you. And judging, I just think we do forget not thinking. But when when you think about the different layers. For example, ATP is a good good case in point, we brought out a waste system for being able to separate your waste using different colours, red landfill blue for paper, green for food, yellow for recycling, and so forth for plastic recycling aluminium. And, and I’ll go back to the book in a second because it’ll all come together. And when I chose to do that, it’s really good that we’re able to help people sort waste because let’s face it when you change people’s ways, habits through colours, it’s much easier Yeah. Now it’s made in Melbourne, Australia. Not only is it Australia and I thought about what’s called an LCA, a lifecycle analysis, went through the whole thing and understood how much carbon we were able to find a plastic fabric, plastic, believe it or not, but a certain type of plastic that used to 80% less energy and its manufacturing of an equivalent sized plastic bin. How’s that? So the consideration was good, by the way, cost less to make. So I can charge less for other people use the no excuse. It’s quite affordable. So talk about is it costly? Do grain not in that case, but the separation of it means imagine, you throw a plastic whatever in there. And it turns eventually into plastic garden furniture. I mean, it’s it’s pretty phenomenal, isn’t it? I mean, you didn’t have to steal the resources out of Mother Earth. You actually did it, because it was available there and then and didn’t have to go back into it didn’t have to end up in landfill. It ended up converted, right. Good point, right. Here’s the thing. Look at this book. And it’s bizarre how the world really works. And it says, we’re addicted to plastic. We’re addicted to oil. We’re addicted to steel, we’re addicted to ammonia. How are we ever going to change? Then I’ve got another book on the other side of it called the carbon carbon Almanack. It’s not too late. So which one do you believe?

Gene Tunny  26:08

Which one do you believe the carbon Albert ACK or the how the world really works?

John Engelander  26:13

Yeah. Because the Almanack says it’s not too late. And the other one says are we’re in? We’ve got all these habits. Yeah. Plastic oil, you know, ammonia, concrete, you know?

Gene Tunny  26:25

Yeah. Well, I mean, I’d like to think it isn’t too late. I recognise that there is a need to decarbonize our economies? Our look, I think it’s, I mean, I’m, I’m of the view that we need to, I’d be probably advocating a more gradual transition, then then many others, including many other of my fellow economists, I think most economists would support a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme, which imposes a carbon price, I think there’s a recognition that we need the right signal air to, so that businesses and consumers are considering the what you call the marginal social cost of, of greenhouse gas emissions. So that’s included in the in their economic calculation. So I think there’s there is a recognition that something needs to be done. I’ve just been concerned about the pace of it. And I think, with the issues over energy here in Australia at the moment, cost of energy rising. That’s, that’s something I’ve been concerned about. But I would like, yeah, so I guess I’m saying I’m probably more of a carbon Almanack view. Because I’m just trying to, I think we just need to understand that the world the way that economists think about this, and it is that with these resources, I mean, you mentioned these resources that have been depleted or being used. And you could say, you know, maybe they been used unsustainably. But the standard way that economists look at this is that to the extent that they are, then that’s going to be reflected in the price. And that will encourage conservation of those resources. So that’s the way the the economists tend to look at it. And the argument would be that we really haven’t run out of any essential resource globally. So that’s the that would be the economic argument there. So I guess what I’m saying is that if he asked me to choose between those two, those two books, what was the one that how the world really works?

John Engelander  28:44

It really works and the carbon Almanack Carbonell Almanack. It’s not too late. It says underneath it. Yeah.

Gene Tunny  28:49

Yeah. I mean, my, my view, or rather, my hope is that it isn’t too late. I think it’s something perfect. We can, we can sort out in time. I mean, a lot of these predictions of Apocalypse are coming from numerical models of the climate. Yeah. So Well, yeah. Okay. I know that there are there have been there. Definitely. There’s definitely change occurring. I’m not denying that. But my hope. And I guess my expectation, if I had to put if I had to make a best guess, my best guess would be that we have time. But look, I may be wrong. I’m not. I’m not 100% confident in that, that.

John Engelander  29:34

You don’t have to be Gene. I think the the point here is why wouldn’t we just do the very best we can? Yeah, there’s no harm in that sort of harm. And the other way, there’s no harm in that. And so you think we all live pretty well. Let’s look at look at Australia. How many TVs do we have in our house? How many cars do we drive? And what kind of is that quality of life or is there something else that’s actually hot at a higher value? I have to tell you I much prefer getting on my mountain bike in the country and writing that than then jumping into someone’s petrol car, you know? So it’s it’s those considerations, what is life? What is it? What is really the essence of the quality? That one would really require the kind of 140 square home carpark underneath? Or do we really need that much? Do we? I’m not saying it’s not a judgement call, by the way. Choices are there? But I don’t know, it’s like, I think it brings it down in my fundamental philosophy. And that is, if someone was to ask be you’re really passionate about the planet? And I’d say no. And so that shocks, but there’s a reason behind that. It’s not important for me to be passionate about that. I mean, I love my you know, I could have someone you ask someone, do you love your mother? Yeah, very much. Are you passionate about it? No. Love it. And so it’s those things that you kind of look at, it’s logical, I look after myself, do you look at yourself? Do you eat good food? Do you do all the right things for yourself? So you do it for the planet, wouldn’t you? You don’t have to be passionate, just passionate. From my perspective, live life fully is my passion. I do stuff, you know, I get out there enjoy the fresh air. I don’t want it to go naturally I want to look after and preserve what’s happening. And what price do you put to that? Now? $1 financial, you know, it’s not important. Entirely. Put it in perspective. But if you have very little it is important. But when you have more, how much more do you need? What is at what point do you say it’s enough? At what point do you tell your shareholders that, you know, we’re going to deliberately make this? It’s okay. But maybe it’s not? Because I didn’t come into business just on that basis, I need to be interested in what I do. And when I’m interested, that fuels me, and somehow Money takes care of itself. Not always. But most of the time, yes, I’ve made, we’ve all made mistakes, I brought out a product called Eco to life. Would it be 14 years ago, that in 14 years ago, while I was trying to and as we were building the product together, it was actually concentrate to sugar cane and corn made into a cleaning product. And there’ll be little little packets, he buys spray bottles. So once you once once you buy spray bottles, you’d have to buy them again, you have to go to the supermarket and get more, but you just add this little bit at the waters, you’re not carrying heavy loads of water home either. And I thought that would be a good idea. And I threw a lot of money into this idea. And it didn’t, didn’t happen. So the timing, you know, today I know what’s happening because I you can buy this, you can buy this. So in a sentence pioneering is it’s very painful. But I’m interested in the topic and it becomes part of my story. And I’m good with that. Instead of being sort of being a victim, you look at it and go, What have I learned? Where can i What, how can I use that moving going forward? And I do believe we’ve got a chance. And it’s a great story for all of us to come together and get it right. And there’s so much new technology coming out. It’s unbelievable. In terms of what we’ll see we’ll see people with solar on their roofs, sharing their power with other people. That’s a great example. Yeah. What about geothermal, and housing your home with heat and air conditioning from the natural substance of Earth, underneath us, and by the way, that could be economical to once we get the price down in terms of that technology.

Gene Tunny  33:54

I think the point you make about the local energy grids or whatever you call them, with the sharing of solar and if we can use EVs as batteries, and if we have smart metres in the household, I mean, there has to be a lot of investment that occurs before this all happens and you know more batteries around the place that Yep, EVS mean, everyone will need to get an EV they’re currently twice as expensive as they probably need to be to have widespread adoption by consumers.

John Engelander  34:27

Jane, question though, do we need to own cars? Ah, we currently use if you’re lucky one and a half hours worth of driving a day.

Gene Tunny  34:37

Yeah. Look, I agree with you there, John. And I mean, I’ve I myself have spent several years of my life without a car. But I recognise that the only reason I was able to do that was because I lived in the inner city. So I didn’t have to commute. I didn’t have a family to to ferry around. into. So I think I think it’s a fair point. And you know, we could look at mobility as a service, I think they call it. So yeah, yeah.

John Engelander  35:12

Call on it when you need it. And now that way, because battery technology, if it’s function properly, it can go a long way. Otherwise, we’re wasting a terrible resource. And we can have less cars on the road. And instead of people going, our batteries are bad. Well, maybe we can turn that whole notion to something that’s productive, as opposed to focusing on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right. You think?

Gene Tunny  35:42

Yeah, well, yes. I mean, I’m all for having fewer cars on the road. I try and walk wherever I can. I just, but that’s partly for self interested reasons. It’s not necessarily for the environment. I think it’s good that it is positive environmentally. But I, I look at it as incidental exercise. I mean, I think that I find that if I don’t, if I don’t walk, to go down to the shops then that I lose an opportunity to do a bit of exercise, and then I’ll go to the gym. But I find that if I can not take the car, I get a benefit that way. And yes, it is good that it is good for the planet. That wasn’t that probably wasn’t my first consideration, though.

John Engelander  36:25

But you know, you said something really profound is that you looked after yourself. Look at the planet, you look up.

Gene Tunny  36:34

Yeah, there’s a nice correlation. There are a nice coincidence of, of interest there. Yeah, yeah.

John Engelander  36:40

Yeah. I just, I just hope that the economists see the logic and the fact that, from what I understand is a sustainability scorecard that I that I believe will will come to come to businesses, whereby it’ll be just as important as your financial accounting, as it will be to show that you’re actually showing your impact.

Gene Tunny  37:04

Yeah, yeah. I mean, one thing I’m interested in it is, to what extent can this be led by this transition? To what extent can be led by business and consumers directing? Well, by their purchasing power, directing, production, directing the commercial activities of businesses and how they treat the environment? In particular, we have the scorecards, if there’s greater transparency, to what extent can change be led, in a bottom up way, rather than top down with government policy to have any thoughts on that? I mean, to what extent is a lot of this stuff already happening? Or does it? Or do we? Or do you need government policies such as carbon pricing as well?

John Engelander  37:53

Yeah, it’s, it’s, it can be, it feels a bit disappointing if you thought that’s what it would have to happen. Look, look at our young generation, they want to work for companies that are values based, they care that have this notion about the planet. So it could happen from the bottom up, down, right? Because you do attract. I’ve heard this so often attract and retain staff. I know, it happens, we do it. So if you, you can do it from the bottom up. And I don’t really want to see people forced to engage being engaged. It’s like leading a horse to water, isn’t it? So imagine if you just got people from a feeling of what would we call it excitement, or at least be happy and joyful about the fact that work for a company that actually cares put together green teams develop ideas together. It’s, that’s one of my missions next year, actually, is to help business transition to a green future. And there’ll be in this regard our membership base solopreneurs, coming together, and having evening discussions about what’s possible, and then see what of the possibilities we can actually put into action or influence others to put into action. But to I can’t have all the answers, but I can certainly bring the right people together in order to support the needs of of local organisations. And certainly one of the things I do find really of high value. And I mean, when you talk about bottom up, if I get invited as a speaker into an organisation, I’m talking with a level of enthusiasm that will that I’m believable, inspire everyone to actually feel like we can do this. We can all be planted enables. Because by that way, we enable the planet and they’re viable because they’ve got a sense of purpose when they come to work every day.

Gene Tunny  39:47

I think that does make sense. The challenge is, and this is this is probably obvious. It’s probably rather a trivial point. But the challenge is that you as a Business, you could be doing the right thing. But if your competitors aren’t doing the right thing, then they can get a competitive advantage by having a cheaper product. But then you’ve got the advantage that you’ve got, you can label well, you can promote yours as the clean green, the environmentally friendly alternative. So that could give you an edge in the marketplace.

John Engelander  40:20

I think it would accept that when you say that, and you have a cheap, cheap and nasty cleaning company, putting it together a quote, one needs to ask, what are you really getting for the money? Let’s put aside the green aspect. The Greens there to you know, from my perspective, you have that as a product, it better be good. Once it’s good, everything else should come together. I hope you know. And so I don’t, yes, it does give it does allow people to have their eyes pop out and go up, I’m going to listen to you because you’ve got a green way of doing things, but also gives you an opportunity to say how you’ll do it. And how you’ll do it better for them. If you get that chance that really shouldn’t have that boring conversation that most companies are, oh, you should use our business because we’re we give good service to our customers. And we do this and we do that. And you know, I’ve heard that everyone, everywhere. So what makes you really stand out? And it’s what you stand for. That makes you stand out?

Gene Tunny  41:27

Right? Yeah. And I mean, have you had? How do you prove that to to your customers? John, how do you are the fact that you’re the sustainability? You’ve got testimonials? And you’ve got? I mean, you got a track record now, haven’t you? I guess one thing that would be it seems like you’re talking about the service people trying to promote themselves based on superior service. And I mean, a lot of businesses will say that. How? Yeah, yeah, exactly. So I guess you do need to demonstrate that if you have this environmental commitment, you need you need some is that there’s a certification, I’m just trying to think how

John Engelander  42:13

it’s a great term certification, I think that does belong to some people who need it. And so when you’re born green, the birth of a planet back in 94. So essentially, that’s us were born green, we know it, we should be the ones giving the certification to others. And that’s why when companies take us on, they suddenly become greener, they, they have an opportunity to tell their people. And let me tell you that that’s a good news story for their for them. That’s, they want that message. And so when you offer eco bins, colour coded bins, systems, and you roll it out for no charge whatsoever, and then you give a morning tea talk on why we do what we do, and how they can also become plant enablers. The who does that, and then with, with all those other aspects about talking about chemical free cleaning, and then everything just comes together, you can’t find that just anywhere. You can’t. Even in the name planet Earth, we imagine this, you have the person who made the decision they send on their intranet, to their 500 cluster. We’d like to welcome to planet earth, their new caretakers around our building, starting on Monday, you can’t do that if you’re gonna make up a name Zen topless and Sons cleaning service, it just doesn’t feel it just it doesn’t register, right. And that’s more than ever, this whole idea, it has never been more relevant for what’s going on in business. And what’s and it’s relevant for what they tell the people, it’s relevant to attract people to your company. By golly, you know, all you have to do is ring up, see, all you have to do is ring up any of our clients. You know, it’s it’s a given. And in my decision, because I’ve done it for three decades, and know what I know and want to help and support organisations. How do you beat that? Warren Buffett has a great line. And he talks about enduring, competitive advantage. You can’t beat three decades. He can’t beat being born green. Can you?

Gene Tunny  44:29

Exactly John, that’s, that’s terrific. Any final thoughts before we wrap up?

John Engelander  44:35

Yeah, whatever you do, start to think about the choices. Because our choices do have impact. And being a conscious consumer makes a huge difference. And people notice you. They do they do when I when I bought my first TV seven years ago, boy, did they have a message. I didn’t just buy a car. So I think being conscious and other people watching you do what you do. You don’t even have to tell people, if they watch how you do it. Let them ask you the questions, but really, that don’t. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be an extremist. If you want to be listened to, and and hold an open mind, and we’d live with what’s possible, that’s what I do.

Gene Tunny  45:22

Okay, so a steady, can we take a steady approach? I mean, I’d like to be more conscious, more environmentally conscious. I’d find a difficult making radical changes at the moment. But I know that because I know there’s a movement for people to live off the grid. I don’t think I mean, I could never imagine myself doing that. But I mean, is that something you’d be considering? John?

John Engelander  45:43

Not? Yeah, I have solar and I have batteries. And very convenient. But depends. I like this term shades of green. Okay, where you sit, let’s just get, we don’t have to be perfect. Let’s you don’t have to be you just be better, not perfect. And if you just do one thing at a time and think about the one thing you can do today, I think that makes it simple. Otherwise, it becomes complex. And honestly, it’s not as hard as you think.

Gene Tunny  46:15

Yeah, I think that’s a great message to end on John, John Engelander. And that’s been great. I’ve really appreciated your, your thoughts and your insights into business and sustainability. So thanks much for your time.

John Engelander  46:29

It’s a pleasure, and I’m really glad that you’re able to catch up with me. So thanks, Gene.

Gene Tunny  46:36

Okay, so what are my big takeaways from my conversation with John? My first takeaway is that it’s clear that many business owners can have sustainable businesses and look after the environment to John’s businesses are great examples of how that can be done. As an economist, however, I wonder just how widespread this phenomenon can be. In the absence of regulation or policy measures covering all businesses, many businesses will probably choose lower cost and less environmentally sustainable practices. And many consumers will choose lower price options over more expensive, environmentally friendly ones. That said, public attitudes are changing and it’s possible consumer behaviour will drive more environmentally sustainable practices by businesses in the future. Following my chat with John, I found a really interesting study done for MasterCard and 2021. And I’ll put a link in the show notes to it. This study reported that more than half 54% of those surveyed across the world believe it’s more important to reduce their own carbon footprint since COVID-19. And more than three and 560 2% said it’s now more important than before that companies behave in a more sustainable, and eco friendly way. changing attitudes could have big implications for business in the future, and I’ll aim to have a closer look at consumer attitudes and behaviour in a future episode. My second big takeaway from my conversation with John is a reminder that we need to consider any degradation of our natural environment if we’re properly measuring the benefits of economic activities. The discussion I had with John in this point was inspired by a quote that John had on the wall behind him in our conversation over zoom. It’s not an investment if it’s destroying the planet. That quote is from Dr. Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar and environmental activist. I would know that for several decades now, economists have thought a lot about how to account for any environmental degradation and cost benefit studies of projects. This is not something we’re ignoring or don’t care about. Economists have also thought a lot about how to augment the traditional national accounts to reflect environmental considerations. I’ll aim to cover how economists analyse environmental impacts in some depth in a future episode. For now, I’ll include some links in the show notes relating to the field of what’s called natural capital accounting. And I’ll also add some links regarding how economists have been trying to account for environmental impacts and cost benefit analysis. Okay, those are my big takeaways from my discussion with John Englander. The EcoBin, do you think I picked the most important ones? If you’re willing to share your own takeaways from the episode, please send them to me via contact at economics explore.com or send me a voice message via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes. Thanks for listening and Happy New Year. 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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Credits

Thanks to Obsidian Productions for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

Aussie energy crisis & Net Zero transition w/ Josh Stabler, Energy Edge – EP170

Energy market expert Joshua Stabler shares his views on the current Aussie energy crisis and how well placed Australia and other countries are to transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Learn why Joshua thinks that transition could be disorderly, and learn about the role self-driving EVs could play and whether Josh thinks nuclear energy and hydrogen are realistic options for Australia. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored.

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Joshua Stabler

Joshua Stabler is Managing Director of Energy Edge. He has extensive experience in supply-side market operations for the electricity and gas sectors, and as an advisor and system developer in the Australian energy industry.

Joshua is the architect of the Gas Market Analysis Tool (GMAT), which is utilised by gas producers, LNG participants, gas generators, end users, financial intermediaries and banks. Joshua is also the author of The Edge – Gas Market Update report.

Joshua has a BE (Computer Systems).

You can follow Josh on LinkedIn:

https://au.linkedin.com/in/josh-stabler-6683895b

Links relevant to the conversation

Energy Edge, the advisory business Josh is Managing Director of:

https://www.energyedge.com.au/

What are Renewable Energy Zones? 

https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/what-is-renewable-energy-zone/

Abbreviations

EV Electric vehicle

NEM National Electricity Market

REZ Renewable Energy Zone 

Transcript: Aussie energy crisis & Net Zero transition w/ Josh Stabler, Energy Edge – EP170

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Josh Stabler  00:03

So we have a known urgency that we need to get rid of carbon out of the atmosphere because it is causing issues with regards to climate change, our ability to shift that rapidly, may be outside of our economic grasp. That’s the danger.

Gene Tunny  00:19

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane Australia. This is episode 170 on the Aussie energy crisis and the transition to net-zero, not just in Australia but around the world. I’m joined by Josh Stabler Managing Director of Energy edge. Energy Edge is a Brisbane based advisory firm specialising in energy markets. Also joining the conversation is Tim Hughes, who helps me out of my business adapt economics from time to time. It’s great to have Josh on the show because energy has been very topical lately. High coal and gas prices, largely as a result of the war in Ukraine that pushed up the costs of power generation worldwide. Also, a cutback in maintenance during the pandemic has compromised generation capacity. Also increasing prices as Josh explains in this episode, just how bad are things energy markets, Josh helps us understand what’s been happening and what’s to come. Please check out the shownotes relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about this episode. I’d love to hear from you. In the show notes, you’ll also find a list of abbreviations. There’s a lot of them when it comes to Australia’s energy sector, including any M for national electricity market and our Zed for renewable energy zone. Righto. Now for our conversation with Josh Stabler on energy markets. Stick around for the end of the conversation for what I think are the big takeaways. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts is the assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Josh Stabler Managing Director of Energy Edge welcome to the programme. Thank you for having me. Oh, it’s great. Josh. Tim, who’s joining me as well. Tim, my occasional co host, recommended you as an expert on the gas market and energy in general. So I thought it’d be good to have you on the show. So Tim, thanks for that. And good to have you on the programme again.

Tim Hughes  02:18

You’re welcome, Gene. Good to be here. Hi, Josh.

Gene Tunny  02:20

Excellent. Okay, Josh would be keen to know about your role at Energy Edge. What is Energy Edge? What, what do you do at Energy Edge, please?

Josh Stabler  02:30

Sure, so we’re a small boutique advisory firm in the energy market, we have sort of two different arms of our business, one sides, our advisory sites. So that’s helping businesses in the wholesale energy market, understand their exposures, that’s with both traditional assets and renewable assets. And on the second side, we have our software arm of our business. So we have our own deal capture system, we have our own risk and analytical system. We have a gas market analysis tool, and we have our own edge report, which we talk about things that are going on in the industry.

Gene Tunny  03:02

What do you mean by exposures? What are they exposures toward?

Josh Stabler  03:05

Oh, yes, so the commodity exposure. So we we we delve deeply into understanding what the business are, how it makes money, how it pays for its energy, and then using that commodity exposure, where then we’ll say simulate out the exposures that they have on making a sort of at risk assessments of the money that they could make. And then from that you can go into deep sort of risk metrics. So you can work out a business’s probability of exceeding certain levels, and that’s known as at risk modelling.

Gene Tunny  03:39

This is Monte Carlo, Monte Carlo simulation modelling. Yeah, good one, using At risk. That’s one of the tools you can use. Right. And what sort of clients

Josh Stabler  03:50

Ahh yes, we’ve we’ve actually supported about 80 to 100 energy businesses on the East Coast, which surprised me sometimes I never wouldn’t think there’d be that many. But, you know, we help all sorts we help, you know, most of the Queensland Gox, we’ve really supported. So we’re actually heavily involved with the setup of Cliniko, which is the latest Queensland Government generator that took over all the renewable projects in 2019. So we came in, help them set up their risk systems and help them get started ready for day one, and then they flip went on and did their own things themselves.

Gene Tunny  04:25

Right. So this is one of the Gox the government owned corporations here in Queensland, that’s looking at renewable energy options for the Queensland Government. Okay. Right. That’s great. Sounds like quite a nice portfolio of clients. And that’s great. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Tim, did you want to kick off with the first policy or economics question?

Tim Hughes  04:54

Yeah, absolutely. So it’s funny we’ve we’ve all talked about this at different times. So cobbling it together. We’re gonna start with Josh, a summary of how we got here, because I know you’ve talked about this before. And I think getting an understanding of this then helps with the conversation we will have about where we go from here.

Josh Stabler  05:14

Yeah, definitely. So how do we get here is such a, you know, an open-ended question, but in terms of, what are we looking at there. So during winter 2022, in Australia, we saw unprecedented levels of pricing. So the electricity prices settled at $300 a megawatt hour for the quarter, the highest ever previously was about 170. And this was across all the regions. So Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria, were all at record high levels. And this was an accumulation of so many different things that have happened over the last few years. And if we go back two years ago, we have to go through the traumatic experience, again, with going through COVID was that during COVID, we had travel restrictions and congregation restrictions, which means that you couldn’t bring expertise from international space, and put them together to do preventative maintenance. And because we didn’t do the preventative maintenance on coal generators on gas generators that lowered their reliability of those assets. Now, the exact causality of each of those is not perfectly known. But what we started seeing was a rising of unavailability of the coal generators. Now, as we move forward through time, we started seeing other international things starting to change. The, the war of Russia and Ukraine was in March this year, but they actually started reducing their supplies into Europe at the end of 2020. So by the time that they’d reached the point of the Nord Stream failure in July this year, they had actually stopped delivering mushroom to Northern Europe, had lowered their deliveries from 17 petajoules, a day to 1.6. Now, that’s 16 petajoules less now that seems like a big number. And it is a big number, it’s actually the equivalent of 95 million tonnes of LNG, which is 25% of the world’s LNG cargoes. So the extraction of one country’s deliveries to Europe was the equivalent of 25% of the world’s LNG. So it’s a it’s a big, big variation in terms of this is probably the largest shock in terms of supply shock, ever, like I know what the equivalent would probably be the 70s sort of oil shock conditions. So it’s an amazing sort of outcome. But it started happening well, before we actually got to the point of war, which meant that we actually started seeing gas prices in the international space rising from September 2021, six months before we actually had the the actual war. And that led to a scarcity of that of energy starting to appear across the planet. And by the time we got to April, in Australia, we’d actually been buffeted away from this, we weren’t seeing any of the higher prices until we started in April. And that’s when it’s first started seeing a rising of the of the energy prices. This is on two fronts, one was on the coal international coal prices which reached $450 a tonne, which is the equivalent of around about $25 a giga Joule in the in the coal pricing. So that means that coal was not cheap. Coal was very expensive.

Tim Hughes  08:24

What was the regular price?

Josh Stabler  08:27

 Yes, for the first decade of the market, it was $1 a giga Joule for coal and $3 or Giga Joule for gas. So that’s in the early 2000s. And progressively gas prices have risen and fallen. But the coal prices have stayed in that sort of $1 to $3 range. So to see it go 10 times the level is really just driving up an underlying input cost. And then by the time we got to May, we had our first event, the event of the roundabout, the 28th of April through to the sixth of May, was when we first saw a sharp increase in the electricity prices. And that was primarily driven by a large reduction in availability of coal generators. And so we saw a spiking of sort of 30% of the fleet was completely offline during May. In New South Wales, we’re talking 40-45% of the fleet was offline. So this is an unprecedented level, like a AMO forecast 12%. So we are three, four times the height in terms of unavailability of the coal generators during that period that caused electricity prices to spike. Two days later, gas prices spiked. So it wasn’t a gas rose and caused electricity to price up. Its electricity went higher and that caused the input costs to follow it up. So we had and once that once the dam had broken once we had the gas prices jumped up to around about $30-40 it connected to the international price which coincidentally was around about $40 a giga Joule, but just pure coincidence. And when once it reached that point, we started having the prices remain in that area. Now, the coincidence wasn’t that the price joined up the coincidence is that in the late 90s, we decided that the market should have a cap, the market cap should be $40. Nobody thought about that $40 cap when thinking about the Ukraine war in 2022, she just happened to be in a note number that worked out very nicely. And once it came that $40, we’ve just had it stay that level. And we’ve had the market go into a price administered state. And then during that, that level, there we had very high electricity prices. But we didn’t have shortfalls, they weren’t customers that were losing the ability to consume. They were just paying a lot in the spot market for those for that generation, that consumption.

Gene Tunny  10:52

Right. So look, there are a couple of things I’d like to follow up on there. Josh, you mentioned that COVID meant that we couldn’t get people over to do maintenance on coal-fired power stations and gas-fired power stations too. Yeah, right.

Josh Stabler  11:10

An outage is literally bringing expertise and putting them really close to each other in a kind of confined space. So we couldn’t get them in because they couldn’t fly from overseas. And when they were here, they also couldn’t do the work. So what we did was a lot of the generators moved their outages just to the next slot. And the slots are normally the April, May or March, April, May. So the shoulder seasons in terms of weather. And the second slot is in the September, October, November period, where you also have a lowering of demand. So you’d normally fit the outages in there, and they didn’t. So they moved them into the next area. And eventually we just squeezed them all together, and then assets just started to fail.

Gene Tunny  11:50

Yeah, that’s interesting. Something that Tim and I are interested in for in terms of, it’s another one of these potential world costs of lockdown or costs of COVID policies that are on the year, the negative side of, of COVID, or the cost side in a cost benefit analysis. So I have to check with Judy Foster’s included this in, in her analysis because we went to an event a couple of weeks ago in Brisbane here on pandemic and managing the pandemic. And there’s a lot of discussion about the costs and benefits of lockdowns. I mean, that’s, that’s not for this conversation. But I just thought that’s interesting as another cost of those policies during COVID.

Josh Stabler  12:42

And it’s not just Australia, the French nuclear facilities are all having an unheard of levels of maintenance right now. Because again, they also had to delay their work. So there was just that there was just a period of and so that that created some of the false security because in 2020, nobody had outages. So everybody had extra supply to the market, which caused prices to fall. So it wasn’t just that we had a lot lower demand, we had a slightly lower demand because of COVID. But we had an incredibly high level of availability of assets. Because no one did any work. No one was doing any work. But the repercussions of that are that there’s an increased unreliability, but be they’ve got it then do that work. You can’t avoid it. There are statutory obligations, you have to actually do it within a certain time period. Otherwise, you’re breaking the law.

Gene Tunny  13:32

Josh, can I ask you what’s the connection between the domestic price paid for gas in Australia and the international price they’re linked?

Josh Stabler  13:41

They are at time. So we’ve we had a very, very strong relationship during 2019, 2020 and early parts of 2021. And then in mid 2021, electric the gas prices domestically jumped up very rapidly, primarily due to domestic issues, domestic supply concerns, and then the gas prices internationally started to rise and they rose steadily from 10-15, 20-25, 30, $40 a Giga Joule, but the Australian Government gas market after about October or September 2001, all the way through to April was only about $10 a giga joule. So we had this rising International and a very low flatlined was still higher than historical numbers, but it was very low in relative terms. And the relativity really matters for a lot of businesses. If you are a fertiliser business and you sell fertiliser, you are a price taker, you take what the international price of fertilisers are worth, and that is priced on international price of gas. So if you have a relatively low price that absolutely high, you are still in a strong position. Whereas if you are a domestic customer who sells domestically then the absolute price is a problem for you because you’re passing that on to a domestic an audience who have to take the higher price. And that will directly increase their, their outcomes, because there they are a price setter themselves. So that, that differential there matters, especially over the medium term in terms of what that does for certain businesses. Now, once we got to make we, that’s when it joined up, and we had lots of periods where the domestic and international were about the same. There are periods where it looks like the domestic is cheaper than the is more expensive than the international but the international price was jumping $10 a giga Joule, every couple of days. So the volatility was more to do with the when you sample the data more than it was to do with the market price it was moving between 40 and $60, depending on the international experience at the time. You know, when Russia first did that change in their availability, the market moved to $20 in a day. So it gets a bit hard when you’re trying to say, well, what is the exact outcome, in general for the year substantially cheaper than almost any other country other than, say, the US and Canada, Australia in terms of gas pricing. Because most other countries are highly linked, you have a Japanese Korea market, okay, yeah. And you have the TTF, which is the Dutch price for gas, both of those have been elevated in the 60s $70 for Giga Joule equivalents for the entire year. And Australia had 40 for about two to three months, and has had 15-10, 15 for the rest of the period. And long term contracts have been in and around about $12.38, I think was the number that the ACCC reported on so substantially below where the international prices are. Now there are some people who have offered very high prices. But that doesn’t mean that anybody traded there. It’s like going and saying, I asked a hotel. Well, I thought price for a night was and I asked a guy on the street, if I could buy his house, they came in at different prices. You’ve got somebody who doesn’t have any guests available to sell, and you ask them to sell you gas, and they’re going to obviously offer a very high price.

Gene Tunny  17:03

Okay, so I just want to make sure I understand what’s going on. So is it the case that the gas suppliers or the big gas companies, they’re they’re entering into these longer term contracts with their customers, and they’re doing that at a rate that’s much lower than the spot price, because they know that will that spot price is just temporary. That’s what’s going on.

Josh Stabler  17:27

And it’s just for short periods of time that those prices are at that very high levels. So you’re not seeing that pass through that long term contracts unnecessarily getting done at $4. There are, if you go to businesses that do not have any gas, yeah, it’s already in you ask them to give you a price, it’s going to be high. But that, but that post, that business doesn’t end up doing the deal. And that’s what we’re seeing. And when you look at the ACCC report they’ve got the price range was between 10 and 60. But the price ended up being 12. So it’s yes, there are some numbers that look, and they are frightening if you are a customer, looking at the deal like that, and trying to make it work. But most of the ones that were especially the ones that made the media were related to the accident of western energy, which went broke in late May. And the basically, businesses were then going out to so that that retailer had to give their contracts back to the retailers last resort. And that didn’t that those prices were back at the tariff rate. And they were very, very high. So there was some bad media around that. But in general, most customers who have gone to long term, producers have had prices in the order of 10 to $14 a giga Joule right, not on a weighted level. Is it anywhere in the 30s or 40s?

Gene Tunny  18:54

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

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Gene Tunny  19:29

Now back to the show. I’ve got some more questions. But Tim, I should ask if you’ve got any questions for josh.

Tim Hughes  19:36

I know between the three of us we could talk for days. For us and for everyone else who might be listening, we should not. However, so if you did have any more questions with that Gene, what I was going to come to and we might want to move on to this after if you have any questions to finish, but basically, because we’re in this fascinating point in our history of our time with emerging energy markets to clean and green options that are coming, the opportunity or the challenge to get to net-zero. So that’s what I’d like to put forward for the next part of it. So if you’ve got anything to add from what we will do that first.

Gene Tunny  20:18

I might just ask you about the risk of what happened earlier this year, happening again, it sounded like that there were some specific circumstances the fact that there wasn’t this maintenance going on, in their catching up with maintenance, does that mean, we won’t see another repeat of what happened earlier this year?

Josh Stabler  20:42

Okay, so, I guess, there’s two parts to that we have the problems that we know that are deterministically at fault. Yeah, which is that we know that there is some coal supplies that are low, some of the local mines at say Mt piper, in near Newcastle, have reaching end of life, and they will need to get coal from train links. And the train links have a limitation in terms of the delivery. So we know there are some facilities that will be energy limited by the fact that their suppliers are constrained. That’s the deterministic issue. On the probabilistic issue, we had outage rates of three times what we anticipated during May and June periods. That of those were random events. So they weren’t failure, reliability failure, they are a probabilistic event, they there is a chance that those numbers could come back, there’s chance those those things, as we are getting closer and closer to the end of life are these assets that are less likely to spend the money to go and fix the power station to be ready. Because they don’t, they won’t recover the profitability. And that’s that there is so if you’re only going to survive five years, and you want to spend $100 million, you need to make an extra $20 million out of that asset every year in order for that to even makes sense. And if your input costs are high, then you won’t go and do that. So that’s why we’re seeing a whole lot of power stations, even in a very high price environment. But it’s also a high cost environment, are worried about what that means for them as they get closer to their end of life. And that leads us to that, I guess, if we can carry on to the next question is what happens in terms of as we get closer to transition. And the complication of transition is that it is by default, disorderly.

Tim Hughes  22:38

So this is transition to new energy sources.

Josh Stabler  22:40

As you transition anything from any old, anything old into anything new, you are going to hit this issue in regard to how you get somebody to give up their space for the next person. Now, if a power station has no goal, no plan for profitability over the next three years, then you would be better off to turn off rather than lose money three years in a row. So that means that you’ve got this, you don’t get an overlap in a transition. Normally, you get old assets who are there will want to exit because they see no path to profitability. But we don’t have a solution yet, because that hasn’t come on yet. So we have a renewable wave and a battery wave, and we have a decline of the coal. And if you don’t act to try and keep them so that they overlap, then there will just be a gap. And if you have a gap, then you’ve got an issue because then the power stations as they become less reliable, will fail. And in fact, when they fail, they will withdraw their capacity from the market, which will cause prices to rise. Making them the reason why the prices are high is because of their failure caused the event. So you actually have to that, and that leads you to part of the policy plan, which is how do you keep something online that doesn’t make money. And that’s where you had starting to talk about capacity markets or anything else to try and social licence. This is why a most said that you’ve got to give three now three and a half years notice before you can exit is because you need to tell them in advance that you’re going to leave. Now the obvious response was origins, which was if I had to tell you three and a half years, I’m just gonna tell you three and a half years and I’m just gonna make a different decision at a later date if I need to. If I get close, and I want to keep it online, well, you didn’t tell me I have to shut and three and a half years. I can just keep it on for another two years with a year’s notice. And I’ll just keep it going. But if I’m forced to make a notice then I’m gonna give it early. And then I’ll update it if I need to.

Gene Tunny  24:48

Yeah, good point. Good point. So amo was the Australian energy market operator. And yeah, it’s interesting. This I mean, I’m, as an economist, I’m rather laissez-faire. I’d prefer to just to rely on market hours, the market as much as possible. But yeah, with energy, you’ve got to take into account the fact that you need to keep the power on you need reliability. So we need, we can’t just rely entirely on the market. And that’s why we’ve got this Australian energy market operator that’s overseeing things and trying to get the right policy setting. So we do have, we don’t end up with unreliable power. And we don’t have to have blackouts in that horror show scenario.

Tim Hughes  25:32

I see. Am I right in? I think it might have been one of your podcasts Josh, or something I read recently, and it was a rant. There, there is gas that is used as a backup currently, for that kind of situation where it is expensive, but it kicks in and that can sort of cover any shortfall. Is that right?

Josh Stabler  25:52

Yeah. And it’s, it’s important to like, when sometimes when you think about what is the what is the idea, you can think globally, you’re like, Okay, well, nuclear is going to work for the world in terms of meaning things because of the problems that some countries have. But Australia has the situation we have, we have a lot of sun, we have a lot of wind, we have a LNG export capability that is delivering gas offshore, all the time. So if we get ourselves into a situation where we are short of wind and short of, of sun, we actually have this enormous amount of gas being delivered, that can be interrupted for a short period of time to deliver that energy back into the grid. And the amount that has been delivered is the equivalent of the entire electricity market. So the four petajoules, that goes off is approximately 100% of the net. So if you actually brought it all down, you could power the whole network if you had enough power stations. But what it does is it provides resilience. Now, not every country has an LNG export option. And it’s not saying that we need to use the gas all the time. In fact, we only want to use it when it’s required, because it’ll probably cost us more to interrupt them. So if we had a commercial arrangement where we could say, give me your gas when we need it, and we’ll pay you some money for it, well, then we almost never have a reliability issue. So long as we can get that gas where it needs to go.

Tim Hughes  27:21

I mean, that would obviously cause some problems with markets. So you’ve got to keep a consistent supply to the current customers overseas, etc. So that might be in a sort of like a short emergency sort of situation.

Josh Stabler  27:33

Yeah, a percent of theirs is a huge amount of gas for the domestic market. So a percent of a day is still 40. It’s like 150 megawatts, 24 hours a day. So it’s 1000 megawatts for six hours, it’s a huge amount of gas that can be moved through into power stations to meet the short term problem.

Tim Hughes  27:55

So with the broader view of where are we going, you know, what’s, what are the options open to us? What are the opportunities for Queensland and Australia in particular, but there was clearly a lot of choices about, you know, renewable energy is obviously growing very quickly. It appears to be green and clean, which I know is a little bit of a side conversation as well. You know, everything has some impact of some sort. But that’s the direction we’re heading. Net-zero is the term that we are all familiar with, that covers it all as in like, whatever we’re going to be doing, it’s not going to be harming the planet. That’s pretty much what the goal is. And so we’re in this transitional period that we’re entering now. So from gas and coal in towards these different areas, and like you say, gas may form a part of the contingency or the emergency supply. So we’ve got renewables, we’ve got wind, we’ve got solar, waves, hydro, all these different things, in your opinion, and your experience. What are your views on these new available sources of energy?

Josh Stabler  29:04

So if we separate it into two parts, one is can we get the electricity grid towards a greener environment? Yeah, we have moved a lot further than most people think. So when we signed the Paris accord in April 2016, so six years ago, six and a half years ago, we had an a carbon emissions for the electricity grid of 171 million tonnes per annum, 171. And this year to a couple of days ago, we were just below 120 million tonnes. So we have reduced our carbon emissions and our electricity grid by 40%. In six years.

Gene Tunny  29:41

Are we talking about Australia or Queensland? Australia?

Josh Stabler  29:45

Australia wide and so in the last couple of days, this is the gold period of the year is the golden period for renewables. It has great sun, no much demand, fair bit of wind. We are sitting in Most days at about 65% renewables during the day, and about 25 to 30% renewables every night.

Tim Hughes  30:06

So that 40%, so 40% reduction in six years. Yep. And that’s purely attributable to these renewable energy sources.

Josh Stabler  30:16

Yeah, it’s basically a one for one reduction increase in renewables, one for one reduction in brown coal fired power stations. So that was it, certainly for the first like four years, and then it’s progressively eaten out some of the black coal, that appears to be really first it’s very, very fast, quite a lot. We’re moving 10 million tonnes per annum reduction. That’s on the electricity side. And we are now we’ve now you know, we’ve got days when we’re more than 50% reduction in terms of our carbon emissions, which is, which is great. That’s really, really wonderful. The problem is, is that it’s not the only thing that our requirements our Paris Accord is not electricity market requirements, it is an economy wide, starts getting a little bit confusing, which is that you cannot use renewable solar panels to meet our agricultural emissions requirements or our industrial requirements. But there are still good news stories in it. As we bring in electric vehicles, we move away from inefficient oil to efficient electricity. And as our carbon emission of our electricity grid becomes cleaner and cleaner, it has a multiplicative effect. Now, five years ago, because the ratios change every year, five years ago, the ratio was 36% was our electricity, and 18% was out was transportation. Now, this is where I’ll jump into some of the numbers for this so EVs, we have 15 million cars on the road. Each EV is at two kilowatt hours, if you had them as a Tesla mum, Tesla Model three, just as far as an example, which makes it 1200 gigawatt hours worth of storage, which is about the equivalent of 250 Wivenhoe, and why Wivenhoe is able to support about 1000 megawatts worth of renewables.

Gene Tunny  32:03

So that’s if everyone in Australia had an EV. If we replaced all the cars, on the road with EVs, we would have how many Wivenhoe dams?

Josh Stabler  32:12

250 Wivenhoe’s in storages which can do 1000 megawatts, which makes it 250,000 megawatts worth of hydro of renewables, which is more than we use switches will far more than we use. So we actually only need about 15% of the equivalent of cars moving down in order for us to have a situation where we have enough storage from cars. But cars don’t plug into the grid every night, we need to have them absorb them the right time, there’s a whole lot of, you know, complications that come around that plan. But it’s just a point of what is an opportunity available to us, we have so much storage there that would need to be replaced. Because at the moment, we have all these cars with their engines, and all they do is drive people. Whereas if we had them being engines that were able to be electricity driven as well, they would have a they would have a role in this market. Now, that is a wonderful vision for 2040. Okay, but as a idea of the same problem they have with any bridge, if you start a bridge at one side and start on this side, you’ve got to make sure they meet in the middle, you can’t just have a dream of where you want to be in 2040 and go off and just hope it’s gonna work out. You have to aim the bridges at each other. And that’s where it gets complicated, is how do you transition across. And right now our danger, is it we’ve seen what happens when things don’t go right, and it’s unpalatable. It is politically unpalatable. Electricity is not run by the governments anymore. But it’s politically considered to be run by the governments. So having it move fast is something that people can not accept, that it’s not politically acceptable. So therefore, if you have these another event like this, then people will start giving up on wanting to transition because I think that that is the reason why it’s happening now. Is that the reason? Well, there’s it’s far too it’s not you can’t point to one thing and say there’s definitely been fault on multiple sides of the fence here because renewables have made coal, not make money which has made them unreliable and made them unreliable before they have to exit and renewables are not ready to take over the role yet because they haven’t got the cost structures in order to do it. So we’ve we’ve got one abdicating the role and the other one, a child who can’t take over it.

Tim Hughes  34:34

So what’s your feeling on that? Josh? Like? Because I mean, is it just the transition is happening too fast? Or is it? Are there other things that we need to consider?

Josh Stabler  34:42

We’ve we’ve, we have a known urgency. So we have a known urgency that we need to get rid of carbon out of the atmosphere because it is causing. It is causing issues in regard to climate change, our ability to shift that rapidly, may be outside of our Economic grasp. That’s the danger.

Gene Tunny  35:02

Okay, that’s a good point. I think I know what you mean. But what do you mean by economic grasp?

Josh Stabler  35:08

Exactly. So it’s the cost of solar falls 36% for the doubling of capacity. So if you wait until you’ve doubled the amount of capacity in the world, you get at 36%, cheaper, wait for your next installation. So that part of the deflationary learning curve that we have, right, so you are highly motivated not to invest now, right and wait for it to be cheaper, and then be beat everybody on the lower cost structure. All other things being equal, not all other things are equal, because initially, you have high income for being in a scarce market. So the initial investments of PV got paid 42 cents a kilowatt. And there was a really good incentive for those first people to invest in solar while it was expensive. Yeah, but eventually, you’ve got to compete in is this worthwhile in the long term. And that same applies to batteries, batteries are falling very rapidly. And if you invest, now, your income stream is high, but your costs are high. And eventually, if you don’t get the right deal in place now, then eventually, someone’s going to come along and eat your lunch. And that gets harder, because you’ve and that’s what does that lead to? It leads to, if you accelerate the process, it will cost money. Is that an unpalatable level of money? I don’t, I haven’t clearly worked out, it’s got better, if we had accelerated faster, five years ago, we would be a very expensive system. But we are accelerating now and batteries are coming on. And they are likely to have a heavy impact because we are having a under normal circumstances a very negative during the day price and a high evening peak, which gives a very large arbitrage, temporal arbitrage, buy low sell high. And therefore people are incentivized to put in batteries to meet that obligation. But as you bring on more batteries, that arbitrage shrinks, lowering your income. So therefore, you need to win on costs at that point, because the revenue numbers will start to decline. So it’s just a it’s a there are you know, there are assets that are getting built now that will make money. But if we built all the assets now at this cost, we will just have a high-cost system,

Gene Tunny  37:18

Right. Okay, yeah, good point.

Josh Stabler  37:21

And eventually that comes back because the customer the godly truths of our market is as the customer pays for everything. Yeah, everything has to be extracted from the end user.

Gene Tunny  37:31

Right. Okay. And what do you think about what the state governments here is proposing with? They’re looking at pumped hydro, aren’t they?

Josh Stabler  37:40

They are. So there’s some very, very large pumped storage hydro that they’re talking about. It’s gonna take a long time to get into the market. Yeah. pumped hydro is so when we’re talking about how solar drops in price, as we instal more pumped storage hydro increases every year, because it’s the civil project. It’s not getting smarter technology, its its its potential energy, gravity and height. That’s that maths still the same from 1950s, as it is, now it’s, we probably gained a couple of percents in efficiency. So we are we are getting more expensive, which is a problem, which is why the state’s doing it. Because the state can afford to do something like that, that has an 80 year life and take on that level of risk. Because the of the there are two outcomes, either it was not needed, and everything’s fine. And they’re happy with that, or it was needed, and they helped make it better. And they’re happy with that, as opposed to a private company, which would be unhappy with a scenario where they were unneeded. So iIt’s not that it’s warped. It’s just that they have greater vision in terms of what what is important to them compared to a private in private industry.

Gene Tunny  38:55

I liked the point you made about EVs and in just how many Wivenhoe dams the EVS could represent if Wivenhoe, Wivenhoe is not Hydro Electric is it?

Josh Stabler  39:06

It’s a pump storage. So it is a small drive to a big lake, okay, and it’s called split Creek. So it has the ability to move water up and down from the so an actual slide on the dam is not good for the power station, unfortunately. But it has about 20,000 mega litres of water. So it’s got a large area that it can fill. Yeah, this gives a you know, having all of those batteries gives a incredible capability to meet the rearrangement of data nine, right, we probably have too much, which means that we will, we’ll probably get to a situation where not everybody has to do it. Because we’ve got we’re going to have all these batteries and all these cars and we’re not expecting everybody to be doing this every night. We don’t expect you to get because the other problem is is that you have to fill during the day and then empty when you get home and your rooftop PV is on your roof and you’re not at home because you drove your car away. So if we’re imagining in 2040, we have an answer to that, which is when the car drops you off, it goes home again, because there’s an automated car, and it returns to the base and fills up. And then it comes and picks you up in the afternoon in the process, it’s filled. And when it arrives, it pumps power into the grid, and keeps everything’s sorted. Because it’s moving energy around, not just passengers.

Tim Hughes  40:24

I see this feeds into an area, which I think is really interesting, because the technology is moving so quickly. Yeah. Is that then a hindrance to adopting new technology because you know, you’re investing in infrastructure that all of a sudden becomes, you know, it gets superseded by the next shiny thing.

Josh Stabler  40:40

Oh yeah, especially big costs, like a great example is distribution networks, you’ve got these power grids, or these power lines, they are long, long, long life assets. But if you’ve got power that’s moving by car, you don’t need the distribution network anymore. You got this. So which leads you to the threat, which is known as a death spiral, which is that you have a large cost, but by structure, and you’re smearing it over customers that are getting smaller, which means that you need to charge them more. So eventually, we’re in a position where my, my mom needs to pay $250 million a year in order to keep everything on track. So because you know, it’s the last people obviously, regressive, the people with the most money exit first, and the people the least money exit last. And that means that you’re smearing more and more customers, people who can’t afford it. But that just leads you and that could be where we’re at, we could have some of these assets that are built that are a little bit stranded. But again, you know, some of these things need to get done. In order for us to get there,

Tim Hughes  41:41

You end up with a drawer full of Betamax videos and CDs.

Gene Tunny  41:46

This is fascinating. I’ve never, I hadn’t thought of that before. But if I’m interpreting what you’re saying correctly, we’ve got a car that drives us to work, it’s all automatic. And then it drops us off, and it goes home. So we have all these empty cars travelling on the roads to go home, so that they home when the solar PV is collecting the energy, and they’re storing it.

Josh Stabler  42:12

Yeah. Do you want to make it’s really crazy? They may not go back to your house.

Tim Hughes  42:15

I was gonna, I was going to say they go to the closest available home. Yes, you know, but the thing is also like so this, I mean, we’re getting into the speculative nature of this.

Gene Tunny  42:27

Imagine the IT or the AI  that you need to organise all of it.

Tim Hughes  42:31

That is an exercise in efficiency. Yeah,

Josh Stabler  42:34

well, that’s, that’s the classic, I’m travelling salesman issue. So you got to got all these ones that you need to move on. Because once they select does, it does the first person who gets to choose it, because I’ll just choose the one next door for the next 17 years right now. So that it doesn’t every time. But you need to make sure that that is an equitable sort of delivery of energy. And when we get to that state, then, you know, if you’ve got this demand that can be moved, and can be selected as selective and discretionary in its consumption, then we can just keep on installing more solar, because it will find a find somebody who wants to buy because the power all the cars will come and fill it up. Which leads us then to a problem, which is what have we just built the world’s most expensive way of doing that. Because most of our energy that we need to have, we need to move from the middle of the day to the evening. If I put power into a car, I can come back 100 days later, and it’s still at 99%. So long as you don’t put on a sentry mode, then it will consume it all. But you got to you’ve got to technology, a wonderful technology that is able to keep this energy for long periods of time. But in fact, we don’t need wonderful technology, we need terrible technology that is highly inefficient. That just does it for nothing between the middle of the day and evening peak. And then we can just keep on plunking down more and more solar, because it’s going to solve the more and more expensive evening peak with gas issues or any other thing else or its competition is expensive other vehicles or other batteries. And you’re just trying to undercut them by buying for nothing and selling for anything.

Tim Hughes  44:11

So becomes a market sort of battleground if you like,

Josh Stabler  44:15

Well, I think we’ve over engineered the solution. We’ve there’s probably a much cheaper, easier, stupid engineering solution.

Gene Tunny  44:22

So what and what is that job?

Josh Stabler  44:23

One example would be let’s freeze ice and your roof and make your house cooled down when it does that. Now that one’s I’ve already been asked somebody I think it’s been debunked, but there are answers, which are to do with most of our most complicated times like today. We’re 37 degrees too hot and what we need to do is just move these copious amounts of sun because it’s hot, and it’s bright into the evening and just make cold and if we make it cold if you make the house cold, like in Germany, you have pipes throughout the house and you just heat up that and that hits that water heating keeps the house warm. Same thing We just need to know, is that economically viable? Do you need to go to every single house and water? You know, there are, these things start getting highly complicated when you start thinking about all the engineering and and there’s just a point of, we kind of don’t know what we are going to have. I can think of 25 ideas today on what could possibly happen. And none of them will be right in comparison to what we’re going to do. 20 years time is a long, long time, in a world where people are incentivized to reduce their costs, where something starts causing, you know, the old adage, high prices as a cure for high prices. Because when it starts getting up, people start finding different answers, they find, oh, I don’t need to use that much electricity, I can lower my consumption, I can make these changes. And once you start having those drives, correct drivers people follow, follow the economic behaviour, we, we underestimate our citizens. And that’s why we make our electricity tariffs so simple, in terms of the way that they’re done, the billings insane. But the actual methodology is very, is too simple. It’s, you have a flat price from 7am till 10pm at night, even though that you don’t consume that way anymore, because most people have solar, which means you don’t consume during the day, and then you consume a lot during evening. So we actually need more definition that will drive behaviour, if you were aware that these things were driving you and changing your behaviour, then you would do things slightly different. Anyway, that was it’s a nice little.

Tim Hughes  46:29

It is interesting, because, again, it’s an it’s a question of efficiency. Yeah. And yeah, and householders are interested in efficiency, especially when it’s gonna save them money, especially when it’s gonna save them money. I did have another thing I wanted to pop in there, because I don’t want to make it too speculative. Because I mean, it is fascinating. But solid state battery technology has been mentioned by a mutual friend of ours who John Atkins, who was on a previous show, previous episode. And he had come across this technology, I think Toyota are one of the leaders with this new battery technology, which ultimately could have the potential to charge your house. So it’s not just running the car, you can then plug it back into your house, and it can run the house in the evening. So one of the main areas of concern if you like, at the moment, obviously, it’s you can’t take a punt on future technology that’s not here, we have to go with what’s here. But this must be also a concern for not a concern. But like, governments aren’t always going to be the first to adopt this new technology. But it must make it harder for them to commit to putting infrastructure in for a technology that they think could be redundant fairly soon.

Josh Stabler  47:42

Yeah, and that’s where, you know, a lot of the res idea is that we’ve we have this expectation that we’re going to need large scale wind and solar, out in the out in the regions, that’s going to bring all the power in and that and therefore that’s where the energy is going to come from. And the biggest error in any of the forecasting for the last 20 years of electricity has been the forecast of rooftop solar, every one of them is like this year, it’s gonna be the same as next year quadruples. This year, it’s gonna be the same instead of quadruples, there’s just been this constant misunderstanding of how quickly people were going to invest in it. And they’ve and the and the forecasts have been just horrendously wrong. And now, rooftop solar as a market share is one of the biggest in the net, it is got a now a major part of the electricity grid is what happens from rooftops. And that is driven by mums and dads.

Tim Hughes  48:40

The market is driving this as we’ve had conversations with quite a few different people. And the common thread is that the market is driving these changes.

Josh Stabler  48:48

It is but do you get to talk? Do you get to go into the room and tell people that you’re going to go and do this? Are you going to tell people that you’re putting batteries in, or the big guys can? It’s easy. There’s only like 100 of them, we just go and ask them are you going to go and install batteries and they say sure, I’ve got this big plan to build this big battery out there. And I’m gonna build this wind fine over there. And this is where my solar farm is going to go. And they can tell the people who are going to make those plans. What it is, they didn’t go and interview 15 million households to find out who’s going to invest in batteries. So there’s a level of a lack of advocation on behalf of those customers on behalf of mums and dads in terms of what they’re going to do. They also don’t really get paid for it. Because when they installed batteries, they lowered the consumption during the middle of the day. For the first 10-15 years of this market. The middle of the day was the most dangerous part. It was the most worrying section was what’s going to happen at the hottest point of the day, two o’clock in the day. It’s the highest demand we have the hottest weather and the electricity grid starts failing power lines can’t move anything. And then we don’t have that problem. Because rooftop solar has completely carved out the amount of demand we have at what used to be the most threatening. Now we’ve built, the whole market has built all sorts of power lines, and extra things that need to handle hot weather to move really long, lots of power at certain points in time, that are completely unused now, because that requirement doesn’t exist. And then when we start thinking about what’s going to happen with people, when they put vehicle to grid, and they can move their own power between themselves, Well, no one’s getting asked. So we don’t know what they’re going to do. So there’s like a just an unknown when that starts happening. And what I suspect is going to happen is that eventually, a, someone like probably Macquarie Bank, because they’re the kind of people who would do it, which is they’ll work out that if they install a battery on your home loan, you are now better, you are now a better creditworthy person, because your costs have just gone down, so they can offer you a better deal. And at that point, it all starts changing when you can just put on your home loan.

Gene Tunny  50:49

Right? So you can buy a Tesla Powerwall.

Josh Stabler  50:52

Put it on your home, you are now you are now considered a bit less of a threat, because you don’t have an electricity bill anymore. So at that point, they’re like, oh, okay, well, yeah, you deserve to be I can, I loan you money if you know, whatever percentage lowest because I think that you’re in a better, better position. And you can put that money on to your on your home loan, and we’re going to accept that. And that’s all fine, because we consider this an investment, not a bad, not a negative decision. Once that starts happening, things start moving quickly. Once debt gets involved, the world moves changes very fast.

Tim Hughes  51:24

Yeah. And that technology is obviously good for a considerable time to come. Solar seems to be working really well, that 40% drop in six years that you mentioned down to renewables. Great news. Yep.

Gene Tunny  51:39

Yeah. Okay, so, Tim, I think we suspected we, we might be picking Josh’s brain a lot, we’d go on quite a while. So we’re at 50 minutes, I’ve got a few questions I want to make sure we get answered before we wrap up. So if I try and wrap up for the next 10 minutes or so. Okay, so first, what about nuclear or hydrogen? How much potential do they have in the future electricity grid?

Josh Stabler  52:07

In the world nukes have a very big role, in Australia. I think that that the moment, most of the discussion that is around nukes is probably not in good faith. It’s more in a let’s stop doing things and wait for this new technology. And then our didn’t work out? Well, you might as well stay with coal. I don’t feel like the discussion is necessarily in a in a with completely good faith. Your issue with nukes, which is the same ones that you have with coal is that you can’t get cheaper than solar in the middle of the day, when it’s delivered to your house on your roof. It is cutting through transmission distribution directly into the source of where the demand is, which means that is impossible to get cheaper. So that means that nukes will never be able to run 100% capacity factor, because they will be carved out by the six hours of sun every day, which means that their capacity factors will be lower, which means that their very, very high capital costs will have to be smeared over a smaller volume making their costs, every estimate of costs will be based on 100% capacity factor. That’s all impossible, which means that everything’s going to be more expensive than you anticipated, unless they plan on turning off solar. So they need to get rid of a better solution to make this other one work. So I just don’t see it really working on hydrogen. I am the biggest issue with hydrogen is economics. And it is an inefficient process to produce energy that can be moved. Now, if we have infinite free energy in the middle of the day, because we have so much solar, then having something that costs nothing to put into this energy. So if it’s inefficient, inefficiency doesn’t matter when it doesn’t cost you anything. Zero times by an efficiency of 30% is still $0. So so long as you can get to a point where there’s basic never ending spilling of the load of the solar that it would do nothing, it would literally be turned down and dig and shorted, then you’ve got something that can make sense there. Because then you can just the inefficiency doesn’t matter. So that’s what I was talking about before we you know, we have what is our engineering solution? I mean, that one there is a horrendously inefficient way of getting energy. I don’t know you might fit the bill. I it just doesn’t fit the bill now. Yeah, because the cost structures are $2 or $2 a kilo. That’s $15. If you could do, we’re not doing anything at $2 a kilogramme. Right now we’re doing things at six and sevens. We’re talking 80s and $90. A Giga Joule, you know, we’re having conniptions right now, because the gas prices are above $12. We, we can’t expect to move from something where the world goes in goes into crisis mode at the best possible price point of the future. Like that’s there’s there’s a there’s an issue there. So we’ve got to work out how we’re going to bring the capital cost down and then the marginal cost down so that the the dollars per kilogramme that was a giga Joule for hydrogen falls. But even with all of that, I don’t see how it beats EVs, like, how does it be just putting the power directly from the roof into your car? Like why introduced another thing between an inefficient thing in between there. So if you lose that market, you don’t have EVs are okay, maybe you’re going to get car trucks, because they might need the energy, well, there’s probably better answers to that one as well, why not just have replaceable batteries in your truck, because then you can just take it out, and then you don’t have the energy problem, you can just put a new one in moving energy to other countries so that they can use it that very much relies on the demand, wanting to pay more for it. We’re not, we’re not in charge of that. Japan’s in charge of that. And Toyota most recently, sort of can’t there or not can but they’ve di D prioritise their hydrogen cars, which is not necessarily a great sign for where that’s going. But there are other things green, green steel, you know, there’s always other things, there’s always other things that use hydrogen and making that green. Sure, that doesn’t seem to that seems like a great direction, because you need to build it anyway. Need to get the hydrogen somehow anyway. And your choices are using natural gas or using clean options. If your carbon has got a price on it, then you will end up with a clean one. Without a price. You need regulation to say you can’t do it that way in order for it to hurt. So that’s, that’s my concern is just it’s just economics. That’s that that’s worries me there. I just needs to get the economics. You know, the numbers are so big that it needs to be like have like, eight times. And things can get hacked. It’s easy, you do a lot of economies of scale, and suddenly you find something that’s half the price. But doing it eight times feels like a lot of steps that you need to make better.

Gene Tunny  56:54

Yeah, here there,

Josh Stabler  56:55

you know, yes, you can get a couple if anything’s out by four to one. And its initial stages. Yeah, that’s, that won’t take any time to fix. But, you know, 100, to one that starts getting to a point where you’d like we, there’s a lot of things that need to go right together.

Gene Tunny  57:10

Okay, so now some policy questions and probably haven’t left enough time to go through these complex issues. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the you mentioned capacity, capacity markets before paying for capacity. So you talked about the problems that nuclear and coal, they can’t compete with solar during the middle of the day? Should we be paying to the generators, the fossil fuel generators, or if it’s nuclear, paying them to make sure that they’re online, that they stay in the market, that they’re available? If we need them? Is there a need for some payment like that? So that’s one policy question. The other big policy question at the moment is regarding the and the one of the challenges we’ve got, as this episode will be released after the national Cabinet meeting that we’re having this week to decide on whether we have a cap on coal prices, whether we have a cat isn’t it is proposing a cap on gas prices and also a domestic domestic gas reservation policy. What are your thoughts on all of those,

Josh Stabler  58:10

please start on the gas cap one and then go back to the GST. So the gas coal caps, your biggest issue with any type of so let me start with gas gas one because and they’re all good, we got analogue across to call it the gas, the problem with the gas market cap is that you need to you are having a broad based market response to try and solve what is not a broad based problem. So your businesses a an example a coal mine does not need cheap electricity, because it is making more money than it knows what to do with. So charging it more for charging it an appropriate price for electricity, based on its cost structures end up its revenue stream is part of the reason why cost structures are so high, which is why electricity is high. So if you give them a discount on their electricity, then they’re just making more money. If you are a services business, I’m sure electricity doesn’t even make it or a percentage number in terms of a normal business or normal professional services business. So increasing the cost of electricity doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t materially change your market, your value of your business. It doesn’t materially change whether or not you’re viable. However, there are businesses that where there is a clear difference, which is if you are a domestically focused manufacturer, and you have a implication of high absolute prices will cause you to pass on high absolute prices to the domestic market that has an inflationary impact, and therefore it needs to that has a legitimate claim to being fixed and to being resolved. Your other group is that mums and dads have paid two points to Extra 2.9% of the total costs for the last 40 years on electricity might be slightly higher right now, but the number is about the same all the time. It’s also not a lot with it, our cost of living has increased remarkably much this year, because of interest rates, not because of electricity. So we’ve had a massive increase in terms of people’s livelihood costs, because of because of the interest rates. And electricity is like a thing that is annoying because it’s on top of so. So for depending on which sector of the market, if you are a low income earner, then that 2.6 is not 2.6 is probably four or five, because your consumption doesn’t really change that much based on your, you know, your your money, you still have to do all these things to keep the lights on and to consume. And therefore that becomes a regret your recess, regressive sort of threats. So you need to manage low income, and you need to manage domestically focused manufacturers or consumers, energy intensive consumers, if you are the rest, which is a lot of the energy consumption, aluminium spouses, you know, your fertilised and everybody else, they are competing internationally, and they are competing in a high market international price. And therefore, their prices they’re passing on, I’m not even going to Australians, they’re going out into the world. And the most of us not even coming back to Australia anyway. So what that doesn’t, so doing a broad based outcome for that kind of doesn’t really fit the bill. So I think that’s where the problem is. Now when you take a look at coal, coal really only has one market in in Australia, which is thermal electricity, our, our meteorological metrological cold, there was stuff that’s used for coking coal, we don’t, we don’t make steel in Australia anyway. So all that stuff is going off to China where the iron ore, it’s getting turned into steel. So there is the implications on the coal market are purely on the electricity space, so long as you can still get the energy. Our problem in winter was not because coal prices were high is because the coal generators were offline. And the ones that were online had limited coal supplies, and you couldn’t give them more coal, because they’re not next to the coal mine. The ones in New South Wales are off the spur of Newcastle and you need to drive the train through a major city to get it to a power station. And you can’t deliver any more to that power station. So you get physical limitations. And just simply saying, your price of your coal is cheaper, doesn’t make them have better power stations, or find more coal, they are just limited by their energy. And that makes it a that that’s an that could return next year, we could have kept on the market, low coal prices, and no energy. And therefore prices are high, because we’re not actually keeping anything that fundamentally keeps the market under control. So our threats right now are not only input, the problem that I find is that everybody said the market is going up because of Ukraine, which makes it feel like it’s an external thing. And all we have to do is disconnect ourselves from there, and it’s all fine. But we aren’t we aren’t actually we’re not we’re in we’re in our own scarcity issue domestically, at the same time as the scarcity issue internationally. And when it goes bad, it joins the international market, which makes it feel like it’s all related. But it’s actually just joining whether they’re in a bad place, and we’re in a bad place. And unless we see some sharp increase in availability, then we don’t, we may just have the same problems again. So that’s, and that leads us to our other question, which is what do you do about capacity markets? How do you make a power station that is unreliable, more reliable? One way, definitely making sure it goes to be less reliable, is to not spend any money on maintenance, so that it will turn off. So if you are thinking that your power station has two years left to live, you’re not going to spend any money on your maintenance, just like you don’t spend money on that car, a clunker that’s about to break down, you don’t go and send it in for a service. When it breaks down, you leave on the side of the road and get someone to deliver it to their records. That’s the problem we’ve got with the power stations as we’re getting to the record stage. When they break, like realistically This is at the point in their life where they might have four units, one breaks, it becomes parts, it doesn’t get turned back into service, it just left to make sure the other ones survived through to the end. Right. So that’s where your capacity might do is it might give you an incentive to stay around for a longer period. Yeah. Which gives you the money to be able to do that to spend on the maintenance so that you can have an asset that will be able to survive until you’re no longer required.

Gene Tunny  1:04:50

Yeah, so we’ve been talking about this for for years now. Do we know if we’re gonna get one capacity? Okay.

Josh Stabler  1:04:57

I think now that we’ve got So many power stations planning on exiting over the next X number of years. It’s also about with we’ve rapidly changed our expectations. Yeah, even just two years ago, we were in a position where coals wood, coal was cheap. There was coal mines were losing money on what they were delivering in. So they stopped slowly stopped there, the supply, you had power stations that weren’t making money, because they were they weren’t, the electricity prices were so low, you know, we’ve, we have gone from $30 a megawatt hour to $300 a megawatt hour in two years. Like it’s such a variation in terms of the outcomes, it’s so quick that nobody has in a market that that builds its world over 10 years, you can’t respond in two. And, and that’s just where we’re, you know, when we’re, you know, we go into a price cap on gas on coal, it doesn’t fundamentally make doesn’t change the engineering just changes the economics. And then the hope is that the economics works. Because if, if you’re saying that’s the next year, anybody who sells coal only gets a lower price, then you just hold and you own it, and you have a stockpile of coal, well, then you just wait to the year after and some of the higher price economic theory is you just waiting there. Or if you can deliver to a boat and sell into $500 a time overseas, then you definitely do that. So you’re definitely getting this position where if you deflate the domestic one, you also need to motivate them to continue to supply because otherwise, you’ve just given them the exact opposite, which they don’t supply, because no one’s going to pay you anything that’s worth anything.

Gene Tunny  1:06:35

Yeah, well, I mean, is that what we’re going to end up with? If there’s a domestic gas reservation policy, where we say that you’ve got to supply this amount of gas to the domestic market at this price, I mean, is that where we’re heading,

Josh Stabler  1:06:49

it does appear that that’s where the direction they’re going. It it. The problem also applies to where that supply is coming from Australia is a lot the tyranny of distance. We with this usually said in the fact that it takes a long way to deliver things from Australia to other countries. But the tyranny of distance also works for our large country to deliver gas from Dolby to Moomba, to young to Melbourne is 2800 kilometres, yeah, which is the same distance as Edinburgh to Turkey. Yeah. So it’s very long distance in terms of of how far you have to deliver, which means that we don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to be able to deliver all the guests that’s required in the south via the infrastructure that we have we we have limitations on that, which means that we need to build up our, our storage in the south ahead of winter so that we can actually deliver it. Now if there’s a cap on the market. And it costs you $12 To buy gas, and it cost you money to put into storage so that you can take it out and get paid $12 What was the financial incentive there? So your cost $12? And then you get paid 12? So what are the $2? Or you just lost that? Okay, well, once if I deliver it from Queensland, where you buy it at two or $5, you’d paid $3 to deliver it down, and then you can sell it for $12. So you’re taking a financial hit there as well. So you, it’s not just so simple as to say that everything’s the same, because then you’ve got no incentive to do anything. If you’ve got gas in Queensland, and you’ve got no reason to move it to another region, other than regulation, that you must deliver excess capacity. It’s just this is when you start delving into how you want things to work. It’s the the problem with putting a cap in is you lose merit, or you lose who deserves to get the gas, who’s willing to pay more who’s willing, or has a higher need for that. So they can actually meet that meet their requirements. Because you don’t have the merit order, you then don’t have the volumetric assessment. So if I was somebody there, I’m just going to say, Can I have a billion petajoules of gas. And if we prorate or down, I’ll have 99.9% of it all, because I asked for the most amount, because there’s no difference between my $12 and your $12. Let’s just split it, split it down the middle of who bet in a billion versus one. I’ll have my billion and you can have your lunch. So it’s it just your problem. You’ve it’s there’s a lot of unintended consequences that need to be managed there. And it’s it’s difficult. It seems simple, but it’s difficult.

Tim Hughes  1:09:33

Yeah. Does that fall into the category of the infrastructure needed for that particular energy source? So for instance, you know, it’s obviously going to be expensive to deliver that, that amount of gas. One of the things I was going to say it was like clearly, not clearly, but it would appear that a diverse array of energy sources would be a wise thing to do. So we now have all of our eggs in one basket Solar has its limitations. Wind has its limitations, etc. Coal has its limitation has its limitations and gas has its limitations as you were saying there’s so like, a sort of array of all of these solutions that would get us towards Net Zero. Yep. would seem like a good idea. So hydro might be a good part of that.

Josh Stabler  1:10:21

Or we should definitely have every single piece of the puzzle that we can get, then the question I think has been slipping in regarding the Niccolo answer. The problem with the nuclear answer is there’s no way we’re getting a nuclear facility in, in Australia. 15 years. Yeah. So even even, you know, we can even have the conversation just so long as the conversation isn’t, we should spend more time talking about Nikola the, the the reality is, if somebody wants to go and do that, yeah, change the law, and then have somebody go and pay the money and spend the 15 years getting it organised. Talking about it now, and with it never been within, you know, not five election cycles away. That’s, that’s, that’s a long, long time. Now, and I guess that also leads to how quickly things have changed away from what we expected, our expectation of gas was that it was going to do nothing anymore, we were just going to have a little bit in Victoria, it’s expected to continue to decline every year, the gas storage two years ago, almost did nothing. The amount of gas that we should be expecting, you know, we, we ran near record levels during winter, but we ran an absolute record lows during spring. So that’s, you know, that’s like a 10 to one variation in terms of daily consumption between spring and winter. We’ve got this, it’s, it’s not just that we have a, an, a constant need is this we have this massive variations and our experts, the forecasts, then beforehand, were like, we’ll use 22 petajoules. And we ended up using 100. Like, we’re completely, we’re completely misreading how it’s going to occur, because things happen that we didn’t expect. And those unexpected things relied on certain technologies to solve it. Because you can’t ask solar to be brighter. You can’t ask wind to get more wind it, it can do everything it does, which it what it does, it does, it runs as hard as it possibly can. The problem with that part as possibly can is, is you can’t go more and go less solar conquer more can only carry less. Gas is already less, and it can do more. But our complication of that is that ends up costing money. Now that might be the cheapest money we could spent. Like that might have cost us a lot of money. And we managed to have no shortfalls. And we managed to keep society going on. And we had no other issues other than a whole lot of political noise around the outside of it. But in reality, we only had a small, very small marginal change in terms of people’s bills. And everything’s, you know, some people are bad, but you know, in general, we have worked our way through it. That cost us money. Yeah, could have been the cheapest option we had available, probably was the cheapest option we had available.

Gene Tunny  1:12:56

Right? I think we might have to.

Tim Hughes  1:12:59

It’s quite an it’s so good hearing your insights and your your from your experience, Josh. And, you know, we could go on and on.

Gene Tunny  1:13:11

I think we’ll have to have you back on again, Josh, because I need to digest. Yeah, this episode. And what’s what’s been said here, because there’s a lot of, there are many things to think about. And I mean, I’m starting to think oh, yeah, I mean, there could be some things that are really positive and make it easy. But then there are other things that are big challenges. And, and you mentioned how this is all uncoordinated. And yeah, I mean, it sounds to me like there’s a risk of some bad outcomes in the next decade or so potentially the non trivial probabilities of, of blackouts. And it just, I mean, I guess we will muddle through somehow. But could could be messy.

Tim Hughes  1:13:54

We seem to be doing remarkably well, like that. The figures you mentioned about reducing 40% In six years is is fantastic. Yep. And I was going to mention, of course, like, there’s a geographical advantage that we have in Australia, for instance, like with solar, like the other parts of the world. Yeah, they would love it doesn’t have, you know, I said so they might have different nuclear might be more viable for certain places, with all its, you know, issues that come with that too. But certainly as technology and this emerging technology, which is coming through very fast, you know, if they can get solar through to be doubly triply 10 times more effective, then it can make it more viable for different parts of the world. So it’s, it’s fascinating, where we’re going and it’s it’s amazing to move so fast. And I guess this transitional period that we’re in is really important that we not trip ourselves up. Yeah, on the way to net zero like, which, of course, you know, who wouldn’t want to be there? I certainly wanted to be there. But we want to get there with the lights on.

Josh Stabler  1:14:59

Yeah, we need to do it. with the least amount of, you know, this is an essential service. Yeah. And it, you know, society doesn’t function if this if this breaks and and transition will lose its lose its losers backing if it can’t keep the lights on. So it’s these are these are important parts. But it’s also I have one last point which is always very difficult to imagine the world different to the one you’re in. So right now we’re in a high market pricing, we’ve got all these danger, we’ve got all these conditions that are that are creating uncertainty where we are, but we have so much, you know, it can change so quickly in this space, we’ll just two years ago, we’re in 1/10 of the price. Yeah. And it can move very quickly against you in or not against you, but in very quickly into a different environment. And it you know, leaps of faith could leaps of technology change, or, you know, we could have, like, everything that’s basically happened in the last couple of years has been supply side failure, it’s just been everything that happened just happened to be on the supply side, we didn’t have a smelter go down. We didn’t have customers do large scale production, because they got their meeting, you know it the spot price was high. But domestically, they’re probably making pretty good positions that are able to pass on these costs. That’s why we’ve got such high inflation, these things are happening, which is allowing people to survive. But if these if we suddenly got lucky on the supply side, and things started getting better, and some things just started getting lucky, you know, we could really move that back away, and then we could leave the international space where it is solve our domestic scarcity issue. And then it won’t be Ukraine that’s holding us up, we were in, we’re in a we can return back to a a more settled environment, which is a little bit like the US us as far as you could your gas, because they are separated for physically separated and the ability to export more is not there. If we suddenly solve some of these problems, we can really pull back, we don’t use other gas for electricity, and that won’t set the price. And therefore we can see it dropping back down if we see some of these problems get resolved. So it’s just a, you know, it’s easy to be stuck in it and to feel the you know, the shadows, the darkness of the shadows in the times when they’re in there. But it’s also you can move past that and you know, we’re definitely at 40% down in emissions, we are on the right path and once we start bringing EVs that’s 54% of the emissions in two sectors, and if we can bring them down to full 4% That’s a long way in terms of where we want to go.

Tim Hughes  1:17:31

Well, I was gonna say I mean, because the way this is driven by the market is, is giving it is decentralising in its effective, like, yeah, if you’ve got rooftop solar, and ultimately you can be self sufficient. The consumers have more autonomy and, and that collectively around the world will make a massive difference. And so it’s, it’s a good direction, it appears, you know, like, I mean, who wouldn’t be happy with that, because you’re not going to have the bigger issues with those outages, you know, it’s going to be more of a localised

Josh Stabler  1:18:04

issue, and a 5% fault is 5% of a million, which makes it 50,000. It’s, it’s not 5% of 20. When you start becoming actually 5% means it’s probably those two, all which is probably the 1% of the time is four off, it’s like when it’s a million, it’s always the same, it’s you know, it’s distributed, the the law of large numbers kicks in, and it’s just 5% Haircut across all the time, on everything, as opposed to occasionally being a very large number, which is what we’ve had very large numbers of times where we’ve had coal fail at the same time as coal fail, same time with gas fail and the, in the in the misalignment of a couple of bad things at the same time, because they’re large, ends up creating large impacts. Lots of little ones and it all disappears.

Gene Tunny  1:18:54

Okay, Josh table, it’s been fascinating. Thanks so much for your time and for your insights have really appreciated that. And once we digest this and think about some more, I’m gonna have to chat with you again, since it’s been terrific. Thank you. Thanks, Josh. Thank you. Okay, so what are the big takeaways from our conversation with Josh? My first takeaway is that the transition to net zero will probably be a bumpy ride. I love the way that Josh described it. To quote Josh, the complication of transition is that it is by default, disorderly. my conversation with Josh confirmed my fear that we could end up with unreliable electricity in coming years. I’m still very concerned, we will have to start expecting the occasional blackout as we bring more renewable energy into the system. My second takeaway from the conversation is that the energy solutions of the future may not be obvious to us at the moment. We need to allow innovation and we need the right incentives in place. EVS could be a big part of the transition path in the conversation with jasha was blown away by the idea of self driving EVs returning home or going to other people’s homes to fill their batteries during the day after they drop us off at work. That’s just incredible. Okay, before I leave, I should note that the Australian Government legislated a highly interventionist energy market package earlier this week, I recorded this conversation with Josh last week when we only had an outline of what could be included in that package. I’ll aim to have a closer look at the specifics of the package in a future episode. Thanks for listening. 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 contact at economics explore.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

Chokepoint Capitalism w/ Rebecca Giblin – EP169

Corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Live Nation are allegedly taking advantage of chokepoints in the economy, earning excessive profits. That’s the thesis of a new book, Chokepoint Capitalism: how big tech and big content captured creative labour markets, and how we’ll win them back. The authors are Uni. of Melbourne Law Professor Rebecca Giblin and writer and activist Cory Doctorow. Show host Gene Tunny speaks with Prof. Giblin about Chokepoint Capitalism in this episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Rebecca Giblin

Rebecca Giblin is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor at Melbourne Law School, and the Director of the Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia. Her work sits at the intersection of law and culture, focusing on creators’ rights, access to knowledge and culture, technology regulation and copyright. Using quantitative, qualitative, doctrinal and comparative methods, she leads interdisciplinary teams with expertise across data science, cultural economics, literary sociology, information research and law to better understand how law impacts the creation and dissemination of creative works.

You can follow Rebecca on Twitter: 

https://twitter.com/rgibli

Links relevant to the conversation

Where you can buy Chokepoint Capitalism:

https://amzn.to/3HohDFV

Website about the book:

https://chokepointcapitalism.com/

Transcript: Chokepoint Capitalism w/ Rebecca Giblin – EP169

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Rebecca Giblin  00:03

We’re sharing less and less in the value that’s that’s created by our work. And that’s happening because we’ve got these increasingly powerful corporations, creating choke points that allow them to extract more than their fair share.

Gene Tunny  00:18

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane Australia. This is episode 169 on choke point capitalism. That’s the name of the new book from University of Melbourne law professor Rebecca Giblin and from writer and activist Cory Doctorow. Professor Giblin joins me this episode to discuss the book. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Rebecca I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right now. It’s my conversation with Rebecca Giblin on a new book with Cory Doctorow chokepoint capitalism, thanks to the publisher scribe for sending me a copy of the book. And finally, thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Rebecca Gibson, welcome to the programme. 

Rebecca Giblin  01:00

Hi, Gene. 

Gene Tunny  01:01

Yes, good to have you on Rebecca keen to chat with you about your new book, Choke Point Capitalism: how big tech and big content captured creative labour markets and how we’ll win them back. So to begin with, Rebecca, could you explain what’s the meaning of a choke point? And why do you think capitalism can be labelled in this way? Or there’s a form of capitalism that is chokepoint capitalism?

Rebecca Giblin  01:40

Well, competition is supposed to be fundamental to capitalism. It is supposedly about the free exchange of goods and services. But you have this new orthodoxy that’s come out in the last 30 or 40 years. When you have Peter Thiel say competition is for losers. You have Warren Buffett salivating over companies that have what he calls wide, sustainable moats, which are barriers to competition that stop that, you know, lock in customers and lock in suppliers, and stop that free exchange. And once and this is now the orthodoxy that’s been taught in business schools, people are told that if you want to make a fortune, you don’t make something, don’t provide a service, but find a way to scrape off the value of other people’s labour. And these are the choke points. So it’s where you manage to lock people in. So you lock in customers, you lock in suppliers, you use, the power you get from that. And those increased margins you get from that to do a scorched earth approach where anybody in your kill zone gets eliminated so that there are fewer and fewer choices for those locked in customers and suppliers. And then ultimately, you shake everybody down for more than your fair share. And we see these choke pointed markets in throughout the culture industries in particular, that’s what we talk about in the book to demonstrate this problem. But they’re everywhere. We’ve started seeing the term getting used in the context of all different kinds of businesses. We’ve had people talking about on social media emailing us to tell us about it. One of the more interesting ones and somebody saying this is exactly what’s happening in the global ornamental plant industry is a big plant is a problem as well.

Gene Tunny  03:28

Ornamental what? Sorry?

Rebecca Giblin  03:30

Plants, Yes. Yeah, it’s a big problem in the plant market, we discovered. And, and what we’re really trying to demonstrate here is the danger of this. And the reason why so many of us are feeling squeezed right now. It’s not our imaginations, it’s that we are being and that we need to become really aware of it if we want to change the material conditions in which we live and work.

Gene Tunny  03:54

Okay, so by many of us, are you talking about creative professionals?

Rebecca Giblin  03:59

But it goes much beyond that as well. If you’re working, or if you’re a supplier to Coles and Woollies, for example, you are dealing with a similar kind of buyer power as what we talked about in the book. And so let me mention this. This book, we talk about monopoly a bit, which is, you know, we’re all familiar with that concept, because we got a board game for that one. It’s where you’ve got a seller, that’s really powerful. So Amazon, for example, is a really powerful seller. And its relationship with consumers because it controls so many consumer markets, including the market for books, but it’s also an incredibly powerful buyer. So if you’re a publisher or an author, you you you need to go through Amazon to reach those customers. And so it’s, it’s it’s got monopsony power as well, which is where you’ve got a powerful buyer. So if you’re a supplier to Coles and Woollies, you’re dealing with people. I have to say this word monopsony, it does turn a lot of people off. It did appear a lot more often in the book in the first draft and people begged us to take it out, but we do think we can make it sexy. Technically what we’re talking about here is oligopoly, which is probably even worse, which is where you’ve got a couple of very powerful buyers. But I’m going to use monopsony just for simplicity. But that’s what you’re dealing with if you’re a supplier to Coles and Woollies, in Australia or so many other companies that have increasingly come to control their markets. And the reason why we’ve got this increased corporate concentration throughout the world is largely due to the emergence of what we call Chicago School of Economics reasoning, this, it gets a little bit wonky at this point, but this consumer welfare theory, that suggests that we should only be concerned about corporate concentration, not just because it exists, but where it has the effect of, of harming consumer welfare, which is often treated as just looking at the prices people pay. There’s many problems with that standard. And we’ve seen them the consequences of that really starting to play out now. But one of the consequences is that it really ignores the fact that when you’ve got a powerful buyer, right, it may be that the prices that the consumer pays are not affected. But that buyer has its hand in the pockets of its workers and its suppliers. And you’re it’s a little bit of a stage magic, sleight of hand misdirection where you’re looking over there at the Consumer Price, and not noticing that you’ve got somebody picking your pocket on the other. And we think I mean, it’s exactly the same end result. If you’re if you’re having downward pressure on your wages, the salary that you bring, bring in the what you get paid for your goods and your services, it has the exact same end result as higher prices at the checkout, which is that you’ve got less and less capacity to pay for what you need. And what we’re really seeing now in the current environment. And a lot of these prices, we are seeing big price increases at the checkout. And partly those are inflationary pressures. But we are seeing as well, there’s a lot of evidence of companies, these powerful concentrated industries, hiking up their profit margins and using inflation as an excuse for that. So we’re seeing higher prices at one end, and also these companies having their hands in our pockets at the other. And so it’s no wonder that everybody’s feeling squeezed.

Gene Tunny  07:30

Right. Okay, so you mentioned a few things there. You talked about antitrust, and I’ve chatted with Danielle Wood from Gratton about this, this issue of you know, there was this consumer welfare standard. And that meant that there may be, there wasn’t as much antitrust enforcement. But now there’s been a change, you’ve mentioned, is it Lina Khan in the States? So there’s more of a, a willingness to look at antitrust as a tool. And can we, Rebecca can ask about what mean, what companies you’re talking about? I mean, are you talking, you mentioned. Well, it’s could, though, there could be companies in the sort of more traditional economy, but it’s, is it mainly big tech? Are they these are the companies that are exhibiting the characteristics of being a choke point, capitalist, what are some of these companies?

Rebecca Giblin  08:23

Okay, so the ones that we talk about in the context of the creative industries, they go all the way through the chain. So if we think about just music to begin with, musician has to deal with the big three record labels, who control almost 70% of global recorded music rights. They own the big three records, the big three music publishers, which control almost 60% of global song rights, they structure the deals in ways that benefit their executives and shareholders, and work to the detriment of these creative workers. Then the streaming industry, which is where most of the increasingly most of the money from recorded music is generated, the streaming we lots of people know that music streaming really doesn’t pay very well. But fewer people are aware that the reason that works, the way that it does is because this is the way those big three record labels, arranged things, the streaming platforms had to have to go through those records, those record companies in order to get permission to play the songs. And in order to clear those rights, they have to enter into these deals that again, favour those record labels, again, to the detriment of the artists, and that give those those those major labels who should be far less relevant and indeed are far less relevant today than they were 30 or 40 years ago because they no longer control all of the avenues to distribution, but because they’ve got these huge reservoirs of copyrights that they’ve acquired often through buying up distressed companies very, very cheaply, that’s given them outsized power to control the future of music. And so you can see that those, the copyrights themselves create a choke point, at one point, the incredible complexity of the licencing systems that we have in music, create other choke points, because it is only Spotify and the big tech music offerings that can afford to go through the, you know, these hoops to pay that what’s demanded by the record labels and also to comply with these complex regulatory rules and that keeps lots of other companies that that could be started by people who love music and want to support artists and passionately believe in alternative ways of getting music out there. It stops them from being able to start up any kind of meaningful competition. And then if you look, and you say, Well, that’s all right, people don’t really need to make money from recorded music. No one’s really made money from recorded music except a few outliers. People make money from touring. Well, then we start looking at Live Nation, which is the behemoth in that space. It controls nearly all of the world’s largest and most prestigious music venues. It also has a music management and promotion business. And it bought Ticketmaster a few years ago to, you know, in the face of many, many warnings that what has happened would happen, the Department of Justice in the United States still permitted this merger to go ahead. Now, just think about this for a moment. Imagine you are a company. So you’re a music venue, right? And you want to book acts, you will have Live Nation tell you well, if you don’t use us for your ticketing, you won’t be able to book our biggest acts that we control through our management, business and promotion business, or, or any other kind of incredible threat that they’ve made. In the book, we talk about this we are in, we looked in an incredible range of creative industries in our research for this book. And we always gave people the opportunity to be synonymous or anonymous if they wanted to. And I think nobody took us up on that. Even when they were talking about these other really big, really scary giants like Amazon, who’s also known for not playing fair, except the people we spoke to about Live Nation. Almost all of those said that they could not be named. And they were really genuinely terrified about what kind of retribution could come if it got out that they’d spoken to us about this company. But it has a voyeurs, voyeurs view at the businesses of all of its competitors, right? If you’ve got to use Ticketmaster or if you’re a venue, or you face all of these other consequences, all of these other things that you miss out on. But that gives Ticketmaster the ability to see, well, okay, so which other acts that you are hosting are doing well, who are the artists that look like based on the ticket sales, they’re about to break out, and maybe Ticketmaster, Live Nation can jump in with its promotion and management business and snag up those acts. Now, even though they didn’t do the early investment, they can just sneak in and grab them now that they’re about to start making lots of money. And, you know, all kinds of other, you know, extraordinary advantages this gives them and we’re really seeing this play out at the moment with anyone who’s listening. Is there is there much crossover? Do you think Gene in the economics explained audience and the people who are big fans of Taylor Swift, and been waiting in a queue for days in order to get tickets to her concert? You have

Gene Tunny  13:47

Look, I have no idea. I mean, I quite like Taylor Swift. I wouldn’t line up for days to get tickets. But yeah, who knows? Tell me more.

Rebecca Giblin  13:55

Look, the Department of Justice is investigating again, they did do an investigation a couple of years ago that we talked about in the book, where a bunch of venues who all had to be assured of anonymity in order to speak, we’re talking about Live Nation’s mob tactics and ways in which it was using its power to crush other people’s businesses. It got a fine that was just really a slap on the wrist and told really sternly not to do it again. But in this kind of context of fine is a price. The Live Nation is quite happy to pay that kind of fine in, you know, in order to get to continue its predatory behaviour. It will only be stopped if there is sort of meaningful enforcement. And the DOJ hadn’t done anything since until this Taylor Swift controversy came up. And and and we are seeing now there’s going to be another investigation. So hopefully, there’ll be some kind of more meaningful enforcement here and what we really need to see is Ticket Master broken up. That’s one of the main domain remedies were there. antitrust breaches. You can have structural remedies, which is where you break a company up or conduct remedies, which is where you sort of get them to pinky swear they won’t do anything bad. Now, unfortunately, those remedies are not particularly easy to enforce. Right. It took literally decades to break up AT&T In the United States. I was it was a Bell. I think it was Bell before it became AT&T. So there’s so many, the Bell System we concentrated. Yeah, concentrated firms the sometimes I get mixed up. And it can be incredibly expensive and lasts for decades to take these actions and we don’t have decades. And the other problem with those antitrust remedies or competition law remedies is that they work even less well when you’re dealing with monopsony rather than monopoly for various reasons. And so what we argue for in the book is remedies that we know do work in response to monopsony power. And that’s things like encouraging new entrants into the market, directly regulating excessive buyer power by limiting what they can do and by taking measures to build countervailing power in workers and suppliers.

Gene Tunny  16:21

Okay, well, I want to come back to that that point about the monopsony you said, it’s harder for antitrust act on monopsony if you meant I think you said that I’d be interested in that if you can explain why or, and also the, I guess, I’d like to ask about, I mean, is this really so bad? I mean, you mentioned that it’s, it’s captured creative labour markets. I mean, okay, I’m, I’m against a lot of the surveillance capitalism. And I think you know, where to the extent there are choke points, and they’re really bad business practices, or they’re they are, they’re relying on some. Yeah, I guess it’s IP, they’re relying on these relationships they have and they’re, they’re preventing competition from, from coming into the market. Yeah, I can see the problem with Ticketmaster. At the same time, I mean, I think a lot of these platforms have enabled a lot of people to make a living out of content creation, haven’t they? I mean, if you look at YouTube, and you look at all the podcasting platforms, I mean, there are many more people that are able to, you know, quit their jobs and become full time content creators, aren’t there. So, I mean, is there a risk that we, we, we undermine this system that has actually created a lot of benefits? I mean, how do you see it, Rebecca?

Rebecca Giblin  17:48

Let me answer that second part. The second part first, I think we are constantly being sold the idea that we can’t have the good things without the bad things, right. So Amazon is constantly telling us that we can’t have a good search engine without surveillance. But we can have a great search engine without surveillance. Google didn’t surveil us for the first several years of its existence, right. And it was a terrific search engine. We, with the access to digital technologies and the Internet, we absolutely can have global virtually instantaneous gloop at virtually costless, like zero marginal cost of distribution, supply of many kinds of creative work. So we’ve got this potential for the good things anyway, what we don’t have to have is the bad parts, the lock ins, right, these strategies that are used to create these hourglass shaped markets, so that you’ve got audiences at one end, and creators, the other and these predatory companies squatting at the NEC, were they using that power that they’ve artificially created by locking everybody in to extract more than their fair share? So that’s what I say in response to that. And getting, I’m so glad you asked me more about monopsony. Most people run away screaming from that pot. So some of the reasons suddenly tell you a couple of things about it. One reason why monopsony is so dangerous is that it accrues at far lower market concentrations than monopoly power does. So you know, when monopsony when when when a buyer controls even eight or 10% of the market, that already gives it quite outsized power over its suppliers. And that says that’s assuming that there’s no alternative buyer for that. And we saw that when Amazon started out one of its one of its as soon as it got power over the physical book market. It started exerting that to try and squeeze margin out of everybody else. And, you know, this is a famous Bezos aphorism. Your margin is my opportunity. He’s very clear about what he’s trying to do. But sometimes when you look at how the sausage gets made, it can be a little bit frightening. They created something called the gazelle project, which is exactly what it sounds like the way that a cheetah cuts out the weakest Gazelle from the herd, they went after the smaller and more vulnerable publishers to squeeze margin from them. One of them was Melville House, who lots of people have read books from. And the publisher they resisted, he said, look, if you I cannot, we cannot afford to give you what you’re asking for our business won’t be sustainable on that basis, we just won’t do it. And Amazon instantly retaliated by removing the buy buttons for all the Melville House books on its platform. Okay and now at that, at that time, I think Amazon only controlled about 8% of the market for those books. But nonetheless, Melville House was forced to instantly get virtually instantly given because without that, that eight or 10% of sales, it was just no longer sustainable. And so if you look at how much power Amazon had, when it had such a small market share relative to what it has got now, you can see how dangerous that’s become. And then if we look at other industries, in so many of them, you’ve only got, you know, one or two or three buyers that are available. And coincidentally, they often seem to have very, very similar policies and very, very similar abuses. And this is what this is what puts them in that position where they can extract so much from the people that they’re dealing with. Yeah, the other. The other thing about monopsony that I think is relevant here to why the remedies are not particularly effective, is that there’s real concern that when you regulate a powerful buyer, that maybe the reason why it’s so powerful is because it’s very efficient. And this is what Amazon argues it argues that it has this highly efficient structure, that it has these lower costs, which leads to attracts customers, which then attracts suppliers. And then there’s a better customer experience, which brings more in and sort of feeds this loop which Amazon calls its virtuous cycle, right. But what we see when we look at Amazon, and my co author, Cory Doctorow just did a terrific thread, or blog post on his pluralistic website about this a day or two ago, is Amazon increasingly is a shitty place to buy from, because most of it has been taken up by advertising. People, people know that Google and Facebook have big online advertising businesses, but not many people know that Amazon is a close third now. It shakes down the people that sell on it. For placement fees, and for the right to be shown first and for the right to be earlier in the search listings. And that means that you know, rather than getting the best search experience, the best customer experience, you’re just being inundated with ads all the time. They’re making billions upon billions of dollars from this. So the evidence is that in practice, it’s probably not from efficiency, but regulators are concerned that they might not be able to tell the difference. And that makes them hesitant, even more hesitant to intervene in cases of monopsony than monopoly.

Gene Tunny  23:24

And Rebecca, how do you respond to the argument that these companies are simply being rewarded for the innovation, they’re being compensated for the innovation, that they’ve undertaken to deliver new services to consumers, because a lot of these platforms are delivering value or consumer surplus to a lot of consumers. And, you know, providing opportunities for content creators. I’m just wondering how you respond to that argument, because as economists, I mean, we’re very much a lot of economists are sympathetic to that Schumpeterian idea of creative destruction, that wherever there are these, you know, the opportunities for profits that encourages innovation. And I mean, who knows? I mean, will these companies survive? Or will there be new innovative innovators who take over?

Rebecca Giblin  24:10

Let’s see, that’s the thing. This is another thing that we’re constantly being sold this idea, but look at Google, how much innovation does it actually manage? Alright, it made a great search engine, and a pretty good Hotmail clone, right? And nearly everything else that it’s ever provided that’s had any kind of success. It’s bought from other people who did actually innovate with its monopoly profits that it’s making on from these choke points. Right. And so, you know, Google tried really hard, and we talked about it in the book to create a Google video service, right? Absolutely failed with all of its resources and all of its smart people it could not, it’s almost ludicrous, how hard and how many ways it failed on that. And so it had to buy YouTube, right, which scrappy people above a pizza shop where they were actually doing innovation. And we see this time and time and time again, you know Facebook came to control the messaging market, and to control the way you communicate with your community and your family and your friends, not by innovating and creating the products that we want. But by buying up what’s happened Instagram for billions of dollars each when they had, you know, virtually no employees, because these tiny companies were the ones who actually doing the innovation, okay, so we don’t need not only do we not need these, these massive companies in their massive war chest to be innovating, they’re actually getting in the way of other people innovating. Because everybody knows what happens if you get in the kill zone, right? So it’s a risk, you either get bought up. And that’s like, that’s what many, many people are aiming to do. If they’re trying to innovate in this area, they know that the only exit is to get acquired by these companies, or crushed by them. And so it’s called the kill zone. And if you and venture capitalists know, we know that there is less VC investment in territories that are controlled by big tech and other powerful corporations, because of these kill zones. So Amazon, for example, burned, I think it was 200 million US dollars in a single month, undercutting and going directly up against diapers.com, in order to control the nappy market in the US. And that’s an extraordinary amount of money drove this innovative competitor absolutely under because it had access to these, these war chests from its monopoly profits and access to capital markets that this scrappy little innovator didn’t have. Now $200 million in a month to control the diaper market might sound like a lot of money. But it’s actually incredible value, because it didn’t just get rid of diapers.com it sent an incredibly clear signal to anyone else that was thinking of entering any space that Amazon has marked that you will be absolutely burnt out if you even attempt it.

Gene Tunny  27:04

Yeah, it’s a real gangster move, as they’d say, isn’t it? I mean, really?

Rebecca Giblin  27:08

Yeah, they would say no, no, it’s just it’s just it’s good, hard. It’s good fair competition. But it’s not is it? Right. And all of that. There’s extensive research on this, we see that there’s less investment, less innovation in areas where you’ve got choke points.

Gene Tunny  27:26

Okay. Rebecca, I think I should have booked you for longer. There’s been fascinating, and I’m enjoying the conversation. But yes, if, if there’s anything else? Yeah, I’d love to if you had any final points, you know, feel free to make them otherwise. We might have to, we can wrap up. And yeah, I’ll, I’ll try and connect with you sometime in the future. Because I’m sure there’ll be a lot of discussion about your book and this debate will continue on into the future.

Rebecca Giblin  27:55

Yeah, I guess the final thing I would say just to sort of sum up the ultimate message is that you know, creators, but also the rest of us are getting choked, that we’re sharing less and less than the value that’s that’s created by our work. And that’s happening because we’ve got these increasingly powerful corporations, creating choke points that allow them to extract more than their fair share. But we don’t have to put up with it. There’s lots of things that we can do to widen these choke points out once we see them for what they are.

Gene Tunny  28:25

Okay. Rebecca Giblin. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much.

Female speaker  28:33

If you need to crunch the numbers, then get in touch with Adept Economics. We offer you Frank and fearless economic analysis and advice. We can help you with funding submissions, cost benefit analysis studies, and economic modelling of all sorts. Our head office is in Brisbane, Australia, but we work all over the world. You can get in touch via our website, http://www.adepteconomics.com.au. We’d love to hear from you.

Gene Tunny  29:03

Okay, I hope you enjoyed that conversation I had with Rebecca. Overall, I think Choke Point Capitalism is a book worth reading, although I disagree with some of its assertions. Regrettably, I didn’t book Rebecca Long enough to ask her all the questions that occurred to me from reading the book, so I’ll aim to get her back on the show next year for another conversation. The book includes many compelling examples of dubious business practices by big companies. So I must admit I am somewhat sympathetic to the choke point capitalism thesis. And if you’re a regular listener, you will know that I’ve covered surveillance capitalism and problems with big tech in the past. There does appear to be scope for some antitrust action against some of the badly behaved big tech companies for sure. That said, one reservation that I have about the book is that it appears to have a wider ambition than simply acting against the market abuses of big tech. In parts, it reads like a polemic against capitalism in general. For instance, the book concludes, we’ve organised our societies to make rich people richer at everyone else’s expense. I think that sweeping statement goes too far. Like some other popular economics books I’ve read in recent years, choke point capitalism adopts to negative view of our economic system. Capitalism, after all, has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty in recent decades. And it has fostered a bewildering array of innovative new services that have benefited billions of people. And we still have progressive tax systems in which the wealthy generally pay much more tax than the less wealthy. Of course, many wealthy people avoid paying tax I know. But I think it’s broadly true that we still have a highly progressive tax system, at least in Australia and European countries, possibly less so in the US. Okay. Despite some reservations, I’d still recommend the book for its vivid examples of so called choke point capitalism. The book makes a useful and stimulating contribution to the important debate over the regulation of big tech. So I’ve included a link to the Amazon page for the book in the show notes, so please consider buying a copy. Thank you. 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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

Understandable Economics w/ Howard Yaruss, NYU – EP168

In his new book, Understandable Economics, Howard Yaruss from NYU argues “Understanding Our Economy Is Easier Than You Think and More Important Than You Know.” Howard is an Adjunct Instructor in economics and business at NYU. Previously, he was Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Radian Group, a mortgage insurance company. Howard lives in Manhattan and serves on his local community board. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Where you can buy Understandable Economics:

https://amzn.to/3VCsxMV

Howard Yaruss’s website:

https://howardyaruss.com/

EP159 with Romina Boccia from the Cato Institute on the future U.S. fiscal crisis:

https://economicsexplored.com/2022/10/03/the-future-us-fiscal-crisis-and-how-to-avert-it-w-romina-boccia-cato-institute-ep159/

Transcript: Understandable Economics w/ Howard Yaruss, NYU – EP168

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Howard Yaruss  00:03

I saw reason survey that the majority of young people don’t trust capitalism. That’s a catastrophe as far as I’m concerned. And I think what we need to do is give them a reason to have more faith in the system that has created more wealth than any system in the history of humankind.

Gene Tunny  00:23

Welcome to the Economics Cxplored podcast a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 168. It’s on a new book I’ve been reading called Understandable Economics, because understanding our economy is easier than you think and more important than you know, the author is Howard Yaruss, and he joins me to talk about his new book this episode. Howard is an adjunct instructor in economics in business at NYU. Previously, he was Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Radian Group, a mortgage insurance company. Howard lives in Manhattan, and he serves on his local community board. I’m grateful he came onto the show to share his thoughts on how a proper understanding of economics can help people argue for better public policies. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and information and the details of how you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Howard or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right now from my conversation with Howard Yaruss on understandable economics. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Howard Yaruss, welcome to the programme.

Howard Yaruss  01:38

Thank you, Gene. It’s great to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:40

Excellent. Good to be chatting with you. Howard, I’m keen to chat with you about your new book, Understanding economics, because understanding our economy is easier than you think. And more important than you know. So how would I like to ask you? Why do you think that understanding our economy is easier than you think? Can we begin with that, please?

Howard Yaruss  02:10

Yes, I think a lot of people are intimidated by economics. Virtually anyone who’s taking a course, taking a course in economics, has been confronted with a bewildering array of formulas, graphs, jargon, those of the people who’ve taken a course the people who haven’t taken a course, understandably, don’t know much don’t know much about it at all. So I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about economics, but what is economics about? It’s about how society allocates scarce resources. And that’s not a science, like physics or biology, you could just plug some numbers into a formula and get an answer. There are value judgments involved in how we allocate our resources. Our resources involves value judgments. And so it’s, it’s a different type of discipline than a bit different from what most people think it is. And I think what it really is how human beings interact, is easier to understand than the typical economics course, leads people to believe.

Gene Tunny  03:18

Right? What do you think is wrong with a typical economics course, Howard.

Howard Yaruss  03:22

That they begin with a whole bunch of formulas and jargon and graphs. And what we’re talking about is human behaviour. It’s like if you went to a psychiatrist, and they said, Let me plug everything into my formula. The world just doesn’t work that way. There’s, as I as I say, in the book, there’s a reason why a downturn in the economy a severe downturn in the economy, is has the same word is called by the same word as a severe downturn, a psychological downturn for human being or depression. These are psychological phenomenon, they quickly have real world consequences. But again, you can test the industrial capacity of a country right before, lets say, something we’re more accustomed to a recession rather than depression. Fortunately, we’ve had very few depressions, you can test the industrial capacity of a country right before a recession starts. And right after it’s the same, you can test the skill level of the workers right before a recession begins. And right after it’s the same, what’s changed? Outlook. It’s an infectious gloom that takes over. So I think understanding economics requires thinking about human behaviour. And it’s somewhat different from what’s often taught in economics courses.

Gene Tunny  04:43

Rod, okay, we might delve into that a bit later. The other part of your the subtitle is it’s it’s more important than you think. Why do you think that is the case are more important than, you know? Understanding economics

Howard Yaruss  05:00

I was going to rewrite that part of the title, I’d say much more important than, you know, simply because people are told all sorts of things by politicians who have self-serving motives for making certain claims. And I think, because most people don’t take a course in economics, and those who do are, again, faced with a bewildering array of graphs and formulas, so they don’t really get a sense of it. I think people can easily be misled by claims of politicians and other people who have motives to support a particular policy that they want to see enacted. I think it’s essential for people to understand how the economy works a bit better, so that they cannot be as easily fooled, and so that they would support better policies that would make our economy better and more productive.

Gene Tunny  05:53

Okay. So what do you think they’re being fooled about Howard?

Howard Yaruss  05:57

Well I can give you a few examples, this one went off the top of my head. There are a lot of politicians in the US who claimed for years that giving tax cuts to wealthy individuals would increase employment and improve the economy. And if you think about it, why does a business expand not because there are more investors with money, it’s because they’re more consumers wanting to buy their product or service. So if you put more money into the pockets of middle and lower income people, they’re going to spend on goods and services, and businesses are going to be forced to expand and hire new workers to produce those goods and services. If you merely give it to wealthy people who tend not to spend as much of their money, they have a lower propensity to consume, the businesses are not going to expand because they don’t have the additional demand for their product. So that’s an example of something that’s that’s said, by politicians that often misleads people. And it’s not something you need complicated formulas, or very, very specific kind of knowledge to figure that out. You just have to not be intimidated and use your good common sense.

Gene Tunny  07:14

Yeah. Okay. Now, you’re saying that you think there are some issues with the way economics is typically presented? Is it just not presented in in an intuitive enough fashion? Because when I read your book, I saw a lot of good economics in there. I don’t, I just want to, I just want to understand where you’re coming from with this book. Is it that you’re you’re not saying that a lot of economics is bad, it’s just not well presented? What’s your actual position here? How could I ask you that, Please?

Howard Yaruss  07:49

I think you said it very well. It’s not taught very well. First of all, let’s start at the beginning. Most people, at least in the United States, don’t learn economics, it’s not required in secondary school here. What is required is trigonometry. Which to me seems to use a technical term crazy. And I have a lot of respect for math, I was a math major. So the fact that we require something like trigonometry, and don’t require economics is shocking, to say the least, when it is taken at the college level, it there are all these assumptions made perfect information, everyone’s rational 100% of the time, and the real world doesn’t work that way. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is a fairly affluent neighbourhood, about 40% of the retail spaces are empty. Many retail spaces have been empty for decades, that, according to economist shouldn’t, just shouldn’t be. Why why are people greedy? We always assume landlords are greedy. Why? Why are greedy landlords seeking zero income? There’s a disconnect there. And I think a lot of people are confused by this phenomenon. And the answer is that the real world doesn’t work perfectly. According to these models with all of these assumptions, I know economic the economics profession, is trying to there’s behavioural economics now. But the point is, people people, it’s people should be able to make some of these judgments on their own, they should be able to understand some of this on their own, because if they, if they don’t, they can easily be manipulated or misled by people who have ulterior motives.

Gene Tunny  09:33

Right. Okay. Now, I saw in your conclusion that originally this book was titled, economics for activists it was its focus was the people who were troubled by our economic system, yet optimistic enough to engage in activism in the belief that change was not only possible, but also that they could play a role in making it happen. Okay, what sort of activists are you talking about here? Howard, are we talking About the Occupy Wall Street? Are we talking about, I mean, who exactly is this pitch at, this book?

Howard Yaruss  10:08

oh, all activists and what and what I had in mind is people who are fed up with the current system and those include Occupy Wall Street, the Donald Trump voters, the Tea Party, and I know Australia has has their equivalent of these groups, there are a lot of people frustrated with the way our economy is going I call it the winner take all economy in the book, that the people who are doing well are doing better than ever, and the people who are not doing well are stagnating at best. And these kinds of actions is exactly what I’m talking about. What happened to Occupy Wall Street, Donald Trump, the Tea Party, they haven’t made life better for anyone. And my hope is that by understanding how the economy works, people would support more constructive policies that would make life better. What originally was he title of the book was understandable economics, because you can’t improve a system you don’t understand. If people don’t understand something, they can’t work to improve it, or if they try working to improve it, if they become an activist that their efforts may be for not. So the goal is to arm readers with the tools to understand what in fact, would improve the economy. And what on the other hand is a false medicine, is a false cure for the economic ills we are suffering.

Gene Tunny  11:30

Okay. Can I ask you about the fact that you grouped tea party with Occupy Wall Street? So is it your view that they’re both coming from the same frustration that and but they’re both got different, those two groups have different prescriptions or different recommendations. I mean, they’re both after different things, aren’t they? But are you saying they’re both motivated by the same? The same concerns?

Howard Yaruss  12:02

Why is it said there are some similarities between the two groups and some differences? What are the similarities, they’re frustrated with our current system, they both clearly have that in common. And at the risk of sounding cynical, they both didn’t achieve very much. I think what they were different is Occupy Wall Street had a specific flaw in that they did not recognise that it’s the political system, that effects change. That’s the system we live in. Unless there’s a revolution and there hasn’t been one. That’s the system we live in. So they were particularly ineffective in that they did not have a mechanism for getting people who had views similar to theirs into the legislature to effect change. They basically shot themselves in the foot by not doing that. On the other hand, the Tea Party was extremely successful, getting people into the legislature, the problem is just cutting the government without giving thought to what is the government what the government does is use, what useful things the government does. And what non useful things the government does is not really helpful to the average person either. The point I make in the book is how I use highways as an analogy. Cars are great for getting people from one place to another. But if there were no rules on the highway, people could drive on either whatever side they wanted, if eight year olds could drive, drunk drivers could drive, if there were no speed limits, and people could do whatever they wanted on the road, the road would not work. There have to be clear rules. Obviously, rules that are overly burdensome, shouldn’t be there. But the highway just cannot function without rules. It’s the same thing with a market economy. If there aren’t clear rules, it can function.

Gene Tunny  13:54

Yeah, yeah. Can I ask you about this, this point you made before that, to be able to affect change, and to be able to, to really participate? You need to understand how the economy works. What do you think of the key principles? Do you set this out in your book? Could you What do you think are the big things that we should understand in terms of how the economy works?

Howard Yaruss  14:23

I read a survey and it was an international survey so I’m sure it included Australia, of economic students, and they asked them where new money came from, and the majority couldn’t answer it. How could you talk about resources or equality and not know where money comes from? Again, if you want to improve a system, you have to have some understanding of it. So I think what I tried to do in the book is give some foundational knowledge about how the economy works, how trade works, how the central bank in the United States, the Federal Reserve System, affects the economy and how they create new money. So people have a basic understanding of the foundational components of the economy. And then I talk about different aspects of the economy. And I hope readers reach their own conclusion as to what makes sense, but at least they do it in an informed and intelligent way. As opposed to, we’re talking about the people who supported Donald Trump or Occupy Wall Street, they’re expressing their frustration, but they’re not pointing people in the direction of something that would improve the lives of the average life for the average person.

Gene Tunny  15:40

I think it’d be good how, if you give a just a rundown of how you explain that, or just take us through that, that where money comes from, I think that would be really useful. I’d recommend. If you’re listening in the audience, I would recommend this book, I think there’s a lot of really good stuff in there. And I really loved your chapter on trade. I loved your chapter on industry policy, your, your criticism of the bailouts, and maybe we can chat about that later. But to start with, if you can explain, Well, how do you how do you explain to people where money comes from, I think that would be really useful?

Howard Yaruss  16:20

Yes, well, I have the quote in the book, that all money, all new money is loaned into existence. And again, the average economics student didn’t know that. And in the book, I tried, I tried in the book to make it very user friendly. To write with a sort of basic style, it’s supposed to read like, readable narrative nonfiction, but how money is loaned into existence is, as you know, is not the easiest thing to explain. Basically, when a bank lends money to someone, they’re not grabbing the cash from someone’s account, this is not like, I have to make a very contemporary joke. FTX, they take people’s cryptocurrency and do with it what they want, the bank merely creates new money, it’s totally created brand new money. That’s what a licenced bank does, in virtually every country in the world. So that’s how new money is created, it’s created through bank lending. And the money can go away, when the when the loan is repaid, it disappears. So it’s how critical it is to understand that I’m not sure what people’s particular frustrations are or what their particular interests are. But to understand where money comes from and how it’s created, it’s basically important to anyone who wants to get more involved in these kinds of issues, to understand them better. And ideally, to have an impact on policy, you have to understand the basics before you can go ahead and get involved in, in assessing policy.

Gene Tunny  17:59

Right, okay. And it’s certainly important for macro economic policy we’ve had, because of how our monetary policy has pushed down borrowing costs, and then there’s been a huge explosion in credit for housing here in Australia. And that’s pushed up property prices and and that’s also help keep the boom going. We’ve had this incredible post COVID Boom, that I think will probably end.

Howard Yaruss  18:28

We’ve had this here too. I think the whole developed world is having inflation, eight, nine 10%. It’s an important issue for people understand, I also talked in the book about hyperinflation. Inflation is a problem, clearly a problem that needs to be dealt with. But it’s not a civilization ending kind of problem like hyperinflation, hyperinflation almost always results in nation collapse and death, which is fundamentally different from just eight or 9%. Inflation. It’s, it’s again, it’s not a good thing. But people have to separate the two and, and they make it very, very clear point in the book that I don’t think there’s any advanced nations, certainly not the United States or Australia, that’s risking hyperinflation, which is a whole level, a problem on a whole nother level. We do have inflation, which is a problem, but it’s you need to separate it from the kind of hyperinflation inflation that for instance, brought us nuts, Nazi Germany.

Gene Tunny  19:25

And what do you say about the Fed? How do you say anything about their quantitative easing policies that they’ve had over the last decade and a half?

Howard Yaruss  19:35

Well, we see inflation. So I think that speaks a lot more loudly than anything I can say. If, if their policies were more effective, we wouldn’t be having inflation. So the suggestion is or the inference is that they were hit the accelerator a little too heavily. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure. And now they’re slamming on the brakes. A lot of people claim they may be slamming the brake too heavily, because there’s, as you know, there’s this very significant lag between them hitting the brakes and the car coming to a stop. And it’s very hard to know how hard to tap the brakes as the car slowing down, but it may not be slowing down enough. My own personal opinion is that we’re going to see a assuming, again, there’s so many assumptions here, that the war in Ukraine doesn’t doesn’t escalate, that the supply chains get sorted out that there isn’t another problem that arises on the horizon, we’ll probably see the effects of all the central banks, their attempt to rein in inflation to start having some success.

Gene Tunny  20:44

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

Female speaker  20:53

If you need to crunch the numbers, then get in touch with Adept Economics. We offer you Frank and fearless economic analysis and advice. We can help you with funding submissions, cost benefit analysis, studies, and economic modelling of all sorts. Our head office is in Brisbane, Australia, but we work all over the world, you can get in touch via our website, http://www.adepteconomics.com.au. We’d love to hear from you.

Gene Tunny  21:22

Now back to the show. Okay, can I ask you about what you see as the false solutions? I think you suggested before that economics helps us understand how the economy works, what sound policy responses would be. And then also, what are some of the dead ends to go down or false solutions? What would some of those be?

Howard Yaruss  21:49

Well, I already mentioned one in the tax cuts for the wealthy to spur the economy. We see in England that in a period of inflation, the government proposed tax cuts for the wealthy, which is just throwing more money out there, creating more inflation. So that’s definitely a false solution. I’m not sure what the problem was. But it’s definitely a bad policy idea. That seems to be in response to I don’t know what. So that’s one example of something in the United States, we’ve had a debate about Social Security, pensions for older people. And there’s always this talk of the government running out of money, Social Security going bankrupt. And as Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve System, once said, It can’t run out of money. The United States government can always create money. What it is, it’s a question of will and will not, it’s a question of politics and not economics. It’s a decision as to whether we, as a society wants to devote our resources to these things. And that takes us back to what we just discussing at the very beginning. It’s not like physics, where you plug certain variables into a formula and outcomes an answer. It’s a value judgement about how we, as a society want to use our resources. Do we want to help people in their old age and obviously tax workers to do that or not? And again, there’s no formula that will give you an objectively right answer on that. What, what we need to do is have people understand the trade off, and then make an informed decision as to what they want. And I want to give one example, I serve on my local community board here in New York City. And we talk about different projects, like a bathroom in a park, or an elevator in a subway station. And these all sound great, but then I look at the price of these things. And a bathroom in a park is $4 million to put in. To make one subway station handicap accessible, which involves in all fairness, putting in multiple elevators. Yeah, it’s $70 million. That seven, zero million. And so again, people need to be cognizant of these economic issues because it all comes down in that case to a cost benefit analysis. And all of these things are good, Social Security is good. But there is no formula that’s going to give you the right answer to that. Although I think even if there were a formula it would tell you the $4 million bathroom doesn’t make sense. But the point is, this is a value judgement. It’s something that people shouldn’t rely on economic experts because there’s no objectively right answer for that. It’s something that people have to get an understanding of how it works, and then apply their own values to that issue and make the decision for themselves.

Gene Tunny  24:55

Yeah, I think that’s, that’s right. This is one of the points I’ve been trying to make on this. show over the years as I’ve been, as I’ve been doing it is that, you know, we economists need to be honest or need to be. Yeah, we need to realise that there are in decision making value judgments come into play. And often the best thing economists can do is outline what are the trade offs and, and what we expect will happen. And then it’s up to any decision typically involves a value judgement. Yeah, I’m just saying, Yeah, essentially, I agree with you. I agree with you there with Social Security. I’ve had a guest on the show, Romina Boccia, she was at Cato I forget, I’ll put it in the show notes. I think it was Cato or Heritage. But she’s very concerned about Social Security. And look, if you project it out, and you don’t, it is going to add to the deficit. And, like, you can think about that two ways. And I guess that’s what you’re saying, it depends on your values, you could, if you, you could try and limit that spending, you could reduce the entitlement or constrain it. Or you could just raise taxes to address the deficit. And making that choice, to an extent, depends on values. But I think what economists should be saying is that if you do make the choice to fund the higher social security, then you need higher taxes, and there are efficiency costs associated with that. And I mean, that’s the way how I’d be trying to frame it. What what do you think about that, Howard?

Howard Yaruss  26:41

Well, it’s again, it’s a trade off, I think we, in a democracy, should decide how society uses resources. And we shouldn’t make the decision in that context. It’s running out of money, you need to cut it with your personal finances, you have a job, that’s an issue, it’s finite, with a nation, there are all sorts of trade offs that can be made. And people need to understand this is not a crisis situation. There’s in the United States, the $22 trillion of goods and services created every year. And if we are committed to certain programmes we have, we have the ability to support them. It’s it’s not something that there’s a finite amount of money there that can only be used, I will go back to the first President George Bush, when he was talking about education, which I think is the most important investment of society could make it to keep itself wealthy, and not only wealthy but happy and secure. Again, I’d make the point in the book, you could look at places like Congo, and Venezuela and to a large extent Russia, which have enormous resources, natural resources, and yet they’re relatively poor countries. And you could look at Germany or Switzerland or Israel, which really don’t have any or Japan or any resources, and they become quite wealthy. What’s the difference? Human capital. And so the original, the first President Bush said, with regard to education, we have the will to fund it, but not the wallet. Well, I think he had it totally backwards, we’re a very rich country. And it’s there’s the question of just allocation of resources, which is, again, something that I think people who haven’t studied economics don’t understand the concept of opportunity cost that, that you can have, if you if some, if you prioritise something enough, you can have it, but you just have to realise that you’re not going to you’re going to have less of something else.

Gene Tunny  28:38

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s an important concept. And you talk about how what we’ve got in this in advanced economies, we have a mixed economy, and, and in different countries, they make different judgments about the scale of government versus the private sector. And, and, you know, us is one where it’s, I mean, there’s still obviously, government plays a very substantial, significant role in the economy, but not as much as say, in Scandinavian countries or in France or, or Germany. So I think that’s a good point.

Howard Yaruss  29:14

All along a spectrum. Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap of, are you capitalist or are you socialist? We’re all basically the same. It’s just that some countries are a little further on the spectrum of government spending, and some countries are a little less on the spectrum of government spending. We all basically have free markets that are regulated by the government. It’s not a question of socialism that they throw around the word socialism in the United States all the time. The textbook definition is where the government controls the means of production. I don’t think that’s what anyone’s talking about. And I make the point in the book pretty emphatically that all these isms can sometimes warp understanding of what’s going on in the economy, the way to understand what’s going on in the economy is to actually look at what’s going on. And that get involved in all this esoteric theoretical discussion of different types of economic systems.

Gene Tunny  30:11

Yeah. A lot of people are interested in crypto currencies. What does your book say about cryptocurrencies, Howard?

Howard Yaruss  30:19

Well, I make the analogy that it actually is, in a certain way, very similar to the US dollar or the Australian currency. It’s something that’s created totally out of thin air. The big difference is who creates, I don’t know, who creates Bitcoin, or Dogecoin, for that matter, but I know exactly who creates the US dollar. It’s the Federal Reserve System. I know exactly who the people are. I know exactly what the rules they operate under. I know exactly who to turn to if there’s a problem. When it comes to cryptocurrencies, we don’t know any of that. If you have a problem, we’ve all had problems with our checking account. And we know how frustrating it is to call customer service. But could you imagine if your quote unquote bank didn’t even exist, there doesn’t have any employees and doesn’t even have a customer service number to begin with? And I think we’re going to see more problems with cryptocurrencies because it’s just something created out of thin air by people. We don’t know operating under rules they claim they have but how do we know we have them in Bitcoin suddenly doubled the number of tokens out there? Who would we sue? What recourse would anyone have?

Gene Tunny  31:30

Yeah, exactly. And I mean, you mentioned what’s happening with the news around FTX. Is it and Sam Bankman-friedand here what we’ve seen in the news recently, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Howard Yaruss  31:45

As I’m concerned, he was supposedly FTX was supposedly a place people could use to store their cryptocurrency. Well, if it’s not there, it was stolen. It was misappropriated. So I think it’s this is something that the prosecutors need take a look at.

Gene Tunny  32:04

Yeah, it’s all very confusing. I mean, I thought the great benefit of crypto was this decentralisation. And then suddenly, people are losing all this money, because they’re involved with this exchange.

Howard Yaruss  32:19

It’s decentralised. But the question is, what we were discussing before, there need to be rules, there are literally no rules with regard to this. So it’s like going to a highway driving on a highway where there are literally no rules. People could drive at any speed on any side, and do anything they want. If eventually there’s going to be a crash. If enough people come to that highway, you guaranteed a crash.

Gene Tunny  32:44

Yeah, yeah, for sure. What I liked about your chapter on money, was that you talked about how a lot of the value or the value of the US dollar is that you can pay bills in it right? Or you can, you can, people will accept it. It’s widely accepted. And it’s a fiction that everyone believes in. So I think that was a little something along those lines, I’m trying to remember the exact words used, but that’s essentially what Milton Friedman, how he described it. I mean, all money is fiction. So I thought that was, that was good. Okay. Now, what about modern monetary theory, which is another popular topic? What are your few things to say about modern monetary theory in your book? Could you take us through that Howard?

Howard Yaruss  33:39

Well, the most amusing thing I say about it is that it’s not particularly modern. It’s not a theory. And yes, it has to do with money. So I’ll give it that. Basically, they’re saying that the government can create as much money as it wants, as long as it doesn’t create inflation. That’s, I don’t understand why that’s anything new. Everyone knows that the government has printing presses and they could create as much money as they want. What I think is interesting about what they say is that the government should not be constrained by a balanced budget, that we all know it can produce as much money as they want. The modern monetary theorists say they should be able to create as much money as they want, as long as they don’t cause inflation. And arguably, that’s right. They if they’re printing money, and it’s not causing inflation, that really is a free lunch, if if you create an extra $10 and magically, an extra sandwich appears. That’s that’s literally a free lunch. The problem is, you need some constraint. And that’s why we have the central banking system we have today. Because if politicians could just rev up the printing presses, and print money for whatever They want tax cuts for their donors, giant spending programmes, you have the catastrophic problem we discussed before hyperinflation. And yes, if politicians could show adequate constraint, restraint rather. Yeah, I guess it makes sense. I think there are lost opportunities when the Fed is a little parsimonious with the money, and the economy could be more robust. But I think the downside risk of the politicians running amok and printing too much money and having the lose, lose control over that risk is too great, because that’s, again, a nation ending kind of risk. So I agree with what they say. I just don’t agree with their conclusion that we should turn trust, trust our politicians to show proper restraint. If we gave them the right to rev up the printing presses and print whatever they needed or wanted.

Gene Tunny  35:59

Yeah. Exactly. Okay. Do you say anything about climate change in the book, Howard, the solutions to climate change, or if that’s really to worry about?

Howard Yaruss  36:13

Not really, included in the book is the fact that if we want change, if people want change, then they have to assert themselves, it doesn’t happen on its own. If, if company if there’s a company that is doing something that people don’t like they need to, to promote policies that would rein in that behaviour. And it’s the same with climate change, that people need to be clear that this is something that is important to them, and that they want, because that’s how our political system works. Again, economics is not like physics, you don’t put things into a formula and outcomes and answer, it’s, it’s, it’s what you can get people to agree to do. And the more people understand, and this is a perfect example, the more people understand the harm we’re doing to our climate, the more they’re likely to support regulations that would rein in climate change. Ignorance is a threat to good policy. And that’s the whole point of the book. It’s to get people to think about it more, to understand it more. And I make it very clear in the epilogue, I passionately believe we would have better public policy if people had a better understanding of what’s going on, not only in the economy, but in with regard to climate change as well.

Gene Tunny  37:34

Okay. In terms of better public policy, one thing I liked in your book was your analysis of bailout. So you were highly critical of the bailouts that occurred, or the all of the assistance that went to was it to airlines in the States and other companies? Airlines as an example? Yeah, yeah. You were highly critical of that during the, during the pandemic. Could you explain your logic there, please, Howard?

Howard Yaruss  38:03

Oh, certainly, we gave billions of dollars to the airlines. But what did we get for it? Were the planes going to disappear? The planes are there, they were grounded, because there was a pandemic going on. But they don’t, they wouldn’t fall into the earth. So by giving money to the airlines, we were just saving the management of the airlines and the shareholders of the airlines. What what a lot of European countries did is they actually funded the wages of workers, which would have made a lot more sense and would have been a lot cheaper. Instead, we threw enormous amounts of cash at the airlines. And I think I don’t remember the exact figure in the book, I think it came out to about $750,000 per employee, we could have saved a lot of money by just paying the wages of the employees saving the employees. And the airplanes would save themselves, they’re not disappearing. So they’d sit there on the tarmac, the shareholders would get hit very hard, which is unfortunate. But given that there are finite resources, I don’t think they’re at the front of the queue in terms of warranting a handout. And when the economy came back there, the airplanes can be put back into service. So the point I’m making in the book is bailouts help management and shareholders as opposed to what Europe did, helping individual employees or or not offering assistance at all, and the assets would stay there and be acquired presumably by another company.

Gene Tunny  39:36

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s, that’s a good point. And remember, during the pandemic, there was a Silicon Valley, one of the billionaires in Silicon Valley who was making that point on or a similar point on CNBC and I thought, you know, that’s a that’s a that’s a good way of looking at it. And yeah, I think, you know, the way you go through it in your book is great. So I’d recommend your book for that. on that issue. It’s a key issue in industry policy. So I think that’s great.

Howard Yaruss  40:09

Okay, I’m just gonna add that that’s, that’s another great example of how people are misled that the hotels are going to go away, the airplanes and the airlines are going to go away if we don’t offer them a bailout, the hotels are there. There’s bricks and mortar, if they don’t get the bail, if they don’t collapse, the planes are there. The executives, if they lose their jobs, don’t get to fly them off and take them wherever they want to take them, then there, it’s just the management and the shareholders that are the risks. Now, not the actual wealth of the country, the actual infrastructure, the hotels, the air, the aeroplanes, they’re, they’re not going to go anywhere, whether or not there’s a bailout.

Gene Tunny  40:49

Yeah, yeah. Good point. Okay. I just want to go back over, go back to this winner takes all economy, you mentioned that early on, is that what you see is one of the big challenges in advanced economies at the moment? And what exactly brought this about? I think, if you could take us through that I think your book does a good job of explaining how we’ve ended up with what you call a winner takes all economy, or at least an economy where, at least in the US in, in Australia, it’s we haven’t had the same increase. And it’s a bit of an argument about whether we’ve had an increase in income inequality, certainly in wealth inequality. But could you explain what you know, what’s led to this winner takes all economy, please. And what in your view, economics suggests is a way we could get out of it. Or your logic suggests there’s a way we could get out of it.

Howard Yaruss  41:48

I teach this subject and I love one word answers. And I can give you a one word answer to that. And they’ll give you a more expensive answer the one word answer the internet, basically, the cost free platform that enables Jeff Bezos, or any of these big companies to do their business, internationally with no costs, has enabled the best providers to have economies of scale that have been able have enabled them to grow much larger than any company was able to grow before, before the internet era. For instance, in 1950, if you were selling clothing in New York, and wanted to sell clothing in somewhere in Australia, that was incredibly difficult. Just the phone calls alone wouldn’t cost a fortune. And now, it’s cost free. It’s frictionless. They’re the ultimate economies of scale. So Jeff Bezos can do his business, internationally, and basically take all so technology actually, it’s not just the internet, it’s technology in general, has facilitated this winner take all in the book, I use the example of musicals before 100 years ago, every city of any size, have a musical where people want to hear live music, and now he’s just flicking it on your computer. There are a few major international stars who provide the music. And I’ll add that not only do they provide the music, but they provide their performance in infinite number of times whenever you’re interested in hearing it, based upon one performance. That wasn’t the case 100 years ago. So yes, the best performers in New York City 100 years ago, probably or definitely earned more than the mediocre performers somewhere in Indiana. But the point is that many people earn livings in connection with that business. And now there are just a much smaller number of people. And the earnings are much more concentrated among the most popular performers.

Gene Tunny  43:52

Raw. Yeah, yeah. And what about the role of there’s obviously the role of monopolies or market power in this?

Howard Yaruss  44:01

Absolutely. Because with this, these economies of scale, we’re natural monopolies what economists would call natural monopolies develop. And you see this in ride sharing with Uber. I mentioned Amazon, information Google, social, social networking with Facebook, there are many more natural monopolies because of these economies of scale. And it’s a problem. Why is it a problem? Your Facebook’s free. Why is that a problem? Because you lose, you lose innovation when there’s a monopoly there’s no incentive to innovate. And as they really consolidate the monopoly, it’s, it’s it reduces opportunity for workers. And this is again fueling the winner take all phenomenon that the average worker has fewer options for potential places to work. Certainly entrepreneurship is foreclosed, you can’t go up against these behemoths. And so there’s a shift of resources from labour to capital, when you have these kinds, when business gains more power in this way.

Gene Tunny  45:16

Yeah, yeah. And so what in your view is the is a way to address this winner takes all economy? If you? I mean, I’m assuming you think it’s, it needs to be addressed. It’s not something that we need to spur innovation. I mean, it’s not actually I think probably most people agree that there’s a problem with big tech so far across the political spectrum. So, or across the economics profession to.

Howard Yaruss  45:45

This is a perfect example of what we were talking before about regulation. Here’s a question. I’m a lawyer that Facebook has had hate speech or a speech that motivated people to commit all sorts of crimes on its site throughout the world. Why isn’t there a potential liability there, and in the United States, they’re exempted from liability. But because they claim to be like a town square, but they’re not a town square, they prioritise certain speech over others. For instance, on Twitter, I tweet something it’s going to get, it’s going to be replicated many fewer times. And if someone else tweets something, so they are curating, they are involved in amplifying certain speech. So I don’t know why they’re exempt from free speech, from the laws governing libel and slander. So that’s one thing we were not we’re sort of asleep at the wheel in a way, we are not regulating these companies the way we need to regulate them. Every monopoly is different, or companies get monopolies for all sorts of reasons. And the government needs to look at them, it has the tools, it just needs to employ them to make sure they’re not abusing their market power. Because ultimately, if they do that, it’s not good for the economy. And it’s not good for workers.

Gene Tunny  47:09

Right? So would you break up any of these big tech companies?

Howard Yaruss  47:15

Well, there are such incredible economies of scale with a social networking site, you don’t want to go to a social networking site that only has a few people. So I think the government is going to have to look at, for instance, I talked before a moment ago about legal liability, to the extent they promote certain speech, and it causes harm, maybe they should be on the hook for that. And maybe they would be more equitable, and more fair, in running their business, if that were the case. So I think that, again, every monopoly is different. I think the government needs to look at them, and make sure we’re getting the best social benefit from them. Because again, they are natural monopolies in my opinion, if I wanted to set up a social networking site, I could set it up. But Facebook has 3 billion users, I’d have one, none’s going to it. I think, I think given that the government needs to, to impose some fair rules so that society gets the maximum benefit out of it.

Gene Tunny  48:15

Right? And what about inequality? How do you propose dealing with that? How would you see that as a substantial problem? Do you and how would you deal with it?

Howard Yaruss  48:26

 Yeah, as we have more of a winner take all economy, there’s more of a gap between the people who are doing well, and the people who are not doing well. And that’s a great failing of a society as as our economy grows, on average, most people should do better. And that’s what was so great about America and Australia for so many years, people bought into the system. And to the extent that people are alienated by the system, I saw a recent survey that the majority of young people don’t trust capitalism. That’s a catastrophe as far as I’m concerned. And I think what we need to do is give them a reason to have more faith in the system that has created more wealth than any system in the history of humankind. I make the point in the book that since roughly 1800, we evolved from a society where the vast majority of people were food insecure to a society where the average person does quite well. And so we have to keep that, that we have to continue that to make sure that people buy into the system and we continue to grow.

Gene Tunny  49:31

Right, and what measures in your view would be required to do that? Are we talking but yeah, exactly what measures would be needed?

Howard Yaruss  49:41

Well, in the United States, there was a lot of talk a few years ago about a universal basic income that we may get so efficient. John Maynard Keynes talked about this. There was a writer I think his name was Edward Bellamy in the in the late 1800s, who talked about this how’s this It got so wealthy, that people, many people just didn’t have to work. And we could just have an income and benefit from automation. And the fact that society would be so efficient, we haven’t reached that point yet, in my opinion, I don’t think we’ve reached that point in anyone’s opinion. So that’s not going to work. But what can work is, is to have a more progressive tax system. And let me be clear what I’m talking about. In the United States, hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than teachers and firemen. That’s ridiculous. Again, to use a technical term, that we people need a better understanding of exactly what the 10s of 1000s of pages in the tax code are doing, and try to have a more reasonable, a more equitable approach to the way we allocate society’s resources. So off the top of my head, I would say that better funding for education to give people opportunity, certainly increase the tax rate on hedge fund managers. So it’s at least as great as teachers and fire man. Warren Buffett always says that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, that makes no sense. So that’s one easy place I would start to have a to provide more opportunity to the average person, I would I would have higher taxes for the people who who’ve enormously benefited from this winner take all economy and provide more resources to, for instance, for education, so as to maximise the chances that children growing up today can participate in contribute to this kind of economy.

Gene Tunny  51:40

Right. Yeah, I think certainly there’s some issues with the tax code in the States, I did an episode with Steve Rosenthal, from Urban Institute, do must have been toward the end of last year, just on the rules that you’re talking about, so I think is it carried interest?

Howard Yaruss  52:03

There’s a rule of carried interest exactly the provision that allows hedge fund and venture capital executives to basically have their income taxed at capital gains rates, which rates are lower than personal income rates. But I’ll raise a bigger issue, why should investment income be taxed at a lower rate than working income? I think that’s something that should be changed. And not only is it equitable, but by having the two types of taxation, you make the whole tax code so much more complicated, you introduce all sorts of distortions that people go through, so as to re-characterise their earned income, as investment income, it throws friction into the economy. And so that’s something that I think needs to be corrected. Again, to make it more equitable and more efficient. There are companies that have meetings in Bermuda, to leave the United States, because of tax reasons, that literally makes no sense. That’s a lost opportunity for the American hospitality industry, and just a colossal waste of resources. That’s something that needs to be looked at. And, frankly, when the tax code is 10s of 1000s of pages, I think the Internal Revenue Service is going to be out manned, by the whole army of lawyers and accountants that businesses and wealthy individuals have, it has to be simplified.

Gene Tunny  53:30

Yeah, I have a lot of issues with tax. I’ll have to come back to them in a future. Just interested in your thoughts on how to deal with that. Okay. Now, how would we better start wrapping up. I’ve been really grateful for your time. I mean, this has been this has been terrific talking about your new book, which I think yeah, I certainly recommend reading it. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. I’m probably more concerned about debt, you’re suggesting in your book that, you know, the federal debts. It’s not a huge concern, I guess it depends on how you characterise it. And your point is that it’s something that you can manage over time. But I should ask you about that. I mean, what is your view on the US federal debt and the fact that the US is running, you’re running a structural budget deficit, aren’t you, which is quite substantial, you’re not? You’re not raising enough revenue to pay for the spending. Do you see that, do you see that as something that has to be fixed up? I mean, you do have to be ultimately concerned to some extent about the debt and will you want to try and stabilise the percent of GDP, what’s your exact view on the debt, please in the States?

Howard Yaruss  54:51

This is such an important issue. It’s like the allocation of society’s resources that I tried to give people the foundational knowledge so that they in turn can reach an informed conclusion on their own. What I do in the book 20 trillion – 30 trillion. I don’t know about you, I can’t get my head around it. So what I do in the book is divide the national debt by the 330 million Americans and I come up with a national debt of roughly six to $8,000 per person with an annual interest payment of roughly $1,045 a person. And so there’s the question, Is that sustainable? Is that an existential threat to the United States? And I make the point that virtually everyone who went to medical school or started a business has bought a home for that matter has a debt hanging over their heads greater than that. The question is to just step back and offer some insight, try to offer some insight is that if the debt is growing faster than the economy, there could be a problem. Yeah, I mean, yet grow at the rate of the economy. It’s like, you owe a certain amount of money. If your income doubled, and your debt coverage doubled. It’s not a problem. It’s only when the debt is growing faster than the economy are issues raised. And yes, our debt has been growing faster than the economy, not significantly faster. The past fiscal year in the United States, the deficit was half of what it was in the preceding year. And so well, we have to watch it. But the question is, do people feel comfortable with this level of debt, I also make the point that when you say it’s a crisis, this debt is being paid, we have to pay it. But to whom is it being paid, two thirds of the payment goes to other Americans. So this is merely a transfer of money, from taxpayers to bondholders, which quite frankly, overlap enormously. Wealthy people tend to pay higher taxes, and wealthy people tend to own more bonds, poor people tend to pay lower taxes, poor people tend to own fewer bonds. So it’s really just moving most, two thirds of it is literally moving money from one pocket of the left pocket of a American to the right pocket of American, it doesn’t necessarily do any harm. A third of the interest payment, roughly 300, and some odd dollars here does go abroad. And you know, there are questions about that. But the question is, is $300 a year, per American in a $22 trillion economy? An existential nation bankrupting kind of issue? And personally, I don’t think it is, but you might reach the conclusion as that it is, and and vote and promote policies accordingly.

Gene Tunny  57:43

Right oh well, look out I think your book does, yeah, it makes a contribution. I think it’s got a place. It’s in this emerging genre of economics for everybody. I chatted with some people from the UK early this year, they had a book, what is the economy? I think it fits nicely in that, in that genre. To finish with, what do you think is different? Or what’s special about your book? Or what are the main? What do you think should be the major takeaway, or if there’s anything else, any other thoughts you’d like to make? Before we wrap up, please, that’d be great.

Howard Yaruss  58:21

I appreciate your asking that. And I think my book is, is is special, or I’ll go as far as saying it’s unique, in that it does, it tries not to have a political perspective, it tries to be fair, it tries to give the foundational knowledge to people so that they can reach their own conclusions as to what makes sense for the economy. Or there are points at which I do say something, but I make it very clear that it’s my opinion. And I make it clear why I’m saying so I think the book is accessible. It’s one of the only books on economics that has no formulas, their jargon, no graphs, it’s supposed to read like narrative nonfiction. And I hope it can reach an audience that ordinarily would would not learn about economics, but would pick up the book, read it, become more informed, more able to understand what’s going on in the economy, and hopefully, support better policies that would benefit not only their lives, but yours in mind, frankly,

Gene Tunny  59:20

That’s terrific. I just thought when you said about no equations. There’s a joke that John Kenneth Galbraith used to make in some of his books where he said that his publisher told him that every time there’s an equation in the book, it cuts sales in half. That’s what he heard you didn’t want to have any equations because it’s bad for sales. Okay. Howard Yaruss from NYU that’s been terrific. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much.

Howard Yaruss  59:51

Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Gene Tunny  59:55

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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

The Progress Illusion w/ Jon Erickson – EP166

Professor Jon Erickson is an ecological economist and advisor to policymakers including Senator Bernie Sanders. In his new book The Progress Illusion, he criticizes what he calls “the fairytale of economics” and argues we are failing “to design an economy that is socially just and ecologically balanced.” Show host Gene Tunny discusses Prof. Erickson’s new book with him in this episode of Economics Explored. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Jon Erickson

Jon D. Erickson is the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at the University of Vermont, faculty member of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment. His previous co-authored and edited books include Sustainable Wellbeing Futures, The Great Experiment in Conservation, Ecological Economics of Sustainable Watershed Management, Frontiers in Ecological Economic Theory and Application, and Ecological Economics: a Workbook for Problem-Based Learning. He is also Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland, and has been a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania, Assistant Professor of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and visiting professor in the Dominican Republic, Norway, Germany, and Slovakia. Outside of the university, he is an Emmy-award winning producer and director of documentary films, co-founder and board member of numerous non-profit organizations, past-President of the US Society for Ecological Economics, and advisor to state and national policymakers. Jon lives in Ferrisburgh, Vermont with his wife Pat, their occasionally visiting sons Louis and Jon, and a menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and donkeys.

Links relevant to the conversation

You can buy The Progress Illusion and if you listen to the episode Jon will reveal a discount code:

https://islandpress.org/books/progress-illusion

Transcript: The Progress Illusion w/ Jon Erickson – EP166

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Jon Erickson  00:03

Since at least the night, late 1970s. For a country like the United States, we’ve been in a progress recession, the GDP has grown, grown, grown, grown. But these alternative metrics, whether it be GPI, or surveys on quality of life, or the ecological footprint, these things have not improved. They have not kept up with the pace of growth, right.

Gene Tunny  00:25

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 166 on the progress illusion, a new book from Jon Erickson, Professor of sustainability science and policy at the University of Vermont. Professor Erickson is past president of the US society for Ecological Economics. And he’s an adviser to state and national policymakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders. Please check out the shownotes for relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Jon or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right oh, now for my conversation with Professor Jon Erickson on his new book The Progress illusion. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Jon Erickson, welcome to the programme. 

Gene Tunny 01:00

Thank you so much. 

Jon Erickson  01:03

It’s a pleasure, Jon to have you on. I’ve read your new book, progress, the progress illusion, reclaiming our future from the fairy tale of economics. So given this as an economics podcast, there’s definitely a lot to talk about with your new book. Yes, yes. So can I ask you first? Why do you think progress is an illusion? What are you trying to communicate in this book, please?

Jon Erickson  01:56

Sure. Sure. Yeah. So the progress illusion is really a reference to a fairy tale of humanity’s place and purpose in the world. Certainly, economics isn’t the only discipline that is subject to the solution, but it’s the one that I’m trained in. It’s a story that economists like myself have been teaching and practising for decades, decades that, you know, every time we see the size of the global economy double, which doubles every 25-30 years at current growth rates, that we erode the very foundations of life and human societies in the process. So, in this book, I questioned that, that reigning logic, that reigning story, I unpacked various dimensions of this grand illusion of economics, you know, which I see as an illusion of history and a lot of economics programmes, mine included, we don’t teach the history of economic thought we don’t discuss the debates of, of economists of the past. It’s an illusion of the individual, me, so much of the focus of economics is on the individual and what’s best for the individual in the assumption that whatever’s best for the individual is best for society. So I unpack that and think about the debates over that question. It’s an illusion of choice. I mean, economics sort of sets itself up as the science of choice. But it’s always framed this choice at the margin, right, the choice of the next incremental decision. Yet, when you add up all those decisions together, we very often get into situations that the original decision makers never would have voted for. Right. And ultimately, it’s an illusion of growth and illusion of, you know, a sort of fairy tale or dream of infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

Gene Tunny  03:52

Gotcha. I think it’s interesting. You mentioned that there were these debates, and they’re not always well covered in economics. I remember. I remember learning at least about Malthus, and there was the Malthusian prediction or his his view that, well, we’re in trouble because any economic growth we had, we just ended up having more children, and we’d be back to subsistence. Whereas I think the way that economists started to view that was all well, we solved that problem with technological progress. And, but I mean, look, I understand the point that that’s in a few 100 years or over the last couple 100 years say we’ll be able to do that. Who knows if that can continue indefinitely? I mean, who knows what shocks are coming? So, I mean, maybe, is that what you’re arguing? We could be we could be too optimistic based on recent history.

Jon Erickson  04:48

Well, look, I mean, we’re recording this in the second week of November during that latest Conference of Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. And there’s ample evidence to show that this economic system we’ve created is putting dangerous strains on the global climate system, right? A climate system that is, is increasingly called as chaos as in danger of, you know, collapsing the whole experiment of the economy. So, you know, we can go back to Malthus if you’d like. But we’ve always seen that a growing economy creates benefits, and costs. And what we’ve seen, particularly over the last three or four decades is as those benefits have become super, super concentrated. And the costs have been spread out on more and more people, and especially on future generations. So we’re in kind of, you know, yet again, a kind of Malthusian tragedy.

Gene Tunny  05:51

Right. And so is that your biggest concern at the moment, climate change, or other other concerns,

Jon Erickson  05:58

tThere are plenty of concerns to go around. But having a habitable planet is a big one. It’s a big one that fellow economists are concerned about. You know, economists have been part of various signatures, signatories to various pledges of action. It’s a concern that’s related to mass extinction. It’s a concern that’s related to growing inequality and persistent poverty and declining quality of life, even in the richest countries. You know, I think it was, I think it was Alcoholics Anonymous, right, that said, you know, when you do the same thing over and over again, expect something different. You know, that’s the kind of insanity. And that’s what this book is about.

Gene Tunny  06:39

Right? Now, you mentioned, well, you talk about the fairy tale of economics, you mentioned you were trained in economics, do you still consider yourself an economist?

Jon Erickson  06:50

I mean, I often describe myself as an ecological economist, because I’m really trying to understand interdependencies between the economic system, and society and culture and the social system and the environment. I see this work as reforming economics for sure. I’d love someday, where we didn’t have to have all these kind of competing camps and different flavours of economics, we could just call it economics. But since I really don’t identify with the mainstream of economics, I tend to call myself an ecological economist.

Gene Tunny  07:22

Right? And you tell a story in the book about how just something like that was it the JEL, the Journal of Economic Literature codes, and you were stunned? Yeah, the way that Yeah, could you tell that story because of those fascinating, I’d never thought the JEL. Yeah, would be so controversial, or yeah, but please tell the story. I thought it was a good one.

Jon Erickson  07:47

I don’t know that they were controversial it just it just gave me pause. When I saw that ecological economics was given its own code, and treated as a sub discipline of a field that we were trying to overturn or be the alternative to. And this really is, you know, this, this is, you know, reflect on kind of why I wrote this book. You know, it’s a reflection on my career in Ecological Economics, when ecological economics was formalised in the late 80s and early 90s, before it got to JEL code, books and journals and organisations and degree programmes, and folks like me were supposed to be created to try to question the mainstream and reform it. So in many respects, this book is kind of my midlife crisis book, where I take a critical look at the history state and fate of this movement of ecological economics as an alternative to the mainstream. Funny story about 10 years ago, I was the president of the US society for Ecological Economics, and one of these professional societies that have emerged to support this field. And I was at our conference at Michigan State University, and I had thrown my back out. So I was like, during most of the meeting, I was horizontal in my hotel room, just miserable, just really grumpy. I was laying on my back, trying to write notes for my presidential address right, to the society’s membership. And I just was so grumpy, so grumpy, so grumpy. And it really got me thinking about the state and fate of ecological economics, and made me think about like this code, Q 57. Right, the seven hundreds plus subject areas of economics, and how ecological economics was increasingly being absorbed by the mainstream, including by folks who call themselves ecological economists. In fact, at that meeting, there were just, you know, all of these sessions on monetary valuation of ecosystem services, which I saw as, you know, a real slippery slope, you know, can we sort of challenge the mainstream with the logic of the mainstream and commodify nature. So, in a lot of ways that kind of grumpy week in Michigan, set the stage for this book, and, and my desire to really critique my own field.

Gene Tunny  10:16

Right. Okay. So I probably should provide some background on so these JEL codes, they’re the codes that you would put at the bottom of an abstract for a journal paper or a conference paper to signal this is the field or that the field of economics are the sub discipline of economics that it’s in. And so that helps them identify where it should go in conferences, for example, which session. Now, it’s interesting you mentioned how environmental economists have come to start valuing nature or to quantify environment, environmental damage, or to value what a wetlands are worth or in I mean, as a, as an economist, I’ve done various exercises like that in the past. I just want to understand where you’re coming from, do you think that’s the wrong way to go about it, to think about the the economy or the environment to think about? Well, we’re doing this many dollar dollars of damage to the environment, and therefore we need to impose this, this cost this charge on people who are damaging it, and to make sure we have, you know, where I’m going, what we’re trying to get ya get some sort of, we’re getting some solution by having the right taxes and charges in place or Pigovian tax, for example, what do you what are your thoughts on that, Jon?

Jon Erickson  11:43

Yeah, that the field of environmental economics and and before that natural resources, economics, really preceded this field that I’m describing of ecological economics, really treating the economy as an ecosystem, and environmental economics has its roots in the late 1960s, early 70s. And, you know, reaching back to Pergo, in the 20s, and 30s. And fitting the environment inside the marketplace, right, using prices to correct the so called market failures of what were framed as environmental externalities. So that’s how I was trained at Cornell University, I was in an agricultural economics department, learning natural resource, environmental economics, and kind of, you know, buying into that logic of, of the environment is just a failure of the marketplace. Ecological Economics. So that’s valuable. And that’s pragmatic. And I’ve done my share of work that is trying to make the case the economic case for environmental protection. The challenges is when that tool when that approach, when the sort of expansion of cost benefit analysis to environmental concerns, when that rises to a worldview, right? When you commodify all of nature and when you reduce all social relations of humanity to market logic, we start to run into what economic historians or people in the 40s and 50s The Economist name is escaping me right now, the fellow who wrote The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi. Yeah, the Karl Karl Polanyi warned of the merging market society, right. Whereas the rules and priorities of a market system that envelop the democratic system, that envelop our social and environmental values. So I’m okay using economics as a tool and treating economists as mechanics or janitors to sort of tune the market system. But when economists are sort of framed as overlords of the social environmental system, right, or conveyors of a master worldview, that’s where my hairs go up. And that’s, that’s largely what this book is about, and thinking about the progress solution of economics.

Gene Tunny  14:08

Right? Is the problem that we have this objective of maximising economic growth where we’re concerned about GDP, are you arguing? We’re not as concerned about these environmental measures? How do you what do you think we should be concerned about? Or how should we be making decisions as a society?

Jon Erickson  14:30

I’m making the case that 21st century economics should reflect 21st century problems and values. I think when the mainstream of economics or what we often call neoclassical economics was formed in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Maybe the focus was well placed on growing an economy of the efficiency of market system right, of taking power away from the church and state and putting it into the hands of the consumer. and producer. You know, it’s much like thinking about an ecosystem at the early stages of any ecosystem. It’s the pioneering species that are prioritise its growth and competition and resource exploitation, that is prioritised. But as the system matures, as the system grows into a fixed, fixed environment, the goal should change, right, the goal should move away from growth and towards maintenance, bitterness, towards durability, towards resilience, away from competition and towards cooperation right away from sort of thinking about the number one priority is to grow our way out of problems, to realising that growth itself creates problems that growth can’t fix. So Ecological Economics reflects a maturing of economic thinking, that reflects the challenges of the 21st century.

Gene Tunny  15:59

Right. Okay. So it seems you’re, you’re concerned about the problems that growth can’t fix. Okay. You don’t think regulations can help? I mean, because we’ve got cleaner air?

Jon Erickson  16:12

Not exactly. I mean, I think we need to move beyond just economic instruments to fix things using the market to fix market failures, right. But really trying to find that balancing act between market mechanisms and government regulation between improving and making government work better, instead of the opposite narrative of, you know, government is the problem, not the solution. No, in this book, I reflect on kind of my own upbringing in the United States, and my parents generation, you know, and growing up in the Kennedy years, where the narrative was, you know, you know, ask not what your, what you can, what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country. And I grew up in the Reagan Thatcher generation, right. And the Reagan narrative was, you know, it’s all about the individual, it’s greed is good. Don’t ask what you can do, you know, do for your country, get government off our backs, you know, that’s what we need to do. So, I think in an age of climate chaos, in an age of the sixth mass extinction, and an age of growing inequality, the narrative has to change, the story has to change, we have to recognise that a system and an economics that was created in the context of a 1940s 1950s expansion out of the Great Depression had its day. And now, the realities of our time, need to need to start to shape a new reality.

Gene Tunny  17:44

Okay. And so what does that? What does that mean, Jon? Does that mean, we need? Do we need redistribution policies? Is that what you’re arguing for to address inequality? We need greater environmental? Well, we need to prioritise the environment. I mean, that’s gonna be I mean, obviously, the environments important, I’m not denying that. I’m just thinking in in Australia here. I mean, it’s we’ve got very stringent environmental regulations already. And if we have more stringent environmental regulations, it’d be very difficult to develop anything. So I’m just wondering what it all means is it? Does it mean, we have to accept a lower standard of living in the future? are you pessimistic about technological change or ability to to innovate our way out of these constraints? Could you talk about that, please?

Jon Erickson  18:38

Yeah, I think that’s too narrow of a frame. When you think about economy environment, and what I’m concerned about, there is reams of evidence show that so called advanced economies, such as the United States and Australia, built on hyper individualism, built on the legacy of a social disease that sociologists call affluenza, right, or this addiction to consumerism, that this model of progress has leaves a little lot to be desired. And that in fact, maybe we’ve been in a progress recession for some time now. Scholars in the United States and Australia and dozens of other countries around the world have been estimating for years now. What’s called the genuine progress indicator, something that is meant to be compared to the more common gross domestic product. And what this indicator does is it recognises that a growing economy has benefits and has costs. In fact, I first discovered the GPI when I was in grad school in the early 1990s. And in the US, we were in in the the bush one recession. And there was a beautiful article written in the in the Atlantic and it had the title of something like if GDP is up. Why is America so down? Right? We were kind of in this recovery state. And people were, you know, economists are saying, hey, the economy’s growing, we’re all good again. And the average American, I’m not good, I can’t make ends meet. I’m miserable. And the same narrative has popped up at the tail end of every recession ever since ever since. In fact, it started working on this book at the tail end of the so called Great Recession. And the same thing was happening, we were using the instruments of economics using mainstream thinking to grow our way out of problems. And the average person was saying, who is benefiting? And who does who? Who’s paying the cost? Yeah. So the GPIO through this series of 26, some odd calculations and says, What are the true benefits of a growing economy? And what are the costs? What are the environmental costs? What are the social costs, and have shown quite convincingly that since at least the night, late 1970s, for a country like the United States, we’ve been in a progress recession, the GDP has grown, grown, grown grown. But these alternative metrics, whether it be GPI or surveys on quality of life, or the ecological footprint, these things have not improved, they have not kept up with the pace of growth, right. So we have to start asking at these kind of higher levels. What do we do with this for right? What’s, what’s the new balancing act in a maturing economy? How should we reprioritize what is the good life? And how should we I mean, you frame it as accept the lower standard of life, the standard of living the material standard of living, I frame it as as asking the question, how do we live better? How do we how do we live well, within our means?

Gene Tunny  21:47

Yeah, sure. I can, I can understand that. I guess what I’m thinking, Jon, is that at the moment, in Australia, one of the big issues is, well, the rising cost of living, high inflation relative to wages, and the lack of housing, I mean, we’ve got a dire shortage of housing here in Australia. Now. I mean, look, there are a variety of reasons for that, possibly. But I mean, at the moment, when I’m looking at things, I’m thinking a bit more economic activity to construct houses would have been good over the last 10 to 20 years. And, and we’ve got rising cost of energy. So yeah, I take your point, I think I think a lot of people out there would be concerned though, about this. Yeah, that they that, yeah, I’m not I’m not necessarily wanting to criticise what you’re saying, I understand where you’re coming from. I’m just yeah, that’s where I’m coming from, if that makes sense.

Jon Erickson  22:51

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And that’s the big question, right? Like, can the same kind of thinking that got us into these current messes? That is making the billionaire class hugely, hugely more material well off, while the rest of us feel like we’re on a treadmill, just barely getting by? Can the same kind of system, right? That has privatised the benefit of growth and socialise, the costs? Can that continue? Or should it continue? Right? Should we sort of create a social movement and start to ask, what is the economy’s purpose? Who is the economy? And growth for whom and for what? Now, you know, when I debate economists, they always say, like, come on, come on, you know, you’re not being fair economics is just a model. It’s a model of progress. All models are wrong, some are useful, right? They quote George George Box. Right? All models are wrong, some are useful. And I said, Yeah, I, I agree, all models are wrong, some are useful. But what box didn’t ask is useful for? Right. So in the US, we’re seeing these energy prices, and we’re seeing record profits to oil companies. In the US, we’re seeing housing shortages, right? Yet we’re seeing record rents to the ownership class. In the US, we’re seeing families, you know, struggle to get by in these kinds of post pandemic months and year. And kind of returning to, you know, try and train as quickly as we can to get back to normal, right? Pre pandemic years. And a lot of us, and a lot of folks that are most vulnerable in this current system, are saying we don’t want to go back to normal normal was already in crisis.

Gene Tunny  24:47

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

Female speaker  24:55

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Gene Tunny  25:24

Now back to the show. Okay, can I ask about that genuine progress indicator? Who’s producing it? And can I ask him about what, what some of the the variables that go into? It are? Please, you’re really interested in that? Because look, I understand the criticisms of GDP. And I mean, at least if we’re destroying, or we’re subtracting from the environment, or we’re, we’re damaging the environment that you probably should recognise that as some sort of disinvestment or a loss of capital stock. So yeah, would you be able to explain the genuine progress indicator, please?

Jon Erickson  26:04

Sure. I mean, it starts with the basic premise, right, that the economy is subsystem of the environment, and that when the economy grows, it has opportunity cost. So I mean, it’s a basic, it’s built on basic economic system has benefits and has opportunity costs. So with GPI, we start with consumption, the biggest part of GDP, and we say, Okay, let’s take consumption, and then let’s correct it for income inequality, to recognise which what Pergo recognised in the 1920s and 30s, right, that growing incomes grow and give diminishing returns, right, that the next unit of of income to a rich person creates far less welfare society than the next income, a next unit of income to a low income family or a low income person. So we correct for income inequality. We then go through a series of calculations that for example, take consumer durables and GDP and say, you know, a society a GDP benefits by building a throwaway society. With durables, washing machines, automobiles, long lasting expenditures, if they were out often have to be replaced. That’s great for GDP. Right. But is it good for progress? So we say, Okay, here’s the expenditure of durables, and here’s the benefits of durables, right? Over time, these things are supposed to last more than a year or two or three years. So there’s economic adjustments, there’s an adjustment for over for underemployment, right. Idle work, people who wish they could work more. So it’s got that kind of basic economic logic built into it. But then there’s a whole category of depletion and pollution costs, right? We shouldn’t be treating depletion of our soils, our water, our air, as income. In fact, any business that treated depreciation of capital assets as as income instead of costs wouldn’t be in business very long. But that’s exactly what we do in our economic book keeping for nation states. Then there’s a whole series of interesting calculations on the social side of thing, right, we have to recognise that the GDP only recognises the value of your time in a market, earning income, earning wages earning profits. And so what the GPI the genuine progress indicator says is that there’s, um, use trade offs, right? Every hour extra hour work, the opportunity cost of that is an hour, not with your family, an hour, not in your community. And now we’re not leisure. So rather than feeding every single hour at work as a benefit with no costs, GPI goes through and says, let’s be honest here, right? Work is good, up to a point, income is good, up to a point consumption is good, up to a point. But we have to recognise that consumption and income and growth have diminishing returns. And at some point, at some point, the growth of an economy creates more costs than benefits. What Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, who, unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks ago, called an economic growth, right, a growing economy that creates more cost and benefits. Okay, we could do a whole podcast just on GPI, so don’t get me going.

Gene Tunny  29:40

Yeah, that’s fine. I might. I’ll have another look at it. Because, I mean, it’s one thing that comes up in various conversations I have, and I’ve been looking at the national accounts recently, I’ve had people on talking about that and their conceptual foundations and we’ve, we’ve we’ve mentioned that every

Jon Erickson  29:58

time we have a recession Yeah, the critique of GDP comes up, right? Yeah. Like, hey, wait a second growth isn’t providing what’s going on here. And every time coming out of recession, we question the metric. And then we kind of start growing again and says, Okay, let’s go back to normal. Yeah. But we have to kind of keep revisiting these alternatives. You know, the original architect architects of GDP back in the 30s, and 40s. Were very careful to say this is not a measure of human progress, human welfare. This is a measure of economic activity, which contributes to human welfare, but is not in and of itself. human welfare.

Gene Tunny  30:40

Yeah. Yeah. I agree there. Now, what about what can be done? Do you have a set of policy recommendations? Jon, are there? What would What do you think needs to be done? Are there things that there will be things that need to be done by governments? Are there things that need to be done by individuals? I mean, it sounds like, Well, okay, maybe you tell me if I’m wrong here. But when I read your book, and I heard about the progress, I was reading about the progress illusion that concerns about how we were consuming too much, I mean, do we need to show that we as individuals be consuming less Is that is that part of your argument? We should we shouldn’t be going on as many overseas trips, we shouldn’t be using the car as often we should think about our purchasing decisions, not get a new washing machine or get a I only get one, when it breaks down, try to repair things. What are you arguing in this book? Is the solution?

Jon Erickson  31:40

Well, what would an economy look like? That was built on maintenance resilience and cooperation is that growth, efficiency and competition, right, a late stage maturing economy like yours in the Australian ours in the US? That’s, that’s what I’m asking, you know, an economy, a mature economy should have different goals than an economy at pioneering stages. So it really is about a reprioritization of our goals, especially on consumption, right? Because there’s ample evidence to show that we in the West are over consumers, and our kind of addiction to consumption is creating psychological problems, social problems, that consumption has been kind of become a cure for social ills, right? Like, it’s a distraction. I mean, the whole advertising industry is designed around the idea of kind of making you and I feel bad about ourselves, right. And to sort of fill the void with more consumption. And I actually think this is one of the lessons coming out of COVID. Right, as sort of people were, especially, you know, high income people who, who could weather the storm, better than most, were forced to slow down, were forced to pee at home, were forced to kind of reevaluate life’s priorities, and found out that, you know, this kind of ever, burning hamster wheel of economic growth isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. So it’s the reprioritization of goals, which is going to have to reprioritize policy instruments. Daily Herma, daily use the analogy of a plinth Plimsoll line, I’m not sure I’m pronouncing that right, of a cargo ship. Right. So this is the line that’s painted on a ship, very easy technology. And as the as the cargoes ship is loaded, it sinks into the water. And when it gets to the line, you’re supposed to stop, right, because you’re in, you’re in danger of overloading the ship. So if we sort of reprioritize and think about the principle line of an economy, we can’t just more equally or equitably distribute the cargo of an overloaded ship and expect it to be resilient. We can’t just more efficiently load an overloaded ship and expect it to weather the storm. As the pump, some land goes underwater, right. And there’s ample evidence to say that we are kind of in an overshoot on a lot of environmental parameters. You’re in danger of sinking the ship, especially in stormy waters. So this analogy implies that as we run up against planetary boundaries, planetary limits to growth, the scale of the economic system is way more important to stress than distribution or efficiency. And if we can’t count on a growing system to solve distribution problems, then we’re gonna have to quickly think about the fairness of this distribution of benefits and costs of that system. And then it only then can we get to efficiency, which is the priority of economics. So this means that you know, new policy instruments stuff that focused on scale distribution, then efficiency is the way to go. And I talk a lot about this in the last chapter book, as I kind of wrestled with the idea of how did I put it radical pragmatism? Right? Yeah, that’s a pragmatic things that we can do now, for example, to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, you know, home weatherization, and carbon taxation, and, you know, maintenance of our systems, electrification of transportation, transition to renewable energy. But all of these are really hard to do in an economy that continues to bloat an economy that continues to grow. So we have to be thinking about the scale of a system. And that’s probably the radical part of radical pragmatism, right? What’s it going to take to rein power away from the status quo, that part of the system that’s benefiting from this growth model, and create an economy that works for all?

Gene Tunny  36:05

Okay, so I’m just wondering what exactly that involves? And is this part of this whole idea of D growth? Is that what you’re arguing for? I’ve heard about this concept of D growth, that that’s coming up, and there was an article in the FT about it the other day. So you’re just wondering, what needs to be done? I mean, do how do we, how do we have that, though? How do we recognise those constraints? I mean, you mentioned carbon tax. I mean, that’s something that, but you’re also saying that that’s not going to be enough and mean, given current magic

Jon Erickson  36:41

bullet, but it changes that changes the system? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, degrowth is the sort of social movement side of ecological economics, if you will. It’s a question of, how do we orchestrate a just transition to a right sized economy. Now in some parts of the world, and for some people in the world, you know, growth still creates more benefits and costs. But there are plenty of parts of the world and plenty people in the world where growth, Grace, more cost and benefits, right. So we have to orchestrate a kind of Race to the middle. And in fact, if you plot something like the HDI, the Human Development Index, which is a UN level index, this used to sort of monitor, you know, the benefits of development. If you plot HDI at national levels against energy per capita, you get this curve, right that the initial development improves considerably, with just a little bit more energy use per capita a little bit more than final impact per capita, Right. but only to a point that we get into this kind of club of countries, where continuing use of energy continuing depletion of the environment, continuing materialisation of the economy, doesn’t improve development doesn’t improve the HDI. And you get this long tail with countries with the same HDI of countries that that consume 20 or 30, or 40, or even some cases 80% less energy and material. So countries like mine, the US were way out on this tail, where we’re not getting improvements in human development. Yet, we’re consuming way, way, way more energy than the average human right. And way more energy in the countries that have similar levels of development, similar qualities of life. So what are we doing? Right? We’ve got to orchestrate a race to the middle and whether you call that d growth for the rich countries, and to be more agnostic about growth for everyone else, like grow, where it makes sense and shrink where it doesn’t. That’s the kind of century that we’re in. That’s the biophysical reality of the new economy.

Gene Tunny  38:57

So Jon, do you need a command economy to actually to orchestrate this transition to a right sized economy? I’m just trying to think about how this would happen. Because I mean, people, a lot of people out there, just, you know, they’re trying to live their lives and do the best they can. And a lot of people have to a lot of families, the couple have to work two jobs. They’re trying to make ends meet. I mean, they Yeah, they probably wouldn’t see themselves as as living a hugely materialistic lifestyle, but then compared with other parts of the world. Yeah, sure. It probably is. Yeah, I’m just wondering how we how we can do that. I mean, I’ll

Jon Erickson  39:37

yeah, yeah. My trainer has economists. I assume you’re trained economists. We were sort of taught these, these two different DS, roughly two different models, market economy and a command and control economy. And we were taught that this command and control thing is inefficient and unfair and results in a kind of an over regulated world and we need to the market economy is not perfect, but may Is it better than command and control? I’ve come to realise that that’s a load of BS. The market economy is also a command and control economy, right? Markets are designed by those and power markets are social constructs, especially the last three or four decades of neoliberalism has created a kind of free market experiment, right? That is concentrating the benefits and widely distributing the costs. So talk to the average guy or gal on the street and ask them, Is this economic system working for them? And if they say no, do you say, well, let’s double down on the logic of the system? Or do we try something different, right. So we’re finding that more cooperative forms of of economies are resulting in more shared benefits and shared costs. Were working with a group called the next systems project that has been sort of systematically cataloguing different political economics systems, local skills, community skills, United States that have dramatically different outcomes and dramatically different structures. It’s not just either or of command and control of free markets. It’s blending things in between, it’s the continuum in between, that is the secret sauce. So I don’t buy that we immediately just have to go to command and control. Although in crisis, what we learned from COVID is what happened is the world’s government goes goes to command and control, right? If climate is a crisis, if, if environmental depletion is a crisis, we might be using the very system of free market thinking, to push us into a state where the only option is going to be command and control. And I don’t want that you don’t want that. People don’t want that. We want our basic liberties and freedoms. But we want to do it in a way that creates an economy for all for children and for for future. I also kind of reject the the narrative of economic freedom, right? Because that’s awesome. That’s also painted as freedom to do things. And instead of freedom from tyranny, right, freedom from the impacts of, of the environmental costs of a growing system, freedom from the social inequalities, of a system that’s geared towards making the billionaire class even richer. Freedom from the costs of growing economies, what we should be thinking about, not freedom to do things to our neighbours, to our environment, and to future generations that ultimately are going to come back and bite us in the tail. Yeah, a buy in any of this.

Gene Tunny  42:58

Well, I’m interested in the new systems project. I’ll have to make system next systems project. I’ll have to look into that. I mean, do you have any examples of those communities you’re talking about?

Jon Erickson  43:10

Well, it’s examples of of. So you take the US and you think that we’re this kind of, you know, outside looking in and the narrative on the mainstream news channels is that, you know, we’re this free market, capitalistic system. It’s actually not true. So much of what makes the US economy work is cooperative ownership, collective ownership, state run, companies, state state run banking systems, state state runs systems of have that make the the economic system work. Take the banking sectors, trillions of dollars and coops where the depositors get votes on the matters of their banks. Take agriculture and education, and even energy and electric utilities. So much of those industries are run by cooperatives. In fact, electricity cooperatives deliver electricity, the United States, to a well over half of the geography of the high states, to rural communities, where the sort of economics doesn’t work for for industrial companies. There’s experiment after experiment, after experiment of different kinds of political economic institutions that have that we have lots of lessons to learn from. And this is what I meant in the beginning, when I talked about you know, economics, part of the Progress illusion is this kind of illusion of history right. To think that the current economic system, the neoliberal system, the free market, system, is is is the only one is has been perfected, right? Is the kind of logical inclusion of everything along the way, and that we don’t have to learn from our history. We don’t have to revisit the debates. We don’t have to consider the morality of our economic choices, or their biophysical consequences. And yeah, there’s a lot. I mean, I speaking mostly as a, you know, from the perspective of an American, maybe it’s different in Australia. But man, we have this sort of US centric view of the world, that everything we do is right. And every thing that we do is the best that ever was. And we don’t need to learn from our history. And we don’t have to need to learn from other other experiments around the world. And where I land is, that’s some pretty insular thinking,

Gene Tunny  45:45

huh? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. We’ll start wrapping up soon, Jon, this has been Yeah, really thought provoking. So it’s good to have you on the show. could ask you about neuro neuro economics. So you talk about that in the book. This is a new field, I’ve only learned about recently, what what’s that? What’s your interest in that field? And what’s it broadly trying to tell us? Or what’s it found?

Jon Erickson  46:11

Yeah, sure. Well, so this is where, you know, I’m kind of researching the book, like, what are some alternative ways to think about the human agent and our economic models? Because the economics, we’re taught a very, very, very narrow version of humanity, right, which is sometimes called like a subspecies of human homo economic is, yeah, isolated individual at a point in time, right, who

Gene Tunny  46:36

just wants more? The rational utility Maximizer? Yeah,

Jon Erickson  46:40

exactly. Exactly. And both within economics and outside of economics, you know, we’re learning that when we test our theories, with real data, and not just abstract mathematics, that this sort of foundations of this rational actor model, unravel. So what I do in the book is I explore what you might call borderline disciplines, right? Where economists have cooperated with other disciplines, especially other natural science disciplines. And so neuro neuro economics is one of those examples where economists have collaborated with neurosciences to ask questions of proximate cause. Right. So in science, we think of proximate cause and ultimate cause. And then the case of economic decision making proximate causes asking how we make decisions, whereas ultimate causes more a question of why do we make decisions that we do? Neuro economics is an example of a borderline disciplined, proximate cause where, literally economists are taking tests objects, with their neuroscience colleagues, asking people to solve economic puzzles, or make economic choices that are watching their brain light up, right, and trying to understand where and when do the kind of precepts of the rational actor model hold up? And where don’t they? So it’s one of these Borderlands this was, such as neural economics is an example. But also behavioural economics, experimental economics, where we’re trying to kind of understand the brain in the case of economics, the whole human case of behavioural economics, groups of humans in the case of experimental economics, groups of groups in the case of institutional economics. And then there are entirely evolutionary history as a species in the case of evolutionary economics. So these are all examples of, of the isolated discipline of economics, starting to cooperate with other fields, and building what I call in the book, borrowing from the biologist, EO Wilson, a more conciliate form of economics, where we find the jumping together of knowledge to really watch it watch the 21st century version of this field.

Gene Tunny  49:13

Right now. Okay. Well, yeah, oh, it’s something I want to have a closer look at, because I definitely recognise the limitations of that. That standard economic model. I mean, for years, economists were saying, Well, it’s, we recognise that all the assumptions are a bit unbelievable. But as long as it makes good predictions, and it’s, then it’s fine, but it turns out, it may not actually make good predictions. So,

Jon Erickson  49:39

I mean, I gotta go through the history of you know, the running joke, of course, right is that economists have successfully predicted seven of the last three recessions. So it’s, this this model of the rational actor model turns out to be not a very predictive model, or a model. Again, all models are wrong, some are useful. But we should start asking useful for whom? And it turns out this this isolated model is useful for the billionaire class but not useful for the rest of us.

Gene Tunny  50:10

Right I so we might start wrapping up, I’m keen to just learn about, what are you hoping this book we’ll achieve? Jon, what’s your What are your hopes for this, this book,

Jon Erickson  50:22

my generation, I’m 50 birthday this month, I’m 52 going on 53 My generation was inspired by the works of a number of like, you might call a renegade economist, right? Who sort of solid different path. Folks like Herman Daly, who I mentioned to, we just recently lost that 84 years old. I mean, Herman was on a similar journey that I was he started out with aspirations to be a growth economist, he thought that the logic and approach of market fundamentalism could be sort of bred when he was training to be an economist in the 50s and 60s, to solve problems, particularly problems of poverty, right to grow the economy, lift people out of poverty, but in his own educational journey, set against the aspirations of the Great Society in the US in 1960s, the civil rights and environmental movements of the 60s and 70s You know, he was inspired by inspired, inspired by the work of earlier group of renegades folks like Nicholas Dzerzhinsky regime who wrote on energy and the economic problem, bringing the principles of physics into economics, Kenneth Boulding, who wrote the infamous article, the economics for the coming Spaceship Earth that was really coming to terms with the opportunity costs of a growing economy inside of a fixed ecosystem. John Kenneth Galbraith, who, whose social critique in the affluent society really sort of, you know, early on question a society built around, creating more and more affluence into an affluent class. And, of course, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was really impactful on Herman’s thinking, and design of an economic study of economy inside environment. So, you know, these sorts of scholars were also inspired by long standing debates about the function and purpose of the economy, you know, really going back to the classical era of economics, when economics was seen as as a branch of moral philosophy, right. Not not a pseudo science hiding behind abstract mathematics. So Herman’s work was another kind of link in the chain. His work on economics, the life sciences, first big published article, his work on steady state economics in 1977. Book, his work on for the common good that he wrote in 1989, with a theologian, John, John Cobb, you know, he was created another link in the chain that was trying to build a study of economics as if people and planet mattered. So I hope, you know, this book is yet another link in this chain of link that comes from my generation, that can continues to build a kind of more modest, more humble economics that can contribute to social well being and environmental, environmental protection, and not just simply,

Gene Tunny  53:39

okay, well, I’ll put a link in the show notes. So if you’re in the audience, and you’re interested in, in the in the progress, illusion, and look, it’s got a lot of, it’s got a lot of great information in it. Lots of lots of great analysis, and it’s very thought provoking. So I certainly enjoyed or I learned a lot reading it. I thought it was good. I liked how you went through the evolution of of economic thought and all the debates and even what I was struck by was, I didn’t realise that was Tinbergen, the famous Dutch economist. Yeah, he had a bit of a Nobel Prize winner. Yeah, he ended up he started to question the whole the the economic growth narrative in the was it the 80s or 90s? Are some of the you tell the story along those lines, I thought was interesting. Yeah. Yeah. So I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Okay, Jon, any final thoughts before we wrap up?

Jon Erickson  54:42

Look, I really appreciate this. Thanks so much for your podcast. I was listening to a bunch of your past thoughts in preparation for this and this is such a great show. Very valuable show. And yeah, folks are interested in this book. It’s, it’s been published by Ireland press which is One of the bigger nonprofit publishers of environmental books in the US and give your listeners the secret code. If they order a book from Island Press they get 20% off if they answer the enter the code illusion so but on my capitalism have there for a second

Gene Tunny  55:17

okay, is that all is that this capitalization matter is what did you just tell me that and I missed it sorry was

Jon Erickson  55:24

no I don’t know that it needs to be capitalised. But it’s the word illusion is the code for 20% off.

Gene Tunny  55:30

Okay, good one. Well, I guess people try it and if, yeah, hopefully it doesn’t matter whether you capitalise it or not, or try and capitalise that, that doesn’t work. Without caps. Okay. Very good. Okay. Jon Erickson. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation and really appreciated your insights. So that’s been terrific. Thank you. 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 contact at economics explored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

Innovative cities, coffee shops & entrepreneurs w/ Christopher Hire – EP165

Cities worldwide want to be more innovative because innovation is a driver of economic growth. The Innovation Cities Index shows cities where they’re doing well and where they’re doing badly relative to other cities. Hear from Index creator Christopher Hire about the importance of having policies that are good for entrepreneurs and just how bad red tape is for innovation. You’ll also learn how the prevalence of coffee shops is a good predictor of innovation. And you’ll hear from Christopher about what cities are hot right now. 

Christopher Hire is Director of Data at 2THINKNOW, publishers of the Innovation Cities Index, a ranking of 500 cities for innovation, published since 2007. Christopher has given talks on cities and innovation to the OECD in Paris and the UN in Geneva. He’s a globally recognised expert on what makes cities innovative. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

See and download the Index in Excel:

https://innovation-cities.com/indexes

Substack Innovation Cities Gazette Newsletter:

https://innovation-cities.substack.com/

Get the data – Answer your research question with city data points:

https://citybenchmarkingdata.com

Connect with Christopher HIre on LinkedIn:

https://linkedin.com/in/christopherhire

Other Links:

https://Linktr.ee/Christopherhire

Transcript: Innovative cities, coffee shops & entrepreneurs w/ Christopher Hire – EP165

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Christopher Hire  00:02

Coffee shops are a driver of innovation because how many people who right now probably listening to the podcast or how many people that are writing a paper or working on something or new ideas are sitting in a coffee shop.

Gene Tunny  00:18

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 165 on innovative cities. My guest is Christopher Hire, director of data at two things now, publishers of the innovation Cities Index, a ranking of 500 cities for innovation published since 2007. Christopher has given talks on cities and innovation to the OECD in Paris, and to the UN in Geneva. He is a globally recognised expert on what makes cities innovative. So I’m really glad he’s come on to the show to share his insights. Cities worldwide wants to be more innovative because innovation is a driver of economic growth. Christopher’s innovation Cities Index shows cities where they’re doing well, and where they’re doing badly relative to other cities. Hear from Christopher about the importance of having policies that are good for entrepreneurs, and how bad red tape is for innovation. You also learn about how the prevalence of coffee shops is a good predictor of innovation. And you’ll hear from Christopher about what cities are hot right now, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Seoul Korea. Please check out the show notes relevant links and clarifications and the details of how you can get in touch with any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Christopher higher on innovative cities. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Christopher. Hi, welcome to the programme.

Christopher Hire  01:49

Thanks a lot for having me on your economics podcast. It’s a real pleasure Gene.

Gene Tunny  01:53

excellent. Yeah. Great to have you on. Christopher, one of my listeners, Dave attended a recent talk you gave. And he mentioned that you’ve done a lot of really interesting work on cities, you’ve got an innovation Cities Index. And I’d like to ask you about that today. But first, would you be able to give us a sense of the broad range of work that you do, please, Christopher?

Christopher Hire  02:18

Yeah. So currently, for the last over a decade now I’ve been working, running a small group analysts doing data about cities. So basically, we gather data from cities and we answer research questions. Now anybody who’s in economics or in the data field, and and I’m sort of I’m a combo I’m like, data math guy, and also a data science guy, but I was data science before they invented the term data science. Many of your listeners probably remember analyst programmers, yeah. Power, before Power BI it was Cognos, all those sorts of things, you know, the old, old stuff that it’s really the same thing. The Emperor with a new set of pyjamas some days. But yeah, so So basically lots of different data gathering about cities, difficult research questions, and usually who we help is if somebody has a research question about how to compare cities globally, there’s lots of data on how to compare Australian cities on the abs. But there’s not a lot of data on how to compare cities globally. And if you try to dig into the French system, you’ll hit some walls. And then if you dig into the Spanish system, you’ll hit some walls. And we’re sort of good at that. So we go through and we standardise global data kind of thing for cities. And it’s about 500 cities. And we do answer research questions. And we’d like to, you know, we’d like to do interesting things. So somebody gives us an interesting challenge. It’s quite fun.

Gene Tunny  03:40

Great. Yeah. keen to chat about cities. The one the indexes that I’ve noticed in the past are the rankings I’ve noticed in the past. The Economist, The Economist has a or maybe they, I’m pretty sure they still do a cost of living survey or across different cities in the world that’s aimed at I think it’s aimed at executives or professionals, what’s the what’s their cost of living in different cities. And also Monocle has a city’s index, what’s the best city to live in and that’s based on the Monocle, Tyler Brule’s magazine, exactly how cool they think the cities are. And one thing that’s interesting is that there was another index or another ranking of suburbs I saw the other day, which had Fortitude valley where my office is, which is one of the top 50 suburbs worldwide. But I think that’s in terms of some measure of coolness. But anyway, I want to ask you about your, your, your ranking or your index you you’ve got this innovation Cities Index. Could you tell us a bit about that, please, Christopher?

Christopher Hire  04:49

Sure. Look, most people know cities rankings as the livability indexes, and they are actually as you correctly identified, in the case of The Economist, more related to cost of living for wealthy expats, then really livability, but the marketing departments of cities love, just churning it out as were the most livable. But it’s really about cost of living a lot of the time. So Mercer and The Economist make those two. And then there’s a series of other rankings that we’ve often sometimes worked on, we’ve worked on Smart Cities rankings for IESE, and a couple of other rankings published by consulting firms that use our index as an input. So ours is a bit different. Because it’s not based on a utopian idea of cities. It’s based on the idea that you do the best you can with what you’ve got. And you try to create innovation. So in 500 cities that we measure, and we started off with 22 cities in 2007, because 500 is a heck of a lot. And we never thought we’d actually get there anyway. But the 22 cities we started with, we expanded it to 500. That kind of gives you a pretty good barometer of what’s happening in the world. And it’s a broad base concept innovation. So in other words, it’s looking at where you would like to live, where you might belong, where you might work or play, it’s sort of a broader space sense of innovation on what places are dynamic and water really good. But it’s answering that in a more systemic way than just, I happen to think this city is cool or not. And I think there’s a lot of newspaper ones, they really are all about who’s cool, who’s not. And it’s more about should be more about data. So we use data and quantitative and qualitative methods, but we use quantitative methods to create the index. So we have an algorithms that basically create the rankings.

Gene Tunny  06:42

Right. Okay. And what does it tell us? Christopher? What are the cities that are at the top of it? And How stable is the index? So the ranking? Is this something that is relatively stable over time, that you mentioned that it’s not just what people you know, what the analysts think is cool, it says its based on data, so these are these? These are data that have a lot of reliability? Or they don’t? You know, they’re not they’re not moving around a lot over time? Is there a? Yeah, what are your thoughts on that as well? As well as what’s the what are the ones at the top? Sorry? Yes,

Christopher Hire  07:20

yeah. So I’ll go, I’ll sort of unpack that in a few parts. And if you want to interject with a clarifying anything, if, if it doesn’t make sense, one of the things that many of us in this field suffer is reading too many PDFs. And with the $50 words, with a $5 word we’ll do and it rubs off on you after a while. So I’m trying to get out of the $50 words. So basically, the main thing about it is, is that the, you’re really comparing cities on their potential for innovation. And the way that you’re doing that is if I answer the second part, about the how we do it in a moment, but basically, you’re comparing the cities for innovation, based on looking at the conditions for innovation in those cities. And to do that we gather 162 indicators, and they have around 800 data points that we gather, and they’re very, like the indicators, the way the design is quite stable. So in other words, I have to put a little asterisk next to that. So the answer is it depends. But certain cities like Singapore, are highly stable. So cities that do very, very well in our index over time, don’t vary a lot. And you’ll see the same cities towards the top as long as they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. For example if they keep good government policy on innovation, like Malcolm Turnbull’s, federal government policy was very good. And I haven’t, I won’t go into that yet. But, but in effect, good policy on innovation, they keep a structural sort of a series of conditions for innovation, and they help encourage it, then they tend to be stable. So Singapore has done a very good job. Now, the first thing somebody in government said here is when I say Singapore has done a good job, how do we copy Singapore. And so that’s where our index is a bit different. We don’t say you should copy Singapore, we say you should be the best version of yourself. So Tokyo has also done an excellent job. But Tokyo is tied up in its culture. You can’t take Tokyo and just take some part of Tokyo say like, right, we’re going to copy all the vending machines in Tokyo and their robotics department. And we’re going to become Tokyo, a Sydney cannot be Tokyo. It doesn’t have the same structure doesn’t have the same culture doesn’t have the same transport system, spatial geographics, all these things, you just can’t be like that. So what we would say is each city should be the best version of itself and the cities that do the best that over time, like Barcelona historically has done very well except thing COVID basically cities like Singapore have always done very well. Seoul has been doing really well for a long time. Now. Dallas Fort Worth is another city that’s been climbing up our index for a long time. And I’m not mentioning Australian cities because people get into the Sydney Melbourne debate. So I’m just saying globally, Austin is doing very well, it has been for a long time. So our index picked up Austin early on in the piece. And we see it sort of cresting now. So Dallas is hotter than Austin in some ways. And Miami is another city that’s doing well with the exception of property prices. So each of these cities have a balance of factors. And if they do that, well, they remain remarkably stable. If they go off into left field and start creating dramatically bad policy, and I would say some of New Zealand’s cities are an example there, where they haven’t, they have the potential to be really great world leaders. And on a per capita basis, they’re amongst the best in the world. But they haven’t been doing good policy for a little while. And so they’ve lost their momentum. You know, it’s really, it’s a bit of, it wouldn’t take much to get him back. But it’s just that they, I think the, you know, when without the COVID thing, they’ve lost a bit of momentum. And the same with some Canadian cities, although the French speaking parts are doing quite well in Canada is bouncing back a bit now. So it’s hard to keep candidate down. So in effect, we’ve got these sort of great cities around the world. And if they get all their policy settings, right, but not perfect, then they go up. If they get their policy settings, bad, then they go down. And so in effect, our index over time, it has a thing called a five year average. And that five year average is pretty consistent. And so and it doesn’t matter how we run the algorithm, it can run, we run the algorithm to get a stable result, basically, relative to last year, we ran it 31 times. And at the end of 31 times we’ve got a pretty stable result. Bearing in mind there was COVID happening. So that’s a lot of answers to your question, sort of a junked points, but I’ll let you led on from that.

Gene Tunny  12:07

Yeah. I was just wondering how it comes together. You mentioned Tokyo was Tokyo at the top of your most recent index.

Christopher Hire  12:17

It’s been at the top a couple of years in the last few. So it’s one of the cities perennially has won. We’re the first index, I think put an Asia city at the top. We’ve also got Seoul near the top, and Singapore near the top.

Gene Tunny  12:30

And Sydney. Sydney’s top five at the moment?

Christopher Hire  12:34

Yeah, yeah, at the moment. That’s an outlier year, that’s largely COVID related. At the time we were doing the data, they were doing the best on COVID. And that sort of affected the COVID variables affected that but Sydney should be top 10 in the world. And Melbourne should be in there in the mix, too. But it depends on policy settings. And, and it’s complicated, because there’s not just councils and state governments often responsible for different things, and there’s community organisations responsible. So it’s a multi stakeholder thing that makes a city, whereas Brisbane has one council, which is much easier.

Gene Tunny  13:12

Right, What are the most important indicators, Christopher? Or what are the most important? Yeah, the most important indicators that distinguish between different cities? Is it governance? Or is it the amount of skilled labour you have? Or is it the museums or the art galleries? The what would you call them trying to think what you’d call that? I’m trying to think about? Cultural? Cultural? Exactly. Yes. Yes, those factors? Yeah. What are the most important? Are there a few that are much more important than the others? I mean, you’ve got it sounds like you’ve got a huge range of data. Perhaps what I’m getting at is what are the common factors? What Look, you’ve got all of these different indicators? A lot of them are going to be highly correlated or getting at the same thing. Can you give us a sense of what the most important data items are?

Christopher Hire  14:04

Well, the indicators don’t necessarily. So the indicators overlap in different ways. And so they’re designed to make it difficult to game. The problem with a lot of rankings is they can be gained easily by just announcing filings. And you’ll see this where cities that are capitals nationally become very prominent, you get these weird outlier cities and the outlier cities you think how did that make the list? That outlier city sometimes is caused by data, for example, for the whole country being filed in one city. So you get these sort of weird data problems? I think, realistically speaking, it’s best way to look at it is to look at what does it mean underneath and it means that individuals and businesses and stakeholders are broadly decentralised into different categories. So in a sense, it’s, it can be a central city if it’s a small place, like Singapore. But in many cases, there’s a lot of entrepreneurship happening in Singapore. And so you have to bear that in mind. So, in general, the correlation is to dynamic, entrepreneur driven cities, not centrally planned resilience. For those from an urban planning, background, Brasilia was a wonderful looking city from a from a photograph. But it didn’t work as an urban planning city. And just centrally planning everything, you can’t make a perfect city, what you have to do is you have to devolve some elements to different indicators. So by taking all the indicators, and looking at them broadly, there are some certain commonalities. So for instance, we have 14 transport related indicators, which would indicate the transport or mobility, and most of those are public transport. And so mobility is extremely important, as we saw during lock downs. So there is a correlation between mobility and creativity. If people stay in their cubicle, you don’t get many creative ideas. You don’t get creative ideas sitting in a cubicle. Most people, if we asked a group of people this question, they’ll say, Oh, I get a creative idea from going out into the bush, that’s one of the common ones. In the shower. The other one is that I get a creative idea of museums and art galleries. So that’s the that’s where the ideas come from. So if you don’t have those ideas, how are you ever going to keep up with China where they, they think tanks have IQs of an average of 150. And they select the very, very best and brightest people to go in their think tanks, yes, they might have procedural things. But they do give some leeway within their think tanks. And they have 150 IQ emission standards or some of the think tanks. So, you know, I don’t see some of our media, Talking Heads competing with the Chinese on the intelligence level, that they have their analysis, but they can compete on the creativity level. So that less we and one of the biggest, biggest, most annoying things you see when media talk about innovation is they keep talking about control and centralization. The problem with that is you kill the goose that lays the golden egg. It’s actually you have to decentralise the non strategic parts of it in order to allow it to function. If you centralise everything, you’re really just going to you control it, but you end up controlling less and less innovative economy. So, in effect, the main things driving this decentralisation in some respects, and centralization and others is okay. It’s a kind of interplay between all these things. And there’s lots of research into various things. Like, for instance, coffee shops, are a driver of innovation, because how many people who right now probably listening to the podcasts, or how many people that are writing a paper or working on something, or new ideas are sitting in a coffee shop, how many people are doing that, and coffee actually inspired the whole age of enlightenment, and was coffee houses that inspired all that. And there’s a lot of interesting texts, which I’m sure we’ve, we’ve we’ve read or videos we’ve watched about that. So coffee is a very important part of the Enlightenment, and coffee houses and Lloyds and all that sort of thing. So I think coffee houses incredibly important innovation, but they’re not really considered very often. So that’s a small indicator in our mix of indicators. But it clusters around people coming up with ideas and making the environment conducive for the person that’s, that’s, that’s ready, who has the means to come up with ideas to create innovation, and to develop things. You know, the best ideas often don’t come from the expert in the field. The best ideas come from, from random people who basically have some part of the expertise they need. And they invented. I mean, what the steam engine wasn’t invented by wasn’t invented by a professor was invented by a boiler maker, you know, it’s often but he was in that university environment is a boilermaker. So it’s often you need randomness for things to work, you know. And so, our index is designed to measure conditions for creativity. And it builds on a whole series of texts and papers and things that people wrote over, you know, from the period of about 1990s till about 2008. A lot of it. And there’s lots of great stuff out there. I mean, this. Thomas Stewart wrote a great book, Joel Kotkin writes some great stuff. There’s a whole series of papers by a guy called books by Nigel Harris, David Landis from Harvard. There’s a whole series of interesting things you can take, and you can extrapolate it, but our model kind of saves time and puts it into one place. So it’s not so complicated. I mean, you can read 5000 books or you can read use a model.

Gene Tunny  20:02

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

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Gene Tunny  20:36

Now back to the show. Christopher, can I ask? Are the the indicators that you use? Have you got a list of them somewhere? Or is it proprietary?

Christopher Hire  20:49

Yes, the indicators are all on the website. And people can order the data. Okay, so it is possible, we don’t sell the data, we don’t provide the data for free. Because we wouldn’t exist if we did. But we sell the data. And we also sell the data to city governments to benchmark themselves. So that’s how we get some money for doing the index. Otherwise, it would be the world’s greatest charity project. Well not the world’s greatest but it would be a big charity project. So you get some infamous revenue from selling the data to cities and benchmarking cities. And corporations use it like insurance companies and, and banks and those.

Gene Tunny  21:28

Oh, good. And so you’ve got coffee shops, per square kilometre, or cafes per 10,000 people or something like that. It sounds like.

Christopher Hire  21:39

There’s about four or five Cafe variables, the cafe indicators. And we have a special algorithm that say forget outliers and cafe shops per square kilometre. And you can get outliers and total number of coffee shops. And you can get outliers in there’s no matter which variable you use, you can get an outlier in it. So we have a way of sort of kind of nutting that down to what’s a good score from that and then giving a score for cafes. And I was just looking at the cafes data this morning. That’s why I had primacy in my mind. Yeah. And it was interesting to note that the lockdowns saw some cities reduced one in five coffee shops, one in five coffee, close, you think about the flow on effect of that through the economy. It’s one in five coffee shops shops in some major European cities. Interestingly enough, some cities grew by 12%, which means one in eight coffee shops open. So that’s really interesting. And it’s not it’s an it changes the narrative about so it tells us something about the economy as well as coffee shops. So it’s all their small businesses and that and that their economic activity and how confident people are when people don’t buy coffee, if they’re not feeling relatively confident. They might cut back on their coffee. Yeah, avocado toast, as it became, yeah, smashed avocado. We don’t buy them anymore or something. So what was

Gene Tunny  23:01

So what was that time period you’re talking about there you mentioned? Some cities actually, there are more coffee shops. I’m just trying to remember this year. Okay. So post COVID.

Christopher Hire  23:12

So as of now, as of now, last month, okay, yeah. And more coffee shops opened, but they’re not. They’re interestingly ones that didn’t lock down as much or they went into the lockdown sooner and came out sooner. So that’s the sort of thing or they have. There’s a couple other explanations, but yeah, its interesting.

Gene Tunny  23:33

What are some of those, you know, off the top of your head what some of those cities are.

Christopher Hire  23:38

So I don’t want to misquote because I just looked at the data. There are cities in a couple of most that London has suffered from, the UK has suffered not long, I can’t say for sure London, I don’t remember the number. But UK has suffered shrinkage. And in generally in the coffee shops. And a lot of the French cities have suffered shrinkage in their cafes, but growth in some Swedish cities and want to say, East European countries. So Sofia has had some growth, Tallinn apparently. But that can also be that some people have decided that casual dining now is more profitable. So there’s a shift from some of the cities have shrinking numbers of bistros and growing numbers of cafes. So what they’ve done is they’ve converted to a cheaper business model where they can operate coffee shops, so they they sell coffee once upon a time we would have sold only meals. Yeah, so they convert their classification to a coffee shop, but continue trading rather than closing their doors and they get rid of all the white tablecloths and napkins which happened in Melbourne. You know, a couple of decades ago. So it’s it’s sort of an interesting thing that’s happened in but there’s growth in a lot of Eastern European cities per coffee shops, and shrinkage in a lot of West European cities. And a couple of German cities have grown, I think Dresden has grown a little bit, but I can’t have been a huge amount. But most of the rest have shrunk. The lockdown has really affected the small to medium sized enterprise, which has a flow on effect to the money multiplier through the economy and a whole series of other stuff. So it’s really, it’s not just coffee shops, it’s like there are bellwethers for small business and startups and all that stuff.

Gene Tunny  25:22

Yeah. One city that people have been concerned about is New York City, because it was very badly hit by the pandemic. And I don’t know, one in five small businesses or something like that closed down, maybe that’s an over estimate. That’s the number I think James Altucher quotes on his show. And he was basically saying New York City’s dead, right. It’s all over. And I don’t know if you’ve got any thoughts on what’s happening with New York, how it’s performing in the index?

Christopher Hire  25:53

Well, we’re doing look, the interesting thing is, I believe that narrative as well, to some extent, because there are some very strong numbers that showed people leaving New York prior to the pandemic. So one year prior, people were leaving New York, and people had continued to leave New York throughout the pandemic. And when I say New York, I’m referring to the five boroughs definition. But then you have to consider that some of those people have moved out to metropolitan New York, and then move back to the five boroughs. So it’s, it’s not as clear cut as all that. So New York still continues to do well, which surprises me greatly. And it may be that there’s just some lag in the data, but we are getting the data we’re getting in his COVID data, and COVID period, data’s 2021, some 2022. And it’s really quite interesting that, that they’re still they seem to be, it always bounces back. I mean, it’s one of those cities, it’s a perennial city like Paris, London, New York. And I think that always bounce back, you know, they don’t seem to ever stop being the great cities of the world. And you may think the data may do something, but then some other indicator compensates for it, they seem to be like a magic machine. I don’t know exactly how to describe them. But Melbourne has this attribute as well, to some extent, in the end, it bounces back. But, you know, New York is still up there in our list. And it’s not, it’s not totally and utterly. I’m surprised when I’m looking at the data because I expected to for more. And I made the point that I think there was so much movement to my hand Miami of capital and things during the pandemic. But that seems to be a biting now. And Miami does very well. I mean, we did this thing of industry diversity. And Miami is amongst the most diverse. There’s a certain way we measure this, but it’s showing up as a bellwether sort of happening economy, but the property prices are very high. So that might be putting a cap on it. And it’s I’m interested to see what will happen next year with that I don’t know what’s going to happen way. I mean next year, but Miami has been climbing our index and everybody says Miami, Miami, but it’s been climbing to index well before people started noticing and moving there during the pandemic. So it’s got a very good free enterprise and entrepreneurship vibe and in Florida in general, and Texas also, of course, they both support entrepreneurship. So surprised they do much, much better than cities of equivalent population. They do much better than they should basically, because they’re open to entrepreneurship, and cities that are kind of being you know, everything under control. And the Karen’s are in charge for lack of a better word, Karen’s with clipboards, measuring and monitoring everything. They’re killing the economy, and they’re killing. They’re killing their own wealth in the long run. So it’s not exactly intelligent. You know, how do you how do you take a how do you make a two bedroom house? You take a four bedroom house and divide it in two? Did you soak up your wealth and be more wealthy no matter what you do? Yeah. Eventually your tennis court gets cut down. So it’s sort of like you have to you have to let the economy run.

Gene Tunny  29:17

Yeah. So in terms of indicators, then you could have things like tax rates, you could have things like that. Yeah. How easy it is to start up a business or how quickly you can start up a business economic freedom. Yeah, yeah, that sort of thing. Okay, that’s all good

Christopher Hire  29:32

Company, we’ve got a really good company set up indicator that’s better than the World Bank’s one. It does use World Bank as an input. But when I say that is a lot of people have problem with the ease of doing business index. There’s been a lot of complaints about it. It’s kind of methodological black hole in there. And so we have a better way of capturing that. We do manually, and we’ve been doing that for a while. And we sell that quite a bit of that one. And the also, as you mentioned, The economic rights of what you consider as city level economic growth could calculate some version of that. And or estimate some version of that. And we have whole series ones around the setup of companies and different things. Yeah, the sort of things you mentioned.

Gene Tunny  30:17

Yeah. Okay. Now, you said before New Zealand has had some New Zealand cities have had some bad policies, what type of things? Would you say there are bad policies in those New Zealand cities?

Christopher Hire  30:30

Well, there’s a lack of focus on growing the economy. And there’s been a whole series of aborted social programmes that haven’t achieved. I mean, the housing initiative that was federal government in New Zealand just didn’t achieve anything. I mean, so the problem is, it’s not enough to say chair in policy and expect chair to happen. You know, a lot of people who are naive on policy, they think you can say something hasn’t happened. And something’s just not possible. You know, you can say that your concern no child wants is going to live in poverty, poverty, as Bob Hawke or and Bush have said, but whether it’s achievable or not, what you’re better off doing is making some incremental improvement. So an incremental improvement is making sure that 100,000 kids get laptop computers. So that’s a good policy, right? That’s a policy that is tangible, measurable, and you can say, well, we’ve got 100,000 Kids laptop computers, as long as they’re reasonably recent laptop computers and Celoron’s from five years ago. But so you’re better off focusing on stuff you can achieve and grandiose statements that just just don’t get anywhere. And I think New Zealand’s had a lot of grandiose stuff, and it hasn’t really, it’s that desire to be the most important and, and, sort of, you know, little is that is the tyranny of distance. It’s that Australia gets into it, too. We want to be the world leader in something and then you go over to France and, and Spain and you talk to them and they don’t care. They’re like, what we don’t care. You know, a lot of stuff we do, they don’t care. We think we’re impressing them with they don’t care. The French and the Spanish don’t care, European Union don’t care, the OECD don’t care. They might we think we’re impressing them by being this great leader in something, when we’re actually just talking to an echo chamber of ourselves and a bunch of media talking heads. I mean, we really, we just, sometimes I feel like you turn on the TV 20 years ago, you hear the same conversation, don’t you about, about everything, and it’s still the same now, you know, you’re still having the same conversation about the same issue going on about same thing. And you just think, well, I just turned it off and 20 years later to see if it’s still there, and nobody’s done anything. So it’s better to do small incremental changes that help. It can help people like so if you know, do something about domestic violence phones is that programme is doing that’s a practical thing, you know, practical stuff helps. And I think airy fairy stuff, you know, airy fairy announcements that never can be achieved or never be verified or loved by politicians, but, but not much used to the average punter.

Gene Tunny  33:00

Yeah. So Chris, you mentioned that your indexes of the data and your behind your index has been purchased by many different customers by city governments, presumably? Do you have any examples? Or have you noticed? Well, has it been a wake up call to any particular cities the data and has that inspired action? Have they changed things on the basis of this index?

Christopher Hire  33:31

We have, we don’t always know 100%. Because sometimes we do work by consulting firms. And so we’re not always sure of who the customers are. We know we had a lot of input into the UK’s innovation strategy, because we went through a consulting firm, and it got soaked up by that consulting firm, and it got passed into their innovation strategy. So we know we had a lot of input into that. A lot of input came in, we had some input from Australia’s innovation strategy at times because various policy things that I wrote, got picked up and implemented, but we don’t always get credit for it. But specifically, where we’ve helped, we’ve got credit, we’ve we’ve had done quite a bit of good work in the Emirates, and in the United Arab Emirates, we helped with some innovation policy there and they’ve, they’ve really run with it, and particularly in things like safety and, and areas such as road toll and things like that. A number of years ago, we had workshops that help them innovate, and they came out and then met some Australians who reduce the road toll here and we helped connect them up and we gave them a process for innovating in that area. So they rode top fell, it has stabilised, but it’s not as good as it should be. I mean, you can literally see people dying on their roads, still, but it’s better than it was. So that’s something where we provided the data. We provided innovation methodologies that helped them and we developed we work with them on, not specifically on that, but on the innovation methodologies that help their the government. And yeah, so we find that that’s been a really good, was a really good example from the past. And a number of clients, a number of people who attended training I’ve done have won awards in their particular for innovation in their particular finance related or insurance related roles. So we’ve done that sort of thing as well.

Gene Tunny  35:28

Okay, but it’s not just one more question if you’ve got time, Christopher, I’m interested in this. Yeah. What makes for a thriving or prosperous cities? I’m just trying to understand your insights, what you’ve discovered from your analysis, and you mentioned decentralisation. So you mentioned entrepreneurship. So I’m guessing you’re low. Low taxes and charges, I’m guessing. Yeah, the we talked about ease of doing business.

Christopher Hire  36:02

Yeah, yeah, there’s low taxes and charges. So that’s, that’s where we get into trouble. Because what it is not a pure policies, policy prescription. So for example, if I was a full on Republican, I’d say, get rid of all taxes and charges and the economy will do better. And if I was a full on, Democrats say, No, we have to have social programmes and social programmes will create the great economy. And if we don’t have the great society won’t have the great economy. And in truth, I think there is an element of yes, Dublin, for example, has done very well in our index, but they’ve hit a ceiling in some respects. And that’s because they did reduce their tax rates. So I don’t I don’t think we’re really saying reduce a purist would say reduce tax rates to zero. And yes, that’s one way you could do it. And that might work for, say, Dubai, or an Gulf country. But they have a resource backing for that. So we’re not sort of being idealistic, we’re saying, it’s a balance of things. And one of the things so if we’re talking about Australia, for God’s sake, get off people’s backs about entrepreneurship and mid sized corporations allow midsize corporations to grow. There’s an element in Australia where we favour large corporations constantly in every area, and that creates an issue where we don’t have, we just don’t have new companies being added to the ASX, we just don’t have that growth that we should have. And we can do that. But we just got to allow the policy settings to do that. We’ve got to allow manufacturing, we’ve got to encourage manufacturing, not follow this silly notion that we shouldn’t manufacture stuff. I think we’ve I think we’ve been disavowed of that, after during the pandemic, when you couldn’t get toilet paper, and you couldn’t get a face mask, and you couldn’t get medication. If someone I know couldn’t get their heart hasn’t been able to get their heart medication for three months and has to take a generic, the generic doesn’t work. It doesn’t reduce blood pressure. So I mean, it’s really problematic that we don’t manufacture things. And so if I was talking specifically about Australia, we need to in that particular situation, we’d need to keep our tax rates reasonable and increase our reduce the bureaucracy. And the problem we have is we have too many things the government is controlling and monitoring. And the problem with that is that takes up too much time from the business owner, therefore they can’t focus on innovation, they’re focused entirely on compliance. The only companies that survive compliance are big companies, where compliance is a much smaller percentage of the operating cost of the business. So if you’re, you know, you’re turning over 6 million a year or more, then it’s still a pretty big burden. If you’re turning over a billion a year, then compliance is just something you outsource to KPMG. And you can get away with that or someone similar or VAs or something. So you can outsource it to a middle small or large accounting firm, but, but to some extent, we just we put too much burden on business in Australia. And that really is the thing that does damage. And we need to encourage people to think outside the existing power paradigm of businesses, you know, we need to think of new and interesting types of businesses and create new and interesting business. And we need to just enable those conditions. So the conditions really are that you basically give people a little bit less bureaucracy, but it’s not just you can set a tax rate of 21%, you can set a tax rate of 28%. There’s pluses and minuses. But increasing sales tax, for example, would be very bad for the economy. But on the other hand, you could do that if you reduced compliance burdens elsewhere. So there’s always trade offs and everybody who’s in this field. Probably sympathises empathises and feels pain you say to her trade offs, but but that’s what it is. There’s trade offs, but Australia should basically encourage more dynamic manufacturing related industries and not promote so much very single minded large corporations controlling everything we have. We have a bit of a problem with that we’re going to we’re going to hit a hit a wall one day if we don’t watch ourselves.

Gene Tunny  40:16

Right, I’d like to ask also about how housing policy or urban development policy is one problem in Australia, and also some other cities while other countries and their prominent cities around the world. It’s becoming so expensive to live in them. And some economists are saying, well, that’s because of zoning policies which prevent developing redeveloping existing properties. There’s all this protection of existing a world heritage or character properties. Is that an issue?

Christopher Hire  40:48

I’m not so knowledgeable in that I’m not so knowledgeable in zoning, I did attend an excellent presentation. I can’t remember his last name is Italian gentleman, you should have him on the show. Sergio. He from where he’s from, I can send you his details. He’s written a book called The End of the Australian dream or something along those lines. And I’m sorry to say, Gee, I can’t remember the exact title it is sitting on my desk, but I haven’t had an exact title or something like that. He talks about greater density housing and things like that, I think I think more I would probably lean his understanding of that. I would say there’s an optimum rate of density. And there’s an optimum population size for cities before you get problems. So when cities go over 4 million pop, they hit problems. And I think there’s rings a population that makes ideal size cities. And so Melbourne’s problem started once it got a bit above 4 million, and didn’t have the infrastructure to support the extra million. And that’s sort of course Melbourne. transport infrastructure, you drive three kilometres and it takes you 45 minutes, you get a transport three kilometres, it takes you 35 minutes, it takes you 37 minutes to walk. So you’re almost better off walking if the tram breaks down. So if you’ve got to walk, if you cycle, but you’ve got to change clothes, and you’ve got to, you know, have a shower probably, or at least end of trip facility size, it’s very becomes a very difficult problem for when you hit that extra million. I don’t envy the public servants got to solve it.

Gene Tunny  42:23

Yeah, gotcha. Okay, Christopher to wrap up, is there anything we’ve, we’ve missed it or anything important that you’d like to, to explain or to talk about, regarding your innovation Cities Index?

Christopher Hire  42:36

Yeah, I’ll probably just give a summary because there’s a lot in it to unpack. But I would say that it’s an index that basically measures the ability of cities to have conditions for innovation. So it’s sort of correlates to where you would want to live, where you might want to work and play. And if you’re using it just in a general way, you’d look for cities where your language that you prefer, if it’s not English, is dominant. So if you were Spanish speaking, you might move to Barcelona, you might look at Barcelona, if you were speaking various dialects of Chinese, you might look there’s a list of Chinese cities in there, which are favourable, and and might depend on a whole series of characteristics. But =in the end, you might look at the politics to say, well, I want a Democrat city or a left leaning city, then you end up in Chicago. But if you are New York or something like that, but New York’s a bit more complicated, but if you want a more right leaning city, you might end up in Miami, or you might end up in Dallas, Fort Worth so so it’s sort of it’s there’s a balance for everyone in there. And we’re not trying to judge too much. And force anything, we’re just saying, there’s a general tendency mathematically, for cities that do a bunch of things. Well, but not best. You don’t have to be perfect. You just do them well enough, you will actually get ahead and the cities will become better places. And that’s really what we’re saying is they’re the sort of perennial cities like Paris and London always do well, because hey, everybody moves there, no matter what happens, you read a book about 1940s Paris, and pay it how horrible it was. You read a book about 1980s, Paris 1990s. There was a period in the 90s when Paris went for route, dark decade, I think, and then bounces back you know, so people will move to New York again, people will move to London again, their perennial cities and just the same as Tokyo is the Japanese perennial city and I think Seoul is becoming a perennial city now. So and I think Sydney and Melbourne will eventually be perennial cities as well. So Brisbane is on its way.

Gene Tunny  44:38

Yeah, because they get that critical mass you get the or the accumulation of knowledge and know how in the city, you get these established businesses and yeah, and so it’s a matter of population and skills and and the right policy settings. So, yeah, okay, well, that’s great, Christopher, I’ll put a link in the show notes to innovation Cities Index. And I’ll have another look through the, well, I’ll have a look through the, the all of the different indicators that go into it.

Christopher Hire  45:18

I could send you some links that people can download the actual indicators, not the data, obviously, we sell that, but the list of indicators. And also, I’ll send you a link to a newsletter we putting out we’ll start putting out on substack. So oh, it’s much easier to put it out in a newsletter format. It’s still early stages in the newsletter, but it’s just that we’re putting that out in stages, because it’s better than trying to put it out as one big block. Once a year sort of thing. So we think it’s better to trickle it out. And we go.

Gene Tunny  45:49

What’s your substack newsletter called?

Christopher Hire  45:53

Innovation cities. innovations.com hasn’t got a dash in that line, because they won’t allow a dash in that one. So and websites got innovation-cities.com, but the substack just innovationcities.substack.com

Gene Tunny  46:06

Good one. Okay. So, Christopher Hire, thanks so much for your time. I’ve really enjoyed talking about innovation cities. It’s been terrific. Thank you.

Christopher Hire  46:15

Thank you very much, Gene. And thanks to your listeners for listening to the podcast to the end. So I’ve heard this message, they heard the end. Thanks a lot. If anybody’s got any questions, they can hit me up.

Gene Tunny  46:26

Excellent. Thanks, Christopher. 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 contact@economicsexplore.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

Structural budget deficits – EP164

he governments of many countries have structural budget deficits, so even as their economies recover from the COVID-recession they are still running deficits. In many countries, the fundamental structure of the budget is bad. There is too much spending relative to revenue, even in normal or good times, not just in recession. In this episode we explore how economists can calculate structural budget balances. We look specifically at what the Australian Treasury does, given that a new Australian Budget came out last week.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Australian structural budget balance indicators available here:

https://budget.gov.au/2022-23-october/content/bp1/download/bp1_bs-3.pdf

Australian Treasury methodology for estimating structural budget balances:

https://treasury.gov.au/publication/economic-roundup-issue-3-2010/economic-roundup-issue-3-2010/estimating-the-structural-budget-balance-of-the-australian-government

IMF Fiscal Monitor which contains cyclically-adjusted budget balances (Tables A3 and A4):

https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/FM

Media coverage of Australian budget:

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/jim-chalmers-takes-forensic-approach-to-tax-concessions/news-story/25c4e1be826abb87f27c918532a69614

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/bill-shorten-admits-push-to-curb-ndis-cost-growth/news-story/8a15cb3daabd55961e35df957f206bcf

IFS analysis of UK mini budget:

https://ifs.org.uk/articles/mini-budget-response

Transcript: Structural budget deficits – EP164

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored. 

So I think this is a really neat methodology that the treasurer is trying to break down the different influences on the budget to see what’s really going on. And what it reveals is that there’s this structural problem with the budget. 

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 164 on structural budget balances, government budgets around the world was smashed by COVID-19. With countries recording huge deficits and big increases in debt. The governments of many countries have structural budget deficits. So even as their economies recover, they are still running deficits. In many countries, the fundamental structure of the budget is bad. There is too much spending relative to revenue, even in normal times, not just in recession. For example, the IMF estimates the United States will have a structural or cyclically adjusted government budget deficit of five to 7% of GDP over 2023 to 2027. In this episode, we explore how economists can calculate structural budget balances, we consider the different components of budgets, the structural, cyclical and temporary. We look specifically at what the Australian Treasury does, given that a new Australian budget came out last week. Joining me for the conversation is my Adept Economics colleague, Arturo Espinoza. Please check out the show notes relevant links and clarifications and for details where he can get in touch with any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Righto, now for my conversation with Arturo on structural budget balances, thanks for my audio engineer Josh Crotts assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Arturo, good to be with you again.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  01:49

Hi Gene. My pleasure to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:51

Excellent. Arturo, so I thought today we could have a good chat about this concept of a structural budget balance. So we had our federal budget, the Australian government budget was released last week. So for 2023, the financial year. And this was because we have a new government. So there was an election in May. And there was a change of government, we now have a Labour government. So a more left wing government than the previous government, which was the Liberal National Government, the coalition government, and in Australia, a Liberal government is actually a conservative government. It’s all very confusing. Right, so we had a change of government and there was some improvement in the current year budget balance because of higher commodity prices, which flow through to, to earnings to and to tax revenue, that the federal government pulls in, particularly from the big mining companies. So there was an improvement in that underlying what they call the underlying cash balance. But this federal government is still running quite significant deficits. So it’s still running a deficit of some $37 billion, this financial year, the previous government did its budget back in May, I think they were projecting that up around must have been nearly 80 billion, I can’t remember exactly. But it was an improvement on that. But it’s still one and a half percent of GDP at $37 billion. And then over what they call the forward estimates, which is out to 25-26. We’ve still got deficits in the range of 40 to $50 billion, approximately, and, you know, up to 2% of GDP is in 24-25. So we’ve still got significant deficits. And the problem that we’re seeing in Australia, and this is similar to in other countries, too, is that governments are just spending much more than they’re bringing in in revenue. I mean, I guess that’s what a deficit is, right? I mean, that’s, but but there’s a problem that, that because of politics, because no one wants to pay taxes, politicians don’t want to put up taxes, and they want to deliver the goodies, they want to fund a high level of services for the population, and that helps them get elected. And so we’ve got this, this problem, this imbalance between what they’re spending and what they’re bringing in in taxes. And this is where I think this structural budget balance concept is of great use. And I just want to talk about that. So does that make sense Arturo, what we’re going to cover today?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  04:45

Yeah, that makes sense. It also is a very interesting topic related to government debts and this structural budget.

Gene Tunny  04:58

Yeah, yeah. So It’s always a concept that’s fascinated me. So I used to work in the Treasury in the budget policy area. And when I was there, we didn’t produce this structural budget balance estimate, and there was a big debate about whether Australia should have one and whether it’s feasible to develop one because as we’ll discover, you have to make all sorts of assumptions to generate it. It’s it, there’s a there’s a bit of, you know, there’s there, there’s a bit of number crunching that goes into it. And you have to make all sorts of assumptions regarding, well, what’s the normal state of affairs, because one way of thinking about this structural budget balance is that it’s what the budget would be if you took away the cyclical or cyclical factors. So if you if you’re able to abstract or control for the business cycle, so whether the economy is booming, or whether it’s slumping, then it gives you the budget balance that you would get in that situation, because one of the problems with the standard budget balance as a, as a measure of how the gut of the government is performing in a fiscal sense is that it is what economists call endogenous, it’s determined, partly, it’s determined or largely as determined by the state of the economy is determined within the system, it’s endogenous. It’s not something that the government can, can totally set, exogenously or it doesn’t have full control over it. Because your level of taxes depend on the state of the economy and commodity prices in Australia, if the iron ore prices is really high, or the coal price is high, then BHP, Rio Tinto, et cetera, the big mining companies, they’re only more profits and the federal government, it gets a share that it gets about 30% of their profits. So yeah, that can have a, you know, that can mean billions of dollars to the budget bottom line. And so that’s why we see the budget balance, it’s, it moves with the economic cycle, and so your government could be running a deficit. But that could be understandable, given the state of the economy. And so the underlying budget is okay, the structural part of the budget is okay, that’s not the case with Australia, but I’m just using that as an illustration. So it may be useful. Well, I think it is very useful to adjust for those cyclical factors. And that’s what the Australian Treasury has done in what I think is one of the most useful charts in the budget, which is in their statement on the fiscal outlook chart 320, the structural budget balance. And that really tells a story, it tells a story about how within the federal budget, because of this, this gap between what the government is spending money on and what we’re paying in taxes. So if government spending is at a level of around 26% of GDP. And revenue is under 24% of GDP. Or maybe it’s 25. And 23. It’s sort of that sort of order of magnitude, or it’s those are approximate figures, I’ll put the right figures in the show notes, we’ve got this gap. And this is a permanent gap. It’s a structural gap. And this is what this chart shows of two percentage points of, or 2% of GDP. And this is baked into the budget. And this is what this structural budget balance chart shows. So what they’ve, what they’ve done is the they’ve worked out that structural factors, leading to a deficit of about 2% of GDP, cyclical factors, so the state of the economy, the state of commodity prices, the fact that the iron ore price is super high, the fact that the economy has been booming. What that’s doing is pushing up, or that’s improving the budget balance by looks like 1.8 or 1.9%. If you look at the chart, and what that is telling me and what that is, this is for the current financial year 22-23. What it’s telling me is that, well, if we didn’t have that, that structural problem in the budget where we’re just spending more than we’re, we’re bringing in, and that’s the case and that would be the case in a normal year, in an average year. If we just control the economic cycle. If we didn’t have that structural problem. And if we looked at what the strength of the economy is commodity prices, and the government should be running a budget surplus of nearly 2% of GDP, and in actual fact, it’s running a budget, a budget deficit of what is it, one and a half percent of GDP. So there’s this big, there’s this big gap, which, in a way, represents the additional demand that the government is generating in the economy that isn’t warranted, given the economic circumstances. So the government budget is highly stimulatory to the economy and that is arguably a problem for Well, I think it is a problem, it’s contributing to the inflationary situation that we have in the Australian economy at the moment. And likewise, governments around the world that are running large budget deficits, such as the US government, such as the UK Government are contributing to the inflationary situations in in those countries, because if you looked at what the budget should be, given the state of the economy, it should be in a lot better state than than it is now than then those budgets are now and that’s what this cyclically adjusted budget balance or structural budget balances is approximating. Okay, one of the other fascinating things in that chart, I should note, the Treasurer is prepared on the structural budget balance for Australia, is that in 22-23, there’s still a sizable impact over 1% of GDP coming from temporary fiscal measures. So these are things that are related to COVID 19, to the pandemic response. So even though, I mean, look, I know that COVID COVID is still around, and apparently we’ve got another wave coming. I mean, the worst part of the pandemic is over, but still there is a, we do have these temporary fiscal measures occurring. And so what that means is, yeah, so that’s, that’s something that’s contributing to the, the deficit here in Australia. So what that chart is telling us is that, look, the structural budget, the structural problem in the budget is around two percentage points, or 2% of GDP. The cyclical, the benefit to the budget from the improvement in the economic cycle and higher commodity prices is, is just under 2% of GDP. So what that would suggest is that, that would mean we’d have a budget deficit of just a fraction of GDP, like maybe point one or point 2% of GDP. But then we’ve got these. Actually, it might be point three or point four, I’ll have to check the numbers that don’t put the exact numbers in the charts. I’m just trying to eyeball and I’m not wearing my glasses. But then we’ve got this temporary fiscal measures, which is, which is worsening the budget by over 1% of GDP. And how these all sort of add up is that we end up with a budget deficit in 22-23. Of what was it, one and a half percent. So I think this is a really neat methodology that the treasurer is trying to break down the different influences on the budget to see what’s really going on. And what it reveals is that there’s this structural problem with the budget. And, you know, this is something that all treasuries and finance ministers should do, in my opinion. There are some IMF estimates for other countries we’ll talk about later, the Australian Treasury seems to be doing a really good job at its estimates, and it’s discovered this structural problem, this big hole in the budget. Okay, so does that all make sense Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  14:01

Yeah, that makes sense. That was very clear. This is incredible how Australia is spending around this, because you, you mentioned around two or 3% is spending more than what they receive in terms of revenue. But let’s explore what are the main components of that structure, structural deficit?

Gene Tunny  14:33

Yes, well, a big component, or one of the major contributors to it in recent years, has been the National Disability Insurance Scheme. So it’s this expansion of the welfare state. Now I’m not making any judgement about whether that’s a good idea or not, because it’s very popular, and it’s well intentioned and there are clearly a lot of people out there in need. One of the challenges with it, though, is that it is growing at a very high rate. So it’s not the total structural deficit, because it’s at the moment, I think it’s around $30 billion. So it’s not just the NDIS. It’s other things. And then we have, we’ve had various tax cuts in the past, there’s a stage three tax cut that’s programmed in. So there’s going to be a tax cut in 2024-25, which aims to get rid of one of the tax brackets and to flatten the progressivity of the tax system. And that’s going to cost the budget revenue. So it’s a combination of spending new spending programmes and spending programmes that are costing more money than were expected. Also, we’ve got rising interest, a rising interest bill at the moment because of higher interest rates. And then people on the left of politics would argue, Well, look, the the problem is, we’re just not raising enough in taxation, if you’re going to spend this and that, look, that’s one legitimate perspective. If the government is going to spend this much on a permanent basis, if we are committed to an NDIS, National Disability Insurance Scheme, then we will have to have higher taxes to make the budget sustainable in the long term. I mean, personally, I’d prefer that we’d have lower taxes, we would, we would, we would get spending under control. But look, if we can’t get spending under control, then we may have to, we may have to put up with that. So because ultimately, we do need a sustainable budget, we’ve got to keep that debt to GDP ratio under control. At the moment, the projections are that for Australia, it’s not looking catastrophic yet, luckily, I mean, it’s on the current budget projections, it’s going to get up to around 48% of GDP. So it’s going to plateau around that, by the What is it 2030 to 2033. There’s another chart where they’re projecting that in how that’s going to perform. So this is the debt to GDP, which is one of the critical ratios that commentators, economists, ratings agencies, like S&P and Fitch and Moody’s, what they look at. And I mean, Australia’s lucky we started off with so what we started off with no debt to begin with, in 2008, we had, we had negative net debt, and we only had $50 billion of bonds on issue. So we’re in a good position to start with, so we’re at, we’re only gonna get up to about 50% of GDP at the moment compared with you look at the states, which is the US it’s over. We had a look the other day, didn’t we? I mean, it’s up 120 to 130% of GDP or something. Yeah. Okay. It’s very high if you look at projections for actual data and projections for the US. So we’re, we’re nowhere near that what’s happening is that the outlook is worsening. So if you look at that Treasury chart and the budget, compared with where we were back in May, or back in April, when the government released its last budget, that’s right before the election, and then the Treasury put out the pre election, fiscal, economic and fiscal outlook, the instead of the gross debt to GDP ratio, peaking around 24-25 and then falling as the economy grows, and the debt doesn’t, doesn’t grow as fast, which was what they were previously forecasting back in April. And they had the gross debt to GDP ratio going to 40%. Instead, it’s going to continue to grow over this decade, and then start to flatten out around 2032 to 33 at around 48%. And I mean, who knows that could get worse. I mean, this out. So much depends on what happens with interest rates and a big part of this change, why things are worse now than they were back in April is one, it’s because this NDIS is growing, the cost of that is growing faster than expected. And also because of the higher interest burden. I think that’s really shocked people and this is something I’ve been calling out for a while I’ve been identifying for a while that this as interest rates rise, that’s going to have a big impact on the budget, because we’ve got so much debt already not as much as other countries but still more than we’ve had in the past. So well in the last few decades, okay, so does that answer your question Arturo? You’re asking about where’s it come from? And yeah, where’s that structural deficit come from? And look, it’s a, it’s a variety of things. It’s just our willingness to bear the taxes. It’s either you can either look at it as our unwillingness to pay the taxes that we need to to fund the level of services. That’s one perspective. That’s the perspective of people like The Australia Institute, they would argue that all these things we’re spending money on. So from a left wing perspective, I’m not making any judgments at the moment about, I mean, I’ve got my own personal judgement, but I’ll just present both sides of the story, they would argue we’re not, we’re not raising revenue. And then the people on the other side, they would like the IPA or whoever the right, they would argue, well, we’re actually spending too much relative to what we’re paying in taxes, the level of taxation is fine or should be cut even further, let’s cut expenditure. And the government itself is very conscious it, it doesn’t want to raise taxes, right, because raising taxes is politically unpopular. No one wants to buy any more tax. So it looks like the government itself recognises that it will have to cut spending. I mean, maybe it’ll try and tweaks and tax policy settings or, or cuts in tax concessions. Jim Chalmers, the Treasurer here who he’s talking about taking a forensic approach to tax concessions. There was a story in the Australian today, so it looks like they’re gonna have a look at some of those tax concessions, so who knows they could look at tax concessions for superannuation, and they could look at our concessional taxation of capital gains, things like that. So we’ll have to wait and see what happens there. But look in the IRS is the one that they really need to look at because it’s just growing at a very high rate. So let me try to illustrate that with some figures. So last week’s federal budget so I’m quoting from a report in the Australian day today revealed the NDIS which will cost the federal and state governments $35.5 billion this financial year is on track to hit 52 billion by 2025 26, dwarfing the costs of both Medicare and aged care. So long term Treasury forecasts suggests the federal government’s contribution to the scheme will grow by almost 14% a year for the next decade, with total scheme costs approaching 100 billion by 2030 to 33. It became operational in 2013. It currently has 555,000 participants. Its annual financial sustainability reports suggest numbers will reach almost 860,000 by 2030. More young people with diagnoses of autism and psychosocial disorders are entering the scheme. Almost a third of current participants have an autism diagnosis. And four and 10 are age 14 and under. So this is an illustration of one of the challenges of public services. I think because there is a lot of need out there are a lot of people who are doing it tough or there’s a lot of need in the community. And as soon as the government gets involved, there are a lot of pressures on the government to expand the level of service to increase the level of service. This is a great challenge for the government. I remember when I was in workplace health and safety here in Queensland, it’s nearly 20 years ago now. I remember the policy discussions around the need to look after people who are catastrophically injured. This NDIS has come out of a need to at least look after people who fell through the cracks of the previous system. What happened years ago was if you were catastrophically injured say you had a diving accident. And it was recreational diving. You weren’t covered by any insurance. Okay, there’s, it’s it wasn’t a motor vehicle accident. It wasn’t a workplace accident. And there would be very high costs of care if you were made quadriplegic, for example, but there’s no insurance to cover you. And so there was this concern that there are these people who are missing out. And so there’s clearly some sort of there was a need definitely to do something to help those people out. And this whole NDIS from what I can tell grew out of that conversation that was occurring around the early 2000s because I remember being part of the conversation at the Queensland Government level and some of the policy development there and then it came out of this 2008, the 2020 summit that Kevin Rudd organised his ideas fest that they had in the talk fest that they had at Parliament House and, and they invited 1000 of the best and brightest from around Australia. And this was one of the ideas that was advanced at the summit. And, this was one of the ones that progressed and then the Gilad government introduced that I think in 2013. And look, it’s a really valid thing. There is certainly cases, people that needed assistance. The problem is where do you draw the line, and this is a problem that governments often have. And here, the line has become, the circle has expanded even more. And I mean, people or families with autism, and with developmental delay, certainly need assistance. And I’m on the board of a non-for-profit that advocates for families where a child has a developmental delay, so I fully understand the concerns. And the need. The issue is that there’s a big cost to the budget from having this expansive definition. And the government is currently I mean, we’ll have to wait and see what it what it does about it all. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  26:23

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Gene Tunny  26:52

Now back to the show. So any questions or any thoughts on that Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  27:01

No, at the moment..

Gene Tunny  27:02

Good. So yeah, that’s essentially where we’ve got this structural budget balance problem coming from Australia. And I thought it might be good just to go over quickly, what the different sources or the different ways that they adjust for the state of the economy. And what it comes down to is coming up with estimates of how the economy would have performed, what it would do in the absence of a business cycle. So you have to work out what a trend level of GDP is. So the if you think about macro economics, one way of thinking about how the economy evolves over time is a cycle and trend. There’s the economy. Over time, we know that the economy expands. So the economy today is much larger than it was 10 years ago, it’s much larger than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. So over time it grows, there’s trend growth, it’s on an upward trajectory. But it will cycle around that trend. So you can have periods where you’re well above that trend when the economy’s booming. And then you can have periods when you’re, you’re well below you’re in a recession, for example. And so what these structural budget balance estimates, what they do, is they will they based on an estimate of what that trend level of GDP would be. And so what they will do, what the Treasury will do, if they will look at, well, what’s the underlying population growing at? What’s productivity, on average growing at? And are there any trends in labour force participation that we need to take into account? And this is this supply side model, underpinning these trend GDP estimates? So these are what you would expect in the absence of a business cycle. And so that’s one of the core parts of it, they’re trying to control the business cycle. And then they also have to control commodity prices. So they’ll look at well, how much higher than we normally are commodity prices, the iron ore price or coal price, how much higher are they than we normally expect them to be? And let’s discount that, let’s, let’s, let’s assume that they’re not so high. And so the Treasury will have these parameters. They’ll have these sensitivities of different types of these revenue, items of income tax and company income tax, two different commodity prices they’ll have, and they’ll have an estimate of how sensitive the unemployment benefits that are paid are to the state of the economy to where GDP is relative to its trend. And I think that’s the one item that the Treasury adjusts. So it tweaks it adjust revenue on the revenue side and adjusts income tax and company tax. And I think capital gains tax, if I remember correctly on the expenditure side, it just adjusts unemployment benefits. We know that unemployment benefit payments are going to be higher if the economy’s in recession, lower if it’s, if it’s booming. And so there’s an adjustment that’s made there. And there’s a whole bunch of assumptions that go into these estimates. Does that all make sense Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  30:39

Yes, it’s all clear.

Gene Tunny  30:42

Okay, so what I’ll do is I’ll put a link in the show notes to a paper estimating the structural budget balance of the Australian government that was by three of my old colleagues. So Tony McDonald, Yong Hong Yan, who I don’t know, Blake Ford and David Stephan, I worked with Tony, Blake and David. So all good people. So that’s a great paper. I’ll link to that in the show notes. And I’ve noticed that the IMF also produces some estimates of these structural budget balances, although they call them, they use the other, the other name for them cyclically adjusted balance, and you can find these at the back of what’s called the IMF fiscal monitor. And I’m looking at the one from October 2022. So check that out. There’s a whole range of interesting estimates there. So if for example, you look at table A3 for advanced economies, general governments cyclically adjusted balance 2013, to 27. So it’s got historical data, it’s got forecasts in it. For Australia, they’ve got their own estimates of what the structural budget deficit is, they’ve got estimates that go from around, or three and a half percent in 2022. So that’s a calendar year 3.1%, deficit and 2324 to 2.6%. And it gets down to about .7%, deficit in 2027. So not as bad as the Australian Treasury’s estimates, which are, which have the structural deficit maintaining around 2%. There are reasons why the IMF figures are different from the Australian Government’s because the IMF, the IMF doesn’t take into account as many factors. It’s on a calendar year basis, the Treasury and I think in one of its papers, it goes through why it’s estimates are different from say, the IMF or the OECD, I think for Australia, the Treasury are probably doing a better job at it just because the IMF and and the other agency, international agencies, they have to do it for all the countries and they’re not experts in any particular country. I think the Australian Treasury’s estimates are probably better for getting a sense of the structural problem in the budget, the Treasury has got access to, to much better info, much better data on Australia, then the IMF, it’s got much better insights, I should say, into what’s going on. And its model for the structural budget balance for Australia is much more precise. It goes into more detail than the IMF. So all I’m saying is I think the, I think the Australian Treasury numbers are better than what the IMF is, is estimating there. And I tend to agree that there is that structural budget balance of, of 2% of GDP, which is a challenge for this current government, and will probably be a challenge for future governments. And it’s going to require either large cuts in spending. So getting the NDIS under control, which is going to be hugely unpopular, because it’s a very popular programme and well intentioned. And I know people are benefiting from it. And you know, it’s, it’s, it’s giving people a sense of dignity and improving people’s quality of life. So look, who knows, I mean, this government, because it’s a government from the sort of left wing I mean, it’s not as left wing as some other governments you’d see around the world. It’s not left if you think about what left, left wing governments are in South America, for example. But it’s not. It’s going to find it difficult because it is more left wing than right wing. So the Liberal National Government is going to find it difficult to cut something like NDIS or cut welfare benefits, and hence maybe it does have to look at some tax measures. Maybe it does have to cut it tax concessions heavily. Maybe it does have to adjust that stage three tax cut that’s programmed in, maybe not give us much of much, maybe not have such a big tax cut. We’ll have to wait and see. Okay. Anything else Arturo, that we should cover before we wrap up?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  35:21

Yes, I think I wanted to highlight that it should be a good discussion was a good topic to see which of those programmes social programmes are working? Good in terms of indicators. So in terms of the results on population, you’re in to see if there is any problem there. But because we know that not all the things are all the social programmes are working well. Perhaps that will be a good topic to discuss, to discuss in other episodes.

Gene Tunny  36:04

Yeah, look, I think you’re right there. And what this is highlighting I think, Arturo is yes, the need to, to really delve into whether these programmes are working or not, because we’ve got these programmes that are well intentioned, that governments they hope to do some good to achieve outcomes, but how do we know that they are actually achieving outcomes? Are they doing it in the most cost effective way? And that’s why something like this evaluate a general concept could be so valuable. This is an idea that the first person I remember proposing it was Nicolas Gruen. And so Nick’s been on the show before, well known Australian economist, CEO of lateral economics, I do some work with Nick from time to time. And, you know, he’s been involved in public policy for decades, he was involved with the button car plan back in the 80s. He was involved with your work for the treasurer in the 90s, very lateral thinker, and he came up with this idea of the evaluator general, which would have a, it would have a brief of going across the Australian Government and figuring out which programmes work, which don’t, are there other ways we do things, other innovative ways we can do things to, to solve problems. And it looks like this government is going to go ahead with some sort of evaluator general. So Jim Chalmers has pledged to put in place an effective and rigorous evaluator general and new offers based within treasury and flagged by Labour before the 2019 election, which could work with other departments to access to assess the effectiveness of government programmes. Okay, great stuff. So this is in an article by Joe Kelly in the Australian, I’ll put a link in the show notes that I was quoting from there. I think one of the issues Nick has with that proposal, though, is that it’s located within the Treasury, I think he would prefer that it has its own life, it’s outside of the Treasury. It’s a statutory authority, it has some degree of independence granted by the parliament. So yeah, I don’t think Nick’s actually I can’t speak for him. I should have him on the show to talk about that. But I’m guessing he’s probably thinks that that’s not exactly what we need. But look, I should let him. Let him speak about that in the future. So that’s the evaluator general. So I think that’s the sort of thing you’re driving at is it Arturo? That we, because we need to evaluate these programmes. The evaluator General’s one way of doing that. Exactly. So one thing I thought I should cover before we wrap up, is just what happened with the UK earlier. When was it last month? Or remember, they had their mini budget, maybe it was in September now? They had the mini budget, Liz Truss the new PM, no longer PM, shortest reigning PM in British history. And the chancellor Kwasi kwarteng, I think it was, and they released that mini budget with a big tax cut, and the markets just absolutely went nuts. The pound crashed. We had yields on UK bonds spike, because everyone there and this is the recognition that there was a structural problem already with the UK budget, the UK couldn’t afford to have a tax cut, who was going to spend, go on spending what it was spending, and it’s just quite extraordinary the way that the Institute of Fiscal Studies describe that and I’ll put a link to this in the show notes, I think it’s a great note and some really good take on it. The way they describe that mini budget, which has been reversed because the current, there’s a recognition that it was unsustainable, so we’ve got a new PM now and a new chancellor, and they’re, and they’re, they’ve reversed that. I think Liz truss, had even reversed it. And she had sacked her Chancellor, but okay, so it’s gone. But for a short time it was in place and the markets absolutely freaked out. And yeah, this is the IFS take, which I think is great, which was made at the time the chancellor announced the biggest package of tax cuts in 50 years without even a semblance of an effort to make the public finance numbers add up. That is just brutal. Goes to show just how important it is to actually care about this stuff. And I mean, I’ve been saying this for years, I used to work in the Treasury in the budget area, and I know how important it is to get this stuff right and not to go and do silly things. And so I understand where IFS is coming from and understand why the markets really just hated that mini budget. And there’s a great, there’s a great chart and that IFS analysis, which showed that if you look at what was happening to the, to the national debt or the the UK public debt, if you compare that mini budget, what would have happened with the mini budget was what was expected before so instead of the debt as a percent of national income, staying in the range from 80 to 85%, of GDP going down gradually, over the next five years, from around 85 to 80. Instead, it was going to end up going from a bit under 85% to nearly 95%. So it’s just a really bad policy. So understandably, that mini budget was absolutely. Yeah, I mean, the markets just reacted very badly and essentially brought down the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, just because, yeah, it was just very irresponsible fiscal policy. And that’s what we’ve always got to guard against now. We’re not there yet in Australia because we started off in such a good position, debt to GDP is still relatively low compared with other countries. We’ve got a bit of room, still we’ve got time, we’ve got time to turn it around. But we’ve got to start doing something because we just can’t be in a situation where we keep accumulating debt. And we know, we know there’ll be another crisis of some kind, there’ll be a downturn, hopefully, we don’t have another pandemic, but there’s going to be another crisis, there’ll be a period when we end up adding lots of debt in a short period of time or a few years. And that will mean a higher interest burden, these projections of our debt to GDP, starting to flatten out around 2032 to 33 at 48% of GDP. Okay, that could give us some comfort, but we just don’t know what’s coming down the track. My worry is that interest rates could go higher. There could be another downturn or a crisis and then we add more debt on and then that gross debt to GDP, instead of flattening out it goes on an upward trajectory. That’s a risk I worry about and why it’s so important to get the budget under control. Okay. Final thoughts, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  43:39

No, thank you for all your explanation Gene.

Gene Tunny  43:43

Very good. Well, it’s been great chatting with you, Arturo. And I’ll look forward to chatting again. And if you’re listening in the audience, if you want to look at any of these, these articles I’ve mentioned, I’ll put links in the show notes. Please get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know whether you agree or disagree. Let me know if they’re things you want to know more about, and I’ll do my best to cover them in a future episode. So thanks for listening. And Arturo, thanks for joining me.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  44:14

Thank you for having me, Gene. Bye.

Gene Tunny  44:17

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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

Categories
Podcast episode

Slouching Towards Utopia w/ Brad DeLong – EP163

Slouching Towards Utopia is the new book from Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics at University of California, Berkeley. Professor DeLong joins show host Gene Tunny to discuss the long twentieth century from 1870 to 2010. The conversation considers the three factors which came together to massively raise living standards post-1870, and how nonetheless we’ve struggled to achieve the Utopia that once appeared possible. The “neoliberal turn” beginning in the 1970s and 1980s is considered, and DeLong explains why he writes that “Hayek and his followers were not only Dr. Jekyll–side geniuses but also Mr. Hyde–side idiots.”

You can buy Slouching Towards Utopia via this link and help support the show:

https://amzn.to/3TK4evm

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

Highlights

  • The big story after 1870: technological progress becomes rapid, the technological competence of the human race globally doubles every generation. [6:50]
  • The importance of industrial research labs in the big story since 1870 [16:35]
  • The role of the modern corporation [18:23]
  • Globalization in the late nineteenth century and pre WWI [23:25]
  • How bad governance can make a country very poor very quickly [29:09]
  • The neoliberal turn [35:56]
  • Prof. DeLong thinks the big lesson of history is that trying to maintain social and economic systems past their sell-by date doesn’t work [58:28]

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest: Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong is a professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a weblogger at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and a fellow of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. He received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1982 and 1987. He joined UC Berkeley as an associate professor in 1993 and became a full professor in 1997.

Professor DeLong also served in the U.S. government as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy from 1993 to 1995. He worked on the Clinton Administration’s 1993 budget, on the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, on the North American Free Trade Agreement, on macroeconomic policy, and on the unsuccessful health care reform effort.

Before joining the Treasury Department, Professor DeLong was Danziger Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. He has also been a John M. Olin Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University, and a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at M.I.T.

Links relevant to the conversation

Brad DeLong’s substack:

https://braddelong.substack.com/

DeLong on Hobsbawm’s short 20th century (1914 to 1989) compared with his long 20th century:

https://www.bradford-delong.com/2016/12/the-short-vs-the-long-twentieth-century.html

Re. Yegor Gaidar’s analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union:

https://sites.dartmouth.edu/asamwick/2007/06/08/the-soviet-collapse-grain-and-oil/

Lant Pritchett’s book Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility:

https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/9781933286105-Pritchett-let-their-people-come.pdf

Transcript: Slouching Towards Utopia w/ Brad DeLong – EP163

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Brad DeLong  00:02

2008 you seemed to see the engine of technological progress itself drop into a lower gear slow down by half or more. Starting in 2012-2013, we see the rise of anti democratic movements all over the world.

Gene Tunny  00:23

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 163, on Slouching Towards Utopia, the new book from the renowned US economist, Brad DeLong. He joins me this episode. Brad DeLong, is professor of economics at the University of California Berkeley. From 1993 to 95. He was deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury for economic policy, and slashing towards utopia. Professor DeLonge explores why, despite the incredible increase in our productivity since 1870, we have failed to achieve a utopia. DeLong argues that what he calls the long 20th century began in 1870 mended by 2010, after which a productivity slowdown and stagnant wages have contributed to political discontent around the world. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and details of how you can get in touch with any comments or suggestions. I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to buy Professor Long’s book, very grateful if you could do so via the Amazon page link in the show notes. By doing so you’ll help support the show. Right oh, now it’s my conversation with Professor Brad DeLong on Slouching Towards Utopia. Thanks to Nicholas Gruen for connecting us and to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Brad DeLong thanks for appearing on the programme.

Brad DeLong  02:02

It’s wonderful for me to be here. Right. Might help me sell some books. Excellent. Something I’m very, very interested in right now.

Gene Tunny  02:09

Excellent. Yes, yes. I hope to help you do that. And hopefully if people in the audience if they enjoy the conversation, and I’m sure they will, I’ll put a link in the show notes for sure for to your book. So I’ve been I’ve been reading your book and enjoying it.

Brad DeLong  02:20

Thank you very much. 

Gene Tunny  02:23

Yes, I’m the Kindle. Nicholas Gruen put me on to it. So Nick’s a big fan, too.

Brad DeLong  02:33

Yes. Yeah. So I’m very grateful to him for spreading the word.

Gene Tunny  02:37

Yes, yes. And it’s Slouching Towards Utopia in economic history of the 20th century. Brad, I’d like to kick off by asking, What motivated you to write the book? And what message are you trying to convey with the title, please?

Brad DeLong  02:53

Well, I suppose I started. I guess it really was reading Eric Hobsbawm’s, Age of Extremes, you know, back in 1994. And thinking that the story he was telling wasn’t the big story, that what he was telling was only a relatively small part of the big story. And that someone should write a book that told the other big story of history after 1870. And so I grossed about that for a couple of years. And in 1998, I thought, since no one else was writing it, maybe I should write the big story. And so I wrote a chapter to kind of put a stake in the ground and started showing it around, but you didn’t do anything else. And then maybe a decade, a decade and a half later, an editor from basic Tim Sullivan came around and said, You know, someone should write this, that someone should be you, you’re clearly not, why don’t we put you under contract. So I can call you once a year and yell at you about where the manuscript is. Um, and, you know, he did that. And to get into that once a year, that was a call and so forth. And then eventually, I just kind of buckled down and wrote the thing. Then, after writing the first draft, I had to take the chainsaw to it, because it was twice as big as the book that was published. And then after that, we had to polish it, and was out there in the world, you know, spiffy and polished and shrunken down considerably from the project I originally attempted. But it’s out there in the world. And I’m, I actually like it a lot, which I didn’t expect to at this point. At this point. I expected to be sick of it and thinking there was a lot wrong with it, then I find but I’m not thinking that way.

Gene Tunny  04:45

Okay. Yes. Well, that’s good. I mean, I think it’s, I think it’s terrific. And, I mean, it’s still a big book, it’s still 600 pages or so. So it’s still very, very meaty. I was impressed by all of the examples. In history, I didn’t know things that I found fascinating. So thank you. Yes. One thing I didn’t appreciate until I read your book. And maybe I’ve just missed this in other places, but the role of the Saudis in ending the Soviet Union, I didn’t appreciate how much when they increased oil output in the 80s. I think that’s the story, isn’t it? That meant the Russians or the Soviets weren’t earning as much income from their own production and that effect. Yeah. Yeah. I thought that was.

Brad DeLong  05:32

This was this was what the late Yegor Gaidar always insisted on, you know, that as long as the Soviet Union could trade oil for grain, the fact that the system was so sclerotic, they were unable to figure out a way to grow more grain at all was, you know, a problem, but not a crisis. But then the price of oil falls by two thirds and 1986, you know, as the Saudis react to with current, what’s currently going on in the Iran, Iraq War, and other things, and all of a sudden, the Soviet Union has to start borrowing if it wants to import its grain, and it starts borrowing from banks. And then the banks begin to say no. And then it goes and starts borrowing, starts asking for loan guarantees from Western governments. And then the demands come for well, we’ll guarantee these loans, but we want you to kind of be cooperative and open with respect to politics and democracy and things. And then the whole system simply collapses. It’s really quite an interesting story. Yegor Gaidar, Gaidar has a short speech he gave, I think, at the American Enterprise Institute called something like grain and oil. It’s very much worth reading,

Gene Tunny  06:50

RIght. Okay. Well, that’s good. I’ll see if I can track it down and put a link in the show notes. I mean, that’s one of many examples of, of good stories in the book, I look, I’d like to go back to what you mentioned about Eric Hobsbawm, who’s a Marxist historian, if I remember correctly, and you’re saying that you think he got the he missed the big story of what happened after 1870? Could you please explain what was he saying? And how is what you’re saying? What what do you think the big story is, please,

Brad DeLong  07:19

Eric’s big story is that you know once upon a time, there was Vladimir Lenin, there was the Bolshevik Revolution. And it created world communism, which was the world’s only hope for utopia. And in the end, world communism was betrayed by exterior enemies outside it, and by interior enemies inside of it, and it expired. But before it expired, I managed to defeat the worst tyranny in human history, the Nazis, because without the Soviet Union, the Nazis would probably still be ruling Europe. And when it expired, that brought the end of human hopes for a really good society. And, you know, from my perspective, this is a story. It’s kind of the story of the Soviet Union as tragic hero betrayed internally and externally is, you know, it’s a story that is, in some ways, simply total bonkers. Unless you’re a strong believer in world communism, as it was formed in the middle of the 20th century, you know, and Eric was right, Eric was, you know, a young Jewish teenager in Berlin in the early 1930s. You’re watching The Nazis marched past calling for the immediate death of himself and all of his family in a time when everyone else was pussyfooting with the Nazis. And you know, only the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, Soviet led German Communist Party was willing to say, these are horrible people, we need to fight them. And so he made that political commitment as a teenager and you know, was never really able to outgrow it. I’m told that even at the end of his life, if you got a couple of drinks into him, you could get him to say that, you know, Stalin had been too harshly judged by history. And a very smart guy, you know, very learned historian, desperately trying to get it right. Yeah. And the fact that someone like me thinks he could still get it so wrong is very much a cautionary tale about how I should not be proud. And be aware that other people are likely to judge me in the future the way I judge Eric.

Gene Tunny  09:30

Right. And so what do you think is the big story after 1870? So you’ve got to, you’ve got a more optimistic view of history, obviously.

Brad DeLong  09:39

Yeah. Yeah. Well, maybe that 1870 really is the hinge of history. Right. But, you know, before 1870, your technological progress is slow. And you know about infant mortality is extremely high. You’re going to see half your babies die before you’re five. And do something like 1/3 of women are going to wind up without surviving sons, should they be lucky enough to reach 50? themselves? And do you know when the pre 1870 high patriarchy world you reach 50 without a surviving son, you have no social power whatsoever, you know, you have absolutely no account, you have no one to advocate for you. And so before 1870, pretty much whenever there was an improvement in human technology, the response was, oh, great, now I can try to have more kids and raise the chances I’ll have surviving sons above two thirds. And so you’ll from minus 6000, BC, on up to 1870. There is a lot of improvement in technology. Yes, and the upper class lives better, yes. But for most people, you know, you simply have 100, and you simply have a farm size only 102 50th as large potentially at 1870, as your ancestors had back in minus 6000. And you know, you’re still living at something like $3 a day, you’re spending 60% of your income on just getting your 2000 calories plus essential nutrients. And there are a lot of days when you can’t think about much other than you’re very hungry. And that’s the state of the world before 1870. And that means that unless you’re in an extremely lucky place, or like Australia, or an extremely lucky class, that life is going to be kind of brutal, short, and without very many options, which means that in most times in most places, governance is going to be how does an elite figure out how to grab enough for itself and maintain its rule over society. And after 1870, everything changes, technological progress becomes rapid. The technological competence of the human race globally doubles every generation, you quickly get a world in which people are kind of rich enough that infant mortality falls substantially. And with that falling infant mortality, and with the erosion of patriarchy, all of a sudden, you don’t have to concentrate a lot of effort on having children, to be confident that if you reach the age of 50, you’ll still be able to run your own life. And so you’ll we get the demographic transition, now headed toward a stable world population of 9 billion. So for the first time after 1870, technology wins the race with human fertility. And we begin to look forward to a time when humanity will be able to bake a sufficiently large economic pie so that everyone can have enough. And you know, people back in 1870, and before, you know, they thought most of the problems of society came because incomes were low, and technology was underdeveloped. And you had this elite running a kind of domination and exploitation game on everyone. And once you can bake a sufficiently large economic pie for everyone to have enough, those things should fall away. And the problems of properly slicing and tasting the economic pie, right? Have equitably distributing it and then utilising it so that people can feel safe and secure and live lives in which they’re healthy and happy. Yep, those should be relatively straightforward to solve. And so we today at least we today in the rich countries should be living in a utopia, which we are manifestly not. And so the story of history after 1870 is how we’re well on the way to solving the problem of baking a sufficiently large economic pie. While the problems of slicing and tasting of distributing and utilising it continues to flummoxed us.

Gene Tunny  13:57

So with 1870, that’s several decades after what is traditionally thought of as the start of the Industrial Revolution, is it and in there are a few things that come together. Around that time, would you be able to explain that please?

Brad DeLong  14:13

Well, I’d say that the industrial revolution itself, you know, that steam power and metallurgy and early engineering, you know, they were really really weren’t quite enough that they get the average rate at which technology improves along the world up to about half a percent per year. And of that maybe, maybe a third comes from the fact that you’re concentrating on that you can cut that you’re suddenly concentrating all the manufacturing of the world in the districts, most of them in England where manufacturing is most efficient. And you know, 1/3 of it comes from the underlying engine of science and discovery and engineering. And 1/3 of it comes because we were lucky enough that the last round of glaciers, that they scraped all the rock off of the coal around a huge chunk of Northwest Europe, which left you with a lot of coal at sea level that you could just pick up off the ground and ship it out. But come 1870 you’ve concentrated all the manufacturing and you know, you’re pretty much mining out the really easy coal and you have to go deeper, which is more expensive. But the possibility was that, you know, the industrial revolution would be not completely but largely over, except that in 1870, we got the development of the industrial research labs to rationalise and routinized the discovery and development of new technologies. And then the modern corporation, the modern corporate form to rationalise scrutinise, the development and deployment of technologies plus full globalisation, which provides us enormous incentives to deploy and diffuse technologies. And so all of a sudden, instead of half a percent per year, you had a 2% per year rate of global technological change. And while it was possible for human humanity to be fertile enough to kind of offset the half a percent per year technology growth before 1870 with greater fertility and a population explosion, after 1870, even the population explosion could not keep us poor. Yeah. And then we go through the demographic transition and the population explosion reaches its end.

Gene Tunny  16:35

Yeah. So this is the industrial research lab. So you’re talking about Thomas Edison in Menlo Park. 

Brad DeLong  16:41

Yeah, Menlo Park and others. You know, I like Nikola Tesla. Because, you know, Nikola Tesla was, I suppose today, we’d call him neurologically divergent. He’s definitely not neurotypical. Which means that unless you can slot him in exactly the right place, you know, where he has lots of people surrounding him who will tolerate him being in A-hole, and pickup which of the crazy ideas he has that might actually be useful unless you have George Westinghouse to build an industrial research lab, to surround him with and then the Westinghouse corporation to deploy his technologies. While Edison is General Electric, and others are frantically trying to keep up because, you know, Tesla knew how to make electrons get up and dance in the way that nobody else did. Without that Nikola Tesla would have been no use to humanity at all, as it was he personally pushed the entire electrical sector forward in time by a decade. And that’s a wonderful set of things. That’s a wonderful set of meta inventions. You know, that turns the process of technological development from being a difficult one in which you have an idea, but then you need to be a human resource department and a executive, a marketer and impresario, an advertiser you know, a well as an engineer, in order to get anything done to one in which engineers can engineer and find people who are good at the other things, to kind of surround them and do all the things you need to do to actually deploy a technology and make it useful. And that really only falls into place around 1870.

Gene Tunny  18:23

Right, okay, yep. And what about this modern corporation or the modern corporate form? So corporations have existed in some form since well, the first few centuries? I mean, the East India Company, the Dutch East Indies Indies Company, yes, yeah.

Brad DeLong  18:40

No, no, but still, they were relatively, they were relatively small things and they were tight have very special the fact that anyone could kind of organise a form in which us have a special royal charter as well. And the idea that anyone could set up a framework which would be a a large, internal, centrally planned division of labour, which could expand and copy itself, but also which had all of these interfaces with the market economy so that it was focused on producing the things that people wanted or at least that people with money wanted. This is something that allows once you have a good idea, and once you’ve built it in one factory, you know, it’s then very natural for the corporation to say, Okay, let’s build it over in the next town. And let’s expand the factory, let’s licence it, let’s move it to another country. You know, all of that only happens to all of what you know, management. The Business School professor Herbert Simon used to call these red islands of central planning, you know, in mesh to connected with the green lines of market exchange. Those are very characteristic of the modern economy. And we really need to have those islands in there and working very well, you know, in order to be even nearly as productive as we are.

Gene Tunny  20:09

Right, and what would be the exemplars of that modern corporate form Brad, are you thinking of General Electric or DuPont of those sort of companies

Brad DeLong  20:18

In the early days, in the early days, it was things like the great farm machinery producers. Were I think the first because, you know, once you figure out how to make a Reaper or a harvester, or later on a combine, you know, demand for it is absolutely huge. And so you don’t want to have one small workshop, you know, one small workshop in some small town in Illinois or something, you know, making a Reaper when the Reaper can be put into use from the Murray Darling River Valley all the way to Argentina and up there. Yeah. Later on, it was Ford Motor Company and General Motors that were the classics. And now of course, I think it is, you know, Apple Computer, which is simultaneously the most to market economy and capitalist driven thing in the world, but also the orchestrator of this enormously complicated, and centrally planned division of labour all over the world with all of its suppliers, in which a relatively small number of people in Cupertino, California, can conduct an economic division of labour, that dwarfs that of the centrally planned Soviet Union at its most prosperous, in terms of how much money and resources are moved around in a way in which in response to commands and to requests issued by Cupertino, to produce the more than a billion iPhones that currently populate the world.

Gene Tunny  22:01

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s extraordinary for sure.

Brad DeLong  22:04

And, you know, we haven’t even gotten into its role as the pusher forward of electronics technology of modern semiconductor, whereby your Apple Computer pays the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation $30 billion each year, which it then turns around and uses to invest in pushing semiconductor technology forward to make circuits smaller and chips faster and bigger, which it then sells to Apple, which then puts into iPhones so it can earn the $30 billion it needs for the next round.

Gene Tunny  22:40

Yeah, yeah, for sure. And I mean, Apple is still innovating even though Steve Jobs is no longer around.

Brad DeLong  22:47

Jobs is gone. Yeah, yes.

Gene Tunny  22:51

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

Female speaker  22:56

If you need to crunch the numbers, then get in touch with Adept Economics. We offer you Frank and fearless economic analysis and advice. We can help you with funding submissions, cost benefit analysis, studies, and economic modelling of all sorts. Our head office is in Brisbane, Australia, but we work all over the world. You can get in touch via our website, http://www.adepteconomics.com.au. We’d love to hear from you.

Gene Tunny  23:25

Now back to the show. Can I ask you about full globalisation? You talk about that? And then you talk about what happened later in the 90s with what you call re globalisation, I think and then there’s hyperglobalisation. What I think what your book reminded me of was just those the large flows of people, and also capital that occurred in the late 19th century and before World War One, and that’s something I think Polanyi wrote about, could you talk about that please Brad?

Brad DeLong  23:54

Oh, well, one thing is to say that, that kind of from 1870 to 1914, 50 million people leave Europe and also 50 million people leave Asia. The people who leave Europe by and large go to you know, Argentina, Chile, southern Brazil, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. They go there they bring European biotechnology crops and animals and so forth. In Australia, they find at least before the great drought of the 1890s that there is not a better place for European sheep than Australia. And so Australia before the drought of the 1890s becomes the place with by far the highest standard of living in the world. As you know the equivalent of the equivalent of OPEC instead of oil. It’s sheep. And instead of shipping petroleum and container ships, they ship out wool in steam powered ocean going ships and they produce the you know an amazingly rich and prosperous middle class civilization of its day, something that I don’t see know very much about. Except for the things I see are the backgrounds I see on Mrs. Fisher’s murder Mr. Rene Fisher’s Murder Mystery Show, which my wife says the clothes the clothes at does extremely well. And then Australia with its large middle class, you’ll powers the demand for Australian factories and Australia industrialising and becomes and remains an extremely rich and prosperous country. Brazil might have seen the been on the same trajectory. You know, Australia has land that’s wonderful for sheep. You know, Brazil in the second half of the 19th century was the best place for rubber. It was the place rubber came from. And so you know, you have the rubber tappers of Brazil making a good living, you have the growth of the Brazilian economy, you have the construction that European singers like Enrico Caruso or Jenny Lind, when they went on world tours, they would go up to Amazon to Manassas and performing them in Manassas Opera House and things worked very, very well, except that the British arrived and they grabbed some rubber plants from Brazil and they carried them back to Kew Gardens. And then the Belgians got a hold of them and they took them down to the Congo and then King Leopold began cutting off the hands of people who didn’t bring in enough rubber from the villages. And in Malaysia, the British Empire brought down workers from China combined it who were desperate to get out of China, given how small farm sizes were and how poor China was, combined it with British capital, and this Brazilian biotechnologies, so that Malaysia, Malaysia, the Malay Peninsula becomes the world’s biggest rubber producing centre in the world by 1914. And the enormous crash, and the enormous crash of the Brazilian rubber industry as well, because the rubber plant had left all its pests and parasites behind in Brazil. And so it grew like a weed on the Malay Peninsula. And, you know, the Chinese plantation workers brought down from the Pearl River Delta, were extremely happy that the British could pay them a quarter of what the Brazilian rubber tappers were used to getting. And they would still say we’re much better off than they would be back in China. That is, and this transfer of all kinds of tropical goods and plants around the world, right that Yemen finds itself suddenly faced with enormous competition from coffee grown in Indonesia, and in kind of Costa Rica as well. Which means that if you were in the tropics between 1870 and indeed, up until 1950, you’d find that whatever you export, its price was dropping like a stone because there was all of this extra competition from all of these extra sites for production opened up by this Asian migration. Well, the rich first world countries did quite well and did quite well in large part because immigrants from India and China were by and large kept out of Australia and the United States. And so wage levels in Australia and Australia and the United States stayed very high. And they got the middle classes in the middle class demand needed to provide the demand so that they could industrialise you know, while Brazil or Malaysia or Congo really didn’t have a chance to industrialise because, you know, no middle class large enough to buy the manufactured goods and no ability to export given how cheap and how good at manufacturing Britain was back then and how eager Britain was to export. 

Gene Tunny  29:09

The story we tell ourselves is that it’s, it’s all about it was all about good governance as well. I mean, in good institutions.

Brad DeLong  29:17

Yeah, no bad governance can make something very country very poor very quickly. That and indeed, Arthur W. Economist, Arthur Lewis, you know, all those used to say, look, Australia and New Zealand are not just cousins of Canada and the United States, but also of Argentina and Chile, and in some ways South Africa. And, indeed, come 1914, Buenos Aires looks a lot like Melbourne. But then governance falls apart in the 1920s and 1930s. And even more so after World War Two. And now, you know, no one thinks of Argentina as being a country that is kind of on the same level of development of the Earth, Australia or Canada, because it simply is not. And yet, it certainly has the land, it certainly had the resources that had the education in 1914 it had the technology base, but bad governance can do terrible things. You know, you see this most with respect to communist, right that when the Iron Curtain failed in 1990, we could actually look, and we could see that those countries that had been ruled by the Communists were only 1/5, as rich as the countries immediately outside, immediately across the border. And you know, where that border was, was principally determined by where the Red Army had managed to march in 1945. Yeah, what’s the difference between Czechoslovakia and Austria? Yeah, yeah. Or Yugoslavia and Italy?

Gene Tunny  30:59

Yeah, very good point. I’d like to ask now about the what you call the is it the long 20th century? You talk about this period from 1870 to 2010? And is that the period where we were Slouching Towards Utopia?

Brad DeLong  31:15

Yeah, where every generation, we were doubling humanity’s technological competence. And it was really clear that we were solving the problem of baking a sufficiently large economic pie. And we were trying to figure out how to slice and tastes how to distribute and utilise it. And that was kind of flummoxed more sometimes than others. And people were trying various things. Some of them reasonable, and some of them absolutely horrible and genocidally destructive. Yeah, yeah. I’d say that’s what gives 1870 to 2010 its unit, you know, that we’re solving the what people thought was the big problem, but not at all solving what people thought were, but people back before 1870 had thought would be smaller problems.

Gene Tunny  32:03

Okay, and so 2010, that’s in the aftermath of the financial crisis. So that’s a pivotal event, in your view.

Brad DeLong  32:13

Except it’s not really a pivotal event, okay. It’s more like a pivotal 20 years. Maybe it starts on September 11 2001, when all of a sudden, a willingness to kill people because they worship God differently that we thought was over in 1648, at the end of the 30 Years War in Central Europe, after which people said, let’s not do that, again. We’re back. Maybe it continues in 2003, you know, when the United States stops acting like a relatively cooperative leader of the world, and instead says, We’re another great power, and we’re going to act like great powers do, maybe it’s 2007, when it becomes very clear that in the attack that an ideological attachment to the view that I’m rich, because the market has rewarded me, therefore the market must be a good thing. Had that that idea had hobbled the regulation of finance, and then come 2010 It’s clear, that same idea keeps people from responding to the Great Recession, by saying we need to get back to full employment rapidly instead, all over the globe, people are saying, well, you know, the market is a good thing. And the market has been doing this for a reason. And so you know, we shouldn’t artificially we shouldn’t artificially stimulate the economy. 2008, seemed to see the engine of technological progress itself to drop into a lower gear slow down by half or more. Starting in 2012-2013, we see the rise of anti democratic movements all over the world from you know, Modi’s version of national Hinduism to Viktor Orban and many, many others. And last, I’d say, come 2022, we have the return of major power war. Right, the idea that big wars rather than wars that are kind of a civil war component are a way to solve things. You know, even though if I wanted to convince the Ukrainians that they weren’t a separate nation, but only a Russian ethnicity, you know, I would send the Bolshoi Ballet and I would send orchestras to play the works of Tchaikovsky and I would send poets to read the poems of Pushkin in the general streets of Ukraine. I would not say send killer robots flying overboard to drop overhead to drop bombs and kill but you know the return of a major power war. Add to that global warming is now We’ll go not a distant threat. But lots of people were underwater in Pakistan early this summer and lots of people saying, Why is the Yangtze River five metres below where it’s supposed to be? It’s now a thing. And a thing for the three and a half billion people of Asia who live in the great river valleys and the monsoons and some with the coming of global warming. We have a different and more complicated and I don’t think we yet understand what the post 2010 story is. But it isn’t the technological progress is pulling ahead extraordinarily rapidly making us potentially all prosperous, and we only need to figure out how to distribute and utilise our wealth. Instead, the world faces other and probably bigger problems, and certainly more of them. So that’s why I bring it to an end in 2010.

Gene Tunny  35:56

Okay, okay. I’d like to ask you about what you call the I think it’s the neoliberal turn in your book. So you talk about how we changed or the philosophy the I don’t know, the dominant philosophy and government and politics change from social this, we’re talking about advanced economies change from social democratic, or whatever you want to call it to, starting in the 70s, and 80s, with Thatcher and Reagan. And we also had a variant of it here in Australia. You call it this neoliberal turn and would you be able to be good if you could explain what you mean by that? And also, I’d like to ask you about your this is great, one of my favourite quotes in your book, you wrote that Hyack. So Frederick Hayek, the Austrian economist Hayek, and his followers were not only Dr. Jekyll, side geniuses, but also Mr. Hyde side idiots, I love that. So if you could explain what you’re driving out there, please, that’d be great.

Brad DeLong  36:56

1945 to 1975 or so are absolutely wonderful years. peace, prosperity, the most rapid growth, at least in the Global North that has ever been seen before. Middle class society, everything seems to be going right. But come and after 1975, you know, there’s inflation, which leads to the general consensus that there’s something wrong with social democracy, that it’s handing out too many tickets to things more tickets to things than the economy and society can produce. And when you hand out more tickets, and there are seats, the result is going to be the tickets get the value that is also going to be inflation. And so social democracy needs to get a grip, and become, you know, more responsible and less willing to simply hand out tickets to anyone who asks, add to that the idea that it’s greatly over bureaucratized that the government is doing too much, and there are too many forms to fill out. Add to that, the idea that too many people have taken advantage of the social democratic system, you know, to grab benefits to which there were not in title. I remember in the late 1970s, as a young teenager, there were people who would come around with maps of where the people in Australia drawing unemployment benefits were. And the claim was that they were on the beaches. Yeah, you know, that you get unemployment benefit. And you say, Okay, I won’t look for another job for two months, I’ll go to the beach for two months, and then I’ll look for a job. That all kinds of things in which too many people were saying too many union members and welfare recipients were getting away with too much and not working hard enough. Yeah, that benefits for the slackers were too great than the taxes on the actual productive members of society were too high. And that the tax system was greatly discouraging investment. And thus, economic growth. And thus, the inflation and the slowdown of economic growth that we saw in the late 1970s. Were a result of the fact that social democracy had tapped out and it needed very much to be a rethink. And the rethink takes the form of Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Reagan in the United States. You know, the idea that taxes need to be lower, that the job creators need to be properly incentivized that, you know, the non rich need to be a little bit poor, so they’re a little bit hungrier and work harder. That sources of rent seeking, you know, people who have claims to income but who are not productive, need to have those claims erased , especially if they’re welfare recipients on the one hand, who haven’t been able to maintain a stable family, or if they happen to have lucked into a particular union that manages to have its kind of hands around the throat of some important part of the distribution system. You know, Ronald Reagan’s saying, I’m going to destroy the, Jimmy Carter in fact, Jimmy Carter was, in fact, launched the Airline deregulation effort in the 1970s. One big purpose of which was to make the lives of airline pilots a little less cushy. And Ronald Reagan followed that up by breaking the strike of the air traffic controllers. It was Jimmy Carter, who by deregulating trucking in the United States, you know, applied the same medicine to the then powerful teamsters union, saying, once deregulated trucking, you’re going to be exposed to all kinds of rail and non union competition as well, you know, in your ability to extract an extremely cushy life go. And the ability of the collected organised crime gangs of the United States to draw on the teamsters pension fund is going to be sufficiently reduced. So you have this great wheel around 1980. So much so that in 1994, Bill, Bill Clinton, who really is a Social Democrat at heart, wants to win another term, he feels he has to go out there and say that the era of big government is over. That just as Dwight Eisenhower, a very conservative person could only govern in the 1950s. By saying the New Deal, social democracy is a good thing, but I’m going to be a much better manager. Because I can say no to interest groups that are demanding too much while the Democrats are relying on those interest groups to turn out the vote. So you should elect me to be the president to run the new deal rather than let a Democrat. Yeah, so Bill Clinton was having to say that I’m going to be because I understand how valuable government can be, I’m actually the one who will do the best job of cutting it. So it’s so to do the most good. And that kind of lasted that kind of era in which neoliberal, this neoliberal view, that the market should be doing more, and the government should be doing less? You know, it really lasted up until the great recession since then, since then, we’ve had a time of confusion.

Gene Tunny  42:28

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure. I’m just interested. I’m interested in your thoughts on the that neoliberal term? Because I mean, you’re someone you’ve got, you know, people who are very prominent in our time, and you worked with Larry Summers you’ve written and you’ve done research with, with Larry Summers, who was US Treasury secretary. I mean, how do you feel about all because Would you say there was some benefits to it? Because, I mean, Airline Deregulation, and I mean, that was good for consumers. How do you think about it now?

Brad DeLong  42:58

As they say, you know, in some ways Friedrich von Hayek really was Dr. Jekyll. Yeah, in that if you have a, you know, if you have a command and control system, you know, there’s somebody at the top, who’s issuing orders and everyone else is kind of not really using their mind that they’re kind of robots doing what the person at the top orders. And, you know, if you’ve ever worked in any large organisation, you know that the person at the top has very little idea of what’s actually going on down at the bottom. And will often be issuing commands about what you should do next that are best nonsensical, and that are worst highly destructive. You try to have a committee solve that problem of central command by establishing it by writing a rulebook. And then you have a bureaucracy because God knows the rulebook only covers about a third of the cases, it’s simply not possible for any small group to think about. But um, assign people private property and let them trade and exchange in a market. And all of a sudden, the people who are actually on the ground in the situation, you’ll have the ability to do things because the property is theirs. And also, as long as market prices are in accord with social values, they have a very strong personal incentive to do the right thing. Or at least the thing that makes money and then there’s the well, but our market price is in accord with social values problem, but if you can solve that problem, then a properly tuned market economy with private property is the best possible anti bureaucratic, you know, anti authoritarian crowdsourcing mechanism for helping people to organise themselves in order to do what is needed for the common good. Did you know much better to impose a carbon tax and say, you know, gas filling up your car was going to be expensive. Then too, as Jimmy Carter said to say, if your licence plate ends in an even digit, you can only fill your car with gas on even days and with an odd digit, you can only fill your gas on odd days. Friedrich von Hayek was a Dr. Jekyll positive genius and seeing this and seeing this very clearly. But as I say, he also was on Mr. Hyde style idiot. Because you’ll Hayek, having grasped on to this value of the market, he couldn’t think of anything else. And so he reached his position, which is the market economy will take modern science and technology and make us all prosperous, full stop, we need to be happy with that. We should not ask for anything else, we should not ask for an equitable income distribution or any form of social justice. Because if we do, we’ll find ourselves monkeying with the system. And when we monkey with the system, we will destroy the ability of the market to actually be productive and to make us rich. And ultimately, we’ll wind up on the road to serfdom. We won’t get social justice, and we will be at our we will make ourselves poor. And so the one thing we definitely need to do is whenever anyone starts talking about social justice, or income distribution or their rights to something that isn’t, that aren’t property rights, we need to tell them to shut up, you know that the only rights that matter are property rights, and that’s how it should be, you know, and yes, this is not social justice. You know, the market gives most things, not the people who deserved them, but instead of the people who are lucky enough to own the valuable pieces of property. But if you can’t accept that you don’t have any business doing politics or speaking in the public square. Yeah. And, you know, that’s profoundly unhealthy. That’s profoundly unhealthy in actually figuring out how we should utilise and distribute our wealth, but you know, Hayek stuck to that to the end. So much so that he was an enthusiastic supporter of Augusto Pinochet. Believing at some level that you know, Pinochet would reform Chile. And then once Marxism and Social Democracy had been stamped out, then you know, he could retire and the Chilean people could be allowed to go back to electing their governors again. But in the meantime, you definitely need it. You know, he called it the Lycurgan moment. And the myth of the semi mythical dictator, yeah, even though not a king of Sparta had established what people said was the Spartan system of government and war back in the Classical Age.

Gene Tunny  48:03

Yeah, I was shocked by that. Brad, when I read that in your book, I’ll have to go back and look at where Hayet wrote that because I mean, it’s quite shocking to think that someone who is a champion of liberty, and I mean, he’s inspired there’s a think tank in Australia, the Centre for Independent Studies, which I have a bit to do with which is inspired by Hyack. And so I mean, I’ve read Road to Serfdom, but I don’t remember anything like that, but I’ll definitely go back and look.

Brad DeLong  48:31

He gets cranky, he gets cranky or as he gets older. That, you know, in 1944, when writing the Road to Serfdom, he’s chiefly interested in trying to persuade a future British Labour Party government not to be really stupid with respect to nationalising everything in sight. But you know, he ages and as my father says when you get older, you discover that you are more like yourself and it’s not necessarily a good person. That back when you were younger and had to pretend not to be yourself and weren’t quite as much as yourself, maybe we’re better off right, Yeah. Yeah. There is a letter from Maggie Thatcher back to Hayet saying thanking him for one of his and indeed saying but you are recommending the use some Chilean and methods and do those are unacceptable given our constitutional traditions, and I haven’t been able to find out what this is in response to.

Gene Tunny  49:29

Right, okay

Brad DeLong  49:32

In the context of a world that is drifting towards Central planning and very heavy bureaucracy, it’s more understandable than as account. You know, Hayet’s, crankier parts are more understandable and useful as a counterweight than they are as you know, an accelerator, an accelerant for a kind of neoliberal era.

Gene Tunny  49:56

Yeah, I think you definitely make some I mean, a lot of what you’ve you’ve written I think is great. And I mean, I’ve been thinking about this myself, I think we’ve I feel it in Australia, we’ve probably managed things better than in the States. I mean, there’s definitely. And then the way I’ve thought about it is that some of the neoliberal policies we’ve enacted, I think, have been good for consumers, we cut tariffs, I mean, we used to have this very high tariff wall. So I think it was as late as 1988, or 89, we had a 57% tariff on motor vehicles. And so cars were, in real terms, much more expensive. So they benefited a lot. But there has been dislocation, but we seem to have manage that, because we’ve had a Social Security system and a public health care system. And I look at the states. And I mean, I mean, I think Americans, I think the US is a great country. But the lack of a public health care system, and the lack of a social security system, I think, is making things very difficult. And that’s meaning the politics becomes very, I mean, it’s just, it looks awful at the moment from over here. So yeah, that’s just a comment. But if you have any reflections, that’d be great.

Brad DeLong  51:09

Things are never as awful as they look on YouTube. Still, it’s still strong and rich, and you know the sense of a very, very strong sense of one nation, and we should all be pulling for each other. Which you won’t see if you go on YouTube or Twitter where it is indeed, the politics of you know, Ezra Klein says you get clicks only if you make enemies. And that’s really not how most people normally live their lives. But yeah, there’s a great book that’s getting some considerable play now by Elizabeth Berman called Thinking Like an Economist, you know, how efficiency replaced equality in the US public policy, which I think definitely could use a dose of the good Dr. Jekyll Hyatt, right. That says that demanding equality, demanding one size fits all rather than letting people crowdsource solutions on an individual level, is something that we should value greatly. And yet Elizabeth Popp Berman doesn’t value it at all.

Gene Tunny  52:21

Right. Okay. Okay. I’ll have to check that out. I might have to wrap up soon. But the final final question i’ve good is just referencing one of your quotes in your book where you talk about the power of some individuals, and you talk about the power of Keynes and FDR? Yeah. How do you think they would want to know it’s almost an impossible question, but how would they be diagnosing where we are today? And what needs to be done? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Brad DeLong  52:53

With respect to the Great Recession, Keynes would certainly say, I told you so. And with glory in it, because he was at some level of British upper class twit of the early 20th century. With respect to the rest, he would say that, by and large on my number with the predictions he made in a 1930 speech, he gave on economic possibilities for our grandchildren to have indeed come true. And that at least the global north is approaching the stage in which we do indeed have enough. And then our problems are that we’re kind of hag written by ideas and ideologies that were useful and essential in past poor age, you know, avarice, usery, and precaution. And that we’re also facing the prominent problem of the human race, which is how to take your wealth and resources and live life wisely and well. And he would say that he had hoped that we would have made more progress on learning how to live life wisely, and well than we have, and would have hoped that we were less hag written by you know, avarice, usury and precaution. By kind of not realising how wealthy we are. And you know, how broad open our possibilities should be, but being instead do to mean and ungenerous to ourselves and to others.

Gene Tunny  54:17

Yes, yeah. Okay. And what do you think? I mean, what would you have any thoughts on? I mean, what’s, what’s to be done, particularly in the US or in other? What other advanced economies? I mean, I mean, one of the challenges we’ve got here in Australia is how we pay for this National Disability Insurance Scheme. So we’ve got this permanent structural deficit in our budget now of about 2% of GDP. And the current government when it was in opposition committed to these what we call over here, these stage three tax cuts that are kicking in in a few years, where there’s, they’re more geared well, because the wealthier pay more tax just because of the way the system is set up. And the way these tax cuts work is that the bulk of the benefits go to the upper end. And there’s a big debate about whether it’s appropriate or not to have those tax cuts at the moment in Australia, but what are the levers? Is that you see, is it around? Is it taxation? Is that one of the levers for redistribution? Or is it regulation? What what do you see as the levers?

Brad DeLong  55:22

Well, you know, I think, I think the biggest and the best lever and in fact, the one in which the United States and Australia have historically been most successful, you know, is immigration, right. That over time, we have been very, very good at taking in people from elsewhere whose parents were not Americans, Australians, and making them into, you know, Americans and Australians. Like, I remember Maine Senator George Mitchell, you know, the guy who negotiated the Good Friday Accords in Ireland. And, you know, he looks like one of my great uncle’s, someone all of whose ancestors had been in Maine since 1750. And, you know, talked with an extremely strong accent, you know, um, and so actually, he’s simply a second generation immigrant, he’s half Irish, half Lebanese. He just looks and sounds exactly like my great uncles with their eight generations of, you know, hardscrabble time in the soil. But, um, we have enormously powerful and strong cultures, ideologies, and forms of Nash forms of national unity, that are actually not based on us all really being the descendants of our founders, and both countries willingness to take in large numbers of people from elsewhere. You know, Australia, taking in an enormous number of refugees after World War Two have been huge sources of national strength. And we are still largely empty countries, and you can move someone from Mexico to the United States, you know, from Malaysia to Australia. And you know, you are going to triple their productivity just by doing that alone. And that will generate a huge amount of potential wealth from a well we grow by immigration. Otherwise, the problem is that, you know, we had a steam power economy in 1870. And, you know, an electricity and diesel and chemical economy in 1900, and a mass production economy in 1940, and you know, a global value chain economy in 1990. And now we’re headed for info biotech economy and whatever worked in the sense of, you know, politics, economics and sociology, 30 years ago, back when the technological foundations of the economy are different, it’s probably not going to work well now. So anyone who says we need to go back to X is probably going to wind up unhappy. And so we should try to move forward into the future rather than trying to pick up models from the past. Although what those forward and the future models are, you know, that’s beyond me.

Gene Tunny  58:19

Okay. Okay. You’re telling the economic history story, the policy and then that’s, that’s for someone else.

Brad DeLong  58:28

But the big lesson of history is that trying to maintain social and economic systems past their sell by date as the technology changes underneath it just doesn’t work.

Gene Tunny  58:39

Right. Yeah. Yeah. Interesting point about immigration. We one of the one of the challenges in Australia we have is that, I mean, everyone wants to live in one of the big the three major capital cities. I mean, I’m in one of them, I’m in Brisbane, and Nick’s down in Melbourne, then Sydney is the, you know, the biggest, but the concern is that everyone wants to live in those cities. And there’s just not enough housing. I mean, we’ve got, I mean, I guess, it’s around. It’s in other advanced economies, too. But there’s a housing crisis and property prices have surged, although they are falling out, because the of the dynamics of the lending and what’s happened with the monetary policy, but they’re still very high rents are going up. So we’ve got concerns about housing availability. And in the short term, I think, if we’re bringing immigration back, I think that’s going to cause a lot of pressure. So we’ve got to manage that better and harder. No, there’s the environmental issues about allowing development. So I think, yeah, I agree with you about immigration providing benefits. So just see that in the short term. There are a lot of these absorption issues that we have to deal with.

Brad DeLong  59:48

A lot of people who think they have rights that things need to stay as they are. Yes, yes. And do you know to this, there’s a great Italian novel called I think Lampedusa, no written by Lampedusa, called Gattopardo, called The Leopard about Sicily in the 1860s, in which at one point, the young guy yells at his uncle, the count of Selena, you don’t understand in order for everything to stay the same. Everything has to change. Yeah, yeah. As the young guy goes off to join Garibaldi in the Italian revolution. And so I do think we need to look much more at the things that need to change. He says, sitting in a house built in 1897, we think, at a time, but it was surrounded by pear orchards. And now when it is half a mile or two thirds of a mile south of the university campus and two thirds of a mile north of the subway line. And so is a, that something so close to so many extremely desirable places, should house only three people right now. Rather than have been turned into a 10 storey apartment building is in some sense, an offence against land planning.

Gene Tunny  1:01:08

Yeah, well, I think we’ve got to find a better balance. I mean, who knows. That’s, that’s an issue for another episode, I think.

Brad DeLong  1:01:17

It is, you know, and we did actually build a cottage on our lot as soon as we were allowed to do so. But still. Yeah, so we did add to Berkeley’s housing stock. Yep. Still, you know,, the San Francisco Bay Area has seven and a half million people and looking back at the past 450 years of history, it’s easy to say how if we’d had a 1800s view toward development, we now have 20 million people, you know, we the size of Los Angeles in population. And it would probably be a better world I must say, because those other 12 and a half million people who aren’t here are in other places that are kind of less great to live in, and where they are likely to be less productive than they would be if they were here.

Gene Tunny  1:02:14

And just just finally, probably, you know, you’ve I don’t want to take too much of your time. But have one more question is, in your view, what are the most what’s the most important factor there is the governance, it always the agglomeration effects when they move countries because I know that Lant Pritchards crunched the numbers on this, and there’s this huge gain from moving people around the world. What’s the benefit? Where does it come from? Do you have thoughts on that?

Brad DeLong  1:02:38

A lot of it is agglomeration, thick market agglomeration effects that we don’t really understand that appear to be extremely large. And, but that also can very quickly turn into pollution and crowding effects if the local government is not competent at handling the process.

Gene Tunny  1:02:59

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that makes sense.

Brad DeLong  1:03:03

And a lot more is that, you know, it is, throughout history, it’s always proven much, much easier to move people that where institutions are good, and where they can be productive than to somehow move institutions to where the people are, that attempts to build prosperity or build democracy in places where it does not seem to be strongly established, that those rarely go very well. And I would say, I do not really understand why that is the case. And I used to have a guru, a classmate of mine, who I went to about that, Alberto Alesina, to teach me. But alas, he dropped dead of a heart attack a few years. And I haven’t found another guru who I trust.

Gene Tunny  1:03:48

Okay, I might try and cover that in a future podcast episode. It’s a fascinating question. It just occurred to me then.

Brad DeLong  1:03:57

I love what Lant has to say about his numbers actually why his numbers are what they are.

Gene Tunny  1:04:05

Yes, yes. Yeah. I’ll put a link in the show notes to some of that work. Okay. Very good. Okay.

Gene Tunny  1:04:11

Well, I’m Professor Brad DeLong. It’s been a real pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you very much about your book and I’ll put a link in the show notes. And so if you’re listening in the audience, and please, I’d suggest getting a copy. Yeah. I’ve got it on Kindle. But I mean, it’ll be in bookstores and major bookstores in Australia I’m very sure. And yeah, Professor DeLong. Any final thoughts before we wrap up?

Brad DeLong  1:04:38

Just thank you very much. And I think be hopeful right that even though individually, each of us is just a jumped up East African plains ape who often forgets where he left his keys yesterday. Together, there are 8 billion of us and if we talk to each other together, we can be a very smart anthologie intelligence.

Gene Tunny  1:05:02

Absolutely. I think that’s a great note to end on. Professor Brad DeLong thanks so much. 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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

How the Australian Bureau of Statistics prepares the National Accounts w/ Robert Ewing – EP162

The National Accounts is the comprehensive data set on a country’s economic performance. It gives us GDP growth estimates and a whole bunch of other important indicators. Australian Bureau of Statistics Principal Advisor Robert Ewing takes us behind the scenes at the ABS and provides some great info and insights into how the GDP figures are prepared. Learn about the huge range of economic data from households, businesses, and governments that go into the National Accounts, the roles played by algorithms and judgment, and how the numbers are crunched using the time series database FAME, short for Forecasting Analysis and Modeling Environment. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Robert Ewing’s LinkedIn profile:

Economics Explored EP153 which also considered the National Accounts

Transcript: How the Australian Bureau of Statistics prepares the National Accounts w/ Robert Ewing – EP162

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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.

Robert Ewing  00:04

It’s the work of hundreds of people across the ABS once you count the people in the survey divisions, the data acquisition divisions, all the other publications such as the balance of payments, the capital expenditure, the business indicators publication, which all feed into the national accounts.

Gene Tunny  00:24

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 162 on how the national accounts are put together, my guest is Robert Yuen from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the ABS. Rob is the principal adviser to the ABS statistical services group. In this episode, Rob takes us behind the scenes of the ABS and provide some great info and insights into how the GDP figures are prepared. While Rob and I chat about the Australian National Accounts, I hope this conversation is useful for you, wherever you’re living. statistical agencies around the world will be using similar data and procedures to the ABS as they prepare their own GDP figures. Please check out the show notes relevant links Information and for details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know what you think about either Rob or I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Rob Ewing on the national accounts. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Robert Ewing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, good to have you on the programme.

Robert Ewing  01:42

Very happy to be here Gene, always keen to spread the gospel of the great work that the ABS is doing statistics and trying to tell people the story of what’s going on in the economy.

Gene Tunny  01:53

Excellent. Well, I’ve been really impressed, Rob, that you’ve been communicating on LinkedIn, you’ve been talking about the data and giving us some insights into how the ABS compile the data. And I mean, one of the sets of data I’m really interested in is the national accounts and GDP, which is the statistic that measures the amount of economic activity in a certain period of time. And I’d be keen to chat with you about GDP given that you’re at the ABS and you’re involved in, in collecting the data and, and crunching the numbers to create the GDP figures. I chatted previously with a colleague of mine, Brendan Marquis Taylor, we chatted about the three different measures of GDP, would you be able to kick off by telling us what those measures are, please Rob, why do we need three different measures?.

Robert Ewing  02:48

Sure, so I should just say at the outset that, you know, today, I’m going to skip over an awful lot of the technical detail. And so I’m sure that the more statistical methodology knowledgeable are going to be screaming occasionally. But it is very complicated. The manual for the national accounts is several 100 pages long, and you know, can take a lot to get into. I think to start with, I tend to think of the GDP as it’s one concept that you can measure three ways. So GDP, as you say, is the measure of all economic activity. But we have to get a bit more specific than that. One of the things I’ve been talking about on LinkedIn is this idea of the production boundary, we have to put boundaries around GDP, because really, anything you could think of could be economic activity, we have to narrow that down a bit. And so we focus on market activity. And we focus within market activity on production. So GDP is a measure of the total value of production for the market sector in an economy over a period of time. It turns out that the way that the national accounts frameworks are set up, and it very clever frameworks developed over you know, more than 50 years by international groups. You could also measure this two other ways. So the first way is to measure how much income everybody in the economy has gotten from these productive activities. So if you measure the total amount of money that goes to labour, what’s called compensation of employees in the national accounts, and if you measure broadly, the national accounts concept of profit, what’s called gross operating surplus. And so if you add those two together across the entire economy, then you also get a measure of GDP. And that’s because if you think about production, well the measure of production is how much what you produce is worth minus how much you had to buy, in order to produce it, or the two things that are left over after that are income and profit. So it’s quite easy to see how those two match up. The third way, which is the expenditure method of GDP, is to think about it from the other side and think that will, we know, in economies and in markets, that there’s both a supply the production, but also a demand the consumption of the goods. And so the expenditure approach looks at where all this production of goods and services in the economy gets used. And so it adds together, the total amount of money spent by households, the total money spent by governments, some of the things that we produce gets sent overseas. And so we count the exports. Some things go into a warehouse, even though be produced, so we count inventories. And then we didn’t produce all the inputs that we use. So we subtract imports. And so that also gives you that same measure of how much was produced in the economy. And so those are the three measures of GDP, which are normally called the E measure, the I measure and the P measure in Australia. In theory, if you have measured everything absolutely perfectly, they will be equal.

Gene Tunny  05:58

Yeah, conceptually, from the way that they’ve that just because of the theory, and there’s a national accounting framework, isn’t there. So you were talking about this has been developed over 50 years? I mean, that’s since the you’re talking about since the UN codified it, I think, did they try and codify it in the late 60s? And then there’ll be various iterations of that approach? And we follow that there’s an international methodology.

Robert Ewing  06:27

Yeah, that’s right. So there’s the system of national accounts. So I think the first one was 1968. And that was building off kind of a lot of international cooperation. But I believe 1968 was the first time they really sit down like a consistent set of international rules. There was an update to it in 1993, and update in 2008. And if you do the math between those, you won’t be surprised to know that there’s an update currently underway thinking about further changes to the system of national accounts. And that will be due out for hopefully for endorsement by the UN statistical commission in 2025.

Gene Tunny  07:04

Yeah, yeah. And I remember from my time being on ABS reference committees for different things, or the technical reference groups, just all of the the issues you have to think about and R&D is a tricky one. I remember that, but we don’t need to go into into that today. I’m keen to understand what sort of data go into this Rob. I mean, you mentioned there’s production, there’s, there’s income, there’s expenditure. So is the ABS collecting data on all of these different transactions? You’re collecting data from businesses, you’re collecting it from households? What sort of data go into the mix, Rob for GDP?

Robert Ewing  07:46

Well, I think the short answer is anything that you can get your hands on. So a good national accountant is a bit of a data scavenger, because we’re only ever looking through kind of little windows into the economy. Kind of weird, we only have these narrow snapshots. So probably the two absolute most core measures of that production side, firstly, the annual economic activity survey. And so that’s a quite a large survey that we do once a year. And we go out to businesses, and we asked them quite a lot of questions about what they produce, how much money they made, you know, kind of how their money was spent, and so forth. And that allows us, in particular, to do what is quite a complicated little fiddly job, which is to try and convert things from the world of business accountancy, into national accountancy, because there are some things where there are some very, very important differences between the way that GDP is measured. And the way that business accounts are put together. The two most important are probably the concept of profit, which can be measured quite differently to that concept of gross operating surplus I talked about before, and also the concept of depreciation, and the differences between economic depreciation and accounting depreciation. But, you know, there are a lot of very complex nuances about that. And so a lot of the economic activity surveys asking the questions that allow us to take the business’s accounting estimates and convert them into economic estimates. So that’s absolutely kind of a foundational piece of us understanding that business side of the economy. So at a quarterly level, then its equivalent will be the quarterly business indicators survey. So that’s a somewhat smaller survey and asks a much smaller set of questions was kind of trying to give us a bit of an idea about what’s happening quarter to quarter, as well. And that’s kind of a very important survey there but the range of inputs is enormous. I’m household final consumption expenditure quarterly uses something like 15 or 20 different input data series, including retail trade, data from APRA, data from various private sector organisations who provide information, data from the quarterly business indicators surveys. So there’s a, an absolute broad range, because things like those big economic activity survey or the quarterly business indicators survey don’t necessarily cover everything. And so we bring the other bits of information to kind of tell us about, particularly the expenditure side of GDP, but also thinking about the role of government, where we have a lot of data that comes directly from federal, state, territory and local governments and tells us about their activities. We have detailed trade information, probably some of our most detailed data sets on the trade side, which allows us to get a pretty good idea of what’s going on with exports and imports. We rely very heavily on the consumer price index and the Producer Price Index publications, because they give us an idea of prices in the economy. And they allow us to convert those current price numbers into volume estimates of what’s going into GDP. So the real GDP as it’s often called.

Gene Tunny  11:17

Right, okay, yep. And that’s, that’s what’s often reported, that’s the that’s seen, that’s the data set that are the item that is looked at to determine whether the economy is going into recession or not. It’s that real GDP number, that volume number where you’re trying to abstract or control for inflation that occurs? Okay, so you’ve got less data for quarterly GDP than annual, it seems, is that right? So you’ve got detailed estimates, annually, you’ve got this other survey, quarterly, you’ve got, I mean, you still got a whole bunch of data. And what are you doing? You’ve got all of these models? You’ve got I mean, Is it done in spreadsheets? Are we able to go into that, or is it in R or or Python? And then is there some way of describing what goes on?

Robert Ewing  12:10

Well, so it is, fundamentally, it’s a very large code base, in our language and computer stuff, piece of software called Fame. And if anybody listens here, knows Fame and doesn’t currently work at the ABS, please immediately make a job application, we’ll fast track you, we need as many people who know this fairly obscure computer language as possible. And so we have here that’s 1000s and 1000s, of lines of code across all sorts of different modules. The basic approach is we’re trying to build things up from the absolute base level estimates. So we’re trying to look at the lowest level of the information that comes in and when we build the GDP up from that, so it’s very much a bottoms up approach to estimating it. The approach that we take is quite different in different areas. So in some cases, we get pretty good information, quarter by quarter on what is happening in the economy. So exports and imports, as I mentioned, is a pretty good case. We know, not perfectly but you know, we have almost census level data, we know almost every transaction that’s happening with imports and exports, there are some complexities around imports and exports of services where we don’t have as strong information. But we have a pretty good idea about what’s happening there. And so all we really need to do is just make some conceptual and timing adjustments and add everything up at the other end of the spectrum would be something like imputed rent. This is a really interesting kind of concept here in GDP. So one of the really important parts of the overall economy is the service we all get from the houses that we live in. Now some of us pay for that to the rent that we send to our landlord, kind of once every week or fortnight or month. But if you own your own home, we still want to count that value, because it’s still an economic service that’s being provided in a market like environment. And so for that we have what’s called imputed rent. So we impute how much rent is there. The data set that we have for that is primarily the Australian census. So every five years as part of the census, we go out and measure every household in Australia. And that also gives us an estimate of how many households they are there are and in what type of houses and in what locations. And so putting that into a model allows us to estimate imputed rent. But between censuses, we don’t have a solid survey or a data point. And so we have to model that. So it’s really a form of nowcasting. We’re using the information that we have about changes in the population, information about household formation and information about kind of your building construction. estimates of how much demolitions are happening to us forget how the number of households are changing and we obviously have information about rents from other series. And so at that end of the spectrum, it’s really a model, which is using a bit of data. But it’s not a massive amount of data compared to like its base, which is set every five years with the census. And that will be something the team will be turning its mind to very shortly having just had the second set of census results released.

Gene Tunny  15:21

Yes, yes. Great, great work. Everyone’s excited about that. So I saw your boss, David Gruen who’s well, it was, I mean, we both worked for him and within the various times in Treasury when we were there, and you’re working for him again, at ABS. He’s been getting a bit of media on that on people working from home, which is good to see. So all very good. Rob, can I ask you about this quarterly data? So you’ve got all of these bits of data going into it? And you’ve got these different modules? And there’s all this code? Which was a revelation. So I’ll have to do some research on that. I found that fascinating. What’s the quality of the quarterly data like? I mean, I know you revise it in the future, and there’s a statistical discrepancy, isn’t there? Could you tell us a bit about what the quality of that is like first, and then we might go into the annual data and what you’re doing there? How you’re trying to, yep. If you can tell us about that, please. That’d be great.

Robert Ewing  16:20

Yes, sure. So I think that’s so I think there’s two answers given to the quality of the quarterly data. So this is all in the context of we kind of spent a lot of time and a lot of resources and a lot of effort on making the quality, the highest it can be. But inevitably, a lot of the systems and the data in the economy is fundamentally on an annual, particularly financial year basis. So if you think about the financial accounts of the company, they will be producing kind of view monthly and quarterly financial information. But it’s only at the end of the year, that they really do that complete process of producing a full set of accounts, and making all of the adjustments and thinking about all of the different bits and pieces they need to take into account. And no matter how well you’ve gathered the quarterly data, the annual data is always going to be better. So you’re always going to have this view of the world that is a little bit sketchy. And yeah, and I think that if you look at the revisions, the revisions, they will move the numbers around, they very rarely change the story of what’s going on. So GDP might move up a little point one or point two, down to point one or point two, but very rarely does the story of what’s happening to the economy change very substantially. The other element to that is that even the quarterly estimates get a bit better with time. So we produce the estimates for GDP, roughly nine weeks after the end of the quarter. So our June quarter is published in the first week of September, on the first Wednesday in September. So that is a pretty good amount of time. But there’s still information that continues to come in, there will be businesses that we surveyed, who didn’t have time to respond, there will be data sources, for instance, ATO tax data, some of that won’t even arrive until after the national accounts has been published. So our picture of each quarter gets better with time as we gather more data, and you know, some late returns come in. And so that’s part of what contributes. But the big story is that really, GDP is fundamentally an annual measure that we can do on a finer time horizon using really a combination of different approaches. And for some things, such as household final consumption expenditure, there’s not a massive difference in the quality between the quarterly and the annual household final consumption expenditure has pretty much the same sets of information. But if you’re thinking about production, it’s quite different. And yeah, you mentioned statistical discrepancy. I think this is probably a good, a good way to talk about how we actually measure those three measures of GDP in practice, and how we actually make them equal to each other as they theoretically should be. So when we measure GDP every quarter, we can. It is very rare that the three measures come out exactly the same. Probably has happened once or twice. We were probably very suspicious when it did happen. As of now that can’t be right. There can’t be equal. We do two things in response there. Firstly, we use the differences between them as a way of looking at the different components and models and data sources and thinking about, are there gaps here? Are there adjustments that we should be making? There are other pieces of information that we should be seeking that would allow us to bring those measures closer together, but we’re not going to arbitrate them all together without some source of evidence for that. And so the three measures will be a little bit different from each other. So in order to get the measure of GDP that’s published on the front page of the webpage, what we do is we average the three of them. And so we have what’s called GDP A for average. And that is really just literally you add the three measures, and you divide by three. And you know, for those who are fans of the details, you’d notice, now we’re doing that in terms of the level of GDP, not the percentage change. Now, of course, it would be nice to get rid of that statistical discrepancy. And to do that, we need that information set that we have for the annual publication. And this brings us to, I suppose, what is the core of kind of producing like the benchmark GDP estimates, which is a process that’s called supply use balancing. And so I talked before about the idea that we can match production to income to expenditure at that top level. But in theory, we can also do that for every individual product that’s produced in the economy, that we should be able to say, for every products, let’s say, mushrooms, just picking on that one, because it’s very early in the list. We know, you know, in theory, we know we’ve produced you know, this many mushrooms. And you know, we know this many mushrooms got used by restaurants and other people and food manufacturers, this many mushrooms got sold to households, this many mushrooms got exported. And so in theory, we know well, those two numbers, the supply of the product and the use of the product have to be equal. We’ve defined as the way we’ve defined GDP, of course, the way that we’ve measured everything, through all these different surveys, we haven’t gotten a complete survey of every single person in the economy, we haven’t asked every single household what they consume. So we know there are some errors there and they don’t balance. And so every year, we go through this process of supply use balancing where we look at products, we don’t look at it at the level of every single kind of view, 375 mil Coke can, and 750 mil Coke can, and we have about 300 products that we look at so that we broad categories, like legal services, or metal, steel manufacturing products, or things like that. And we look for each of those products. We want to balance, how much was produced, how much got used by households, by government, how much got exported, how much went into inventories, and how much was used by other industries in their own production. And we make sure across all of those products, the supply and use is balanced. And once we’ve achieved that, then we have the three measures of GDP will be equal, because we’ve now brought those two halves of the measurement of the economy together. And so that’s, I suppose that’s the really, that’s the big work that kind of goes on, after a year is completed. So once we’ve finished the financial year, then the work starts on producing those supply use tables and doing that balancing. And when you’ve done that, the reason that’s important is I suppose it gives you that foundation that you can build on. So when policymakers are looking at GDP, they’re mainly going to be focused on what’s happening to GDP. Right now, they don’t care about what happened to GDP a year and a bit ago, which is about how long it takes us to produce those supply use tables. But through producing them, we make sure we’ve got an accurate representation of how much every different industry and sector and product matters. And so when we take that information, that’s you know, kind of you know, that lesser information set that we have quarterly to update the numbers and say, well, this is how much this bid has grown. We’ve given GDP the best base to sense, put everything together and give you the most accurate information out of the most recent quarter.

Gene Tunny  24:14

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

Female speaker  24:19

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Gene Tunny  24:48

Now back to the show. So this they supply use tables. That’s what you’d call an input-output table. Is that right Rob? This is an input-output table your developing, how these industries interact with each other, the flows of resources between them and then what goes to sales, what’s exported, etc?

Robert Ewing  25:09

It’s a very closely related cousin of an input-output table. So there are a couple of pretty technical differences between supply use tables and input-output tables. Importantly, in Australia, the input-output tables that we produce are a lot more detail. So I mentioned supply use, we’ve got about 60 industries times 300 products, when we get to the input-output tables, we’re able to expand that to about 115 industries and a bit over 900 progress. So we can give you more detail in the parameters as a couple of other technical details. But it’s broadly that same sort of concept. It’s trying to understand what is produced in the economy, and how it flows through the economy. And they’re a very powerful analytical tool.

Gene Tunny  25:53

Yeah, absolutely and Rob what I think’s interesting is you meant just, I mean, you’ve got all of this data and you’ve got these three measures that on a quarterly basis, you’re trying to get as close as possible. And you mentioned that, look, you have to make some adjustments. I mean, so there’s some judgement involved, but that’s going to be informed as much as possible by other data or whatever information you’re gathering. And you talked about he getting data from a huge range of sources, government and your own surveys, from the private sector. You probably can’t go into this. But what I’ve what I’ve been surprised at now is just how much real time data or up to date data that banks for instance, so the who else is Dun and Bradstreet, they’ve got whatever they’re called now, they’ve got more up to date data about how things are going into the economy, I presume the ABS is, is trying to get hold of some of that data.

Robert Ewing  26:52

Yeah, no, absolutely. And we have, for instance, on the bank data, we have a new publication, it’s been running since February this year, which is the monthly household spending indicator. And so that takes information from bank transactions, so credit card and debit card data. And it gives you a much broader picture of what’s happening to household consumption, then the retail trade survey does, the retail trade survey was a great survey. It’s one of the longest running surveys, and it’s very closely watched. But it only tells you about a third of consumption. Because today, in terms of things, you can walk into a store and buy or kind of buy through a retailer online, that’s only about a third of what households consume every day, when we’ve got the amount of the household spend indicator variable to expand out to more categories of consumption. And so that covers a little over two thirds of consumption of households. So that kind of finer grained data is definitely something we’re very interested in. Another example is the monthly business turnover indicator, which is another fairly recent publication. I think that started a little under 12 months ago, that takes ATO business activity statement data, and it gives you a month by month picture of how the turnover is moving in different industries. And so these are giving us that month by month picture of what’s happening in the economy. And that’s something which in the past, we’ve had to rely on the quarterly surveys and the quarterly national accounts for and I think that’s really exciting development with the data becoming more available. And, you know, the ABS showing its capability to transform that data into useful insight for people is definitely something we see is a growing kind of part of the business but going forward.

Gene Tunny  28:51

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so important as we’re trying to monitor the economy as the RBA and the Treasury are monitoring the economy. And, and you know, that obviously feeds into policy. But yeah, that’s, that’s something for another another time. Right, on the supply use balancing, if you just got some a little bit, a few more minutes, while you’re trying to get these data internally consistent, it’s all about making sure everything adds up. All of these data are consistent. It’s the story makes sense. This balancing, I think I asked you about this on LinkedIn, what do you do, how do you do this, this a some sort of algorithm, is it..

Robert Ewing  29:31

So it’s a mix of things here? So for a lot of the large things, it is a human being looking at the data and looking at the whole picture and making a decision about all based on what I know, this is the bit here that must be wrong. So there’s a lot of it, which we’re not yet able to put into an algorithm. But if you think about I mean, I described that kind of 60 by 300 kind of matrix, you know, it’s an enormous number of cells. Once you’ve got to fill in, and so once we get past those things where you can reasonably make a human judgement. We use an algorithm, it’s a constrained optimization algorithm. And what we do is we tell that algorithm, the same things that we know from the national accounts framework. So we tell that algorithm, things like, Well, we know, you know, this supply has to equal this use. And we can also give it some other parameters, kind of like, it’s rare that the financial sector consumes many sheep directly, for instance, you know, so you can apply a bunch of constraints there, and it can then kind of go away, and it can algorithmically kind of find a sensible solution for you based on that. But the reality is that, you know, right, this second, there isn’t a good solution from a lot of this beyond a human being who can look at and just make a judgement about what makes sense here, you know, does it make more sense to kind of say that the excess rolled steel production is going to be going to export or to households? Because the algorithm is not going to have a view on that one, but the human is going to be able to say, no, no, we must have just mismeasured some exports there. Yeah, let’s have a look at that.

Gene Tunny  31:15

Yeah, gotcha. Okay. Yeah. So some constraint optimizations and judgement. Very good. And right so Rob, this is all fascinating. Is there any, any other points you think would be important for, for us to understand in detail to appreciate just the magnitude of this task? So I think I’m hoping we people understand how important these data are. And I’ve covered that in a previous episode. But is there anything else we should know, in terms of just the, the, you know, what, what are the challenges for ABS in doing this? Because it does take several months, doesn’t it, you do this on a quarterly basis, and it comes out, it comes out two months after the end of the quarter, doesn’t it? So there’s obviously a lot of work involved.

Robert Ewing  32:02

Yeah. And I think I divide that into two halves. So there’s about a month of data gathering and so this is kind of you the various surveys going out and measuring things. So it’s kind of, you know, working with partners, such as the banks and private sector, and governments, and so on to get the information streams. And then there’s about a month of what we call compilation, sitting down, running the pros, running the computer code, seeing how the numbers make sense or not. And then ultimately, you know, writing media releases and producing a publication and getting it onto the website. And just to put it in a plug, also, for our new product, which is, we are each quarter producing a nice little list of, you know, 10 to 15 things you should know about the national accounts. It’s nice and easy to digest. And you can just find that on the ABS web page. So if you find the idea of clicking on a GDP release a little intimidating, we’ve got some much more user friendly products available now. But yeah, it’s as you say, it’s about a couple of months to put it together. It’s the work of hundreds of people across the ABS, once you count the people in the survey divisions, the data acquisition divisions, all the other publications such as the balance of payments, the capital expenditure, the business indicators publication, which all feed into the national accounts, the communications team, the compilation team it’s hundreds of people across the ABS contributing to every quarter. And they are not to forget the 1000s of businesses and households answering surveys out there. I mean, the most fundamental thing is just how grateful the ABS is for the people who take the time out of their busy business and personal lives to kind of give us this data that we need to tell Australia about what’s happening.

Gene Tunny  33:57

Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah, absolutely.

Robert Ewing  34:00

And one final point I’d make is, GDP is the figure that gets all the fun headlines. But the national accounts are a very rich publication. They tell you about a lot of different parts of the economy, they can take a bit of expertise to understand. But there’s a lot of information in the national accounts beyond GDP. It tells you about how each state is tracking, it tells you about the consumption of different goods and services in the economy. It tells you about the balance sheets of households and governments and businesses. There’s a massive amount of information beyond that top level GDP figure in there and I think a lot of the criticisms you sometimes hear about GDP not taking into account depreciation or not taking into account other things. An awful lot of that is in there somewhere. But it is a very big publication. I know it can be a bit intimidating to try and find anything in it.

Gene Tunny  34:58

Yes, yeah, but you’re right there, Rob. And, I know that there is work going on. And it may not be in the national accounts, the core national accounts, we do have satellite accounts. I know you’ve, you’ve tried to estimate the contribution of different sectors like tourism. And I’m trying to remember if you’ve done natural, natural capital estimates. So I think there are some other estimates where you’ve tried to estimate them, I’ll have to check. I remember, this is one of the issues or one of the things people are concerned about is that GDP doesn’t take into account environmental degradation. And so but there are estimates, there are people who have looked at those sorts of estimates, I’ll have a look offline and just add something in the show notes if I need to. But I know that that’s one of the issues people are concerned about.

Robert Ewing  35:49

And it looks, it’s there. It’s not my area of expertise. But there’s a whole range of work that the ABS has done on environmental economic accounts, which is really bringing together those two data sources. And I think that’s one of the unique advantages of the ABS is because we kind of sit in the middle of this data architecture, we can bring together the data that we have from these different domains and put them next to each other. And we can see how the story of the environment and particular aspects such of water align with the story of the economy. And you know, it’s something which is still like an ongoing piece of work to fully develop all the products there, but something we’ve been actively developing over the past.

Gene Tunny  36:32

Okay, very good. Rob, in from the ABS. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed that. And, yeah, I look forward to seeing more of your contributions on LinkedIn. I think that I’ve been learning a lot about the work that you’ve that you do over at ABS and I’ve got a renewed appreciation for that work. So thanks again, Rob. Very good.

Robert Ewing  36:53

Thank you very much.

Gene Tunny  36:55

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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Regional divergence: why cities are growing faster than regions w/ Robert Sobyra – EP160

Why are cities growing faster than regional areas in many economies around the world, including in Australia, the US, and UK? Robert Sobyra of Construction Skills Queensland explains his recent research findings to show host Gene Tunny. Robert and Gene discuss what the predominance of high-skilled employment growth in cities means for regional economies, and whether policy measures to address the regional divergence would be desirable.

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You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher

Links relevant to the conversation

LinkedIn profile: Robert Sobyra

Rob’s LinkedIn article Why Regions Are Falling Behind – And What To Do About It

Rob’s research paper: “Unbalanced Growth in the Labourscape: explaining regional employment divergence”

Data mentioned by Gene:

Trend Deck 2021: Urbanisation (UK Government)

Urban population (% of total poulation) – United States (The World Bank)

World Urbanization Prospects 2018 (United Nations)

Transcript: Regional divergence: why cities are growing faster than regions w/ Robert Sobyra – EP160

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. 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.

Robert Sobyra  00:04

So that agglomeration thing is the real reason why it’s happening so strongly in the big cities, the high skill employment growth because that’s always where it’s happened and so it feeds on itself. So it becomes a cumulative process of self reinforcement.

Gene Tunny  00:20

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 160. On regional economic divergence. This is a big issue in many advanced economies, including in Australia and the US. My guest this episode is Roberts Sobyra, Director of Research and Digital with Construction Skills Queensland. Rob recently wrote a great article about why Australian regions are falling behind and what to do about it. And I thought it would be good to invite him onto the show to ask him about his analysis. Please check out the show notes, relevant links, and for details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know what you think about what either Robert or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right oh, now for my conversation with Robert Sobyra about regional economic divergence. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Robert Sobyra from construction skills, Queensland. Welcome to the programme.

Robert Sobyra  01:30

Hi Gene. Thanks for having me.

Gene Tunny  01:32

Oh, it’s a pleasure. Rob. I read your newsletter regularly, “The Flip Side” on LinkedIn.

Robert Sobyra  01:39

Thanks, you and my mum.

Gene Tunny  01:41

I think you think there might be a few more than that. I think it’s a great newsletter. It’s and in your last newsletter, you wrote about how you had some recently published research that showed jobs growth in Australian big cities. There was over, what was 2.4% annually, on average over the last two decades, and that was compared with 1% in regional Australia. Okay, yep. Yeah, that’s really interesting. And that’s, that accords with what I’ve seen, or the data I’ve seen and what you see if you go out to the regions and versus going to the big cities. I mean, clearly, that’s, that’s the case. And it looks like we see similar trends in countries around the world. So we could talk about that. And the point you make is that the economy creates more high skilled jobs, then middle skilled jobs. And these jobs are, well, the vast majority of them are in big cities. And you’ve done some research on that, that I think is really interesting. I want to chat about that. So yeah, it’s great. You’re on the show. To kick off I’d Yeah, I’d really be interested in I mean, what is the role of Construction Skills Queensland? What do you do here? And what’s your role there specifically?

Robert Sobyra  03:02

Yeah, sure. So CSQ is a pretty strange little organisation, a quasi government body and we collect the levy out of the construction industry. So any project that’s more than 150 grand gets levied .5%, or something like that, something of that order that goes into a fund, a training fund, and it’s our job to reinvest that money into the skills and training of the construction workforce. And, I run the research team here. So my job is kind of twofold. One is to make sure that we’re spending that money where it’s needed most. So where there’s labour shortages, where there’s gaps regionally, in skilled trades, and that sort of thing. And that helps us direct our investment. And, and then on top of that, we sort of do sort of original research that, you know, we’re in a pretty, pretty privileged position here, where we’ve got some revenue that allows us to do some, some research for the good of the industry. And that generally looks at issues around that sort of nexus between construction skills, labour, and forecasting labour shortages, that sort of thing.

Gene Tunny  04:04

Okay, so is CSQ helping people get into apprenticeships? Is that something you’re doing?

Robert Sobyra  04:09

Well, we do a little bit of that. We call that career pathways sort of stuff. So we do a fair bit of work with schools and helping people understand what a career in construction looks like, that sort of thing. But really, it’s mainly focused on existing workers. So if you’re a construction tradesperson, you might be a carpenter, you might be looking to upgrade your skills to say, get your builder’s licence, we can cover the cost of the majority of that training for you, if you’re eligible.

Gene Tunny  04:34

Oh gotcha. Okay, so you help people skill up. Okay. That’s great. Right. So let’s talk about your research or so it’s in this sort of field of regional economic development. What got you interested in this, this field to begin with are these types of issues?

Robert Sobyra  04:53

Yeah, so it’s broadly I guess you call it economic geography and regional, regional economics and regional economic developments have become a passion of mine. Over the years, as I’ve been working for CSQ, I do a lot of travel to the region throughout Queensland. And I think you know, I grew up in a big city, and like a lot of boys who grew up in a big city, you don’t pay much attention to the regions and, and there is this tendency to forget about them. And even a sort of thinly veiled contempt for regional issues sometimes I find in the big cities and so the more I travelled regionally, the more I realised how much that kind of forgotten places, and yet how much they contribute to the economy. You think about saying mining, for example, all of it comes out of regional Queensland. Yet the big policy discussions, the big planning discussions, almost universally, focus on Southeast Queensland, here in Queensland anyway, so. So my interest came out of a motivation, I guess, to correct that, and to put more of a focus on regions and to start trying to understand why it is that the outcomes in regions so often don’t diverge, or, or there’s so much so often a disparity of outcomes, whether it’s employment income, or whatever, between regions and big cities.

Gene Tunny  06:13

Okay, so you talked about economic geography, there’s a field of economic geography. And am I right that this is about the location of economic activity? How can we describe what economic geography is about broadly?

Robert Sobyra  06:26

Well, basically, the starting point is that, you know, there’s no such thing as a national economy, there really isn’t such a thing as a national or even a state economy, you know, economies happen in very particular places. So economic geography is really just recognising that and just just bringing the place back into the economy, rather than those sort of national abstractions that we get in the in the national accounts, you know, that smoothed over a lot of variation, and a lot of unevenness in terms of where, you know, real human beings actually live in work. So it’s about getting back down to that, to that to the roots of where economic activity really happens.

Gene Tunny  07:04

Okay, and so, one of the propositions and it accords with what is what the data tells us, or what real life tells us is that the regions are different, they don’t necessarily converge to the same industrial structure or level of income and output. So I thought, that’s one of the points I think you make in your paper that we’re going to talk about that there can be this divergence. So absolutely keen to chat about that. Now, have you done a PhD? Are you doing a PhD?

Robert Sobyra  07:35

Just in the examination phase at the moment. So all but done.

Gene Tunny  07:39

Okay. And is this what your PhD is on, this type of Research? Right. Okay. Terrific. And that which, which school is that?

Robert Sobyra  07:50

That’s at UQ, The University of Queensland, School of Earth, environmental sciences, with the human geographers there.

Gene Tunny  07:57

Okay, that’s great. And because it’s got a real economic aspect, this and I know you do a lot of economic analysis in your job here. We’ve presented at the same conference in Rocky. 

Robert Sobyra  08:09

Rocky as it was last year. 

Gene Tunny  08:13

Yeah, that’s right. Major enterprises conference. So absolutely. Excellent. Okay. So can you tell us about your paper? Please, Rob, what did you find in it? What? What were the main findings? How did you go about it? What was the techniques and then after that, we can talk about what it means even just tell us a story about the paper, please, that’d be great.

Robert Sobyra  08:34

Sure. So the, the original idea from the paper really came about, because up until around the turn of the century, there was quite a lot of interest in this area of regional economic divergence, and trying to understand, particularly in Australia, why it is that certain regions are outperforming others, particularly big cities are outperforming smaller regions. And, and sort of even just describing that, and mapping, that landscape was a big deal in the 80s, and the 90s. And then it kind of all went quiet around the turn of the century, and academic interest in this just really waned off, and we really got that almost singular focus on the national economy. And, and even even today, when the Reserve Bank talks about regions, it’s actually talking about states and territories, when you look at the stuff they produce, you know, and so, I was never comfortable with that, because, because just my observation of working across regions is that the outcomes can vary so much and the experience the lived experience on the ground of firms and workers in regions can be so variable. So I wanted to bring a bit of that place back into the, into the, into the discourse. So so my, my objective was to sort of update the record in the first instance and say, Alright, in the two decades since the turn of the century, what’s happened, and what I observed is that the patterns that had been picked up in the 80s and the 90s have actually been been continued, not only continued but intensified. And that’s broadly when it comes to employment. That’s my, my sort of main area is employment growth. The trend has intensified. And we’ve seen this sort of widening of a gap in outcomes in terms of employment growth between big cities and regional Australia.

Gene Tunny  10:21

Right. And so this is this statistic that all these stats that I mentioned before, Australian big cities have been growing at 2.5% trend term per annum over the last two decades. Yep. In trend terms versus 1%. In the regions, okay. And that’s going to over time that’s going to lead you know, the cumulative impact of that is huge, isn’t it?.

Robert Sobyra  10:44

Yeah. Yeah. And so. So that was sort of, I guess, the threshold question, or do we still have this thing called regional divergence and tick we do and, and it is, neoclassical economics holds that that should converge over time. So this, this, this divergence should actually shrink and we should find a sort of a nice equilibrium where outcomes equilibrate. But actually, we’re observing, and we’re observing this right across the world that outcomes seem to be diverging more and more. So my next question was trying to explain that. So why is it that we’re observing this phenomenon over cumulative pattern of regional divergence? So it’s ongoing and it’s compounding over time the wedges opening up? Why should that be the case? When, when neoclassical models suggest that the opposite should be happening?

Gene Tunny  11:35

Right? And that’s because if there is this divergence, then there’s obviously going to be that the available land available to people without jobs in these regions have massive investment opportunities. And so capital and labour should migrate?

Robert Sobyra  11:54

Yeah, that’s the theory, right? If you have excess supply in one area, then that should encourage firms to move there to exploit the lower rents, etc. And then, over time, that should equilibrate. Yeah. But that’s clearly not happening. It’s not happening here in Australia. It’s not happening in the US. It’s not happening in the UK, we’ve got this sort of observed pattern in most developed countries. So it’s, it’s been, I guess, my project has been to try to contribute to our understanding of what that’s all about. And there’s been some series in the past with some ideas around, you know, amenity. So one popular idea. The early noughties was that well, the reason why big cities are outperforming is more people want to live in big cities, just because, you know, the culture is better, apparently, you know, the food and the wine and everything is better in big cities. So that’s obviously why people are moving to big cities. And I never really swallowed that argument. And actually, it hasn’t stood up to any academic scrutiny in the last couple of decades. But that was a popular theory to begin with. But I really focused on the structure of the labour market, and just observing how, how our economy has been changing quite considerably in some pretty fundamental ways over the last couple of decades will really since the 80s, to be frank. And maybe there’s something in this that’s driving this divergence, you know, and I’ve really leveraged this concept of job polarisation, you’re familiar with this idea of job polarisation, where you’ve got you’ve got some high skilled jobs growth, and you’ve got some low skilled jobs growth, but the middle is getting hollowed out. Right. So middle skill employment is really shrinking. And low skill employment is growing and high skill employment is growing.

Gene Tunny  13:47

So what would you mean by middle skilled? So let’s say higher skilled, I’m guessing you mean tertiary educated professional jobs, middle skilled, is that the trades.

Robert Sobyra  14:00

They are middle skilled, but it’s actually broader than that. So, my favourite example is the finance industry. Okay, so once upon a time bank branches littered the landscape, yeah, and those bank branches were full of clerks, middle skill clerks, you know, my mum was one of them, sort of paralegal type person, did a lot of conveyancing, that sort of thing. Not tertiary qualified but you know, had the equivalent of a TAFE qualification. And anyway, you know, these were, these were thick across the landscape back in the 70s, and the 80s. And over time, what’s happened is a lot of those jobs have evaporated as, as you know, banking has become more digital. And that’s created a whole new set of occupations and skills. But all of those occupations and skills are mainly concentrated in big cities. Now they’re not in bricks and mortar branches across, across the state.

Gene Tunny  14:55

Yeah, exactly. Okay. And so what analysis did you do, Rob, how did you? In what proposition? Did you prove you, prove that there was this? There’s divergence and you’ve been able to prove what’s causing it isn’t right.

Robert Sobyra  15:12

Yeah so basically, it comes down to this, this job, polarisation theme. Okay, so what’s happening is effectively high skill employment growth is growing. Yeah, low skill employment growth is growing. But whereas low skill employment is uniformly distributed across the landscape, employment is not all of the high skill employment is basically accruing to the big cities. So they’re getting a dividend, they’re getting a sort of a growth premium. That’s not available to the regions. Because, you know, high skilled jobs just don’t land in regional centres, they land in big cities. And so there’s this extra increment of employment growth that you’re getting through this high skill economy. And that’s accruing disproportionately to the big city. So in aggregate terms, you wind up with overall, more employment growth in the cities than you do in the regions.

Gene Tunny  16:10

So is this because all the knowledge workers need to be co-located there are these agglomeration economies or whatever, and there’s also this Richard Florida stuff on the creative class, and they want to, they want to live in the cities to enjoy the bohemian lifestyle in the cities. But there’s also benefit, there’s benefits from them co locating. So I’m trying to, I thought that point you made at the beginning was interesting that there were these theories that people move to cities, because their lifestyle was better. I think Richard Florida was getting at that. But then he also recognised that there are benefits from the clustering together.

Robert Sobyra  16:46

Yeah. And that’s really the more important fact. And to put it in simple terms, birds of a feather flock together. Yeah. And that’s really what’s been happening. So it’s not new, that high skilled jobs concentrate in big cities, they always have. Yeah, the problem is when you high skilled jobs get created, they go to where there’s already existing agglomerations of high scale occupations, because it’s just easier if you’re setting up a business and that business requires a lot of data scientists, you’re going to go to where the data scientists are, you’re not going to go necessarily to wherever you think your customers might be, you’re gonna go to where your workforce is, if you don’t need to serve your customers directly. Like in the bank. Yeah. In the banking industry, right. So that long duration thing is the real reason why it’s happening so strongly in the big cities, the high skill, employment growth, because that’s always where it’s happened. And so it feeds on itself. So it becomes a cumulative process of self reinforcement.

Gene Tunny  17:49

Yeah. Well, one thing I was concerned about, say, eight, maybe seven or eight years ago was that when the interstate migration, the Queensland dropped off, it looked like a lot of professionals, a lot of the professional jobs were going to Sydney and Melbourne. So jobs in finance and, and we weren’t getting as many of them up here. But I think now, things have turned around a little here and within the people moving up here, so Queensland is picked up quite a bit, which is good. So I guess, the major cities you’re talking about where these professional jobs are growing in Australia, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Perth, really? Because of mining?

Robert Sobyra  18:33

Yeah, or just Yeah. And it’s just a growing agglomeration in general. You know, Perth, it’s the only obviously the only big city on that side of the continent. Yeah. So yeah, now what’s Melbourne, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, actually, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth in that order, are the big growth centres.

Gene Tunny  18:51

Right. Yeah. And so in your view with this, this is the major factor. I mean, this explains the bulk of this divergence in outcomes between regions and in cities and regions, why cities are doing so much better because that’s where the, the employers of high skilled labour are, well, we’ve got governments, we’ve got administrations, we’ve got corporate HQ. And so that’s where the jobs growth is occurring.

Robert Sobyra  19:17

Well, that’s where that’s where the existing stores of human capital are. Okay, for that kind of work. So yeah, to take a live example. All the big miners as you’re probably aware of are automating all their fleets of trucks in their mines, right, so those miners historically would operate out of Mackay. You know, a lot of activity out there that truck drivers used to be essentially based in those sort of big regional centres and then they go out and drive the trucks on the mines. Now as they move away from driven trucks to driverless trucks, they set up these remote operation centres. Now those remote operations centres need to be staffed by a completely different category of worker not truck drivers anymore, obviously white collar professionals and where do you find those white collar professionals? In Brisbane? So where are they setting up the remote operation centre? In Brisbane?

Gene Tunny  20:10

Yeah, there’s a similar story in agriculture too, isn’t there? So, built over the years, agriculture has become more mechanised with these John Deere, cotton picking machines and things like that. And that’s reduced the labour requirement on the land. So yes, yep, similar story. And that’s affected the viability of a lot of these, these regional towns, many of which had more people in 1950 than they do today. That’s really extraordinary. Not the sort of major centres but in the regions. But yeah, if you drive through regional Queensland or regional New South Wales, plenty of towns like that, you get the sense that they were thriving much more 50 or 60, 70 years ago than today. Extraordinary.

Robert Sobyra  20:54

Yep. It’s, you know, the jobs numbers are one thing. So I focus on the quantity of the jobs that are being created. But there’s also an income element here, because high skilled jobs are higher income jobs. And so all of these higher income jobs are concentrated in the big cities, rather than the region. So it creates an income divergence, not just an employment growth divergence, which then has, obviously, feedback loops to the local economies. So the region ends up falling behind in income terms, not just in, you know, gross numbers.

Gene Tunny  21:30

Good point, I might just read out some of these stats that I found today when I was looking this up, because I had a sense that this was happening all over the world. Or at least urbanisation, we know that the world’s becoming more urbanised and might have been a few years ago, I remember when it when the stat came out, it was quite striking that for the first time in history, a majority of people live in urban areas, maybe it was 10 years ago, or whenever, whenever it happened, or remember when it was reported. The UN, or sorry, the World Bank, it has a world urbanisation Prospects Report 2018 and in 2018 55% of the world was urban. And that’s projected to get to 68% by 2050. It was 30% in 1950. Yeah. And so I think I mean, one of the big contributors to this growth is obviously China, or the people moving from regional areas to the bigger cities. And this is, this is, this is part of their economic growth story. Because, because people are less productive on the land, and they’re in cities. So to an extent, this is, this is a great thing that, you know, there is this there is this, this movement to the cities, because you can be more productive. But yeah, it’s, it can be hard if you’re in one of these communities and your communities are not not thriving, whereas there could be a lot of good things going for many of these regional communities’ livability, for example, have you thought about what’s happening? I mean, you mentioned in your piece that with COVID, there were some people looking at relocating to the regions, is this happening? Or do we know what’s going on there?

Robert Sobyra  23:13

Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be happening as much as many people think it’s happening. So there was a big uptick in net migration to the region net, an internal migration out of capital cities. But it seems like the main factor behind that lift in net migration is actually fewer people leaving the regions to come to cities rather than more people leaving cities to go to the region’s. I mean, I think that definitely is a bit of a trend in that area. There’s certainly an appetite for it. The regional Australia Institute did a really interesting survey. And they found that 20% of the people they surveyed just normal workers in big cities would be open to moving to a region if you know their work and lifestyle would allow it so I think that clearly is an appetite for it and this idea this sort of Floridian idea this Richard Florida kind of idea that you know, people only want to live in big cities these days, because that’s where all the best bars and museums are. I don’t think that stands up to scrutiny. I think for every person you come across who loves the big city buzz, there’s someone else who’s just aching for the peace and quiet and you know, the chill over regional sort of move and I personally know people have made the move.

Gene Tunny  24:28

Well, if you go if you’re close enough to a regional centre doesn’t have to be a big city. It could be a place like Bundaberg or, or somewhere that size. A city that doesn’t have any more than, what, 60,000 people but it’s got some great bars there. There’s the, yeah, there’s that beautiful beach Bargara and then there’s the Bargara beer company, the craft brewery which has a great place.

Robert Sobyra  24:56

Bundaberg

Gene Tunny  24:59

But there’s a lot going on over many of these regions. Yeah. Big shout out to Bundy. Bundy. And one thing I noticed too is that this movement to the regions some of it is to regions that are there close to the capitol or they’re sort of part of the same you could argue part of the same conurbation. Yeah. I’m trying to remember if in some of those states Gold Coast is considered regional

Robert Sobyra  25:28

Yeah, so in my research I absolutely did include Gold Coast Sunshine Coast in this broader metropolitan economy. I operationalize a big city as any region area four regions, sorry, but any any region within 100 kilometres of the inner city GPO. Yeah. So that that takes us to the Sunshine Coast, that takes us to the Gold Coast.

Gene Tunny  25:57

That makes sense, because I know that there have been, you know, if people do move to the regions or outside of Brisbane, the metro area, it’s, it’s often too, and they come from Interstate, it’s often to either Gold Coast or to Sunshine Coast and know Noosa and Peregian, they’ve done really well recently, but that’s sort of part of the whole 200 kilometre city. So I would think that’s really, in that urban area. And it’s those other regions that are further away, that don’t have the big corporate employers, the HQ, they don’t have state government or federal government offices. And one of the points you make is that there’s one strategy that governments could adopt to try to promote the regional moving offices, offices of particular agencies to regional cities.

Robert Sobyra  26:51

Yeah, I played with this idea a little bit. I was really interested to see if you remember, I think it was a year before last, Barnaby Joyce, when he was Minister for Agriculture. Yes. decided to move the Australian pesticides and veterinary medicines association to a regional, can’t remember where

Gene Tunny  27:08

Was it Armadale ?

Robert Sobyra  27:09

I think it was. Yeah. So move it from Canberra to Armidale. And he just did it by fiat. He just said, you know, he was now going to be in Armadale. And goodness, there was an uproar. It was so much pushback. So I think he did it, he still did it, but not without losing a fair bit of skin. So I think forcing it on people is problematic, you know, particularly when, let’s say you’ve worked in Canberra in this agency for 20 years and being told you got to uproot Armidale. It would be pretty confronting, and so they shed a lot of staff in that process. I think it’s, it’s problematic to force people to move, but I think governments can be doing a lot more to just open the option up and allow people to move if they would like to, you know, yeah, you and I, we both worked in government, we know what it’s like, yeah. It’s not many jobs, really in government that has to be done from William Street, you know, from Brisbane. Yeah. Lots and lots of those jobs could, could be done quite comfortably remotely from any part of Queensland.

Gene Tunny  28:10

Yeah, and I mean, what we’ve learned during this COVID period, is that there’s a lot more work that can be done remotely where you don’t, you don’t see each other personally in person for weeks or months. You just interact over zoom, if you’re in the same city, so it can work.

Robert Sobyra  28:27

It turns out the world still goes round. Yeah, I think that was another key lesson that, you know, the culture of presenteeism was really challenged during the pandemic, and actually people are productive when, when left to work on their own from home.

Gene Tunny  28:43

Yeah. So there could be some scope for governance to relocate or have some of their offices, satellite offices or, or even move the head office of an agency to a regional centre. That’s a possibility. I remember I once floated the idea that you could move Work Cover to Townsville. That’s, you know, that’s one thing I’d, I’d propose that that’s a possibility. And when you think, think about what you could move in, as I think in New South Wales, they moved the Word Cover head office, their Word Cover to Gosford or something like that North of Sydney, if I remember correctly. If not, I’ll correct that in the shownotes. What else can be done? Rob? If this is a problem? Well, one, do you think it’s a problem? And if it’s a problem, a policy problem, what should be done about it? What are the levers? What could governments do?

Robert Sobyra  29:37

Yeah, well, the The challenge, of course, is you know, we’re a free market dominated by private businesses. Yeah. We’re not, We’re not Russia or China. We’re not going to tell them where to go.

Gene Tunny  29:47

To Siberia. Yeah. Economic development of Siberia. So they go.

Robert Sobyra  29:53

Exactly. So it’s all about nudging and incentives which is always a little unsatisfactory. But certainly I think the framework or the mental model needs to change here, when it comes to state government and local governments in particular, when they’re thinking about what they need to do to generate jobs growth. So often I hear when I go to a region that, you know, the mantra is, well, we need to keep our kids here, we need to keep them here, stop them going to Brisbane to study and find work and stuff. And I feel like that’s a bit the wrong way around the mental model should be we need to get the jobs here. And then the kids will stay, if the jobs are here, you know, if the opportunities to, to forge a career in a professional sort of career path, or local, I think you’ll find people stay local. So for mining, the policy focus, and I don’t know what the right solutions are, but the policy focus, the principle needs to be on attracting high skilled jobs to regions. And I think the government can play a role in, in showing the way there by, as you say, setting up jobs or making regional jobs more available to public servants. I think that’s a real option available to governments that would be very low cost and very feasible, and would send a strong signal to the private sector that this can be done, and it can be done productively.

Gene Tunny  31:26

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

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Gene Tunny  32:00

Now back to the show. Is there scope for measures or support for regions to, to boost the amenity to boost the livability of the regions? I mean, one thing you’d want is good broadband, you want to make sure that your broadband is okay, so remote workers can locate there. I think in Australia, I don’t know. I mean, I think I know there are some black spots with all of these things. But I think generally, internet, I think it’s pretty good in most parts of Australia, because we’ve had we’ve got this National Broadband Network and they tried to roll it out as far as possible across Australia, so but I’m just wondering what if that’s an area that should be looked at the livability making it attractive investing and beautifying the streets? Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, there’s the investment climate too. You want to make sure you got low, low rates, you want to be as friendly to business as possible to make it easy to get development approvals. Yeah. Do you know?

Robert Sobyra  33:02

Yeah, I think all that is really important. I mean, the amenity side of things. I feel like local councils actually do quite well, throughout Queensland. Most of the places I go to in Queensland, there’s a huge focus on beautifying places, public realm, that sort of thing. I feel like that’s kind of in hand. I think the risk is that we kind of become that one trick pony. And we think that that will solve all our problems. But the more important things are those latter things you just mentioned, how do you attract investment to your region, and not just the investment, but the high quality jobs that come with that investment. So whatever settings, governments can put in place, local government can put in place to, you know, expedite building approvals and other you know, the state government, payroll tax, etc, things like that. Yeah, yeah.

Gene Tunny  33:52

Do we know anything about educational levels in regions? I remember when I looked at it last and I looked at this idea of a University High School in Townsville, there was one idea is that there would be a James Cook University High School, which would feed into JCU. One of the issues they had at the time, when we looked at it, was that there was already some under utilisation of existing high schools in Townsville. So there wasn’t at that stage at that point in time, there wasn’t the demand for it unnecessarily, but it’s a sort of that sort of thing might be useful in some regional centres because we know that there is a they do seem to have lower rates of retention to year 12. And then and then lower transition rates from high school into university. So if you can really invest in the schooling system, get high quality high schools, University High School where there’s a connection between the high school and the university. So students at the high school could do uni courses. They can interact with lectures, I guess, trade with high schools, too. I know in Townsville that there’s a trade school Tech-NQ ? I think it is. So there’s something like that. That is education, part of the story, improving education so that you’ve got this skilled, highly skilled workforce in the regions that could be attractive to employers to then set up and relocate.

Robert Sobyra  35:33

Yeah, no, I think you’re right. And it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing here, isn’t that, you know, because the employer is really, really interested in coming to where the workers already exist. They don’t want to have to create a workforce they’re going to find existing labour pools they can tap into Yeah. So in one sense, yeah, we need to have the human capital creation happening before you can attract the industry. But at the same time, why would a university or an educational institution offer a degree in x, y, z, if there’s zero sort of career pathways?

Gene Tunny  36:11

Well, what I’m interested in is this new, this push for hydrogen and then renewables. And the state government here has this new energy plan, and it’s pumped hydro, and then we have to wait and see whether they can actually get these dams built. But, but yeah, there’s a lot of interest in, in energy and a lot of that, in new ways of generating energy. And a lot of that is going to happen in the regions, isn’t it? So is this on CSQ’s radar? Because construction is obviously involved in constructing a lot of this new infrastructure, isn’t it?

Robert Sobyra  36:46

Absolutely and the timing is impeccable, because just a month ago, we released a report examining this exact question, a piece of research, we asked one very simple question. If we want to get to net zero by 2050. If we want a hydrogen industry, how much stuff are we going to have to build? And where will we have to build it? How many solar farms? How many wind farms, and the short answer is a lot. Yeah, just staggering. And for me, as a regional economics sort of scholar, the most interesting finding is that virtually all of this investment lands in regional Queensland, yeah, central Northern Queensland. And, and so there’s a huge amount of demand coming for construction workers to build the renewable transition. You know, I feel like the last decade we’ve spent our whole time thinking about what our targets should be. And now this decade, we’re really going to be focused on how we’re going to deliver all this stuff. Because we’ve got to, we’ve got to build an Olympics, we’ve got to finish this housing boom. And then we’ve got to tackle this, this renewables transition, which will I think, make the mining boom look like a bit of a footnote in the history of this state. That’s the sort of scale of investment that we’re looking at, for renewables in Queensland. And for the region’s, it’s a great opportunity, because our modelling shows that the vast majority of the labour that will be needed to build these renewable projects, low to middle skilled labour. So we’re talking tradespeople and we’re talking sort of unskilled labour, semi skilled labour. So it’s well within the reach of the workforce already in , n the region. So as a structural adjustment sort of story.

Gene Tunny  38:29

 This is really, really positive. Yeah, I have to have a look at your report rather than that’s a, that’s an extraordinary claim. I’m not denying it at all and not being negative about it. I just want to look at it. Because to think that it could be larger than mining when we had $70 billion over a few years invested in Gladstone. I mean, are. You remember that? Yeah, that boom, we had a construction boom, nearly 10 years ago now. It’s just incredible. But yeah, if renewables, I guess they want to get to what they, their aspiration is, then yeah, perhaps you do need to build that much. And then you have to ask, Well, okay. Will this actually happen? I know. I’m sceptical but yeah, let me read your report. I haven’t looked at it yet. So I can’t really ask any informed questions on that. Right. Okay. So just to try and wrap this up. So you’ve talked about the last 20 years. And we had COVID, we had the pandemic and we’ve got more people working from home, and potentially who could work remotely? Okay, we haven’t seen as much. We haven’t really seen a lot of huge numbers of people moving to the regions. Is that Is, that what is that? What is happening, that the cities are continuing to grow? That’s where the growth is. You expect this to continue over the next decade or so you don’t know. It’s too hard to say.

Robert Sobyra  39:56

No, I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen. I think let Left unchecked, these forces just accumulate over time. So the skilled cities just get more skilled over time, and the region’s will continue to fall away in terms of employment growth, you know, left unchecked, it’ll, it’ll probably reach some sort of, you know, happy level. But there will be this ongoing gap between the regions and the big cities. I mean, there’s no doubt that the fundamentals of Queensland as an economy is very, very strong, so we’ll continue to attract more employment growth, more population growth, and probably anywhere else in the country. But how that’s distributed across the landscape in Queensland will be very, very uneven. And if all we do is look at those aggregate outcomes, we’re going to miss some pretty important variations across space.

Gene Tunny  40:51

Yeah, exactly. And probably want to wrap up on these points, I may have signaled wanting to wrap up before but there’s some more stuff I want to talk about what’s been happening in the States and, and in the UK. So I had a look at the data for the US. So the World Bank data on the urban population in the US, it’s gone from 70% in 1960. And it’s now up at 83%, in 2021. Okay, so that it’s occurring there. So it does looks like maybe that’s, that’s not as extraordinary as what’s happened worldwide. But worldwide, you had people moving out a lot of people on the land in China or in India, or wherever that’s, but it’s still an upward trend. And I found some data from the office for science, the UK Government Office for science, that trend Dec 2021 urbanisation. And so that’s showing that England’s urban population is growing faster than its rural population. Urban has been growing 6.2% over 2011 to 2019, rural 5.2%. But what you see is, it’s all sort of going to London are a lot of it is in London, 27% out of London 19% growth rate that’s over 2001 to 2019. Cities overall. So cities overal, such as well, other cities other than London cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, that 16%, the town’s 11%. So you’ve got that divergence there in the UK? Is this something you? You’re looking at it as well? I mean, are you, your research? You’ve done this for Australia? But are you? Do you think your findings are relevant to these other countries? Are you thinking of extending your research to these other countries?

Robert Sobyra  42:44

Yeah, it’s a good question. There’s no doubt that divergence is a really common feature of advanced economies everywhere you look. Yeah, we observe it, whether or not my particular explanation of the sort of the job polarising logic of our economy at the moment and how we’re stripping out all those middle skill jobs. And that’s starving, the region’s of employment growth, whether that’s a key driver or a key mechanism in other contexts, remains to be seen. Definitely something I want to look at. But yeah, as far as I can tell, if the economic structures are similar, you should expect similar outcomes. And in this respect, they’re very similar across all advanced economies.

Gene Tunny  43:22

Yeah well, I was thinking about what’s happened in the US. There’s the NAFTA shock, and then there was China joining the WTO shock. And what that meant was it it meant that the US lost a lot of manufacturing jobs and maybe their middle skilled jobs in the heartland in, in the Midwest or in Ohio, and places like that. And that’s had an impact on Well, that’s, you know, had a huge, very negative impact on some of those regions, particularly since they don’t have as good of social security or public health system as we do in Australia or in the UK. And then you’ve got opioid addiction, and yeah, all sorts of problems. And this is possibly fueling the political trouble that you’ve got in the States. And, yeah, all sorts of bad results there. And I know that there was research by David Autor from MIT, he looked at this, I think, did.

Robert Sobyra  44:25

Yeah, he’s one of the first people to observe this, this polarising tendency. And yeah, one factor is the offshoring movement. Yeah, that you mentioned. Another one is just technological automation. So that sort of banking story, you know, the middle skilled clerks have been pushed out by the machines, and now the highest skill, you know, data scientists and whatever, sort of the key workforce for the banking sector. So there are two factors at play that are driving that underlying process. And yeah, in America, it’s very, very acute as you say that so infrastructures are very different in terms of the welfare net, and that sort of thing over there. So it’s a very bad outcome.

Gene Tunny  45:07

Yeah. And so part of this, we’ve talked about job polarisation and talked about divergence between cities and regions. And then in an implication of all of this is this, this must be part of the inequality story or inequality in income and wealth. Now, again, Australia, we’ve had, well, there’s a big argument about whether income inequality is increasing wealth inequality certainly is income inequality, less, less clear. But in the States, certainly that inequality is increased and possibly that is, due this divergence story is part of that. So yeah. Okay. Rob, any final thoughts before we wrap up? This has been great. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. But any final thoughts?

Robert Sobyra  45:56

No, nothing from me. Appreciate the invitation. It’s been a great chat.

Gene Tunny  46:01

I’ve appreciated it, Rob. Yeah, it’s terrific. And yeah, just hope you can keep up the great research and yeah, hope to chat with you again soon.

Robert Sobyra  46:10

Let’s loop back and talk about renewable sometime. Absolutely. Okay. Thanks, Rob. Thanks, mate.

Gene Tunny  46:17

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 contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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